Celtics-Lakers as Seen by Two Former Rivals With the Lakers having struck back Tuesday in the NBA finals, the historic rivalry between Los Angeles and Boston is again hot. This is the 11th time the two teams have met in the finals. Former Celtics player and coach K.C. Jones, and former Laker Mychal Thompson talk about the series and the rivalry.
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Celtics-Lakers as Seen by Two Former Rivals

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Celtics-Lakers as Seen by Two Former Rivals

Celtics-Lakers as Seen by Two Former Rivals

Celtics-Lakers as Seen by Two Former Rivals

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With the Lakers having struck back Tuesday in the NBA finals, the historic rivalry between Los Angeles and Boston is again hot. This is the 11th time the two teams have met in the finals. Former Celtics player and coach K.C. Jones, and former Laker Mychal Thompson talk about the series and the rivalry.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For decades it was the rivalry that defined the NBA: the Celtics and the Lakers and their legendary matchups in the NBA finals. Between them, the teams have racked up 30 titles, and their current showdown this week is their 11th battle in the finals. Just mention the matchup in a room full of sports fans and step back and let the stories fly. Well, we've decided to listen to some of those tales from two people who have connections to both the teams.

Mychal Thompson played for the Lakers from 1987, when the Lakers beat the Celtics in the finals, to 1991, and he's now a radio analyst who covers the Lakers. Hall of Famer K.C. Jones was drafted by the Celtics. In 1956 he won eight championships with the team as a player and two more as head coach.

Welcome to both of you.

Mr. K.C. JONES (Former Celtic): Thank you.

Mr. MYCHAL THOMPSON (Former Laker): Thank you, Michele. It's great to be here.

NORRIS: Now, Mychal Thompson, it seems that the Lakers and the Celtics are more than just a traditional sports matchup. It's almost like a clash of the cultures.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, no questions about it, Michele and K.C. Boston's looked at as a blue-collar town, hardworking people, of course, and L.A.'s looked at more as a glamorous town, the fluff is out here because of Hollywood. And both teams sort of reflect the style of living in both areas. Boston's a hardworking team, gutsy team, gritty team, where the Lakers are the glamour team.

They have the most glamorous player in the game with Kobe Bryant and all the stars of Hollywood come by and want to sit courtside and be seen on camera. And of course the Lakers and Celtics, both of them are very popular around the world, but the Lakers, I think, are the number one popular team in the international scene all around the world.

NORRIS: Does this take you back down memory lane, back to the maybe in 1960s, especially the 1980s, when they had that strong rivalry between the two teams?

Mr. THOMPSON: No questions about it. We owe this to great legends like K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Bill Russell, and that crew of Lakers, along with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, who all started this for us; and then of course carrying it on with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson leading the way; and now with Kobe and Kevin Garnett leading the way back. So we got to say thank you to K.C. and the boys back then.

NORRIS: I'd actually like to hear from K.C. You might have to go to some of those classic moments from the rivalry. Kevin McHale's closeline hit; he laid Kurt Rambis out on the floor. You all remember that?

Mr. JONES: He laid Kurt Rambis (unintelligible)

Mr. THOMPSON: (Unintelligible) if he did that today, he might be suspended for the rest of the playoffs.

Mr. JONES: No, look, (unintelligible) doing one heck of a job in there, knocking people around, and so Kevin goes back in and says, okay, I'm not going to be knocked around anymore, so that's what happened with that. But then that's just the hustle part of the game right there. Both players are very much into the ball game.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about another moment: Magic Johnson's famous skyhook over McHale and Robert Parish.

Mr. JONES: Magic came into the league and just gave this league another step up. And such a great ball player, 6'8", he's a point guard. He also knocks down shots from outside like the hook shots from the top of the key that really beats the Celtics. And of course along with that, Magic and Larry Bird, they face each other in college and also in the NBA and it just - they were such great friends. You remember that one?

NORRIS: Mychal, you remember?

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh yeah. Yeah, I definitely remember that one. And I remember when Larry Bird got his number retired in Boston Garden, K.C.; Magic Johnson went back there for the retirement ceremony and spoke on behalf and representing the Lakers and representing the great rivalry, so that was a great opportunity for Magic to go back there and honor Larry Bird, so it was just so appropriate because of the rivalry that those two gentlemen created over the years. So these guys will be remembered - you know, possibly as the greatest rivalry in the history of team sport.

Those two guys - because they, they both sort of revitalized the NBA too. They bought the NBA back. 'Cause remember, back in those days, before Bird and Magic, the NBA finals used to be tape-delayed, 11:30 at night. But because of the presence of a young Magic, a young Larry Bird, you know, they brought the league back to the prominence and in the position where it should be in the public eye. So the league owes a huge debt of gratitude and indebtedness to those two guys.

