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TO BE A TRULY GREAT CHAMPION, YOU MUST HAVE A GREAT RIVAL—which means that the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers are both truly great champions. For there is no greater or more storied rivalry in major North American professional sports than the Celtics versus the Lakers. Having met for the NBA's ultimate prize in the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, 2000s and now the 2010s, they are titans who have combined to win 33 of the 64 (51.6%) alltime NBA titles, while playing each other in 74 games over a dozen Finals series. Since the NBA began, as the Basketball Association of America, in 1946, a staggering 61% of its seasons have resulted in one (or both) of these iconic franchises playing for the league crown. Game 6 of the 2008 Finals not only clinched the 17th title in Celtics team history but also put the Celtics and the Lakers ahead of baseball's Yankees and Dodgers for the most individual championship-round games contested, at 66.
Admittedly there are plenty of other deserving contenders for the title of Best Rivalry in Sports: Yankees-Red Sox; Dodgers-Giants; Cardinals-Cubs; Canadiens-Bruins; Cowboys-Redskins; Duke-North Carolina; Alabama-Auburn; not to mention every collegiate border war; but there are compelling arguments in favor of green-and-white versus purple-and-gold taking the honor. All of the other duos became linked mainly thanks to the familiarity created by geography and scheduling—not necessarily by the competitive magnitude of the matchup. In each of those other pairings, the teams face each other on a regular basis, no matter how good or bad either might be in a given year. Los Angeles and Boston, by contrast, have built their special relationship on a loftier plane. It is certainly not proximity that has fostered the competition between the Lakers and the Celtics, as the franchises are nearly 3,000 miles apart on opposite coasts and boast fan bases as different from each other as the sun-drenched boulevards of Hollywood are from the cobbled streets of the Hub. They earned the right to become rivals through their coincidental successes. With the exception of two regular-season games each year, a Lakers-Celtics meeting is usually about who's going to take home the biggest trophy as the whole world looks on.
THE NBA'S TWO MARQUEE franchises have always brought out the best in each other. Five of their 12 Finals have come down to a seventh game. Five others went to six. And every one has produced indelible memories. There was Bill Russell against Wilt Chamberlain. John Havlicek versus Jerry West. Larry Bird taking on Magic Johnson. Elgin Baylor's 61 points in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals—which remains the highest individual scoring output in a Finals game. Russell willing the Celtics to a victory in Game 7 that same season when he grabbed 40 rebounds and scored 30 points. And even this year Ray Allen hitting a Finals-record eight three-pointers on his way to scoring 32 points in Game 2. Each time these teams have met, at least one of the men on the floor could lay claim to the title of Best Player in the World, whether it was Baylor, Bob Cousy, Chamberlain, Russell, West, Havlicek, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Magic or Kobe Bryant.
So in the heady afterglow of the latest chapter in this great sports saga, take a look back with us at the players and moments that have made this rivalry so celebrated—and so special.
WEST'S SIDE STORY 1968
Los Angeles's Jerry West blew through defenders Bill Russell (6) and John Havlicek (17) to average 31.3 points per game in the '68 Finals, but Boston prevailed in the six games—its sixth crown in as many championship-round meetings with the Lakers.
GETTING ACQUAINTED 1959-65
Opposite, clockwise from top left: Hall of Fame guard Bill Sharman and the Celtics swept past Minneapolis four games to none in '59; Cousy moved West in '62, whizzing by Jerry in a seven-game Boston thriller; Russell was always there to lend a hand through the Celtics' nine-year championship streak, whether defending the high-scoring Baylor in '63 or winning a jump ball in '65.
THE BEAT GOES ON 1966-69
After being turned back six times by Russell with Baylor (leaping left) as the key, the Lakers gave Boston's player-coach someone his own size to pick on in '68-69: old nemesis Chamberlain (above and below). Even the Big Dipper, the only center of the 1960s to beat Russell's Celtics in a playoff series (with the 76ers in '67), couldn't reverse the Lakers' fortunes as they fell in seven games.