The Boston Celtics marched into town Monday to the throbbing, primal beat of the nation's No. 1 sports chant:
BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.!
Welcome, America, to the annual national convention of the PTL Club. Pound the Lakers.
Wherever they go, the Lakers hear the chant. During the playoffs, it usually precedes them to a town by a week or so. During the Seattle-Houston series, SuperSonic fans chanted, "BEAT L.A.!"
When the Lakers went to Seattle, the fans held up printed signs, "BEAT L.A.!" A chant for the hearing impaired.
The Seattle fans chanted before every tipoff.
"They shouldn't sing the national anthem," Laker Mychal Thompson said. "They should just let the fans chant."
No other city has its own national taunt. Fans around the country don't chant BEAT BOS-TON!, or BEAT AT-LAN-TA! There are two reasons for this:
--No basketball team and no American city are as universally hated/envied/feared/misunderstood as the Lakers and L.A.
--It feels good.
Whoever invented BEAT L.A.! stumbled upon the perfect set of syllables. It's fun, it's relaxing yet stimulating. BEAT L.A.! has become the national mantra.
Shout it over and over and one is overtaken by a soothing, Zen-like feeling of peace and tranquility. It's more satisfying than a hearty Tarzan holler.
It is a versatile, all-purpose chant. In prison mess halls, when the food is bad, the cons pound their tin cups on the table and chant BEAT L.A.!
Commuters caught in big-city rush-hour traffic turn off their radios and chant BEAT L.A.!, banging their fists on the steering wheel. Heavy smokers give up cigarettes and take up chanting, BEAT L.A.!
It rings from the hillsides and sounds in the dells. The hills are alive with the sound of BEAT L.A.!
Other cities, other teams, would wilt under the pressure of a nation's chanting. L.A. citizens, and L.A. Lakers, soak it up like sunshine.
Say what you want about L.A. people, they are not overly sensitive. Los Angeles, not Chicago, is the city of big shoulders. So what if we got them from silicone injections?
The BEAT L.A.! phenomenon is easily explained.
"A lot of people are rooting for Los Angeles to fall off into the ocean," said Phoenix columnist Joe Gilmartin. "They think the country is too wide."
Laker Coach Pat Riley said the Celtics are "America's team." What are the Lakers, then? "L.A.'s team."
It's them against the world, the same outlook that has served the Raiders so well over the years. But unlike the Raiders, who fight the Hollywood image, the Lakers offer themselves up as the embodiment of local culture and style.
They flaunt it. This year's team picture was taken on the deck of a yacht, with the players wearing shades and holding fishing rods and beach toys.
I'm not even sure the photo was posed. Maybe it was a candid shot from a weekend cruise aboard the good ship In Your Face.
Can you picture the Boston Celtics posing for a team photo on a yacht? A tugboat, maybe.
The Lakers are not ashamed of their image, of the city's image. This is their town.
"I even get high on the smog," Riley said with a sniff.
The Lakers are so L.A., they even did the typical L.A. thing before the finals. They spent a weekend in Santa Barbara, a city so sunny and serene and trendy it makes L.A. look like Cleveland.
Why Santa Barbara? Because St.-Tropez was booked.
The Lakers swear they worked hard all weekend.
"It felt like training camp all over again," Thompson said.
Of course, Laker training camp is in Palm Springs, high society's sandbox, where the only cultural drawback is a shortage of yachts.
It's all part of the image. And if the outside world wants to think of the Lakers as a team that avoids the hard work of basketball by outrunning it, so be it.
"Our best defense will be our offense," Riley said Monday. "We're working on our game. We've got to attack. We need to speed-dribble the ball up the floor 48 minutes. We don't want it walked up at all.
"That doesn't mean we expect to get nothing but layups. A fast break means rapid advancement of the ball. You break fast."
It has been the break fast of champions, three times in the last seven years.
The local fans love it, in their own unique way.
Said ex-coach Hubie Brown: "The first couple times you come in here (the Forum), if you're an Eastern coach or player, it baffles you when it's a great game and the people get up and walk out with five minutes to play. It's an eye-opening experience."
The patented early exit is easy to explain. It is the Los Angeles version of Red Auerbach's victory cigar.
Another misunderstanding: The Forum fans aren't laid back, but the Forum is. The Forum seating is not as steep and intimate as that of the Boston Garden. Most Forum fans sit relatively far from the action, and their impact is minimized.
"You don't get the migraine headache here," Brown said. "In Boston Garden, the guy in the very last row can spit down and hit you."
And frequently does.
"That guy in the last row feels he can reach down and grab you by the coat," Brown said. "The mystique of that arena is legit. That fan bothers you, he really does."
In Los Angeles, the only fan who bothers you if you're a visiting coach or player is Jack Nicholson. He can be a creepy presence, with his shades and opera glasses and leer.
Jack will be appearing at every game of this series, home and away, sending in plays, intimidating the referees.
He is currently working on a movie, but the filming schedule has been rearranged to accommodate the finals. Or is it the other way around?
In L.A., what's the difference?