Between them, they have won 32 of the 63 Championships in NBA history. After this year, it will be 33 out of 64. However when they have met head to head for the championship, the Celtics have walked away with the trophy nine times to the Lakers two times. In fact, the Lakers only won their two titles against the Celtics in 1985 and 1987.
When one begins to look at the so-called rivalry, it does not compare to some of the other storied rivalries in sport: Bears-Packers, Cubs-Cardinals, and Yankees-Red Sox. While the Lakers and Celtics are the most dominant teams in the history of the NBA, their rivalry is not. Why is that?
1. Red Auerbach – the man hated to lose and he hated the Lakers. Before the 1963 Championship he was quite annoyed by a proclamation declaring LA the “Basketball Capital of the World”. Red stated:
“I suppose you people expect me to make some more nice chitchat like Shaus. You’re a bunch of bushers. That goes for the club, the fans, and all the writers.” Red held up the program and continued: “I come here today, and I see this — it’s ridiculous! What do you people think this is? Win a couple championships first, then talk about being the basketball capital of the world. Right now, the basketball capital is Boston. And it’s gonna stay in Boston for a long time!”
2. Bill Russell – No player has ever dominated a sport for entire decade like Bill Russell. The man controlled the paint on defense and coached the team
3. Sam Jones – These two gentleman along with a cast of other players dominated the late 1950s and the entire 1960s. The Celtics won 10 out of 11 Championships from 1959-1969. The only year the Celtics did not win, Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, and Chet Walker led the 76ers to a championship over the San Francisco Warriors.
Throughout the 1970s, the NBA underwent several changes. The Celtics won the title again in 1974 and 1976 (My favorite NBA Finals). In 1979, the so called rivalry became a full fledged rivalry when Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird came into the league. Combined, the two saved the NBA in the late 1970s and early 1980s. From 1979 to 1991, the Lakers would win five titles, the Celtics three. Against each other, they only played three times with the Lakers winning twice.
For one decade though, the Celtics and Lakers really were rivals. The rivalry centered on Magic and Larry and their desire to be the best. Magic would say of their rivalry:
“We’re so competitive anyway that there was a dislike there, I even hated him more because I knew he could beat me.”
Bird would add:
“We did it in a way where we caught the imagination of everyone in America. People wanted to see us play against one another. … If you like competition you want to play against the best, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
For twelve years, these two players defined the NBA, and a rivalry, in the 1980s until Michael Jordan began to dominate in the 1990s. After 1987, the two teams would not meet again until the 2008 finals with Boston winning. Today’s rivalry holds little weight. In the 1980s, players hated each other on the court. It is not like that today.
What many do not know was that Magic and Bird actually started out their careers together long before the NCAA Championship, long before the three NBA Championship face-offs. It actually began when Magic was 18 and Bird was 21, a full year before the rivalry began, they were teammates.
Jackie MacMullan writes:
April 1978 in Louisville, Kentucky
The errant shot came off the glass at a sharp angle, but Larry Bird, charting the flight of the ball, pulled down the rebound and advanced without hesitation, swiveling his head as he examined his options.
Earvin Johnson had already begun to head down the court the moment the ball was in flight. He’d been playing with Bird for only six days on a team of college All-Stars in this international roundrobin competition, yet already Johnson had determined that Bird was the most resourceful rebounder they had.
Bird filled the center lane, and Magic streaked down the right side, calling for the ball, but the forward looked away, as if he had pressing matters elsewhere. For one brief instant, Magic was disappointed. “I guess he’s not going to give it to me,” he murmured.
And that’s when it came: a behind-the-back missile that landed directly on Magic’s right palm. It remained there just long enough for Johnson to disarm defender Andrei Lapatov with a crossover dribble, then sling it back over his shoulder with a no-look feed to Bird.
Indiana State’s star barely aligned the seams before his touch pass was back to Magic, leaving no time for the overmatched Soviet player to react. As Johnson banked in the lay-up, the crowd at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, roared with delight.
Magic turned and charged toward Bird to offer him his signature high-five. Bird slapped the teenager’s hand, and the two jogged back down the floor, side by side, one skipping, clapping, and celebrating as he went, the other, head down, expressionless, as if nothing remarkable had occurred.
The intertwined basketball journey of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry “Joe” Bird had officially begun — as teammates.
Johnson had never met Bird before the tournament. He was stunned at how well the forward passed the ball, and when Bird fed him the no-look pass, Magic told himself, “I’m not going to let this guy upstage me.”
“It was an incredible three seconds of basketball,” Magic said. “It was boom, boom, boom! I’m thinking, ‘Man, I love playing with this guy!’ And believe me, the crowd loved it too.”
Some thirty years after that collaborative transition basket, executed against the Soviet Union’s national team when Magic was just 18 years old and Bird only 21, both remember the play with startling clarity.
“The defender was stumbling to keep up with us,” Bird recalled. “We were coming at him so fast that his head was going around and around, and he ended up in a circle. I was sort of laughing, because the poor kid didn’t have a clue.
He wasn’t the only one. No one thought to chronicle the footage of Bird and Magic’s wizardry in the open floor. There were no breathless descriptions of the artful passers in the morning papers. In 1978, though both had displayed a developing basketball pedigree, they were not widely recognized as elite players. At that juncture, neither had won an NBA championship, a league MVP, or, for that matter, an NCAA title. The irony of Bird and Magic commencing their storied relationship as teammates did not register because their parallel careers had not yet evolved into one of the compelling rivalries in basketball history.
So, as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett face off the next two weeks, one can only look back to the 1980s when it was a rivalry. There is no love lost today between the two teams, the players, the coaches, but a few fans remember that brief decade when there was a rivalry.
For further reading
When the Game Was Ours – Larry Bird and Magic Johnson with Jackie MacMullan