Jim Rogash/Stringer, Getty
The measure of the greatest rivalry in NBA history is best taken by a series of seminal phrases. Russell. Wilt. The junior sky-hook. The Wheelchair Game. Bird. Magic. Auerbach's victory cigar.
Lakers. Celtics. Winner take all.
Basketball's most accomplished franchises are once again the last two teams standing. For the second time in three years and the 12th time overall, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics will meet in the NBA Finals.
Most younger (or casual) basketball fans remember the teams' epic clash in the 2008 Finals, which Boston captured in six games after a historic comeback in Game 4 and an anticlimactic blowout in Game 6. But Lakers-Celtics is so much bigger than that. This is a rivalry that transcends generations, a rite of summer that time and time again has resurrected the sport of basketball and rejuvenated the NBA.
When the rise of television first brought hoops to the nation in all its black-and-white glory, the league was dominated by one team, one center, and one stogie-puffing coach. The Celtics won a remarkable eight championships in a row and 11 in 13 years, establishing a dynasty unmatched in the history of American pro sports. Their favorite punching bag was the Lakers, who had moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960 to kick off the NBA's westward expansion. Seven times between 1959 and 1969, the teams met in the finals. Seven times, Boston won.
One-sided as it was, the rivalry galvanized professional basketball. Fans from both coasts tuned in seemingly every summer to see if this was the year Los Angeles could overcome Boston's two-headed monster: legendary center Bill Russell and coach Red Auerbach. But the Lakers fell short every time, even when they acquired Wilt Chamberlain, Russell's longtime rival, before the 1969 playoffs. Then Boston's player-coach, Russell extended his decade-long dominance over Chamberlain, leading his team to a 108-106 victory in Los Angeles in the decisive Game 7.
More than a decade later, the NBA was floundering, crippled by rampant cocaine use and a lack of transcendent talent. But salvation came in the form of two men whose divergent backgrounds were personified by their nicknames. Boston got Larry Bird, "The Hick From French Lick," while the Lakers drafted Earvin Johnson, known simply as "Magic." The deadly small forward with the wispy blond mustache and the flamboyant, ebullient point guard led their teams to the top of the NBA, ushering in a decade short on shorts, long on points, and dominated once again by the Lakers and Celtics.
The images are indelible for any fan who came of age in the '80s. Boston's Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis on a breakaway layup, sparking a comeback victory in Game 4 of the 1984 Finals. The Lakers celebrating on the famed parquet floor of the Boston Garden in 1985, the franchise's first ever series win over the Celtics made infinitely sweeter by the clinching road victory. Magic copying teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's signature move with a last-second skyhook to win Game 4 in 1987. And countless freeze frames of Bird and Magic next to the other on the court, each legend grimly trying to outdo the other.
Twenty years later, the teams are atop the league again. After the Celtics dispatched the Lakers in 2008, Kobe Bryant led Los Angeles to the 2009 championship, the team's first title in seven years. And when the 2010 Finals tip off on Thursday, it will be green and white against purple and gold for the 12th time. In two cities, at least, order has been restored to the NBA.
And whatever the feelings of fan bases for the other 28 franchises, the real winner is basketball itself. When two bitter rivals meet for a championship, they play with an added ferocity no other opponent can elicit. At its best, team sports is a competition between two squads that push each other to excel. Fans of other teams may resent Boston and Los Angeles for seemingly having a reserved space in the finals, but if you're a fan of the game, you can't help but appreciate the titanic struggle of two elite adversaries whose mutual animosity only makes them better.
To read the argument for why you shouldn't watch the finals, click here.
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