It’s the late 50’s and a pattern begins. It involves an emerging professional basketball league, and a team that is about to drag it out of the smoky arenas and into the consciousness of the American sports fan. It involves a team that will draw attention to the new league by its singular and, in retrospect, ridiculously one-sided dominance. 11 banners in 13 years. 8 championships in a row.
In our modern sports lexicon, we carelessly bandy about the word “Dynasty”. If 3 in a row or four in a decade is considered a dynasty, then those early Celtics were an uber-dynasty.
As the ’50’s turn into the ’60’s, and Bob Short moves his Minneapolis Lakers west, another piece of that pattern becomes painfully evident for the Los Angelinos who filled the seats of new owner Jack Kent Cooke’s Fabulous Forum.
As much it is hard to imagine a franchise dominating for an entire decade, it’s even harder to imagine that every year they would be vanquishing the same team.
“I still see green people,” Jerry West said in a recent interview on the Dan Patrick Show. “It definitely left me emotionally scarred.”
The Lakers and Celtics would meet in the finals from 1961 to 1969. They would push the Celtics to 7 games three times, but never get their hands on the trophy.
And the Celtics would do it with the same “Seven master plays” of Red Auerbach. With future Hall of Famers filling the Celtic’s and Laker’s roster, the short answer for this dominance is answered in two words: Bill Russell.
But what about Wilt? There’s a simple answer there as well. Wilt intimidated everyone and dominated all comers…all except Russell.
West and Elgin Baylor would take turns filling the bucket, scoring 60 plus, hitting half court shots to send games into overtime, but to no avail.
Frank Selvy is a name few Laker fans may recognize in 2008, but he was the goat of ’62. If he hits a wide open jumper in that game 7 in ’62 at the end of regulation in the Garden… but he doesn’t. And teammate “Hot Rod” Hundley consoles him in the locker room with,
“Don’t worry. You only cost us $30,000 dollars. (their playoff share). You b*stard.”
They would push Havlicek and crew to 7 games again in ’66 only to have Russell score 25 points and pull down 32 rebounds in the pivotal game.
This would be the Laker’s year. They finally had the home court advantage. Jack Kent Cooke would have the USC band there to play “Happy Days Are Here Again” and balloons would drift down from the rafters of the Forum.
Russell would look up into those rafters and see those balloons and, as the mythology goes, say…
“Those balloons are going to stay up there a hell of a long time.”
And so they did.
But Russell would retire, and Baylor would as well. Leaving West and Chamberlain to lead the team to their first ‘chip in L.A. It would do little to satiate West after so many years of Garden-variety abuse.
Mr. Clutch’s sole ring would come against the Knicks, and he would be coached by a Celtic legend, Bill Sharman.
Bill Sharman, A Celtic player with 3 rings would be the architect of the first Los Angeles team to win it all, and use Auerbach’s blueprint by convincing Chamberlain to imitate Russell: focusing him on playing defense, rebounding, and throwing the outlet pass to start the break.
As the Lakers scuffled through the ‘rest of the70’s after West’s retirement, Auerbach would retool with his ability to flummox other owners on a regular basis for their best players, and utilize his uncanny knack for drafting players late who would turn into the key cogs of a team that would capture two more titles in the 70’s.
If you’re keeping score, that’s 13 to 1.
A Small Amount of Redemption
It’s 1979, and the rivalry that would save the the waning and increasingly NBA, is in its nascent stages.
Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team is man handling Larry Bird’s Sycamores.
Auerbach, in another one of his savvy thinking ahead of the curve moves, drafted Bird when he was a junior using a loophole.
“…a player who expressed interest in entering the draft early could return to college even after being selected.”
Auerbach’s unsurpassed shrewdness would surface again when he traded the first pick of the draft, Joe Berry Carrol, to the Golden State Warriors for the third pick, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish.
The rivalry is set when prospective owner Jerry Buss tells outgoing owner Jack Kent Cooke that if he picked Sidney Moncrief with the number one pick, the deal was off.
The Lakers would add their second banner in Magic’s rookie season.
