Tuesday, June 01, 2010

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 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.!

"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.


Expat From Hell said...

Not all of us Angelenos are Laker fans. While I miss the days of Magic and Kareem, watching Kobe pat Alvin Gentry's ass last week was more than this sports fan could take. Please, please, wipe these guys off the map. Just leave us with our Clippers. EFH

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip said...

Many of us in Northern California, particularly a certain Bay Area community, have had those sentiments far longer than the Lakers have been in L.A.

Cricket said...

Yep... I remember those games and those names. Great post. Love the captions... priceless.

Anonymous said...

I remember crybaby Ainge.

The Suns got their basket-butts kicked to the curb. *sigh*

But I gotta hand it to Kobe, watching him throw those three-pointers? Wow, wow, wow.

It was an amazing sight albeit a heartbreaking one as my team went down.

Long live Steve Nash's nose!

Craig said...

I was hearing on the radio this morning, during my drive to work, that, during the 80s, either the Lakers or Celtics were in the Finals every year. And (more's the pity, perhaps) they only played each other three times that decade. . .

Let's see. . . if the Celtics have been in 27 finals, and the Lakers 31, that means that, in 63 years, the two of them have taken up just less than half of the available Finals spots, while winning just over half of the available championships. . .

I also remember those Celtics-Sixers games. Maybe even more than the Bird/McHale/Parrish Celtics vs the Malone/Dr.J/Cheeks Sixers, the Wilt-Russell matchups from the 60s were epic. . .

From where I sit, I've never been able to embrace the Celtics (though I certainly respect them). I was at Michigan State the same time as Magic (and of course, we had to beat Larry Bird in the NCAA Finals, so that was just a preview of coming attractions), and ever since then, I've lived in his hometown; so at least during the 80s, there was a built-in bias toward the Lakers. And then, when the Pistons got good in the late 80s, the Celtics were their final hurdle (and Pistons fans still remember Kevin McHale's handshake with Isiah Thomas when the Pistons finally broke thru in '88; basically 'Beat LA', once again. . . if only Isiah could've shown half that class to Michael Jordan a couple years later. . .)

I never have warmed up to the Kobe Lakers (the Pistons beating them in '04 was immensely satisfying); I'm much more, I dunno, open to whatever happens this year. . . (altho, just speaking on my own behalf, can I say that Lakers-Celtics has some of the feel of Yankees-Dodgers in baseball? I mean, can some of the other kids have a turn?) ;)

Anonymous said...

I thiiiink I get it. I'm a game girl and I do try. During my nursing days an American Airman took me to a game-he didn't explain and I didn't complain [he was cute] but the pace, the violence [or so it seemed to me]the noise [on a pier pavillion over water] was horrendous. End of my American dream.

Apryl said...

Go Celtics!

Unknown said...

You'll probably think I'm weird, but your explaining of the origin of the BEAT L.A. chant brought tears to my eyes. As much as I love the Celtics, I love sportsmanship. I love when rivals exchange handshakes and hugs after games. Thanks for a great post. Although I have watched the Celtics off and on during the years, it's only during the last few that I've become a more devoted follower. I am dying for Thursday night to get here!

Chris said...

I live in the L.A. area, and this was a new one on me. The "Beat L.A." chant is all over the place now, especially in San Diego and San Francisco when the Dodgers are in town.

I'm not a huge NBA fan, but I do root for the Lakers. Maybe someday you and I will agree on a sports team, Jim, but somehow I doubt it.

Buck said...

Didn't you post about this before? I know you did... but we are lazy. Too lazy to search.

This HAS to be a great time o' year for you... and Good On Ya. Enjoy!

Jane said...

I did not know that. Gave me goosebumps.

I'm a Cavs fan...always have been...but will be pulling for the Celtics this time around.

Matt Conlon said...

Admittedly, I'm not much of a basketball fan, and really not a fan of sports in general. However, I do have the hometown pride, and will wear hometown sports team gear, if it comes my way. (though I do go out of my way to find Patriots gear).

In my youth, perhaps the age of 11 or so, I had a Celtics shirt, that showed the mascot (as I said I'm not much of a fan, so I don't know his proper name) the leprechaun leaning on his Shillelagh, spinning a basketball. Beneath his Shillelagh was a deflated basketball with the laker's logo on it. The shirt said in the background "I hate L.A.".

Now I get the significance... 20 years later.

Sniffles and Smiles said...

Jim, my good friend...that is one of the BEST, most heart-warming, most inspiring stories I have read in a very, very, very long time...And the clip? Spellbinding! Gosh. I remember all those names...and the incredible athletic feats...And your captions were fantastic...characteristic of the Suldog humor that we have ALL come to know and love. This is an incredibly crafted piece of writing, obviously a labor of love. And I now rise to give you a standing ovation! Fantastic, my friend! I loved it! Hugs, Janine

Michelle H. said...

I'm feeling old. I actually know some of those names you mentioned from the 1980s. Yikes!

I once was a basketball fan, before all the hype. Not much to say except, Beat LA!

~j said...

not much of a basketball fan but at least it's not another softball post.....=P

Ananda girl said...

Holy moly! Beat L.A.!!!!

i beati said...

Beat L. A> !!Never lost on me !!
My Flyers going down for the count !! sandy

Sueann said...

Go Cleveland!!! Ha!
Very cool recounting of the good ole days!
Loved it

CiCi said...

You really put alot of heart and soul into this post. I remember the old timers and then I also went through games with my son. He and I have been to LA games. Very good post.

Daryl said...

another sport ... oy .. I did want LA to beat Pheonix/Phoenix because McCain was there in the audience (do they call it an audience or is there a special name for those who go to sit through sports events?) with his wife whose expression never changed .. I didnt want AZ to win anything because of him and their new lets oust everyone who didnt arrive on the Mayflower edict ...

Ok .. done whining about this sport ... what's next?

Bruce Coltin said...

Old guys like me will always remember the famous Game 7 in 1969 when Laker owner, Jack Kent Cooke had the Forum ceiling stuffed with balloons that would be released at the final buzzer to celebrate the Laker championship.

It just didn't turn out Jack's way. The balloons stayed in the ceiling.

Shammickite said...

I don't know anything about basketball, so I won't comment.
But I went to a Raptors game once.

lime said...

and this sixers fan will be chanting with you, "beat LA!"

loved this piece the first time you shared it, love it still.

Jeni said...

Much as I enjoy football, love baseball, I've never understood -or liked -basketball. However, apparently the names of various players you mentioned must have garnered so much publicity -each in their own particular era -that I recognized players and even remembered what teams some of them had played for back then too! (Yeah, yeah, I know -who has ever picked up a newspaper or magazine and DOESN'T recognize the name "Magic" Johnson or Larry Bird?) But anyway, reading this post, I can grasp completely the way the chant began and yes, I agree too that it was indeed, a very noble thing!

Sandra said...

What a great story! I'll never hear "Beat LA" again without thinking about that video. This is the reason I love sports. There are just some remarkable moments that transcend the normal. Thanks for the history lesson! :)

Chuck said...

I wish your team the best of luck against LA! They're so good, it's easy to root against them.