In Los Angeles, there isn't anything that unifies the city as much as the Lakers. They're the team of blacks, whites, and Hispanics, the team of rich and poor, the team of every sub-region from the San Fernando Valley to the Inland Empire to Orange County. Our football teams are long gone, UCLA and USC are rivals, the Galaxy and Chivas fans break down along ethnic and class lines, even the Dodgers and the Angels have their respective fan bases, but more than anything else, LA is an NBA town, and our other franchise isn't even worth naming, because they're an irrelevant afterthought.

Our most hated rival? The Boston Celtics. For guys like my dad, it goes back to the days of Bill Russell, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. My generation experienced the rivalry when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird faced off. Tonight when I watch game one, Lakers versus Celtics, I'll feel a sharp yearning for the voice of Chick Hearn, the longtime Lakers color announcer and perhaps the most loved man in Los Angeles history, and I'll think back on how lucky Southern California basketball fans have been in my lifetime: nine NBA championships, even more trips to the finals, and the privilege of watching Magic, Kareem, Shaq and Kobe. Most towns are lucky to get one guy like that in a generation.

After the Lakers beat Phoenix I was driving around Mid City, and a family was parked on the side of the road, sitting in the back of a pickup truck waving purple and gold flags. People honked as they went by. On the freeways this week I've seen Lakers flags mounted on car windows, taut in the 75 MPH wind. Come 6 pm today, the freeways will be emptier than usual, and someone oblivious to the world of sports will wonder at the light traffic. We'll be watching the game, unable to muster quite as much animosity toward the less formidable Celtics of today -- and smug in the suspicion that Boston fans fear our team more than we fear theirs.

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