PHOENIX – The Los Angeles Lakers’ title hopes had disappeared with one last embarrassing loss in the NBA Finals, leaving those on board the team’s bus to sit in stunned silence. As the bus started to leave the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston on that night two years ago, chaos quickly broke out around the Lakers. Boston Celtics fans had filled the streets to celebrate the franchise’s 17th championship, not far from a statue of longtime patriarch Red Auerbach smoking a victory cigar.
With traffic snarled and no police escort to take them to their hotel, the Lakers could do nothing but sit and stew. Before long, someone recognized Phil Jackson sitting in the front seat, and then the rocks began to fly. Revelers pelted the bus and shook it, mocking the Lakers at their lowest moment.
Yes, the Lakers and Celtics are now set to renew their legendary rivalry in the NBA Finals. One night after the Celtics eliminated the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals, L.A. took out the Phoenix Suns in the West to set up the latest chapter between the teams.
This will be the 12th Finals meeting between the league’s two storied franchises. When they’re done, the Lakers and Celtics will have accounted for 33 of the NBA’s 64 championships. Their first Finals meeting came in 1959 when the Celtics swept the Minneapolis Lakers for the first of eight straight titles. The rivalry, however, was sparked when the Celtics knocked off the Lakers six times in eight years in the 1960s. Those series included Boston’s Bill Russell and Bob Cousy versus Los Angeles’ Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.
The rivalry picked up in the 1980s thanks to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. There were three Finals meetings then between the Celtics who were then viewed as tough, hard-working and predominately white while the Lakers were Hollywood glamour, show-boaters and mostly black. The “Beat L.A.” chant was born as was the “Boston Sucks” taunt. Before Michael Jordan took over the NBA, it was Bird and Magic who saved the league with their impassioned rivalry. With the Lakers losing to the Celtics two years ago, it’s safe to say the rivalry has been reborn.
“They gave it to my kids last time in Boston. I can’t repeat (what was said). It will be fun. The people were rude to my kids, but it was fun.”
Not everyone in Los Angeles was pining for the Lakers to meet the Celtics again. One fan, in fact, was disappointed to see the Lakers knock out the Suns to advance to the Finals.
Her name is Randy Auerbach, an independent film producer who also happens to be a daughter of the late Celtics coach. She has been living in Los Angeles for years, and it hasn’t kept her from cheering for her father’s old team.
“I would like to take all the Lakers flags off the cars and burn them,” Randy Auerbach said. “It’s really annoying. It doesn’t make sense to me. There is still a strong rivalry.
“How did my father feel about the Lakers? No comment. They’re a great franchise, clearly. I think the Celtics are more of a unique organization that attracted a certain player. We had so many players who started and finished their careers in Boston. We didn’t trade for the sake of exploiting a player in their last year. The times are different. The Celtics are a classy organization. My dad knew everyone’s kids, where they were [after retirement], where they were working. They mean a lot to him. They were a real sense of family.”
To Odom, of course, there is nothing bigger in basketball than wearing a Lakers uniform and following in the footsteps of such names as West, Baylor, Goodrich, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson and O’Neal. Getting to live in sunny, celebrity-filled Los Angeles isn’t bad, either.
“We got a lot of good things going for us in L.A.,” Odom said. “Playing for the Lakers is unlike playing for any other team in the world. It’s almost like being a Yankee.”
Were it not for the Celtics, the Lakers likely would be playing for their third consecutive title. The Lakers entered the 2008 Finals as heavy favorites. Led by Paul Pierce(notes), the Celtics took control of the series when they rallied from a 24-point deficit to win Game 4. The Lakers won Game 5, but the Celtics closed out the series by hammering them in Boston.
Like Gasol, Bryant hasn’t forgotten that miserable bus ride from the Garden.
“There are some [expletives] in Boston,” he said. “A lot of fans were celebrating. It got a little out of hand.”
As early as the second game of the West finals, Lakers fans began chanting “We Want Boston” at the Staples Center. Likewise, Celtics fans have been chanting “Beat L.A.” since Game 2 of the East finals. Even as great as a LeBron-Kobe matchup might have been, there is nothing bigger in the NBA than Celtics-Lakers – or Lakers-Celtics, depending on which side of the battle one fights.
The league’s biggest rivalry is officially back on. This time, the Lakers are planning for a smoother ride home.