An hour before last Friday's Celtics-Lakers game, outside Boston's FleetCenter, Ray Lemoine held two nearly identical T-shirts, one in either hand, as if about to prove a point in a detergent commercial. The message on the shirt in his left hand read YANKEES SUCK, the one on the shirt in his right hand read LAKERS SUCK, and Lemoine was peddling the shirts at 10 bucks apiece—for profit, to be sure, but also to see which team, in the view of Bostonians, sucks harder.
"Tonight I've already sold 10 LAKERS SUCK shirts in 10 minutes," said Lemoine, a 23-year-old Boston native and former Fenway Park popcorn vendor. And even though Yankees shirts at Fenway will outsell Lakers shirts at the FleetCenter by 17 to 1, Lemoine was motivated less by profit margin than by personal animus. Or, as he put it: "Dude, I f——hate the Lakers."
"I hated the Celtics," Boston forward Paul Pierce said of growing up in Inglewood, Calif. There Pierce would sneak into Lakers games at the Forum, revering Magic Johnson and reviling Larry Bird in an era when all people broke down into two types: Celtics fan or Lakers fan.
Alas, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry will never match the intensity it had in the 1980s, and not merely because Pierce was wearing, as he spoke inside the arena, a baseball cap emblazoned with an interlocking LA. That's nothing: After a 26-point loss to the Mavericks on March 29, Celtics rookies Kedrick Brown and Joseph Forte dressed—in the Boston locker room, a hundred yards from the parquet floor—in vintage Magic Johnson jerseys.
In today's NBA the words sung by Kermit the Frog say it best: "It's not that easy being green/Having to spend each day the color of the leaves/When you think it could be nicer to be red or yellow or gold." Pierce grew up wanting to be yellow, and Celtics forward Antoine Walker, who was raised in Chicago, wanted to be red. Said 'Toine, "I was a Bulls fan back in the day." But Pierce and Walker became green, and the highest-scoring tandem in basketball after the Lakers' ShoBe monster, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant Understandably the Celtics All-Stars weary of comparisons with various Boston ghosts, one of whom—Timberwolves vice president Kevin McHale—said of the duo, "They couldn't carry Larry Bird's jockstrap around."
Who can? And so what? Boston last week clinched a playoff spot for the first time in seven years, and they'd already beaten the Lakers in Los Angeles in February. So when the Lakers came to Causeway Street, the Celtics played their most emotionally charged game in the better part of a decade. The region's two most famous lawyers attended—Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy—as did ex-Celt Bob Cousy; ex-Bruin Cam Neely; Jamie-Lynn Sigler, the actress who plays Meadow Soprano (in a Celtics jacket); and the basketball player Rebecca Lobo (in a Red Sox jersey). It was a roll call of everyone who is wicked-famous in New England, save No-mah.
Then came an echo of the 1980s. With 2:25 left in the first quarter and the Celtics leading 20-13, a faintly familiar sound went up in the Fleet-Center: "Beat L.A.!" Like a cheer unheard since high school, it instantly brought you back. "That was great," said veteran Celtics forward Eric Williams. "That was the first time I got to hear that live, to be a part of that. I felt it."
The chant intensified as Kobe missed shot after shot after shot. "I'm gonna keep shootin', you know that, don't you?" he shouted to Patriots defensive end Willie McGinest, seated with his buddy Milloy on the baseline. McGinest, in a full-length fur, shouted back, "Hey, Kobe, you look lost out there, man." Thus began a two-hour dialogue that would leave Kobe a flustered 5 for 25, the Celtics 99-81 winners and the two Patriots more heroic than ever.
"Rivalries," said Pierce later, "are made in the playoffs. There are no regular-season rivalries." Pierce adjusted his Dodgers cap and said, "It would've meant more if Shaquille O'Neal had played"—the Lakers' center sat out with a sprained right wrist—"but the Lakers are still the Lakers, and who knows? We might face 'em in the Finals." Given Eastern Conference parity, even Kobe agreed.
"Green," sang Kermit, "is the color of spring." And maybe, just maybe, it will be the color of summer, too. But Ray Lemoine, for one, is taking no chances on a Boston-L.A. final. After the game he shipped his remaining LAKERS SUCK shirt inventory to a friend in Sacramento. "He'll get rid of them," said Lemoine. "No problem. They hate the Lakers there, too."