While the majority of the great rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics occurred during the 1980s, the history of each of these storied franchises has a unique beginning. Even if one did not care for either team, this rivalry would make a person suddenly have to choose a side. One could not be indifferent to who won each game, either someone wanted the Lakers or the Celtics to defeat the other. Both teams did that to spectators. Jim Podhoretz, the director of the ESPN 30 for 30 “Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies”, describes that “They made you choose sides.
And that begs the question “Why?” Was it the players? Was it their style of play? Was it the color of their skin? The answer is complicated and probably different for each person.” These games were more than just games, they were spectacles that had almost everything. They involved future Hall of Famers, intense conflicts between players, and most importantly: just fantastic basketball between players that hated each other’s guts. This rivalry brought not only joy and excitement at certain points, but also anguish and disappointment in many other circumstances. The fans enthusiasm for the rivalry is more intense than fans of any other rivalry. This among other things is what makes this the best rivalry of all time in all sports across the world. In this paper, not only will just the rivalry itself be examined, but also how this rivalry evolved and flourished during the period of the 1980s.
The Boston Celtics were founded in 1946 by Boston Garden-Arena Corporation President Walter A. Brown as a team in the Basketball Association of America. They became part of the National Basketball Association after the NBA took over the BAA in the fall of 1949. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, the Celtics play their home games at TD Garden, an arena they share with the NHL’s Boston Bruins. In their storied history, this franchise has won 17 championships, the most of any other team in the league. They play all of their games as a member of the NBA’s Atlantic division in the Eastern conference. The Los Angeles Lakers were founded in 1947 with the purchase of a disbanded team, the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League (NBL). The new team began playing in Minneapolis, calling themselves the Minneapolis Lakers in honor of the state’s nickname, “Land of 10,000 Lakes”.
After having trouble financially, they relocated to Los Angeles before the 1960–61 season. Based in Los Angeles, California, the Lakers play their home games at Staples Center, an arena shared with the Los Angeles Clippers, the Los Angeles Sparks, and the Los Angeles Kings. Throughout their history, the Lakers have won 16 championships, second all-time behind their biggest rival, the Boston Celtics. The Lakers play all of their games as a member of the NBA’s Pacific division in the Western conference. In the period leading up to the 1980s matchups between the two teams, certain events shaped the way the rivalry would play out in this time. For the Boston Celtics, a series of fortunate trades and draft picks helped them add to their already fantastic roster. In the 1978 NBA Draft, the Celtics owned two of the first eight picks.
Auerbach took a risk and selected junior Larry Bird of Indiana State with the 6th pick, even though they knew he would stay in college for his senior year. The Celtics would retain his rights for one year as the organization believed that he had superstar potential. In 1978, ownership was changed as Irv Levin traded his stake in the Celtics with John Y.
Brown, Jr.’s Buffalo Braves. With this deal came trades between both the Braves/Clippers and the Celtics, moving many former Braves players to the Celtics. A move that did not resonate with Auerbach was one that saw the Celtics give up three future first round draft picks for the Braves center Bob McAdoo. This led to a heated dispute between Brown and Auerbach, which almost led to Auerbach leaving the team for the New York Knicks. With public support for Auerbach, Brown subsequently sold the team to Harry Mangurian. With a new owner in place, Auerbach made a number of moves that would bring the team back into the spotlight.
He immediately traded McAdoo for guard M. L. Carr and two first-round picks in the following draft. Knowing that Gerald Henderson, a point guard in the CBA, was thriving as a player, Auerbach picked him up as well. The Celtics improved by 32 games from the previous season, and they were once again one of the teams to look out for in the NBA.
Following the departure of Jerry West, an all-time great for the Lakers, the Lakers acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, and Dave Meyers. After a dispute between West and the Lakers, he was hired as the new head coach of the team. Behind another MVP season from Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers finished the 1976–77 season a league-best 53–29. During the following offseason, Los Angeles picked up Jamaal Wilkes from Golden State, the team they had lost to the previous year, and chose Norm Nixon with their first round pick. During the 1977-1978 season, the team’s starting power forward, Kermit Washington, was involved in an altercation where he punched a player in the face. The player suffered not only a fractured skull, but also other facial injuries which ended his career prematurely. Washington was suspended for two months by the NBA, and let go by the Lakers. In the 1979 NBA draft, the Lakers selected point guard Magic Johnson from Michigan State with the first overall pick.
