Before I get started, you need to know I grew up in Massachusetts and came of basketball age in the lunchpail Havlicek-Cowens-Silas era. The team that shaped my basketball brain wasn’t pretty. John Havlicek, the highest-scoring Celtic ever, moved like a knock-kneed geek who should have been working at Microsoft. The only time Dave Cowens didn’t look like he was in the middle of a barroom brawl was when he was sitting on the bench in foul trouble. Paul Silas not only had no jump shot, his set shot looked like the Statue of Liberty. Jo Jo White was a fine shooter who looked like he was fighting off an epileptic fit each time the ball left his fingers. And Don Chaney … well, let’s just say there’s a reason his nickname was “Duck” (no offense, Oregon fans).
Why is this important? Because this was a team short on flash and long on winning. Nothing came easy to them, and yet in two of three years they won titles by fighting their way past the league-darling Knicks (back in the day long since removed when New York boasted talented, selfless players and smart coaches), the domineering Bucks with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his prime and Oscar Robertson filling in the spaces (the NBA might have chosen Jerry West to be The Logo, but the Big 0 should have been). In other words, this was a working-class team who mowed down more flamboyant opponents. While Oscar was rightly dubbed “poetry in motion,” it was brutish Dave Cowens who dove a dozen feet across the parquet to beat him to a crucial possession in 1974’s title game.
Which brings us to 2008 — and an irresistible duel for a staggering number of reasons:
* No teams have gone head-to-head for more championships in the history of the NBA than the Celtics and Lakers. From West and Baylor vs. Russell and Cousy to Bird vs. Magic, these franchises were born to duel.
* The Bird-Magic decade known as the 1980s spilt fans across the country into one of two camps. No one can watch a Boston-LA series without hating at least one of the teams. Even fans who hate both inevitably hate one more than the other.
* Boston, more than any other team save the fleeting phenomenon known as the early-70s Knicks, is the poster franchise for unselfish, team-oriented sacrifice. LA, in turn, is known primarily for individual achievement at the cost of success — see West, Baylor, Chamberlain, Bryant (more about him in a minute) and glitz (see Dyan Carroll, Showtime, Jack Nicholson, balloons in rafters).
* This year’s Celtics squad only adds to the team’s persona. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen spent most of their careers excelling on teams that sometimes stunk and always came up short. Joined on the Celtics, they have put their individual goals aside to the point they’ve actually drawn criticism for passing too much. Throughout the regular season, you see see the team’s stars rooting as hard or harder for its bench players as the bench for the starters. This year’s Lakers, meanwhile, are led by a player widely agreed to have driven off the league’s best big man and its smartest coach several years ago so that he could hog the spotlight. He’s spent his career attacking his teammates (when Shaq was injured in 2002, he blamed the ensuing string on losses on everyone but himself, and last summer he lobbied for the team to trade Andrew Bynum, a player now viewed as one of the most coveted centers in the league) and working harder to show them up than help them succeed (witness his quitting at halftime against the Suns in 2006, refusing to shoot in the second half of a seventh and deciding playoff game that eliminated his team). This year Kobe padded his resume by ripping his team in the pre-season and insisting on a trade, then sleep-walking through the early season as the Lakers racked up losses until Memphis inexplicably handed them Pau Gasol for a few draft picks and a wad of used chewing gum. If you think I’ve forgotten to mention Kobe’s rape charges a few years back, well, they were dropped before the case went to trial and anyway Kobe made up to his wife for his night of sex/assault/whatever with another woman by buying her a ring the size of a basketball. Similarly, he made up to his teammates by buying them dinners this year, so you can see what a warm guy he is.
* Some times the bad guy is the bad guy more for who he isn’t than who he is. Sure, Phil Jackson is a consummate whiner and back stabber (he famously wrote Kobe off as impossible to coach before returning to the Lakers and suddenly declaring Kobe just fine after all), but he’s really not that bad a guy. But he did luck into a career coaching the best players in the league (see Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant) and ringing up easy championships in a watered-down era (let’s face it, the likes of John Starks’ Knicks, Rick Smits’ Pacers and Karl Malone’s Jazz were more pretenders than contenders. Nevertheless his nine titles (six with Jordan and three with O’Neal and Bryant) tie him with the redoubtable Red Auerbach for most by a coach, giving Boston fans and traditionalists everywhere extra incentive to want to see Jackson’s Lakers fall short of giving Jackson more rings than Red.
* Which brings us to Jackson’s opposite number. No drama is complete without conflict, whether in the form of a key injury, traitor, Achilles heel, you name it. In this case the Celtics’ primary stumbling block is their coach, a man who had never won a playoff series until he finally wound up this year with so much talent and heart on his team that the players have been able to overcome his imbecilic coaching. But you can’t count Doc Rivers out, because he works hard. Earlier today I chuckled while reading a series preview that touted Boston bench players like Leon Powe and Glen Davis. Who? Sure, these guys are good, damn good in fact. They powered Boston to innumerable wins throughout the season, and any team in the league would covet them. But they play (or sit) for Rivers, who won’t even let them off the bench in the playoffs. Although each has enjoyed a momentary cameo here and there, they’ve both gone several games without a single minute of playing time while Rivers has run his starters into the ground, keeping them on the court even when the team was up by 20 and 30 points in playoff blowouts with scant minutes to play.
Finally, we have a morality play: Good vs. Evil. For no fan who outwardly cheers Kobe’s skills can privately overlook his lack of character. No fan who believes in underdogs can root for a coach whose career was built on lucking into the most talented lineups in the league and who never had to rebuild or coach a dying team. Such a matchup isn’t unprecedented. In 1977, Bill Walton’s notoriously unselfish Blazers upended perhaps the most egotistical team ever assembled, the Sixers of Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Lloyd Free and — you can look it up — Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, who halfway into the series announced he should be starting ahead of teammate Steve Mix because “I can beat his face in at any phase of the game.” Of course, nothing in Bryant’s mediocre career, which ended up in Europe, backed up his ridiculous claim. Indeed Jellybean will forever be known not for his limited skills but for his progeny: a son named Kobe whose career has proven him every bit as disloyal to his teammates as his father was to his.
More recently, the “play the right way” Pistons upset the massively dysfunctional Lakers for the title in 2004, and Jordan’s Chicago Bulls put an end to the “Bad Boys” Pistons, a team that set basketball back light years, in the early 90s. Of course, good doesn’t always win out over evil. Those same Pistons won back-to-back titles before Chicago put the stake through their heart, but that’s what keeps you at the edge of your seat for series like these: You know who you want to win, but nothing’s certain until the final buzzer sounds and the balloons fall from the ceiling. Or, as in the case of the 69 Lakers that Russell beat in Lalaland for one final championship in his last year, the balloons don’t fall from the ceiling.
So the stage is set for David Stern’s ultimate wet dream: Celtics vs. Lakers. Pull up a chair and a tub of popcorn. And pour a stiff drink.