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FIRST PERSON

Where Celtics eyes are smiling in L.A.

June 10, 2008|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

They boo Magic Johnson in Santa Monica.

They also sell green T-shirts that read "Beat L.A." Not that anybody needs one. Just about everybody packed into Sonny McLean's for Game 2 of the NBA Finals is already wearing Celtics green.

And it's standing room only at this Irish pub, a small slice of Causeway Street, right here on Wilshire Boulevard.

This might be the toughest place in L.A. for a sportswriter who grew up a Lakers fan. The game hasn't even started, and already the bile is rising in my throat. It could be the Buffalo chicken sandwich I ate two hours before tipoff -- I passed on the Tedy Bruschi burger -- but more likely it's the "Lar-ry! Lar-ry!" chant that breaks out when a Bird commercial flashes on the big screen.

Judging by all the fresh faces and new Kevin Garnett jerseys, half the people in the place aren't old enough to remember Larry Bird playing in the Finals.

I do. I remember it all -- Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson. I remember Danny Ainge and M.L. Carr swinging those towels, Cedric Maxwell giving James Worthy the choke sign, and announcers Tommy Heinsohn and Dick Stockton shamelessly slathering over the Celtics.

Then again, I saw the world in deep shades of purple and gold. I even got irritated at Chick Hearn when, in his even-handed way, he would compliment the Celtics on something. It took years for me to set aside my loyalties and finally admit how good those Celtics teams really were. Those epic Lakers-Celtics finals energized the NBA like no other.

Sportswriting, as the saying goes, kills the fan in you. For the most part, that's true. As an NFL writer living in L.A., I'm by nature a professional vagabond. I parachute into a different city each week without being tethered to any geographical allegiances.

But even after 20 years in the business, two decades of being clinical and cynical, I still can't help but pull for the Lakers. It's a family thing. My wife could barely bring herself to yell "Go Celtics!" when our son's YMCA team was stuck with that team name.

Once, as I'll explain shortly, my loyalty to the Lakers even cost me a summer job.

So, on Sunday night, I was a McCoy at a Hatfield family picnic. My buddy John tagged along, but otherwise I counted only two other Lakers backers in a crowd of about 200. One was hard to miss in a handwritten T-shirt reading "Lakers fan," and the other wore a purple wool cap. That got the respect of some good-natured Celtics fans who happily handed out high-fives.

Like me, John grew up trying to drain baseline shots like Jamaal Wilkes and block them like Michael Cooper, throw elbows like Kurt Rambis and zip no-look passes like Magic. As the Celtics took control of the game and the "Beat L.A." chants mounted, John yelled to me: "Feels like torture, like waterboarding."

Things would get worse for the Lakers, and the pub crowd would get louder for us. The Lakers blew a first-quarter lead, then fell behind by 10 . . . 16 . . . 24.

They couldn't grab a rebound, couldn't get a break from the refs, couldn't stop Leon Powe, let alone Paul Pierce.

The only time the pub got quiet was late in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers started draining three-pointers and somehow cut the lead to two points. That only enhanced the eruption when the Celtics reclaimed the momentum, won and sent the Lakers home with an 0-2 deficit.

It's bizarre, a place like this in the heart of L.A. There's no way a Lakers bar would survive in Boston. Sonny's opened in the last 10 years, even though the battered wood tables and memorabilia-covered walls give it an older feel.

On the walls of the dimly lighted hangout are pictures of legendary Boston sports stars such as Bird, Jim Rice, Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. The pub's logo is a four-leaf clover encompassing the logos of the Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins.

Sonny's is the self-described headquarters of Red Sox Nation West, manager Mike Bongarzone said, and World Series crowds lined up out the door.

Many of the fans who watch games there are transplanted New Englanders. Others are Southern Californians who zigged when the rest of L.A. zagged.

"This is like a safe haven," said Amelia Baker, a UCLA student from Wellesley, Mass. "It's great to be with a big group of people all cheering for the same team."

I know the feeling. Back in the summer before my senior year of college, I was hired as a waiter at a fancy burger joint in Pasadena. I had to go through the standard two weeks of training, learning every last detail of the menu before my first night on the job.

It was June 9, 1987, when the Lakers overcame a 16-point deficit at Boston Garden and won on Magic's "junior, junior sky-hook."

Although I caught only glimpses of the first two quarters, I buckled under the pressure and quit at halftime. I removed my apron and handed off my lone table to a coworker. All that so I could watch the second half from the bar.

I used to feel more out of place there than any restaurant in L.A.

Now it's No. 2 on that list.

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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