Monday, June 02, 2008

Why "Beat L. A.!" Is Noble

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 19 NBA Championship Series Finals prior to this year. They have won 16 of those appearances, the most of any team. The Lakers are the only team to have been to The Finals more times than the Celtics. This will be their 29th trip. They trail the Celtics in victories at The Finals, but only by two. They have won 14 titles. So, here is the math: This is the 62nd season since the Celtics became a franchise. During the previous 61 years, the Celtics and the Lakers have combined for 47 appearances in the championship round of the playoffs. Between them, they will have won a full 50% of the available NBA titles, no matter who takes the gold this time around.

The Celtics and the Lakers have met in The Finals a total of 10 times. The Celtics have won 8 of those meetings, but the Lakers have won the last two. They have always been contentious and spirited affairs. Blood has been spilled. Unlikely heroes have emerged. Legends have been born. And it is safe to say that, during the early 1980’s, this rivalry revitalized the then-lackluster (to some) 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.!

“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 a 17th 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 want to, back in 1982.

End of history lesson.

Soon, with more better stuff.


Chris Stone said...

cool story!

Anonymous said...

GO LAKERS :) hehhehe I am not a celtics fan! I am leaving the hiospital ednesday :)

eileen said...

wow, I had no idea that the "Beat L.A." cheer originated to cheer on the Sixers.

Either way, I hate the Lakers and will gladly use the cheer myself.

lime said...

well, as a girl from outside philly who remembers Dr J. and Larry Bird (and who, God help me, was traumatized by spending the first 5 years of marriage with most conjugal encounters performed under the leering eye of a life sized poster of Magic Johnson, and seriously what the hell kind of nickname is that?) allow me to now cheer on the celtics with sincere respect and true enthusiasm..."Beat L.A.!"

great story, suldog, great story.

SandraRee said...

Enjoyable history lesson...I do so hope your Celtics win if only because your future posts will be oh so happy and not so testosterone laced. lol

Buck said...

Classy fans, indeed. The spontaneity of it all just really "makes" it.

Thanks yet again for an entertaining and enlightening story, Jim.

Anonymous said...

Celtics fans owe you a debt of gratitude for the enlightenment as most are ignorant donkeys who never heard of the likes of Caldwell Jones or Chocolate Thunder!

Hilary said...

Sure was a proud loss. And did Philadelphia "beat L.A." that year?

Suldog said...

Chris - Thanks!

Kaylee - Since you're leaving the hospital, which is GREAT news, I will not curse you out :-)

Eileen - Now, YOU have the right attitude :-)

Lime - My goodness, girl. I think that constitutes grounds for an annulment.

Sandra Ree - The testosterone is always bubbling away, just under the surface. Every so often, it comes to the surface like a volcanic eruption. The only safe course is to run away.

Buck - You're welcome. Sorry your Wings lost last night, but what a game!

Goody - Yes, there are many "pink hats" in the audience these days. If I can teach a few of them some history, the world will be a better place :-)

Hilary - As a matter of fact, the Sixers lost to Los Angeles that year. They did, however, beat them the following year - and the Celtics beat the Lakers the year after that.

David Sullivan said...

That pic is my favorie sports pic of all time!

Buck said...

Sorry your Wings lost last night, but what a game!

Boy Howdy, yes!! Didja stay up for the whole thing? I didn't like the ultimate destination (conclusion) but WHAT a wild, wild ride! There we were... 35 seconds away...


Janet said...

I LOVE that story. I always knew Boston was cool. Or is it just the Celtics fans?

K.C. said...

Since I am not a sports fan of any kind, except for my kids, I get a kick out the religious intensity from these stories. Because, I just don't get it...

I know, I know. That makes me the complete odd ball out... So, pleas, can someone explain it to me. It makes me feel completely, Ummm, a bit backwards...

Even though, I could completely appreciate the outrageous humor in the story.. does that count? HILARIOUS!!!

Dart Adams said...

My only question is when will the NBA "experts" realize that they need to stop picking against the Celtics? When they have the championship trophy and are all drenched in champagne? SMH.

Ubuntu! Boston Celtics


Anonymous said...

San Francisco Giants fans were chanting Beat LA to their rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, as early as the mid 70s.

The myth that it started that night is cute, and probably a lot more interesting than the real story, but unfortunately just not very true.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this wonderfully told recollection of that series. In 1982, I had recently returned to the Boston area after living in Philly for 4 years. I was a big fan of both teams - hard not to like that Sixers lineup (yeah, even Darryl Dawkins).

I was trying to explain to my kids the origin of the "Beat LA" chant (as it pertains to that particular basketball rivalry, Mr. Clueless Previous Commenter). At the moment that chant started, I was filled with a mix of emotions, mostly proud of the classiest fans in recent history and simultaneously filled with the sickening feeling that the Celts had lost. 26 years later, those are the exact feelings that come back to me when I hear that chant. But now there's an added feeling - the feeling that there are very few people who remember what that chant really means. Makes me want to shout "Shut up, all of you and get off my lawn."

Luba said...

I know you dont know me...but that just literally gave me the chills. Thats a wonderful story.

Anonymous said...

Jay Atton here

Nice come back from the celtics last night. Reminds me back in 2003
When NHTI was down by as much as 30in the first half and down 22 to start the second half we went ahead and out scored them 56-12 in the half to win by by 22. I would have like to say i helped score a bunch of those points but only finished the game with 6 points and 9 rebounds.

we went on the next day to lose by one and got knocked off in the quarters. (horrible call)