LOS ANGELES (AP) — Phil Jackson knows the story by heart, even if his players only seem interested in the last two chapters.
Their coach is steeped in the history of pro basketball’s most compelling rivalry, familiar with every twist in the Boston Celtics’ half-century of championship clashes with the Los Angeles Lakers. The NBA’s most decorated franchises have battled through heartbreaks, high stakes and neck-aches while forging a true pro sports rivalry, that rarest of commodities in the age of free agency.
Jackson doesn’t mind that almost everybody playing in the franchises’ 12th NBA finals meeting, starting Thursday night at Staples Center, doesn’t have much of a grasp on the history sewn into the uniforms they wear.
So what if Ron Artest claims total ignorance of the Lakers’ past, while Kobe Bryant says he couldn’t care less who Los Angeles played? So what if the deep-seated hatred between the franchises’ fans doesn’t seem to be truly savored by nearly anybody except Paul Pierce, the Los Angeles native turned Celtics star?
When asked why the kids these days just don’t get it, Jackson smirks and nimbly sidesteps the trap set for grumpy old men and history buffs.
“That rivalry is renewed … it seems like every 20 years, and now here it is,” Jackson said. “This is our second time going back at them. It’s one that I think piques the interest of the fans of basketball.”
Notice he didn’t mention the players’ interest. In the age of easy team-swapping, $100 million contracts and offseason Vegas partying with bitter in-season opponents, there’s not much actual malice to be found between these Lakers and these Celtics.
“It’s not a personal thing,” Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said before the Celtics practiced at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion on Tuesday. “They’re a great team, we’re a great team. We’re both trying to get to the same goal.”
The clubs are meeting in the finals for the second time in three seasons, and the winner will walk away with the franchises’ 33rd combined championship. That’s more than half of the titles in NBA history.
Yet this 21st-century confluence of Boston’s Big Three era and Bryant’s career zenith still hasn’t reached the frequency and ferocity of the rivalry’s early years. They met seven times in 11 seasons from 1959-69 — and the Celtics won every time, led by Bill Russell, coach Red Auerbach and whatever leprechaun pushed Frank Selvy’s late jumper off the rim in Game 7 of the 1962 finals, allowing Boston to win in overtime.
“It seems like most of the ’60s, the Lakers were playing the Celtics, and they were never able to get by them,” Jackson said. “That was a long and arduous period of time for these fans.”
Pierce grew up in Inglewood near the Lakers’ former neighborhood, and he heard the story about the balloons. He knows the Lakers were favorites against the Celtics in 1968 and again in 1969, but Boston twice rallied to beat Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, forlornly stranding thousands of celebratory balloons in the rafters of the Forum.
“We’ve definitely got two franchises that never really liked each other because they were always playing for the ultimate prize,” said Pierce, the 2008 NBA finals MVP. “You can definitely sense that, and I already knew that growing up here.”
Bryant, burrowed deep into his playoff tunnel, professes not to care about the rivalry, even when a victory might fulfill West’s prediction that Kobe will go down as the greatest player to wear the Lakers’ uniform.
“I’m playing in it. I don’t give a damn about it,” Bryant said. “That’s for other people to get excited about. I get excited about winning.”
Yet it’s tough to believe Bryant: He also has said his NBA education during his youth in Italy largely consisted of watching Lakers-Celtics games, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird clashed three times in four seasons.
Other Lakers aren’t excited about playing the Boston franchise so much as they’re thrilled for a chance at revenge on these particular Celtics, most of whom sent the Lakers home from the finals in 2008. Center Andrew Bynum, who was injured for that series, couldn’t resist talking up a Boston rematch even while the Lakers were in the thick of a tough Western Conference finals against Phoenix.
These Lakers don’t remember Game 4 of the 1984 series, when Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis before Cedric Maxwell mimed a choking motion at James Worthy during a key game in perhaps the most fascinating finals in NBA history, an era-defining showcase of the Magic-Bird rivalry.
No, they remember June 2008, when celebrating Celtics fans punctuated their team’s 39-point victory in the clincher by throwing rocks at Los Angeles’ bus.
Leave it to Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ cultured Spanish forward in his third straight NBA finals, to find a common ground between the importance of this franchise’s history and the immediacy of winning one last playoff series in an eight-month grind of a modern season.
“The history just makes it a little more exciting than it already is,” Gasol said. “It’s a matchup that a lot of people want to see. The history is exciting, and there’s a lot of — you could say hate — between the teams, crowds and fans and stuff, but we try to be above that a little bit, and try not to let that affect our minds.
“Obviously it’s motivating, but you still want to win the Finals and championship no matter who it’s against. But obviously it will taste better, to be honest, than what we went through in 2008.”