Sporting associations are institutions. Perhaps more importantly, athletes are institutions, as are their teams. They’re the reason we root for some and root against others. They’re the reason guys who throw a ball are getting paid millions of dollars. We love our institutions.
There’s a reason we love watching Tiger Woods play golf, we expect a masterpiece round. We love watching Roger Federer play tennis, because it seems like every time the Switzerland-native takes the court, you feel like you’re about to see history. Watching the United States Women’s Soccer Team is like watching a surgical procedure taken on by a brilliant doctor.
We love institutions. No question about it.
Sometimes, however, an institution integrates itself into a media event that can’t be replicated by any sort of artificial hand. Its when an institution becomes a generationally transcendent franchise that we fall madly in love with it as a whole.
The New York Yankees come to mind. Pass. The Dallas Cowboys? Pass. The Chicago Bulls?Pass. Toronto Maple Leaves? Pass.
John Havlicek & Bill Russell versus Jerry West & Wilt Chamberlain. Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson. Paul Pierce (and the original big three) versus Kobe Bryant (and Pau Gasol).
When the Lakers and Celtics are at their best, the NBA is at its best.
In my lifetime, I’ve never engaged in basketball more than during the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics series in 2008. I was 12. Had that single series not come in to play, I don’t think I would’ve watched an NBA game for the next 20 years of my life.
(I should take this time to note that momma’s from Boston, by the way, so I have a natural Celtics bias)
The series was great. It was Boston’s 17th championship.
The next was even more amazing, because the world got to feel like Boston and LA were back at the top AND to stay. Rajon Rondo looked like a star and the Lakers hadn’t been bad in two decades. Not to mention, this time LA took home the hardware, making it appear like the Lakers and Celtics were back to throwing punches like prize fighters, trading the NBA trophy like 10th round knockout punches.
It was too big to fail, until it did. Kobe got old. The Celtics traded Pierce, Garnett, and Allen. Rondo left. Both teams have been rebuilding since.
Listen up, I get that the Cavs and Warriors are the big guns in the NBA. LeBron James is undoubtedly the star off the generation, Steph Curry is great, Durant is silky-smooth brilliance.
Even if the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors maintain their seeds, the day the Lakers and Celtics are in a playoff tree together again, it’s all basketball fan will want in the Finals.
Rivalries are great. Michigan and Ohio State, Red Sox and Yankees, Army and Navy, etc.
Boston and LA have met up in 12 NBA Finals. That makes for a tremendously different kind of rivalry. As opposed to the vicious, violent nature that tends to develops in rivalries, the Celtics and Lakers is about two teams playing seamless basketball, where both sides know a few mistakes will cost you a game, and if you do that four times, you lose a series.
Plus, championships bring fans and cash. LA and Boston have the most in basketball. Boston’s got 17. LA’s got 16.
A weirdo-factor in this series the Celtics’ historical edge over the Lakers. Boston has a 9-3 advantage in Finals match-ups, but if you add up all the games played in those match-ups (because it takes seven to win), the Celtics only lead 43–31.
In 2011, when the Lakers took the crown, the Game 7 match-up drew 28.20M viewers, which at the time, was the NBA Finals record. While last season’s Cavaliers-Warriors Game 7 has since knocked it off, the Celtics and Lakers will certainly replace that number when they meet again. It would be like the Cubs in the World Series, but also way more exciting, because it’s the freakin’ Lakers against the Celtics (I get excited just thinking about it).
Did I just guarantee another Lakers-Celtics Finals? What makes me think I can be so cocky? Because professional sports are cyclical and the Lakers and Celtics know how to run a business.
LA is starting to put something together and have an excellent coach, who even has Boston ties. Luke Walton, son of former Celtic Bill Walton, is doing a tremendous job coaching a young Lakers club, who has some wild talent in D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randall.
Boston is back to being a top 10 team in the NBA with Brad Stevens and company. Isaiah Thomas is excellent, Jae Crowder has tremendous upside, and their big man, Al Horford, has unearthly talent.
Doesn’t it seem like both teams are just missing something?
In 1978, Boston drafted Larry Bird with the 6th overall pick.
In 1979, LA drafted Magic Johnson with the 1st overall pick.
In the 2017 draft, the Celtics have the Nets’ first round pick, while the Lakers will likely end up with a top draft pick of their own.
As Bird and Magic proved in 1978 and 1979, both of their clubs were already on the verge of changing the NBA forever, as the Celtics won Bird’s first NBA Championship in 1980 , while Magic lead the Lakers to his first ring in 1982.
The upcoming NBA Draft class is being discussed as one of the deepest of all time. I don’t think it’s unrealistic that both of these teams could end up with superstar talent.
Fans have to acknowledge that these franchises saved the league, because before Magic and Bird, the Finals were being broadcasted on a tape delay. The NBA Finals, which last year received an average of 20 million viewers a night (meaning over a seven-game series, 140 million viewers) tuned in to watch the Warriors-Cavaliers series. Without the Magic and Bird rivalry, no one would’ve seen that improbable Cavaliers comeback; no one would’ve ever seen LeBron play one of the grittiest Game 7’s of all time.
We know that LeBron James is great. He’s by far the most popular player on the planet right now, but he’s still not even close to Kobe at his peak. Better player? That’s just about unquestionable. More popular? Not even close. Kids don’t stand in their driveway and yell “LeBron” for good luck on a deep three, they STILL yell “KOBE!”
LA has a media market that you can’t beat. It’s traditions are too deep. Hell, the former commissioner said his fantasy NBA Finals, for ratings, would be the Lakers versus the Lakers.
Golden State and Cleveland, in all likelihood, are going nowhere in their conference as the number one seed for the next few years, but the day fans see #4 Boston Celtics and #6 Los Angeles Lakers in April, the league is going to be like a junkie around their fix; we love Celtics-Lakers, it’s our institution.