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.
stereotypes of the superstars' respective playing styles were just
that—stereotypes. Magic, choreographer of the Lakers' get-it-and-go offense,
couldn't jump over a pack of playing cards (ditto for Bird) and used an
old-school, one-handed set shot that looked like something out of Hoosiers.
Bird, hero from the heartland, attempted some of the worst shots known to man
and was blessed with some of the finest hand-eye coordination of any athlete
who ever lived.
Sure, there was an
element of truth to the juxtaposition of Showtime versus Slow Time and Fun
versus Fundamentals—the Lakers scored three points more per game than the
Celtics did through the '80s. But L.A. also ran an intricate half-court offense
designed to get the ball inside to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Boston, for its part,
was a better-than-average fast-break team; years earlier, of course, the
Celtics had all but invented the NBA transition game with Russell rebounding
and Cousy pushing.
reality—or at least the popular story line. The dichotomy extended to the
benches: L.A. coach Pat Riley, clothed in Armani and glistening with mousse,
was a Hollywood foil to first Bill Fitch, an ex-Marine, and then K.C. Jones, a
plain-speaking former defensive ace. It extended to the boardroom: Lakers owner
Jerry Buss smoked cigarettes, stayed mostly hidden and chased young women
(still does, as a matter of fact) while Red Auerbach, 17 years removed from
coaching duties but retaining the title of team president, smoked smelly
stogies and remained relentlessly irascible. And it extended to the stands: The
Fabulous Forum had Jack Nicholson, be-shaded, leering, redolent of sin. Boston
Garden had Tip O'Neill, the New Deal Democrat, and a lotta red-faced guys from
Boston and L.A. met
again in the '85 Finals, the Lakers finding revenge amid the shouts of Beat
L.A.! (Their 111--100 Game 6 victory marked the only time a visiting team
claimed a championship in the Garden and still stands as Magic's favorite
Celtics-Lakers moment.) Then came '87, when L.A. closed out at home in six with
Bird's back and McHale's feet and ankles aching.
The whole world
closely followed what turned out to be the final pas de deux of Larry and
Magic. "I didn't have cable," says Jackson, then a CBA coach who lived
in Woodstock, N.Y., "so a bunch of us drove to this little pizza joint and
watched the games." An oversized seven-year-old named Luke Walton, son of
Celtics center Bill, remembers going to school in suburban Boston coated in
shamrock paraphernalia. "I wore green-and-white wristbands all the way up
my arm," says Luke, now an L.A. reserve. In Inglewood, where he would
attend high school just down Manchester Boulevard from the Forum, Paul Pierce,
then a nine-year-old grade-schooler, got started in basketball by watching the
rivalry. "As a kid," says the Boston captain, "I hated the
Then, suddenly, it
was gone, the glory days of Celtics-Lakers available only on video. That's how
a young Slovenian named Sasha Vujacic, who was born in 1984, caught the fever.
"Growing up, I did battles between Bird and McHale and Magic and
Kareem," says Vujacic, now a backup L.A. guard. "They were icons, all
More than that,
their teams were iconic, pulling the league along through a competitive
synergy. And soon after the rivalry went into a deep freeze, the NBA became
defined by single-name personalities: Michael. Shaq. Kobe. LeBron. Did we even
need teams? Had Don McLean written American Pie about the NBA, Bird and Magic
would have been his beloved Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, and Jordan would
have been the Jester, brilliant and dynamic, for sure, but robbing the game of
an old-school genuineness. One could argue, in fact, that Bryant brought his
young team to this stage only because he became less like a self-involved
superstar and more like Larry and Magic.
LAST WEEK the
Celtics and the Lakers each trotted out their alltime leading scorers to
symbolically pass the torch to this generation. In the visitors' locker room at
The Palace of Auburn Hills last Friday night, John Havlicek (a Celtic from
1962--63 to '77--78) presented the Eastern Conference trophy to his old club.
One night earlier at Staples Center, West (a Laker from 1960--61 to '72--73 and
an exec from 1982--83 to '99--2000) had done the honors for the Western
Conference champs. Bryant, in particular, could barely hold his emotions in
check. West was the one who had traded for him in '96, the one who believed in
him, the one who gave him his most important basketball lesson. "He told me
that shots are easier to make in the clutch," says Bryant. "I never
forgot that." Kobe never seems so human as when he talks about West, whom
he still refers to as Mr. Clutch.