“To be successful you need friends, to be very successful you need enemies.” – Sidney Sheldon
I hate Danny Ainge. I don’t know him. I have never met him. I have no recollection of having ever watched him play basketball in real time. The last time he took the floor against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals, it was still 2 years before I was even born. I still hate Danny Ainge. Why?
Because I watched Ainge, as Director of Basketball Operators for the Boston Celtics trade for Kevin Garnett and get the 2008 Finals along with him, when rumors then swirled (recently confirmed by Garnett) that Garnett had hoped to end up alongside Kobe Bryant as a Laker.
While the next 2 championship banners were hung at Staples Center, the 2008 loss sticks in the craw of the Laker fan-base to this day.
The ruthless competition between the Lakers and the Celtics for championship honors has been going on for over 60 years now. They first competed for the NBA’s highest prize in 1959, when a phenomenal rookie named Elgin Baylor vaulted the long-shot Lakers to the Finals.
Then in their last year in Minneapolis and in serious financial difficulties, Baylor’s play provided enough revenue for the team to make the move to a more lucrative market in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the Lakers were swept in the championship series by the well-oiled machine run by Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, and Bob Cousy.
In the NBA’s infancy, the Minneapolis Lakers had been its dominant franchise under original Big Man and hook-shot innovator George Mikan. With Russell and Auerbach in the 60s, it was the Celtics who tore through the league in the most extended period of utter dominance by one team in the history of American professional sports.
They won 11 Finals trophies in a 13-year span from 1957-69, failing to make the finals only once. 7 of those victories were over the Lakers, 3 of which went to 7 games. Though Baylor and Jerry West always came close to beating the Celtics, they could never reach the summit.
Both teams would win titles in the 1970s, but never against one another. The rivalry would remain latent until it was awoken by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1980s. Then it was the Lakers who took the crown, winning 5 championships during the decade, and 2 out of 3 against Boston.
20 years later, the above mentioned trade pitted Paul Pierce and Garnett against Bryant and the Lakers in the Finals twice, with each team taking a trophy home. Both series’ were physical and ugly, with the 2010 series going to 7 games. It marked the 5th time that an NBA Finals between both teams had gone the distance.
It is a combination of factors that makes the Laker/Celtics rivalry unique. Unlike most other famous rivalries (e.g. Yankees/Red Sox, Liverpool/Manchester United, Barcelona/Real Madrid, Packers/Bears), the Lakers and the Celtics have no geographical proximity or animus to tap into.
They don’t even share a conference in the NBA. The rivalry was built from innocence to bitterness on one thing only – the brutal competition for supremacy in the association.
Laker fans in the 60s learned to hate the Celtics through year after year of nail-biting defeat, and passed their inferiority complex down the next generation of fans. In the 80s and 00s the Lakers went on a rampage, winning ten titles in sixteen finals appearances from 1980-2010. The Lakers and Celtics have tended to feed off of one another’s success to a remarkable degree.
Fueled by their mutual enmity, the Lakers and Celtics have won 33 of 73 total NBA championships, and accounted for 52 of 146 teams to appear in a Finals series. It has been a period of collective dominance without parallel in sports.
Yet, for a rivalry that has been burning for a full 60 years, the results have been excruciatingly close. The Celtics boast of 17 championship banners; the Lakers 16. Both teams have all time winning percentages of about 59%. Both teams have won championships at every stage in league history. Both have claimed some of the best players of all-time as their own.
Of all the teams in the league, only one has a winning all-time record against the Lakers, and that team is the Boston Celtics.
The best rivalries always take on cultural or political dimensions that transcend sport. The Lakers and Celtics have done so on an enormous number of dimensions at different times – East vs West, grit vs glamour, black vs white to name only a few.
What makes this rivalry the best of them all is the combination of longevity of the rivalry and razor-thin margins involved, which has made it able to take on a new cultural significance for each new generation of fans – all while treating us to top grade basketball along the way.
It is not a fraternal quarrel of the sort that local rivalries tend to be. It is a competition between genuine enemies who share the combination of disdain and grudging respect that only a worthy opponent can bring out.
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