Starting this Thursday, the Boston Celtics are going to be playing the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA Championship. A whole bunch of people, myself included, are having what amounts to basketball orgasms at the prospect. This is a rivalry with so much history, it’s almost impossible for a basketball fan not to get happy in his pants. There is, however, one story that has gotten lost over time, and undeservedly so.
Over the course of the next week or two, you’ll hear many a Boston fan chanting, "Beat L. A.!" On the surface, it’s a simple enough sentiment. They want the Celtics to win and, in order to do so, they will have to beat the team from Los Angeles. Not complicated. As a matter of fact, taken at face value, it’s one of the most simplistic cheers imaginable. It’s not clever. It’s not endearing. It’s the sporting equivalent of "Nixon’s The One."
Unfortunately, most of the folks who will use it as their personal mantra during the upcoming series have no clue concerning its origins. So, here’s the story behind it, and here’s hoping some folks get wised up about it, because it’s one of the great stories in sports. You need to know your history to appreciate it, though, so here’s a brief tutorial for those who need it.
The Celtics have been to 20 NBA Finals prior to this year. They have won 17 of those appearances, the most of any team. The Lakers are the only team who have been to The Finals more times than the Celtics. This will be their 31st trip. They trail the Celtics in victories at The Finals, but only by two. They have won 15 titles. So, here is the math: This is the 64th season since the Celtics became a franchise. During the previous 63 years, the Celtics and the Lakers have combined for 50 appearances in the championship round of the playoffs. Between them, they have won more than 50% of the available NBA titles.
Jerry West and John Havlicek during the 1960's. West is the only player from a team beaten in the finals to be named series MVP - and deservedly so.
The Celtics and the Lakers have met in The Finals a total of 11 times. The Celtics have won 9 of those meetings, including the most recent in 2008. The Lakers, however, are the defending NBA Champions, having won last year.
When The Lakers and The Celtics have met head-to-head, they have always been contentious and spirited affairs. Blood has been spilled.
Kevin McHale clotheslines Kurt Rambis, 1984
Unlikely heroes have emerged.
Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo discuss dinner plans
Legends have been born.
Paul Pierce gives Kobe Bryant a chiropractic adjustment
And it is safe to say that, during the early 1980’s, this rivalry revitalized the then-lackluster NBA. The battles between Larry Bird’s blue-collar east coast Celtics and Magic Johnson’s showtime west coast Lakers were epic in proportion.
They were all-out wars, clashes between cultures, and they represented the second-best rivalry in the league.
The second-best rivalry? Yup.
Here’s the more obscure part of the history lesson; the part that too many people have forgotten. There was a third team that annually vied for the NBA title during the early 1980’s. That team was the Philadelphia 76’ers.
Red Sox – Yankees? For a six or seven year stretch, it had nothing on Celtics – 76’ers. Due to the way the NBA is set up, with teams from the Eastern Conference always pitted against teams from the Western Conference in The Finals, the Celtics and 76’ers never have met in the deciding round. However, much as the Red Sox and Yankees have never met in a World Series, but still represent the best rivalry that baseball has to offer, the Celtics and 76’ers of the 1980’s were it. The Celtics and Lakers met on a bigger stage some years, but the Celtics and 76’ers fought tooth and nail every season to get to that bigger stage.
For Celtics fans of that time period, the 76’ers were the team to beat. Crucial to the understanding of this story, however, is the fact that the Celtics and 76’ers respected each other wholly. So did the fans of both. They were enemies, but they were enemies who had earned their due.
In 1980, Philadelphia beat Boston in the semi-finals, earning a trip to meet the Lakers for the championship. In 1981, Boston beat Philadelphia, coming back from a three-games-to-one deficit. In 1982, they met once again in the semi-finals, and here is where the tale becomes more than just your usual sports story.
As always between these two teams, the 1982 series was an all-out tong war. There was little to separate the two squads. The Celtics had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Cedric Maxwell, Danny Ainge and Tiny Archibald. The 76’ers had Julius Erving, Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks, Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins and Andrew Toney. And, again, it came down to a seventh game, this time being played at the old Boston Garden.
The Garden was packed to the rafters, hot and muggy, as it usually was during the later rounds of the playoffs. Both teams battled hard, as they always did. The game went back-and-forth, one team gaining momentum and then the other. In the fourth quarter, as the minutes ticked down and it became obvious that the 76’ers - not the Celtics - were going to The Finals, a wondrous thing occurred. It started softly, but grew to a deafening roar.
The Boston Garden crowd started chanting, with no prompting from a giant scoreboard, or from cheerleaders, or due to any sort of pre-packaged canned marketing.
What they started chanting was "Beat L. A.! Beat L. A.! Beat L. A.! Beat L. A.!"
In the midst of a heartbreaking defeat, they were cheering on their most hated rivals.
They were, at that moment, the classiest fans in all of sport.
Here it is:
"Beat L. A.!" is a selfish thing now. Due to the loss of memory concerning the phrase’s origin, it has been stripped of its poignancy. When fans say it now, they‘re only expressing their wish to win another championship, to hang an 18th banner. But, the first time it was uttered, it was the spontaneous outpouring of respect for a righteous rival. It implored that rival to do what the fans own team no longer could: Beat L. A.
It was as noble and pure a moment in professional sports as there ever has been.
So, as I said, it is now a selfish rallying cry. That’s OK. Boston’s fans earned the right to say it any way they wanted back in 1982.
End of history lesson.
Soon, with more better stuff.
P. S. Here's the price of fame: Earlier in the week, I had a photo at the top of this page. It showed Larry Bird and Julius Erving strangling each other. The photo was by Ted Gartland. I had no idea that it was copyright, having appropriated it from someone else who had no doubt appropriated it from Mr. Gartland. Anyway, as this particular column has drawn large numbers of readers, word got back to Mr. Gartland. He kindly asked me to remove his work, which I have done. And I heartily apologize to him for the inadvertent theft. Great photo, and if I were truly making any money from writing this crap I would have offered Mr. Gartland actual recompense for having used it.