NBA hopes Celtics-Lakers rivalry can respark the fans
But current finals lacks superstar matchup of Bird vs. Magic.
With the return of pro basketball's most storied rivalry in the finals, the National Basketball Association has big hopes for a rebound in fans.Skip to next paragraph
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Last year, the league bounced from a controversy-filled All-Star game of celebrity excess in Las Vegas to a tepid San Antonio-Cleveland championship round to a summer filled with a disgraced NBA referee's guilty plea in a gambling scandal. Fast-forward to the NBA's recent run, a remarkable turnaround that began when Commissioner David Stern celebrated the league's humanitarian efforts during an All-Star weekend in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. It was followed by exciting playoff runs featuring, among others, the resurgent Hornets and capped by a Celtics-Lakers that continues with Game 3 Tuesday night in Los Angeles. Boston leads the series 2-0.
"I just think it's great for the league," former Celtics great Larry Bird said during a recent NBA teleconference with former Lakers rival Magic Johnson to promote the renewed battle. "It's great for basketball."
So far, so good. TV ratings for Game 1 on Thursday were up 38 percent compared with the opener of the 2007 finals – the highest since 2004 – although viewership fell in Game 2.
A longtime L.A.-Boston rivalry
Just a few statistics sketch the history of Boston and Los Angeles as NBA giants. Of the league's 61 championships, the two teams have won 30: the Celtics 16 and Lakers 14. They have faced each other for the title 10 times. Boston won eight of those matchups, but the rivalry lingers as a much more balanced affair in the minds of most hoops fans because Johnson's Lakers won two of three finals against Bird's Celtics in the 1980s.
Now the question is whether a much-changed league and rosters on both sides filled with players who were in diapers during the glory days of those Magic-Bird meetings can keep the newfound momentum rolling. How long has it been? Former Celtic Bill Walton has a new rooting interest this time around: His son, Luke, plays for Los Angeles.
League MVP Kobe Bryant leads the Lakers and, thanks to his relentless scoring brilliance, has begun to evoke comparisons with retired Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan. Even so, Bryant has never been embraced by fans beyond Los Angeles like Jordan was across the country. Beyond Bryant, Los Angeles combines a solid supporting cast with the key ingredient added at midseason: center Pau Gasol. Coach Phil Jackson took a team wracked by controversy and infighting – most notably Bryant's trade demands last summer – and steered
it back to the finals for the first time since 2004. [Editor's note: The original version gave the wrong date of the Lakers' last trip to the NBA Finals.]