A Shared Legacy

Updated: April 26, 2008

Washington, D.C.—The NBA is starting to buzz with anticipation of a Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics Final. Even though many of the games have been spectacular, have gone into overtime (or double overtime) and have seen superhuman performances (i.e. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard), experts have implied that the NBA has engineered this season to be the resurrection of the greatest rivalry in professional basketball.

Gone are the days when most players were fliers, only suiting up for one team in one city. So now, you have a transplant like Kevin Garnett suiting up for the Celts, and Pau Gasol moving over to ride shotgun for Kobe Bryant and the boys from La la Land. That is part of the evolution of the free enterprise system, and it’s never been more evident in the NBA than in this season.

What does it mean for the NBA to have a Boston-LA Final?

First, huge dividends in terms of revenue. Back when Michael Jordan was with the Bulls, there was constant speculation that he would miss key shots to extend a Finals series to six or seven games. Of course, he almost never did. But imagine, back then, an extra game of the championship could net the league an additional $12-20 million, and this was over a decade ago.

Secondly, there is so much history between the two teams. When the Lakers were first put together in Minneapolis, George Mikan was the league’s first dominant big man in an era when white players dominated all basketball leagues. And there was no whiter team than the Boston Celtics.

After that era came the era of the black athletes, and the Celtics were among the first to feature African-American players, and an African-American playing coach in Bill Russell. At the same time, it seemed that, when the Celtics were constantly winning (including their run of eight in a row), Jerry West and the Lakers (whose star players, ironically, were Caucasian) always seemed to come up short.

Third, history gets updated. Everybody remembers the Magic-Bird era.

No two players were so alike, yet so dissimilar. The Michigan magician with the megawatt smile, and the stoic Indiana cornbread farmboy whose wit cracked like a whip. They came at the perfect time, when the NBA’s television ratings were down, everyone thought the league was too slum, too black, and too drug-infested. And they also helped open the door for Michael Jordan to fly through. Eight of the 10 championships of the 1980′s were won by either the Celtics (5) or

Lakers (3), with Doctor J’s Philadelphia 76ers and Isiah Thomas’s Detroit Pistons sneaking away with one apiece.

But then, just as Dream Teams became the fad, the NBA started losing some of its luster. Players were bigger, younger, more thuggish, bent on earning their CNN or Fox Sports highlight moment, rather than winning titles or playing team ball. Neither the Celtics nor the Lakers were contenders, until a stroke of genius brought Shaquille O’Neal to Hollywood. Today, Los Angeles is a city where black is the color of the major media mogul, be it in TV, movies or music. And Boston, well, it’s still a largely white Irish town. And still very cold.

Still, the other end of the equation did not balance out. Where were the Celtics? Paul Pierce himself was shocked that he ended up in Boston (he wanted to be a Laker). At the turn of the millennium, he was stabbed multiple times, to within an inch of his life, in Boston, of all places.

Now, the Lakers parade one of the most dominant scorers in the game today in Kobe Bryant, partly chosen over Shaq because he was younger and would fill up more seats for more seasons. But he was perceived for years to be just that, a snake in purple and gold. In the East, Paul Pierce was “The Truth”, but alas, a lone voice in the cold Massachusetts winters.

But help came, and not just in a whisper, but in a media boom that always accompanies the larger-than-life exploits of Kevin Garnett. No longer The Kid, but almost the elder statesman, KG was freed from the Siberian gulag of Minnesota, and given a team that could now contend.

Then, just as Kobe stopped grousing about lack of support, the NBA allowed a one-sided trade that virtually handed them a loaded gun: Pau Gasol was coming over from Memphis. And the team, although never healthy or complete, was coming together.

Strangely, the Celtics once again started the ball rolling with their pre-season roster changes. When the Big Three splashed across the covers of every major sports magazine in October, all the other teams were wondering how they could keep up. And, once again, the Lakers hit their stride when it mattered most.

Fans are already looking to saying a lot of things, and resurrecting the ghosts of their past triumphs over each other, because neither has had anything to brag about since The Big Diesel left Hollywood.