The Lakers won 60 games in Johnson’s rookie year, and won the 1980 NBA Finals after defeating the Philadelphia 76ers in six games. In the 1981-82 season, head coach Paul Westhead was fired and replaced by Pat Riley. The team was nicknamed “Showtime” for their fast style of play with Johnson at the helm. Once again, the Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals, winning their second straight championship. In the 1982 draft, the Lakers selected James Worthy with the first overall pick in the draft. With all of this in place, the Lakers were once again a force to be reckoned with in the NBA. The first Finals matchup between the teams in the 1980s came in the form of the 1984 NBA Finals. Coming into the series, the Celtics had homecourt advantage over the Lakers who finished the regular season eight games behind the Celtics.
In Game 1 of the series, the Lakers won 115-109 at the infamous Boston Garden. In Game 2, the Celtics fought back in the final seconds to send the game to overtime, winning 124-121 in the end. In Game 3, the series shifted to Los Angeles where the Lakers easily won the game 137-104.
In Game 4 of this matchup, again the Lakers held the lead with a minute to play, but several errors led to the Celtics eventually winning the game in overtime 129-125. The lasting memory of this game is Kevin McHale’s takedown of Kurt Rambis on a breakaway layup. This dirty play triggered the physical aspect of the rivalry for years to come. In Game 5, the Celtics took a 3–2 series lead, winning the game 121-103. This game became known as the “Heat Game”, as it was played under 97 °F-heat, and without any air conditioning. In Game 6, the Lakers evened the series at three games a piece with a 119–108 victory.
Following the hard-fought game, a Laker fan threw a beer at Celtics guard M.L. Carr, causing him to label the series “all-out-war.” In Game 7, the Celtics came away with a 111–102 victory, and Larry Bird was named Finals MVP. The following season, the two teams met again in the 1985 NBA Finals. Once again, the Celtics held the homecourt advantage, beating out the Lakers by one game for the honors.
For the first time, the Finals went to a 2–3–2 format with games one and two in Boston, games 3, 4, and 5 in Los Angeles, and games 6 and 7 back in Boston. In Game 1, the Celtics easily defeated the Lakers 148–114. This game would be known as “The Memorial Day Massacre.” The Lakers responded in Game 2 with a 109–102 victory. In Game 3, the Celtics pulled away in the end, winning the game 136–111.
The Celtics evened up the matchup in Game 4, 107–105 as they hit a late shot at the buzzer. In Game 5, the Lakers won the game 120–111 to take a 3–2 series lead. The series subsequently shifted to Boston for games 6 and game 7 if necessary. In Game 6, the Lakers, fueled by Abdul-Jabbar, defeated the Celtics 111–100, winning the NBA Championship.
This was the first time a visiting team claimed an NBA championship in TD Garden. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was named MVP of the series. During the 1987 NBA season, fans got what they really wanted: a rematch between the Lakers and the Celtics in the NBA Finals. Unlike the previous two Finals matchups, the Lakers had the homecourt advantage coming into this series.
In Game 1, the Lakers came away with a 126–113 victory. In Game 2, the Lakers won 141–122, taking a 2-0 series lead. In Game 3, the Celtics posted a 109–103 win, getting themselves back in the matchup. In Game 4, with two seconds remaining, Magic Johnson sank a floater to give the Lakers a 107–106 win.
In Game 5, the Celtics came away with a 123–108 win, thereby preventing the Lakers from celebrating in Boston. In Game 6, the Lakers cruised to a 106–93 victory, winning their fourth championship of the decade. Magic Johnson was later named unanimous MVP of the series. These matchups between the Lakers and the Celtics provided a framework for many NBA Finals to come. They provided a framework for how to play fantastic basketball, lure raucous fans to games, and how to compete at the highest level.
This rivalry, especially during the period of the 1980s, is one that will be remembered for years to come.