The NBA is 60 years old and it seems like these two teams have been going at it for titles from Day One. Like Ali and Frazier, this matchup isn't about 2008's title or any other year. Not anymore. It's about the championship of each other.
Ever since George Mikan, the former Chicago American Gear, strode out in a Lakers jersey for the first time. Ever since Red Auerbach was urged to join Walter Brown's Boston Celtics and began raiding rosters of defunct NBA teams in the early 1950s. These two teams have largely dominated a league that today has 28 other teams.
The Lakers joined the BAA in 1948 after winning the 1947 NBL title the previous year. They were already considered the best basketball team in the world. Pro basketball history as we know it today largely begins with Mikan and the Lakers. They won the 1948-49 BAA title. When the league changed it's name to the NBA the following year, the Lakers won the title that year as well. From 1947-1954, they won six championships in seven years. They were pro basketball's first dynasty.
The Boston Celtics were a laughingstock in the late 1940's. The region largely embraced hockey instead. Until Holy Cross's 1947 NCAA title, most area high schools did not even play the game, even though the game had been invented in nearby Springfield. Walter Brown lost $300,000 on the team, twice the franchise's value ( today, that would be a billion ) by the time they made it into the NBA. Bob Cousy then sold tickets, and Auerbach, the man of many hats, sold the game.
Then, Auerbach made a desperate deal to acquire collegian Bill Russell. Russell had been impressed with one other team before signing with the Celtics --- the Lakers. He had been so impressed with his conversation with George Mikan that he nearly tried to get a deal to go there instead. But he instead became a Celtic, and history went differently as a result.
Russell led a NCAA champion, an Olympic gold medal squad, and then a NBA champion all within a 13-month span, a feat that likely will never be matched. He changed the way team defense is played as Auerbach defined his role for him. Meanwhile, the savvy Boston boss kept the rest of the roster stocked as well. There certainly was some Irish luck involved, sliding past Wilt Chamberlain time and again. But the Celtics, with Russell and his rotating cast, that included a dozen future Hall Of Famers in various roles, won 11 titles in 13 years. They had become the greatest basketball machine of all-time.
So strong were the Celtics, that Auerbach proved it was much more than Russell. Dave Cowens and holdover John Havlicek led a pair of title winners too. From 1956 to 1976, a 20-year period, the Boston Celtics won 13 NBA titles. It's a wonder they didn't retire the league in the process.
Few teams could even stay with the Celtics. New York bought as many future Hall Of Famers as they could. Milwaukee got Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson. Wilt Chamberlain was part of two strong Philadelphia franchises before joining the Lakers in 1968. The balloons still didn't fall for the now-Los Angeles team until 1972, when the best offensive team in the league, added by Chamberlain's Russell-like defense inside, won 69 games and the first LA title. The Lakers had lost to Boston in 1959 with Rookie Of The Year Elgin Baylor. Then, from 1962-1970, a span of nine seasons, the Lakers, who never got their Russell or anyone else at center, were runner-up seven of those years. Jerry West's 40-point efforts, all made without a three-point line, all fell short year-after year. The two teams were in the NBA Finals seven out of ten years in the 1960s.
Wilt seemingly had one more choke in him in their curious matchup with the Knicks. Then the Lakers retired their stars. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had Kermit Washington for protection, but the Lakers could not get past other Western teams the rest of the decade. The Celtics too seemed to be briefly out of bullets. Then the two teams began to again make moves at the expense of others.
Auerbach used a little known rule to acquire Larry Bird. Then he fleeced Al Attles and Golden State for their center Robert Parish, and their draft pick, which became Kevin McHale. He lured Dennis Johnson from champion Seattle. He later even added an older Bill Walton. The Celtics added three more championships, their last in 1986. They battled LA in the Finals three times in four years. Their 1987 Finals is still probably the best basketball I ever saw.
The Lakers now had Showtime, fleecing Cleveland for Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Kareem was still there too. They notched five titles as the Team Of The Decade, twice sending Boston home in second place for a change. The two teams accounted for seven of the titles in the 1980s. That's basically two full decades out of three, plus titles for each in the 1950s. If that's not dominance, what is?
The 1990s would be the decade of the Chicago Bulls. It was a time of stars cards, retirements and unretirements, hip hop and fiction. It was a league that didn't seem to be about basketball anymore. But the two teams did make moves to try there return to the top.
Boston wanted to retire Auerbach, architect of 16 NBA titles. After deaths to Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, hard times had followed. Rick Pitino was given the title of Team God. He remade the team in his image and somehow missed on drafting Tim Duncan, the top center of this current decade. Pitino could not make find the magic.
Los Angeles got their center, though. Shaquille O'Neal was pursuaded to take off his Mickey Mouse ears and become a Hollywood giant. Kobe Bryant was worked around Philadelphia and made a Laker too. They even added some former Bulls and enough star cards to stack up three straight titles 1999-2002. Those titles were not things of beauty, but LA was now capital of the basketball world. Over six decades, the Lakers had championships in five of them, plus seven runner-up finishes in the only decade they missed, the 1960s. This season makes their 27th trip to the Finals, an average of nearly one every two seasons over 60 years. No major league franchise, not even the New York Yankees, can match that consistency. But Boston had won more titles. The Lakers, despite all their extra tries, have three fewer.This year has not been counted yet, but it could become four.
This year, two more teams were fleeced to restock these two all-time monsters. Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett are now part of the war that dates back almost to Eisenhower. All these years later, it isn't about the NBA anymore. It's about them. They transcend their league, and their sport.
Count up the Hall Of Fame and see just how many star players, coaches and managers have participated in the longest running rivalry in sports. The only certainty the beleaguered NBA can safely bank on today is that these two will meet again for all the marbles, no matter who wins this year, or any other year.