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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Lakers-Celtics remains something bigger

June 01, 2008|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

Meaning no disrespect to 28 other teams, thanks for getting out of the way.

An NBA Finals is one thing, running the spectrum from Knicks vs. Lakers in 1970 (Jerry West's 60-foot shot in Game 3, Knicks come from 16 down to win Game 5 after Willis Reed is hurt, Reed limps back for the Knicks' Game 7 victory) to Spurs vs. Cavaliers last spring when nothing happened.

An NBA Finals with the Lakers and Celtics . . . or listed according to who dominated whom, the Celtics and Lakers . . . is entirely different, an event unto itself.

Lakers vs. Celtics is part of something bigger, a rivalry going back almost 50 years that defined the NBA over that time.

It has been 21 years since their last Finals . . . and all of a sudden it feels as if those 21 years are gone.

They're starting up right where they left off in 1987, with the same people telling the same stories.

This isn't just basketball. San Antonio and Dallas have a heated rivalry but who outside those two cities cares?

This taps into something bigger than the NBA, even if it's not really the cultural war it's supposed to be.

We all get to watch the same sports show on the same cable network and frequent the same restaurant chains, as they do in any hamlet in the South or Midwest, for that matter.

We do have different climates (long winter vs. what's winter?), lifestyles (urban vs. what's winter?) and icons (Paul Revere and JFK vs. Jack Nicholson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Happily, each has a champion to represent it in basketball so the stakes go up when their teams meet.

The Spurs' win last spring was nice, giving them four titles in nine years to the Lakers' three, making this San Antonio's era (to this point.)

In the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, winning means living up to a tradition older than anyone now playing in it, embodied by all the greats on hand -- Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, et al -- and those whose memory lives on, from Red Auerbach, whose name is on the TD Banknorth Garden court, to Wilt Chamberlain, whose No. 13 is on the Staples Center wall, from the beloved Celtics' play-by-play man, Johnny Most, to the Lakers' beloved Chick Hearn.

Winning means bragging rights in a series in which the winners live to brag.

You don't even have to have been part of it. As the Celtics celebrated their East championship Friday, co-owner Wyc Grousbeck, a recent arrival, laid claim to Auerbach's mantle, not to mention Red's hubris, crowing:

"And we're 8-2!"

This is now known as the Shot Fired 'Round Lakerdom.

"I saw the owner of the Celtics say we're 8-2," said West, once almost as much an icon in Boston as here.

"He was also the same owner who saw his franchise not make the playoffs."

It's true, the Celtics didn't make the playoffs in nine of the last 14 seasons, but they've missed only twice since Grousbeck's group bought the team in 2002.

Welcome to the rivalry, Wyc.

Losing means grief like that of Johnson after the Lakers' nightmare in 1984 when they had leads in the last minute of Games 1-4 before Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis, etc., and the Celtics won in seven games.

Johnson went home, shut himself in for days and wouldn't even talk to his mother on the telephone.

Forget mere joy and sorrow. Where the Lakers and Celtics are concerned, it's ecstasy or shame.

As in everything, the Lakers' role model was West, whose suffering after losing to the Celtics in the Finals -- six times -- was operatic.

"A lot of people play sports for a lot of different reasons," West says. "Some of them get joy out of it, OK?

"To me, there was no joy. This was like a life's work, to try to find a way to win a championship. . . .

"When we lost to the Celtics here [Game 7 of the 1969 Finals at the Forum] and the balloons were in the rafters, I didn't want to play basketball again. I really didn't. I don't know if I ever got over that."

There was no one like West or Russell who got physically ill before every game . . . except when the Celtics played the Lakers and everyone became like them.

Best of all, the rivalry recalls a time when there were no cheesy conference championship ceremonies, nor any perceived need to stage such things.

When the Celtics played the Lakers, the game was enough. Actually, the game was everything or it seemed like it.

It would be nice if they could go back to meeting every two or three years, but that remains to be seen.

The Celtics aren't deep and if they aren't ancient, their big three, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, are 32, 31 and 30, respectively.

This could be the biggest Golden Oldie of all time, so don't take a moment of it for granted.

Whatever happens, from a classic to a sweep, it will be momentous, as it always was.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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