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Lakers love

Though the hometown team has morphed, its storied NBA rivalry with the Celtics is still electric.

June 05, 2008

When the rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics last thrilled TV viewers across the country, Indiana Jones was whipping butt at the box office, the home-mortgage industry was undergoing a costly meltdown and a tax-slashing Republican president was running up the federal deficit to dizzying new heights. Nonetheless, a few things have actually changed since then.

For one thing, today's Lakers are not the beloved semi-superheroes of yesteryear. In the 1980s, L.A.'s team seemed a genuinely likable bunch. Now it's led by an accused (though never convicted) rapist so massively self-absorbed that he helped chase a superstar center off the team because of ego conflicts, and then demanded to be traded when managers took years to find a replacement. Kobe Bryant's key cohorts include a shy Spanish center, Pau Gasol, who is too new to the team and too quiet to be fully embraced by fans, and Lamar Odom, a streaky forward with a history of drug problems.

Another difference is that the racial divide that helped propel the rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics two decades ago no longer exists. Back when the Lakers were led by African American stars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin "Magic" Johnson and James Worthy, the Celtics featured white hotshots Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge. Race wasn't a critical factor in a contest that already had plenty of opposing elements (East Coast vs. West Coast, old school vs. Showtime, dynasty vs. dynasty), but it helped fuel viewer interest. The result was that the three nail-biting championship series between the Lakers and the Celtics, in 1984, 1985 and 1987, turned pro basketball from a niche curiosity into a ratings powerhouse.

What hasn't changed is that tonight's game, marking the first time the two teams have met in the finals in 21 years, is predicted to attract big-time viewership and help revive the NBA's flagging fortunes. Another constant is that it should be a remarkably good show. Just as Johnson earned his nickname by having hands so much faster than the eye that his feats on the court seemed supernatural, Bryant can be expected to move in a blur, hit shots that should be impossible and otherwise do things that look like Hollywood special effects.

Much has been written about the unifying power of the Lakers in Los Angeles, and much of it is overblown. The purple-and-yellow flags flying from car windows for the next couple of weeks won't prompt strangers to clasp arms and sing Randy Newman's greatest hits. But the final thing that hasn't changed is that, in a place as diverse and far-flung as Southern California, the Lakers still represent one of the few things every single man, woman and child can cheer for. Beat Beantown.

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