The first NBA game I ever saw on television was in May of 1980. I was 13 and we had a house full of company. Some must have been basketball fans because the TV was on the NBA Finals. The Philadelphia 76ers were playing the Los Angeles Lakers. I wasn’t a huge basketball fan at all. Though I did enjoy watching Hayward and Coolidge on the White Shadow, I was a baseball man. Sure I had heard of Dr. J (Julius Erving) but my heros were Pete Rose and everyone else who were a part of the Big Red Machine known as the Cincinnati Reds. I collected baseball cards and could name most every player on every MLB team. Regardless, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the hoops being played on the tube that day. I had to see what the big deal was. And what I saw changed my perception of basketball forever.
Up and down the court was this young energetic cat who seemed to glide from one side of the floor to the other – grabbing rebounds, dishing out passes and scoring at will. On top of that he was 6’9 playing point guard. But what was most engaging about this 20 year old rookie, was the fact that he seemed to enjoy himself more than anyone on the court – as if he were on a playground instead of in an NBA arena. His smile was infectious and I was hooked. Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson made me a basketball fan and the Lakers with their colors of purple and gold became my team.
I watched the game of basketball over the next decade and fell in love with what I found to be a beautiful sport. In the early 80’s there were several good teams and players to get into. Every sport needs stars and performers to sell it’s product. The NBA had a reputation of being a drug infested league full of selfish and aloof black ballplayers. But the guys I saw were outstanding on and off the court and taught me what good basketball looked like. The Sixers had the Dr., but also Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney. The Milwaukee Bucks had Sidney Moncrief, Terry Cummings and Paul Pressey. The Rockets had Calvin Murphy , Robert Reid, and Moses Malone. The Cleveland Cavaliers had a guy named World B. Free. His name was as great as his fade-away jump shot. There were plenty of ballers to keep my interest.
But the decade was carried by the teams from Tinseltown (LA) and Beantown respectively known as the Boston Celtics. Every year one of these teams factored into claiming the Larry O’Brien trophy given to those who would be called World Champions. And boy there some series to remember! I used to watch every game with great anticipation, jumping up and down yelling at the TV – comparing notes and “did you see that?” with my cousins. I respected the Celtics because they had great players. Names like Bird, McHale and Parish were all too familiar. But others like Tiny Archibald, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Quinn Buckner and Gerald Henderson were ballers in their own right. I will never forget the game dubbed The Memorial Day Massacare in 1985 when Scott Wedman blew up the Lakers in Game 1 of the Finals by hitting all 11 of his shots. The Lakers won the series so I got over it. Yea, I respected the Celtics, but I HATED THEM TOO! I hated them cause they were the Celtics. I hated them cause of their crazy fans. I hated those hideous green road uniforms. I hated the fact that they turned the heat on in June at the old Boston Garden during the Finals though it was 90 plus degrees outside to gain an advantage. I hated that the media seemed to give Bird and McHale more love than they gave Magic and Kareem. I hated that they seemed to get all the crucial calls. Most black guys loved the Lakers anyway. They had more black players. The Celtics seemed to have most of the better whites.
But the Celtics had their share of fans in the African-American community. At Lincoln Park or Dunbar Elementary on the South Side of East St. Louis, it was pretty much split between who the cats were rooting for. There were plenty of heated debates too. We argued on the school yard about who was going to stop James Worthy on the wing or how Kevin McHale’s post moves were the best anyone had ever seen. I saw dudes bet 6 packs and 40oz brews for bragging rights between games and ghetto commentators broke down key moments and momentum changes during the series like NBA PhDs. Those were the days! We lived and died with every quarter of every game. We took the rivalry as seriously as anyone in Boston or LA would.
As time went on, both teams got old. And picking last in the draft tends to defleat youthful talent on the rosters. So there was transition. The 90’s belonged to Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Guys like Ewing, Barkley and Miller could only dream of getting a championship ring since they played in the same era. Olajuwon benefited from Jordan’s gambling ‘errrrr baseball’ hiatus. Since Jordan left the scene the NBA has struggled with its fan base. Many of the newer stars didn’t market as well corporately so the fans didn’t gravitate to the game the same. The young generation of players associated with the hip hop image made fans of individual stars but not of the game itself. The new rivalries didn’t measure up to the standard of LA v Boston. The San Antonio Spurs had some great teams and they won. But they were boring to the casual b-ball fan. Last year when the Spurs swept the LeBron James’ Cavaliers, television ratings were at an extreme low for recent years.
Its a good thing for sports in general and the NBA specifically that the Superpowers of the league are relevant and on top of their games again – at the same time. The Lakers experienced winning early in the turn of the century with a three-peat thanks to a core of Shaq and Kobe, a very mature and experienced bench along with an awesome coaching staff brought over from Jordan’s Bulls. The Celtics had not been so fortunate over the last 20 years. They seemed to be cursed with tragedies like the deaths of their #1 draft pick Len Bias, and fan favorite Reggie Lewis. During bad times Celtic coach Rick Pitino told desperate fans that Bird, McHale and Parish were not “walking through that door.” The Celtics thought they would get to draft Tim Duncan but that didn’t work out either. Last year I was sure they were losing games on purpose so they could gain the top pick in the lottery. As fate had it they ended up with the 5th pick. But GM Danny Ainge prayed to the ghost of Red Auerbach and was able to trade for Jesus Shuttlesworth, aka Ray Allen and “The Big Ticket,” Kevin Garnett. One year later the leprechauns are smiling again as the Beaners are eyeing another title.
For the Lakers, Kobe Bryant has redeemed himself as an MVP who is a proven team leader with take over skills not seen since Jordan. Like the Mychal Thompson trade in the 80s the mid season acquisition for Pau Gasol has been a hit. The Lakers roster is the youngest in the NBA and yet they have made it to the Finals showing poise and maturity beyond the age and experience of most of it players. Derek Fisher returned home after stints in Golden State and Utah to provide backcourt leadership and a dangerous jumpshot. Lamar Odom is as versatile a player on both ends of the court since Scottie Pippen. And the coaching staff lead by Hall of Famer Phil Jackson is stacked with experience and championship rings.
My prediction? Well if you look at the rosters it appears that the Celtics have a leg up with the second coming of The Big Three in Pierce, Garnett and Allen. Kendrick Perkins has been dominate on the boards and I wish we had Andrew Bynum to match up with him. James Posey has championship experience and Rajon Rondo has handled himself well during the playoffs. However, when I look at the Lakers I see the best player and closer in the game in Bryant, the best passing team with one of the better defenses in the league. As previously mentioned the entire coaching staff is full of champions. Phil Jackson has won 9 championships as head coach and has coached in 10 Finals series. This will be Doc Rivers’ first Finals appearance and I suspect this will factor when it comes to making crucial adjustments between quarters and games. Unless the youth of the Lakers team becomes apparent and guys like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, and Vladimir Radmanovic seem overwhelmed, the experience and leadership of guys who have been there like Bryant, Fisher and Luke Walton should prevail over a bunch of stars who have yet to win it all.
Lakers in 6