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Posted: Tuesday June 3, 2008 8:53AM; Updated: Tuesday June 3, 2008 10:58AM
Jack McCallum Jack McCallum >
INSIDE THE NBA

The Rivalry

It's hard to believe that 21 years have passed since the Celtics and the Lakers last met in the NBA Finals -- but easy to remember all their great games and bad blood

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Pierce (34), the longest tenured Celtic, seeks his first title; Bird (33) won three.
Pierce (34), the longest tenured Celtic, seeks his first title; Bird (33) won three.
John W. McDonough/SI; Manny Millan/SI

The sound seemed to rise up from the earth's core, raw and raucous in its staccato intensity. Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.! Some say the chant started in Boston Garden in the 1960s, but crowd behavior wasn't so organized back then, so it can be most safely dated to May 23, 1982, near the end of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Garden's denizens realized that their Celtics were going to lose to the 76ers, and with the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers awaiting Philadelphia in the Finals, they wanted to make their rooting preference clear to all of the nation.

That most simple of battle cries endured, so much so that fans in other arenas co-opted it when their local heroes played the Lakers. But for true aficionados of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, Beat L.A.! is like heirloom china, to be pulled out only for momentous occasions. And so it has been packed away since 1987, the last time the teams squared off for the championship.

But now, with Game 1 of the 2008 Finals set for Thursday night in a new Garden named for a bank, the chant will ring out again, proffering plangent evidence that the NBA's ultimate matchup, after a two-decade hiatus, is back -- in high definition and surround sound.

Celtics-Lakers. Lakers-Celtics. The series that sells itself.

"I think this is what America wants to see," says Magic Johnson, the former Lakers star who has played a central role in the rivalry. He smiles widely. "I know it's what I want to see."

It's what NBA commissioner David Stern, who wears his every-franchise-is-important diplomacy like one of his regal purple ties, wants to see too. For all we know, he danced a secret, celebratory jig after the Lakers and the Celtics reached the Finals last week by dispatching, respectively, the San Antonio Spurs in five games and the Detroit Pistons in six. In eager anticipation of the event, ESPN-ABC employees, already giddy about their 27% uptick in playoff ratings, have been pulling out the archival footage of Magic and Larry Bird (just as this publication did). Celtics and Lakers diehards couldn't have asked for anything more, of course, but now even casual fans will look up from their fantasy baseball stats and NFL depth-chart analyses and note that something special is going on, something that hasn't happened since Magic's Lakers beat Larry's Celtics in a six-game Finals that ended at the old Forum in Inglewood, Calif.

So, more than any championship series in two decades, this Finals -- the 11th time that these franchises have met with the title on the line -- will be a remembrance of things past, a chance to reexamine old prejudices and look for new meanings. For Celtics-Lakers was always about much more than hoops.

Although the majority of the viewing audience -- as well as the players on both teams -- will reference the 1980s, the championship rivalry actually began in April 1959, four months before Magic was born and when Bird was 2 1/2. The Lakers were based in Minneapolis then and went down in four straight to a great Bill Russell-Bob Cousy team. But the intensity didn't really kick in until after the Lakers went to Los Angeles in 1960. It would be a stretch to say that their move to California was as major a development as the cross-country relocation of baseball's Dodgers and Giants, but for the first time the NBA's reach stretched beyond the Midwest, lending a more professional look to a league in which interest had been largely confined to the Eastern Seaboard.

From nearly their first moments in L.A., the Lakers were really good. Just not good enough. Six times in the '60s Los Angeles had a splendid team, and six times it lost in the Finals to the even more splendid Celtics, three of those series going the distance. The most galling Game 7 loss for the Purple and Gold occurred in '69, when Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke ordered hundreds of balloons imprinted with WORLD CHAMPION LAKERS and put them in a net above the court, ready for release after a victory over what seemed to be a dying Celtics team. (Russell, the player-coach, was 35 years old in what would be his last season.) "Those f------ balloons are staying up," Russell reportedly told Lakers star Jerry West during warmups. Which they did, after the Celtics' 108-106 victory, the appropriate capper for a decade that established the teams' respective identities: Boston was workmanlike, predictable and victorious; Los Angeles was talented, tempestuous and second-best.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, then a gangly New York forward, felt L.A.'s pain. "Sixty-nine was the year we were supposed to get there instead of Boston," says Jackson, whose Knicks fell in six games in the Eastern final, "but the Celtics found a way. They always found a way."

Over the next decade the Celtics-Lakers rivalry lay dormant as the teams never peaked in the same season. But it kicked in anew in '79 when Bird and Magic famously assumed their respective leading-man roles on opposite coasts. For four seasons Larry's Celtics and Magic's Lakers were like twin planets on slightly different orbits; it wasn't until '84 that they first hooked up for a championship. A five-year-old Kobe Bryant was one of the interested viewers as the Celtics won in seven. "I remember Kurt Rambis getting body-slammed," says Bryant, referring to the most memorable play of that series, when Celtics power forward Kevin McHale clotheslined his opposite number on a Game 4 fast break. (Now an L.A. assistant, Rambis had the primary responsibility of preparing scouting notes for this Finals because Boston was one of "his teams" during the season.)

But even before they met for the title that year, the significance of Celtics-Lakers to the NBA's bottom line could not be overstated. It is an exaggeration to conclude that the rivalry saved the league, but without a doubt it ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity. The 1980 Finals, in which rookie Johnson led L.A. to a six-game win over Philly, had been broadcast by CBS on tape delay. But by '84, riding the success and appeal of the Celtics and the Lakers, playoff hoops was must-see TV. The NBA could begin to promote itself as a league with star appeal (Magic, Larry and, hey, that Chicago Bulls draft pick named Jordan will sell some sneakers) but one whose stars were also the ultimate team players. Sizzle and selflessness.

The rivalry, too, was like a river with tributaries that wound through the culture. No sport crossed over like the NBA of the '80s. In his superb 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, a director known for living and dying with his hometown Knicks dressed one of his Caucasian characters, Clifton, in a Bird jersey and had another, Pino, worship Magic Johnson. Through those characters, Spike Lee illustrated the paradoxes of the Bird-Magic couplet. Clifton is a Brooklyn native who makes an honest living and owns a brownstone in a black neighborhood, where his Celtics jersey stands out. And Pino, despite being perhaps the most racist character in the movie, is not afraid to acknowledge Magic's greatness.

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