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Celtics/Lakers: 3 Takeaways from the Latest '30 for 30'
Magic, Kareem, Worthy, West, Wilt, Riley.
Bird, McHale, Russell, Parish, Cousy, Red.
It doesn’t get more historic, or heated, than the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, which is why ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series spent five hours exploring what made those matchups in the 1960s and ‘80s so captivating.
All three parts of “Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies” can be seen here for those whose television providers include ESPN.
Below, we take a look at some of the highlights that director Jim Podhoretz and his crew dug into.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, they were greeted at the airport by 10,000 fans. Two years later, the Lakers unceremoniously drove into L.A. around midnight.
Back in 1960, the NBA was nowhere near the global powerhouse that it is today. As Jerry West said, the Lakers would have to drive around from neighborhood to neighborhood in the back of the team van, greeting fans and putting on hoops clinics just to draw an audience of 3,000 on a good night.
“No one knew who the hell we were and no one cared,” Tom Hawkins said. “What the hell was a Laker?”
That all changed when legendary announcer Chick Hearn took over the mic, as the Lakers began drawing 15,000 overnight once he entered the scene.
The issue became defeating the dreaded Celtics, as even Elgin Baylor’s legendary 61-point performance during the 1962 NBA Finals couldn’t deliver the Lakers a championship.
The frustration hit an all-time high in 1969, despite adding Wilt Chamberlain to West and Baylor’s Hall of Fame duo. In Game 7 against Boston, then-Owner Jack Kent Cooke was so confident of his team that he had a giant collection of balloons hung from the Forum ceiling, waiting to drop on a title celebration.
They never fell, as Boston edged out another ring. “It was the lowest point of my life,” West said.
`West eventually did get his ring in 1972, but it came against the New York Knicks, keeping Boston’s record against L.A. pristine.
The Strange Road to ‘82
Two years after a rookie Magic Johnson famously played center in the decisive Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, the Lakers were back in the final round for a rematch with Philadelphia.
But the path to this point was an odd one, especially for Johnson.
Signed over the offseason to a 25-year, $25-million contract — the biggest in sports history at the time — Johnson made a stunning demand for a trade when he sparred constantly with coach Paul Westhead early in the season.
Instead, Westhead was let go, and Pat Riley — who had recently been working as the color commentator alongside Hearn — was chosen to step in.
But even that wasn’t so simple, as then-Owner Dr. Jerry Buss had also tabbed West as the “offensive coach,” leading to confusion over who was the true leader on a team with seemingly two head coaches. But West quickly quieted that by saying, “I’m going to be working for Pat Riley.”
Meanwhile, Johnson — the man who went on to be one of L.A.’s greatest sports icons — was actually booed by his fans in the team’s first home game, as the Forum crowd voiced its displeasure with his spat with Westhead.
But it didn’t take long for Magic to win them back, as the Lakers swept San Antonio to reach the Finals once again. It seemed all set up for a rematch with the Celtics, whose own fans were getting vocal at Boston Garden.
During Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the first “Beat L.A.” chant erupted. But the 76ers didn’t take kindly to the fans looking past them and upended Boston to reach their own rubber match with the Lakers.
But that series had the same result for the Sixers, as Johnson — the Finals MVP — picked up his second ring by leading his team to the title in six games.
The year before, the Celtics pulled off a seven-game victory over the Lakers in the NBA Finals. This time around, in 1985, began with another statement, as Boston drubbed L.A. 148-114 in Game 1, as the historic beatdown became known as the “Memorial Day Massacre.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was held to 12 points and three rebounds, took the bulk of the blame, with the national media wondering whether his career was coming to a close.
The 38-year-old could barely keep up on the floor, and Riley let him have it in the following day’s film session, as the coach even put his hand through a chalkboard during a particularly heated moment.
Heading back to the Garden for Game 2, a calmed-down Riley relaxed on one of his strict rules, allowing Kareem to bring his father aboard the team bus.
With his dad alongside him, Abdul-Jabbar proved that he was far from finished, lighting the Celtics up for 30 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists, as the Lakers evened up the series. James Worthy went as far as to say that Kareem looked “like he could fight a grizzly one-on-one.”
Immediately after the game, Riley called his center “the greatest to ever play.”
Abdul-Jabbar kept it going for the remainder of the series, as the Lakers — who had lost all eight previous Finals matchups with the Celtics — shocked the Garden crowd by winning in six games.
”It’s as if there is no one at Boston Garden right now,” Hearn said. “That’s how quiet it is.”
For his efforts, Abdul-Jabbar was named Finals MVP. Having already shown that he had plenty left, he went on two capture two more rings — including in 1987, when the Lakers once again beat Boston to secure a 2-1 head-to-head Finals record against their rivals during the Showtime era.