YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Love Hurts

The Lakers and Celtics grudgingly respected each other, but until 1985, the rivalry brought only pain to Los Angeles, especially Jerry West

June 04, 2008|Mark Heisler

If, as Jerry West says, the NBA's greatest rivalry wasn't a rivalry at first since the Lakers never won in the '60s and the Boston Celtics never lost, it already seemed bigger than mere life or death, at least in West's life.

Nor did the zeal diminish in their '80s rematches when the Showtime Lakers and the Larry Bird Celtics battled on even terms.

It was the alpha and omega of rivalries, encompassing all human emotions, starting, of course, with hate.

The Lakers hated the Celtics and their blustering leader, Red Auerbach, but then who didn't?

No one hated Auerbach more than Lakers Coach Pat Riley, whose movie star looks masked his knife-between-the-teeth drive. Riley believed every horror story about Red, once ordering his team's water barrel emptied in Boston Garden.

Riley wanted his players to hate everything about the Celtics, gathering his players to ask if they knew what a Celtic was.

"Finally, Kareem raised his hand," Riley wrote. "He said the Celtics were a warring race of Danes.

"I had to explain that they were also a cunning, secretive race."

Of course, Riley was Irish but he was a Laker first.

Not that you had to be paranoid since the teams were messing with each other.

Fans besieged the Lakers' hotel in Boston with phone calls, waking up sleeping players -- which Riley blamed on the Celtics for giving out their location. Lakers officials were delegated to wake up Boston players in their hotel here.

Happily, the fear and loathing ran second to respect that grew into reverence among the participants, or at least some of them.

After the Celtics' Game 7 victory in 1969, John Havlicek hugged West, who played for the Lakers with a sore hamstring wrapped like the leg of a mummy, telling him, "I love you."

Bill Russell flew out for West's farewell ceremony, announcing, "If I could have one wish in life granted, it would be that you would always be happy."

By the '80s, the two teams needed each other as they needed air and water.

Bird and Magic Johnson lived to beat the other from the start when they were bitter rivals to the finish when they were close friends.

When Bird retired, Johnson flew East and donned a Celtics jersey for his retirement ceremony, whereupon Bird told him, "Magic, get out of my dreams!"

Bird presented Johnson at his Hall of Fame induction, noting, "I was going to speak from my heart but, man, he broke my heart so many times, do I have anything left?"

Sentiment ended at the tipoff. After the Celtics' Game 4 win in the Forum in the 1984 Finals, Bird, on the bus, saw Johnson slouch past, looking devastated. Said Bird later: "I thought, 'Suffer.' "

One time or another, they all did.


Begin text of infobox

Lakers-Celtics through the years

1959: Celtics 4, Minneapolis Lakers 0

Rookie of the year Elgin Baylor leads the remnants of the old dynasty in scoring, rebounds and assists but the Lakers are overmatched.

1962: Celtics 4, Los Angeles Lakers 3

The relocated young Lakers jolt the Celtics, winning Game 5 in Boston to go up, 3-2, as Baylor scores 61 points, still the Finals record.

The Celtics force a Game 7 in Boston Garden and win, 110-107, in overtime.

With the game tied and time running out in regulation, the Lakers' Frank Selvy, a two-time All-Star, misses a wide-open eight-foot baseline jumper.

Says West: "I've always wondered if Frank Selvy had made that shot -- and he'd made a couple of big shots right before that -- would that have helped change the course of history of this thing?"

Couldn't have hurt.

1963: Celtics 4, Lakers 2

With Bob Cousy in his last season, Sports Illustrated says of the Celtics, "Tired blood courses through their varicose veins." That must be where the SI jinx starts with the Celtics about to romp in the Finals and go on to win in 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969.

"Please," Auerbach says, "tell me some of these stories about Los Angeles being the basketball capital of the world."

1965: Celtics 4, Lakers 1

The Celtics win 62 games to the Lakers' 49. That's how close the Finals are.

1966: Celtics 4, Lakers 3

The West is now a sideshow. The new marquee matchup is between Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia 76ers and the Celtics, who finish No. 2 in the East.

Nothing can match the resolve of the old Celtics when they're cornered. In what will become a pattern, they win when it counts, upending the 76ers, 4-1, in the playoffs.

The Lakers come back from a 3-1 deficit to force another Game 7 in Boston Garden but the Celtics win, 95-93, for Auerbach's ninth and last title.

Of course, if Red knew Phil Jackson would one day get nine, too, he might have kept coaching.

1968: Celtics 4, Lakers 2

Dethroned in 1967, the Celtics see the defending champion 76ers win the East for the third season in a row and take a 3-1 lead in their playoff series.

The Celtics then stage their most improbable comeback yet, winning 4-3.

The Lakers have been rooting for Boston, fearing the awesome 76ers, only to find they can't beat the sly old foxes, either.

Los Angeles Times Articles