In this world, there are a lot of things that matter. Rarely, if ever, do sports fall too highly on that list. Even most championships, it could be argued, take place once a year, more or less rendering them insignificant, and certainly not unique.
It is this general lack of true importance that allows some events, certain moments and the occasional player, team or game to transcend.
Rivalry is an instance where sports cease to be just sports. In good rivalries, it’s City v. City. Team v. Team. Fans v. Fans. Even still, with the ever changing landscape in sports today, both professional and collegiate, including free agency or early entrance into league drafts, expansion, skyrocketing player salaries or crooked recruiting, performance-enhancing drugs, etc., it’s tough to keep a rivalry heated.
One rivalry that far exceeds the boundaries of sport, reaching much further into society than a lot of people give it credit for, is the greatest rivalry ever – The Lakers vs. The Celtics.
When I was a kid, like most, not much mattered. I loved grilled cheese sandwiches, and playing in the backyard. But when the Lakers and the Celtics played each other, I remember caring because it seemed like everyone else did. I stopped whatever I was doing in the backyard, went inside, and turned on CBS.
This will be the 64th Championship in the NBA, and the Lakers and Celtics will have won 33 of them. The Celtics have made the Finals 21 times, and the Lakers 31. The 2010 Finals is the 12th time these two franchises are facing each other for the title, a record across all of sports. Each team has 20+ Hall of Famers, a gang of retired numbers, and enough history to choke and kill a large, strong, virile horse. There is nothing like this in sport.
The Celtics won 11 championships in 13 seasons. The Lakers are going for their 2nd in a row, 5th in their last 11 seasons, and 10th in the last 30. Let us examine the ‘80’s, or as I like to call it, “The Greatest Decade of Any Sport.”
From the ten year stretch of ‘79-‘80 to ‘88-‘89, one of these two teams played in every Finals, and between them, won 8 of the 10 championships of the decade. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson resurrected the league from near financial failure in the 1970’s, and are widely considered two of the 5 greatest players of the sport, at the very least. Add to them players the caliber of Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, NBA all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and you see two of the all-time great dynasties, mirroring each other, built to smash each other.
Take into account the players and teams they competed against including the Bulls and Michael Jordan, the Pistons and Isiah Thomas, the Sixers and Dr. J, the Rockets of Sampson and Olajuwon, the Malone and Stockton Jazz, etc., etc. and their dominance is even more amazing.
What makes this rivalry unique is not just the incomparable statistics and numbers, players and history. It’s the fact that Lakers v. Celtics represents so much. From ‘58-‘59 to ‘68-‘69, the Celtics beat the Lakers in the Finals 7 times in a row. At that time, Lakers v. Celtics was about a wood shed ass-whuppin’.
In the ‘80’s, this battle became about much more. Two styles of basketball: fast break v. half court. Two schools of thought: progressive v. traditional. Two major coastal cities separated by an entire country-worth of land: sunny LA and the seemingly always autumnal Boston. Two lifestyles: Hollywood glamour v. blue collar Boston grit. Style v. substance. And lastly, to a good and completely fair extent, blacks v. whites. This rivalry was an allegory for attitudes, cultures and racial equality. And if you don’t want to take it from me, ask African-American and Caucasian basketball fans of the appropriate age.
And this Finals is no different. The Celtics are rough and tumble veterans. Cagey. Hard nosed. Physical. The Lakers are the pretty boys. Flashy. A finesse team. Soft. The Celtics are playing to cement their return to dynasty status. The Lakers are out for ‘08’ revenge.
Garnett wants to prove he still has plenty of gas in the tank. Pierce wants to prove he should be in the best player conversation with Kobe and LeBron. Rondo wants to prove he’s as good as Paul, Williams and Nash. Pau wants to prove he’s not soft. Ron wants to prove he’s a champion. And Kobe needs to prove he can beat the Celtics.
(You can’t be the best player ever if you can’t beat your biggest rival when it matters.)
We will never see two teams play each other and mean more to the people watching them. It was, and continues to be, remarkable. Representative.
So, when they tip at Staples tomorrow, stop what you’re doing in the backyard, grab a grilled cheese, get in front of the television, and remember and revere what it used to be, and will always be to me.
(brainworks / @howmybrainworks)