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Series has every chance to be one for the ages

June 08, 2008|Tim Dahlberg | Associated Press

Magic Johnson remembers hurting so bad after losing to the Celtics in 1984 that he sat in the dark for hours and went into hiding for a month.

Larry Bird more than likely felt the same way when the Lakers repaid the Celtics by winning two of the next three NBA championships against them. I say more than likely because, more than two decades later, he's still not saying.

"I don't remember the losses," Bird said the other day while on a conference call with his old nemesis turned co-author. "I only remember the wins."

That brought a chuckle from Johnson, who remembers every win and loss as if it happened yesterday and is pretty sure Bird does, too.

"You're still crazy, LB," he said.

Bird wasn't all that happy about being on the call in the first place, though it had nothing to do with any reluctance to reminisce about the good old days with the player he'll always be linked to. There was plenty of talk about rivalries and teammates, and what the Celtics and Lakers meant to a league whose Finals were relegated to being tape-delayed on network television back in the 1980s.

But Bird remains old school to the core, and the old school way of thinking is that this NBA Finals isn't about him and McHale or Magic and Kareem. It isn't about Chamberlain and Russell, and doesn't have a thing to do with Baylor and West.

He's right. Just as the game has changed from a wide-open, score-at-will affair to a one-on-one chess match, so have the players.

They don't wear shorts that look like hot pants anymore. No one on the court would be caught dead sporting the nerdy glasses that made Kurt Rambis so popular. And everyone, it seems, is covered in tattoos.

"I felt that it's really the players of today's game. That's what they should be focusing on," Bird said. "It really doesn't matter what happened in the '80s or '50s, '60s. It's what's happening now. It's in the big stage. First time in the Finals for a lot of the guys."

The NBA, of course, begs to differ, which is why Bird and Johnson got together to talk about the three times they went head-to-head in the Finals in a rivalry that began when the Lakers were still in lake country.

Actually, it wasn't so much a rivalry as a mismatch. The Celtics won the first eight championship matchups before Magic and his Lakers broke through in 1985 before adding a second win for good measure two years later.

But David Stern knows a good story when he sees one. So for much of the past week we've been treated to stories about players and rivalries of old in a buildup to a championship series that rivals that of most Super Bowls.

Surprisingly enough, it's not just the old guys who remember.

Paul Pierce grew up in Los Angeles hating the Celtics and everything they stood for. He was a Lakers fan, and that made Boston the enemy.

"I think that rivalry really revolutionized the game of basketball, and now I'm a part of it," Pierce said.

Kobe Bryant was 5 years old and living in Italy when the two teams first met in the Finals. His grandfather sent him tapes of the games, and he played them over and over again, studying the moves by Johnson, Bird and the others.

"I remember everything about those series like it was yesterday," Bryant said. "All the plays."

The details of the Finals before that time are a little more fuzzy in the minds of today's players. They might know who Jerry West is and they've all probably heard of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, but don't expect them to break down the 1959 championship when the Celtics won in four straight over the Lakers of Minneapolis, who were led by a promising rookie by the name of Elgin Baylor.

Give them a pass on that because it's not their job to live in the past or remind people of the history of the league. Their duty is to create some new history so that players 20 years from now will talk about Kobe and Kevin and Pau and Paul with the same sense of reverence that they talk about the icons of the '80s.

The stage is set perfectly for them to do just that. If the Johnson and Bird rivalry helped save the league back then, Bryant and Pierce and their supporting casts have the chance to revive it once again.

A year ago, the season ended up with a clunker when San Antonio rolled over Cleveland in a series that was hard to watch. There was no sense of history or suggestion of drama, just ugly basketball that thankfully was over almost as soon as it began.

Now it's the Lakers and the Celtics, who lead the series 1-0, with superstars on the court and stars in the stands. Two storied franchises writing another chapter in basketball lore.

It's got every chance to be one for the ages.

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