Rivalry renewed for Celtics and Lakers

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Less than 24 hours after the Staples Center crowd chanted “We want Boston,” a small, upper deck cadre of Celtics fans who had infiltrated the Palace of Auburn Hills broke out their own famed refrain:

Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!

Bust out your short shorts, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, the two most storied franchises in the game and ancient bitter rivals, are back.

With a gritty 89-81 Eastern Conference title-clinching victory over the Detroit Pistons, Boston did its part just a day after the Lakers did theirs. The NBA Finals begin Thursday in Boston, the climax of an improbable season that one year ago saw Kobe Bryant demanding to be traded from the Lakers and the draft lottery cursing the Celtics.

No one saw this coming then. Everyone will be watching now.

“I think that rivalry really revolutionized the game of basketball,” Celtics forward Paul Pierce said.

It featured some legendary series, an endless parade of future Hall of Famers and heated, occasionally violent action. Eventually there was a grudging respect built on the acknowledgement of mutual greatness, most notably between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

It was more than that, though. The back-and-forth regular-season games were appointment television, the eyes of the two teams forever focused on each other. The rivalry went national, with neutral fans often choosing sides; everything from geography, style of play and race-dividing loyalties.

This will be different, a sped-up version based as much on history as hostility. If the players aren’t as personally committed though, the respective fan bases will more than make up for it.

“It means everything to Boston fans,” Pierce said.

That was evident as the brave green-clad fans whooped it up in Detroit’s gym once the Finals appearance was secure. The ball had been passed to Kevin Garnett, the biggest of the Big Three who’s ability to “envision” himself in Celtics green and give up on his bottomed-out Minnesota team last summer made this happen.

As the final seconds and the “Beat L.A.” chant faded into the air, Garnett clutched the ball aloft in jubilation, the biggest step yet in his dream of winning his first – and the Celtics’ 17th – championship this spring.

Soon enough the players were giving their own rendition of “Beat L.A.” at the trophy presentation, trainers were posing with pictures with John Havlicek and everyone was talking ’80s retro.

“I used to watch on Sunday, that big plate of food in front of me, watching the Lakers and the Celtics play, Hubie Brown and Dick Stockton doing the game,” said Garnett of his childhood in rural South Carolina. “I remember it like it was yesterday. (I’d say) ‘I’m (going to) grab me a seat right in front,’ Mom telling me, ‘Don’t get too close to the TV, it’ll kill your eyes.’”

Garnett laughed.

“I’m looking forward to this.”

Just about everyone is.

Each team used monster trades and perfect chemistry to secure the top seeds in their conferences. Boston took a long, hard playoff route here (20 games), but that doesn’t matter now. The Celtics’ biggest worry will be finding a way to slow Bryant, the league’s brilliant MVP. The Lakers have to deal with the multi-headed monster of the Big Three, any one, two or all of whom can burn you on a given night.

Mostly it is a chance for NBA commissioner David Stern to remind fans of some of their fondest basketball memories, while reveling in the attention of two big-market franchises.

Boston has 16 NBA titles, the Lakers 14. Their rivalry, while most recently heated in the 1980s, goes back to the days of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Boston’s legendary Red Auerbach and the Lakers’ Phil Jackson are tied for the most titles won by a coach at nine (although Jackson won six of them with Chicago).

Before Auerbach passed away in 2006, he took numerous shots at Jackson for never building a champion but just taking over an excellent team. If Jackson wins this year, that will no longer be the case.

Regardless, you’ll hear that bitterness – and so much else – brought up repeatedly over the next few weeks.

“It’s going to be fantastic,” said Doc Rivers, the oft-maligned Celtics coach who made it work nonetheless. “When we played them in L.A. earlier this year, I thought the atmosphere was nuts. And I told the guys after the game, ‘Boy, it would be great if we could see them again.’

“And the only way we could have seen them again would be the Finals. That’s the way it should be as far as I’m concerned.”

Lakers-Celtics inspired people back in the 1980s. One of them was a lanky kid from Inglewood, Calif., home of the Lakers’ then-home court, the Fabulous Forum.

Paul Pierce would root against Boston and then go down to the park and envision he was draining a last second shot to beat the Celtics. Now he returns as their captain and leading scorer.

“As a kid, I hated the Celtics,” Pierce said. “I’m going back home to play against the team that I grew up watching.”

As memories can be, the ones about L.A.-Boston have grown over the years, the perception even bigger than the reality.

During the 1980s, there were actually just three head-to-head meetings in the Finals – Boston winning in 1984, L.A. in 1985 and 1987. While they were historic clashes, it wasn’t the annual meetings some recall.

Pierce was asked about his worst memory of the rivalry and he mentioned the time Boston won the championship in L.A.

“They celebrated on the Lakers’ floor,” he said. “I was miserable.”

The thing was, it never happened, which will tell you more about the impression and passion of this rivalry than the shaky memories of youth.

While the recollection of the game’s location was false, Pierce’s feeling wasn’t. Boston made him miserable back then; more than once. And that burning pain and the ensuing triumphs still live in the heart of two fervent fan bases that have waited 21 long years for another shot at each other.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, May 31, 2008