The Bird led Celtics would garner their first title by defeating the Rockets in 1981.
As Bird, McHale, and Parrish would gel, Showtime would begin its extended run…
Head to Head Once Again
1984 would be the first time that the two teams would meet since the crushing loss of ’69. The Lakers would play the Celtics close but reminiscent of the 7 game losses of the ’60’s, a handful of plays down the stretch would decide the outcome. A too slow cross court pass by Worthy that Gerald Henderson stole in Game 2. A clothesline of Rambis by McHale after Bird referred to his teammates as “sissies”.
In defeat, missed free throws and turnovers by Magic would grab the spotlight. The sports writers pounced and questioned the moxie of Johnson. Sure he was great player, but he had crumbled down the stretch in the crucial moments.
“…take a last look at one thing the series settled: Earvin (Magic) Johnson, L.A.’s superstar guard, simply is not a clutch player…When the very biggest games get to be their very closest, is Magic’s unreliability chronic? Show us it ain’t so, Earvin.”
The Die Hard Garden Curse
In 1985, the two 60 plus clubs would clash again, the Celtics looking to be the first team to repeat since the Russell-Cousy teams. The Lakers would look to wash away the pain of ’84. The Celtics would have home court advantage and would throw the first punch.
It was a hay maker that has been ensconced in the psyche of Laker fans as the Memorial Day Massacre. Celtics 148-Lakers 114. Kareem would score 12 points and collect 3 rebounds. He would apologize to his teammates and promise that he would never play like that again. The loss was surprisingly just what the Lakers needed.
Kareem would redeem himself, averaging 30 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, and two blocks in the four Laker wins.
“Abdul-Jabbar was old enough to invoke the most felicitous analogy. “It’s like the Dodgers beating the Yankees in 1955,” he said. “Celtic pride was in this building, but so were we.”
It is still the one and only time that an opposing team has claimed a championship on the Celtic’s home floor, and the smile that would adorn the mug of the normally stoic Captain would tell the whole story.
The demons and jinxes of 8 straight years of losses could not be squashed with one win, but it was a small amount of redemption for both the current and past Lakers.
But even that would be short-lived. The Lakers would be shocked the following year by the Houston Rocket’s Ralph Sampson’s desperation heave and the Celtics would again capture the title.
Junior Junior Sky Hook
1987 would be the final match up between the Bird-Magic incarnation of the rivalry. The Lakers would hold home court advantage and snatch the first two games in LA. But the defining moment of the series would come in Game 4.
The Celtics had let a 16 point lead slip away, and the Lakers found themselves with the ball and a chance to win. The play was called for Kareem, but McHale would switch out onto Magic away from the basket. And Chick would capture the moment as only he could…
“Magic down the middle, just like I thought. A hook shot of 12. It’s goood.”
The Laker struggles of the 90’s would lead to a return to prominence in 2000, as the Celtics would struggle, attempting to recover from the tragic death of Number One draft choice Len Bias less than 48 hours after he was picked.
Here We Are Again
Looking for redemption. A modern vindication the likes we haven’t seen since ’85.
For some it evokes memories of Sunday afternoons, and the rivalry that would galvanize our love for the Lakers and basketball.
For some it will remind them of the long ago pain of 8 straight losses.
This match up has now passed the Yankees and Dodgers for the most times professional franchises have faced each other in a final.
How much does it effect the current series?
Ask any Celtic fan, and they would tell you they were dying to return to relevance. After winning 16 rings in 30 years, they hadn’t been to the Finals in two decades. This mini-dynasty will solidify their prominence by having it span eras.
Ask any Laker fan, and they will tell the consistency and titles are just too much to argue against. The ghosts of those long ago losses fading into ancient history.
Because a good rivalry with a storied history adds excitement to a game.
Simply put, familiarity breeds contempt.
-Scott Thompson aka Gatinho
Roland Lazenby’s “The Show”, “My Life” by Earvin Magic Johnson, “24 Seconds to Shoot” by Leonrad Koppett, and The SI.com vault were used in the writing of this post.