- Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy
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[Ed.'s Note: This column appears in the Revenge of the Jocks issue of ESPN The Magazine, in which Chad Johnson takes over as Editor-in-Chief.]
I mean, Celtics-Lakers? Really?
When I woke up this morning, I half expected to see posters of Eddie Murphy's "Delirious" concert, Larry Bird's milk growth chart (don't ask) and the eternally underrated Heather Thomas hanging on my walls. Actually, I thought this would make for a cool column: me remembering my 1984 bedroom decor, singing Larry Legend's praises, taking potshots at Kareem and Magic, insulting Lakers fans and hitting Send.
My editors, though, objected. They claim that, of the 144 columns I've written for The Magazine, 314 have involved one of my beloved Boston teams. I thought that number seemed a bit high. We haggled. I threatened to quit. They FedExed me a resignation letter with a yellow "Sign Here" sticky on it. We haggled some more. Eventually, they allowed me to write about the biggest Celtics-Lakers rivalry myths—if I remained "objective."
I agreed, if only because I didn't want to blow Chad Johnson's Pulitzer. So without further ado …
Myth: It's the NBA's best and longest rivalry.
Truth: Boston beat L.A. for the title eight straight times before falling in 1985. If that's a long-standing rivalry, so is Tom vs. Jerry, Andy vs. The Sistas and hammer vs. nail. Isn't it more of a "recent rivalry that was once a relentless butt-whupping"?
Myth: It's an East Coast/West Coast thing.
Truth: Actually, Boston swept the Minneapolis Lakers in 1959. Owner Bob Short moved the Lakers two years later, robbing Minnesota of two legends—Elgin Baylor, Jerry West—and starting five decades of sports agony. Making matters worse, the L.A. Lakers was the dumbest team name for nearly 20 years, until the Jazz relocated to Utah. If you root for the Lakers, you not only implicitly support nonsensical team names, you've helped to desecrate Minnesota sports.
Myth: The 1962 Lakers were a wide-open 15-footer from toppling Bill Russell's Celtics.
Truth: You know who took the shot? Frank Selvy. (Who? Exactly.) Should Selvy be deciding your season when you have West and Baylor? I say no. Stupid teams shouldn't win titles.
Myth: L.A. is a flashy franchise with celebrity fans named Jack and Leo, while blue-collar Boston makes do with fans named Murph and Sully.
Truth: That changed when the Big Dig was finished, downtown Boston suddenly became cool, and relaxed tax laws coaxed Hollywood into making movies in Massachusetts. During these playoffs, DiCaprio, Tom Brady, Denis Leary, Ben Affleck, the Wahlbergs, Gisele, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Bruce Willis and Grey (the one with the show about her anatomy) took in games at the new Garden. Sure, they were heckled by drunks named Murph and Sully. But things are looking up. Boston even has bars with drinks that cost more than $5.50 now.
Myth: Kevin McHale's clothesline of Kurt Rambis turned around the 1984 Finals.
Truth: When Rambis hopped up for revenge, peacemaker James Worthy swooped in and inexplicably shoved Rambis into the Laker Girls. Way to help out, James! Ask Worthy to jumpstart your car, and he'd fry you with the jumper cables. Anyway, that was the moment things turned around.
Myth: Magic won the rubber match with Bird in 1987.
Truth: Hold on, my editors are still electroshocking me for the joke I was about to make. [zaaaaap!] OK, we're good. Yes, it's true that Bird beat L.A. once ('84) and Magic beat Boston twice ('85, '87). But when Bird and the 1986 Celts were peaking, L.A. avoided a guaranteed shellacking by getting "upset" by the young Rockets. That's a forfeit win for Boston, bringing the tally to Bird 2, Magic 2.
Corollary myth: Magic beat Boston twice.
Truth: Actually, it was Kareem who killed Boston in 1985, cruising to the Finals MVP. After Magic choked away the previous Finals (no, really—look it up), he was happy to turn things over to the Big Fella. Can you give him credit for that? No way. Including the forfeit, that makes the new Finals score: Bird 2, Magic 1. I'm glad I'm here.
Myth: In the '80s, white Americans supported the Celts, and African-Americans supported the Lakers.
Truth: The Showtime Lakers were definitely a flashier team, exemplified by Worthy's signature tomahawk dunk and Magic's near quadruple-double average in the 1982 Finals (18 points, 11 assists, 9.5 rebounds, 12 women a game). And the C's were definitely a dorkier team, exemplified by Bird's blond Afro-mullet—which did make him a hero in the white-trash states—and McHale and Bill Walton whiffing on 47.8 percent of their high fives in 1986. That said, isn't it racist to assume blacks gravitated to L.A. and whites gravitated to Boston just because Spike Lee blasphemed Larry Legend in "Do the Right Thing"? The only thing we know for sure is that, besides Lakers fans, everyone despised that ninny Kareem. If anything, he transcended race and united the country.
Myth: Playing in a Garden with no AC in 1984, the Lakers needed oxygen masks to survive a humid Game 5.
Truth: Whoops. This one is true.
Myth: There's a glaring difference between Celtics home games and Lakers home games.
Truth: Not since Boston embraced air-conditioning—not to mention cheerleaders, luxury suites, T-shirt cannons, overpriced tickets and scoreboards costing more than $250—after closing the Garden, in 1995. Throw in the heavy hitters, and it's not really sooo different from a Lakers game. Well, except for two exceptions: Boston fans show up before tip-off (not during the second quarter); and they'd never bolt close games to beat traffic. Just sayin'.
Myth: Half of the rivalry's appeal has to do with the magnificent clash of uniform colors.
Truth: It's actually closer to 75 percent. For stoners, watching a Celts-Lakers game in HD is like staring at a 50-foot fish tank.
Myth: L.A. and Boston get all the breaks.
Truth: Au contraire! The Lakers somehow acquired Wilt and Kareem in the first two three-$5-bills-for-a-$100-bill trades in NBA history. They swapped a fading Gail Goodrich for two No. 1's (one of whom became Magic). They traded journeyman Don Ford for a future No. 1 (James Worthy). In 1995, free agency rules mysteriously changed one year before Shaq became a free agent, and L.A. just happened to stumble into a ton of cap space. And 2008 was the year of the Pau Gasol hijacking. Wait, that deserves its own myth.
Myth: L.A. and Boston were reborn this season with two legal megadeals.
Truth: At least the Celts gave up Al Jefferson for KG. How was the Gasol trade legal? If I kill my mailman and no one ever finds out, does that make it legal? Jerry West's old team (Memphis) gift-wrapped its best player for the team that once employed West for 40 years, taking back a pupu platter (Kwame Brown, a third-string guard and two crappy picks). This happened even though the Lakers' season would have been over without a center. Had this trade taken place in a fantasy league, it would have led to three weeks of vicious e-mails, crumbled friendships, guys quitting and maybe even a fistfight. In the NBA, it led to the Lakers being presented the 2008 Western Conference trophy by … yup, a crying Jerry West. The NBA, where chicanery happens.
(Sorry, Chad—I tried my best.)
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2hMichael C. Wright