NORRIS: Well, the rivalry continues this week with the finals. And with all that legend behind these two teams, any predictions from either of you?

Mr. JONES: Well, I'd like to see this see the Celtics.

NORRIS: Well, we know you'd like to see the Celtics, but...

Mr. JONES: You want to know also if the Celtics are going to win or not there?

NORRIS: Will they do it?

Mr. JONES: Oh, well, I hope so. And that's about as far as I can go with that. If I say anything more, then I'm in deep trouble.

Mr. THOMPSON: Of course K.C. thinks the Celtics are going to win. I say the Lakers are going to win, of course. Even thought the Celtics have the upper hand right now, K.C., up two to one, and they have a little cushion to play with, so they can afford to lose tonight even because they'll have another opportunity on game five here in L.A. to take control of the series again. So the Lakers definitely, K.C., as you know, they cannot afford to lose a home game here tonight and on Sunday, if they want to have a chance, any kind of a chance to win it in Boston.

NORRIS: Well, Mychal Thompson, you're going to be calling the game tonight, right?

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

NORRIS: And K.C. Jones, where are you going to be watching it?

Mr. JONES: I'll be at home watching.

NORRIS: Well, I'll be at home watching too. It's been great talking to both of you. Thanks for taking us down memory lane.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

Mr. THOMPSON: Any time, Michele. You bet, thank you.

NORRIS: That's former Celtics Hall of Famer K.C. Jones and Mychal Thompson. He played for the Lakers. He's now a radio analyst who covers the Lakers.

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Celtics vs. Lakers: A Matchup for the Ages

Celtics vs. Lakers: A Matchup for the Ages

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The Boston Celtics' Larry Bird drives around the Los Angeles Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during Game 5 of the NBA championship at Boston Garden, June 11, 1987. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

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Bettmann/Corbis

The Boston Celtics' Larry Bird drives around the Los Angeles Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during Game 5 of the NBA championship at Boston Garden, June 11, 1987.

Bettmann/Corbis

NBA Finals History

It's part of the faith-based history of the NBA — which I wholly subscribe to — that when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league in the autumn of '79, they took an enterprise that was discredited, dispirited and desperate and restored it to acceptance, even prominence.

The major corollary to that diagnosis is that Magic and Bird could not have worked this transformation but for a benevolent providence that clothed them in the green and white of the Boston Celtics and the purple and gold of the Los Angeles Lakers.

After all, going back to antediluvian NBA times when the Lakers were still domiciled in Minneapolis, at least one of these two franchises has usually been at the headwaters of the league. Together, I'd say, the Lakers and Celtics are the Yankees of pro basketball, and on those occasions — like in the '80s when last they met for the title — when the titans clash, it's even better than the Yankees because the Yankees have never had another Yankees to play off of.

Yes, now, in this year of 2008, when it's, at last again, Boston and L.A. for the basketball championship of the world, attention will be paid — even by those sophisticates who otherwise would not cock an eye toward the NBA. It's proof that those who do remember the past are sometimes very pleased indeed to witness it repeated.

Actually, though, it's worth recalling that the Celtics were originally prophets without honor, within and without. Basketball was so foreign to Celtics precincts that when the franchise settled there, the players had to travel about, putting on clinics, literally to reveal to the natives what this roundball was. Even after Bill Russell made Boston champions year after year after year — an incomprehensible eight in a row at one point, 11 of 13 — the woebegone hockey Bruins invariably outdrew the hoop paragons.

During that Celtics hegemony — when a biblical seven times it was that the Lakers fell in the finals — it was not uncommon for the NBA to not even have a network TV contract. Good grief, I remember one time when Red Auerbach, the hard-boiled Celtics coach, refused to go on TV when a network showed up to cherry-pick the finals.

"Where were you in February?" he growled. "I'm going with my writers."

It was, surely, the last time in recorded history that a human being actually chose to perform for print instead of the camera, but Auerbach suffered that his great minions were so overlooked. Indeed, it was only after Russell retired and the New York Knicks took their throne (beating the Lakers, of course) before an impressionable national media ... only then did the NBA begin to find fashion abroad in the land. This is to tell a family secret that the Celtics have been largely celebrated after the fact.

However, the Lakers, although perennial runners-up, were always glamorous. Hollywood cheered. Doris Day, of all people, was the original Jack Nicholson at courtside. Out there, upon the hardwood, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West were glamour personified. It wasn't until 1972 that the Lakers won their first title in L.A., but their more recent success, as the Celtics wandered in the wilderness for several years, allows them to be rightfully counted as Boston's historical equals.

Sport teams turn over fast. The seasons are fleeting, the players fungible. None of the current Lakers or Celtics really have anything to do with players past. But allow us to reminisce. This is, fairly, one that echoes the ages.