When Kobe Bryant was asked about playing the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals shortly after eliminating the Phoenix Suns, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I didn't give a damn who we played; didn't matter to me."
It's an answer he routinely gives when asked about opponents or situations he doesn't want to admit he's thought about. He'll usually add an astronomical twist to drive home the point. When he opted out of his contract in 2004, he said, "I'll play anywhere. I'll play on Mars." When he asked to be traded three years later, he said, "At this point, I'll go play on Pluto." And last month, when he was asked who he'd like to see in the Finals, he said, "I can play against E.T. I don't care."
The idea that Bryant didn't really care who he played in the Finals is as far-fetched as the Lakers actually playing a team of extraterrestrials on Pluto or Mars. The reality is that Bryant has always wanted to play for the Lakers, and it's hard to imagine he never dreamed about beating the Celtics in the NBA Finals while he watched both teams battle it out when he was a youngster in Italy.
If you grew up as a Boston Red Sox fan, you dreamed of hitting the walk-off home run to beat the New York Yankees. If you grew up as a Washington Redskins fan, you dreamed of scoring the winning touchdown to beat the Dallas Cowboys. And if you grew up as a Lakers fan, as Bryant did, you dreamed of hitting the game-winning shot to beat the Celtics. There's just something about playing the Celtics at the Garden you don't quite get when you play the Orlando Magic at Amway Arena.
"I'm playing in it. I don't give a damn about it," Bryant said about the rivalry. "That's for other people to get excited about. I get excited about winning."
I'm sorry. I'm not buying it.
This was the series every player on the Lakers quietly hoped for during the playoffs and at times publicly yearned for after getting humiliated by the Celtics during the 2008 NBA Finals. Any notion to the contrary is not only naive but goes against all history and common sense.
Forget for a moment that the players on these two teams have now etched their names into a storied rivalry that dates back more than 50 years and includes 32 NBA championships and 50 Hall of Famers. That's obviously great for the bevy of video montages and retrospectives you'll get over the next two weeks, but these Lakers have a personal score to settle with these Celtics.
If this rivalry was "nostalgic" and "retro" two years ago, it's "nasty" and "revengeful" this time around. The Lakers are no longer answering questions about games that took place over 20 years ago between players who have long since retired. They have to once again answer questions about being "soft," a label they earned after getting pushed around by the Celtics two years ago; they have to answer questions about being able to match Boston's intensity after blowing a 24-point second-half lead in Game 4 and getting blown out by 39 points in Boston's Game 6 clincher. Worse yet, if they lose, they'll have to answer questions about "stealing" last year's championship while the wounded Celtics played without Kevin Garnett and were eliminated before the Finals.
Make no mistake about it; this series will shape how history views both of these teams. If the Lakers win, they will prove they were not only the best team the last two years but further support their belief they would have won in 2008 if they were fully healthy. If the Celtics win, they will put to rest the notion the Lakers would have beaten them with Andrew Bynum two years ago and make the case they were the best team last year and would have won the championship if Garnett had not gone down.
That's the beauty of this series. It's no longer simply a rivalry with five decades worth of stories; it's now become the best current rivalry in sports. This is no longer about past and present players reminiscing about old games; it's about current players creating their own places in history against players they truly don't like and have thought of as enemies for two years.
If playing against the Celtics were like any other game, Bryant wouldn't have mockingly hummed Boston's unofficial anthem, "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" by the Dropkick Murphys, over and over again as he came out of the shower after hitting the game-winning shot to beat the Celtics earlier this season. If playing the Celtics were like any other game, Sasha Vujacic wouldn't have erased every article of green clothing he had in his closet after losing to Boston two years ago, and Phil Jackson wouldn't have told Paul Pierce last offseason, "Get it back, we want to meet you in the Finals," when the coach saw Pierce in L.A.
Obviously, this isn't just any series. It's the Lakers and the Celtics, and this current group is beginning to garner as much history and dislike for one another as the 1980s squads that played each other in three Finals. That's what happens when you begin to form a familiarity with your enemy. It's why we loved the NBA back then.
The Finals weren't just one-off series that came and went like bad sitcoms canceled after a couple of weeks. They were heavyweight title fights that had trilogies and sequels that captured our imaginations. That's why the 1980s Lakers are remembered more fondly than the 2000s version.
Back then, the Lakers played the Celtics and 76ers three times each and the Pistons twice before passing the torch to the Bulls in 1991. Those series will always be infinitely more remembered than the Lakers breezing past the likes of the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets or Orlando Magic, because there was no history or continuity with those opponents. For the first time in 12 years, two teams that played each other in the Finals are playing each other again within two years, and for only the second time in 23 years, the last two NBA champions are facing each other in the Finals.
This Lakers-Celtics series is familiar to fans and, for the first time in years, to the players and coaches on the court.
Bryant can minimize the historical significance all he wants leading up to Thursday's Game 1, but this series, whether he likes it or not, means more than last year's against the Magic or any he could have against the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James.