My love for the NBA began in 1966. That was the year my hometown finally got a team. That team: The Chicago Bulls. I remember the many nights in the late, great Chicago Stadium watching the likes of Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker, Bob Love, Clifford Ray and Tom Boerwinkle play with such great passion and intensity. Though they were never quite good enough to reach the finals, the city loved them because everything they did on the court was every bit Chicago. And because of them, I was hooked on the NBA.
And now, with the upcoming NBA Finals featuring the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, it would seem the NBA is once again going to be absolutely, positively must-see sports TV for several weeks. I say “once again” because for this fan, there have been far too many recent finals match-ups that have held all the magic of a turtle in a petting zoo.
Until Michael Jordan found his way to the Bulls to provide Chicagoans with the kind of sports dynasty no one there ever dreamed possible, I still loved watching the NBA because of the great Celtics-Lakers match-ups in the finals, the Julius Erving-led 76ers teams and the always entertaining, if not underachieving, teams that called Madison Square Garden home. This decade, however, has been a different story.
With all due respect to the brilliant talents of players like Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, watching the NBA Finals featuring San Antonio vs. Cleveland, Miami vs. Dallas or teams like New Jersey, Indiana or Detroit just didn’t do it for me.
I admit it, when it comes to the championship round in any sport, if one of my teams isn’t playing, I want a storyline that captures the imagination. The Dream Match-Up, as many would say. That’s why the great rivalries like Red Sox-Yankees or USC-Notre Dame (well, when the Irish were any good) often eclipse the World Series or many of the major bowl games because the final pairings simply don’t compare.
But Celtics-Lakers is different.
Russell, Cousy, Havlicek, Bird, McHale, Auerbach, Chamberlain, West, Baylor, Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Boston Garden, the Fabulous Forum, New England and the East Coast versus Southern California and the West Coast. . . even the broadcasters, Johnny Most and Chick Hearn, were legends. Celtics-Lakers, this is a finals that speaks to kids, their parents and their grandparents.
The Celtics and the Lakers are a Broadway opening; they are Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Godfather. When these two get together in June, nothing else the NBA offers up even comes close.
Sure there’s no Larry or Magic, Boston Garden and the Forum have been replaced by larger, more lavish palaces that are far more difficult for the average fan to afford, but it’s still the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. The green and white and the purple and gold. The parquet floor and the Laker Girls. From where I sit, KG and Kobe will do just fine, thank you.
But more than anything else, Celtics-Lakers is the NBA. Long before insane shoe contracts, long before games were shown on tape delay at 11:30 pm ET because the ratings weren’t good enough to merit primetime coverage, long before the NBA was the global force it is today . . . it was the Celtics and the Lakers that stamped the NBA as worthy of attention.
Think about this for a moment: The first league dynasty was the Lakers. The Minneapolis Lakers. Same franchise of course, just a couple thousand miles east from where they are now. They won five of six NBA titles between 1948 and 1953. Who might you guess was the second dynasty? Naturally, the Boston Celtics as they proceeded to win 11 NBA championships from 1956 to 1968. And now, here they are again meeting to decide the championship for an incredible 11th time. You have to wonder where the NBA would be at today without these two storied franchises.
As a Chicago Bulls fan, I was in basketball heaven when they won six championships in eight seasons between 1990 and 1997. And let’s face it, had Jordan not retired for the 1993-94 season (due largely to the death of his father)) returning again in March of the 1994-95 season, they likely would have won eight straight titles. But even I knew that only one of those years, the Bulls-Lakers final in 1991, barely scratched the surface of the legendary Celtics-Lakers match-ups.
So then, if you’re just a casual fan, will you be watching when things begin this Thursday night in Boston? And if you’ve been watching the NBA for decades like me, won’t the mere thought of Celtics-Lakers in the finals get your adrenaline going just a wee bit more?
Or did you really want Detroit-San Antonio in the worst way?
kevin garnett-kobe bryant photo, courtesy noah graham/nbae via getty images
About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.