NBA hopes Celtics-Lakers rivalry can respark the fans

But current finals lacks superstar matchup of Bird vs. Magic.

Adam Hunger/Reuters
Dunk: Kevin Garnett and the Celtics lead L.A. 2-0.
Storied rivalry: In 1984, Larry Bird (left) and the Boston Celtics defeated Magic Johnson (right) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games for the NBA championship. During the 1980s, a Celtics or Lakers team appeared in every finals.

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.

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.]

Boston's resurrection marks the single biggest one-year turnaround in NBA history. General manager Danny Ainge, who played with Bird during the Celtics' title runs two decades ago, engineered two stellar trades last off-season, creating the so-called Boston Three Party by adding versatile swingman Kevin Garnett and veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen with long-suffering but talented Paul Pierce.

"Other than Kobe, who is obviously a marquee player, this is more of a team-style matchup," says Don Hinchey, an executive at The Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports-consulting firm. "With Bird and Magic, it was about superstars. These teams are attractive in a different way, but these franchises still galvanize interest."

And, hey, you can still count on Jack Nicholson sitting courtside when the series shifts to Los Angeles Tuesday.

Analysts say the encore edition of Celtics-Lakers is enough to intrigue casual viewers – and bring back old-school NBA fans who may have lost interest in the league once Jordan and the Bulls won their sixth and final title in 1998. Since then, with a brief run by Bryant and then-teammate Shaquille O'Neal, the finals have been marked by plodding play, dull matchups, and a fleet of uninspiring teams from Detroit, Cleveland, and New Jersey, among others.

"Are these teams going to go down in history like the great Lakers and Celtics of the past? Only if they win multiple championships," says Carl Scheer, a former general manager with several NBA teams and now a sports-franchise consultant. "One time in the finals doesn't do it. What gave those teams their legitimacy was their consistency."

Mr. Scheer and others say the current championship round must extend to six or seven games, ensuring enough drama to stick with fans beyond summer vacation.

When the Lakers and Celtics met three times in four years for the title during the 1980s, the series went seven, six, and six games, respectively. For anyone who followed the NBA then, it felt as though nobody but Los Angeles and Boston ever played for the championship.

Dynasties harder to build now

Matching those giddy days would be hard for any franchise, but in the era of hyperfree agency and salary cap-induced trades, it's harder.

Johnson, leader of the showtime-era Lakers, urges everyone to revel in the current rivalry.

Says Johnson: "Even though the names have changed as players and coaches, when you think about most fans around the world who watch basketball, if you ask them [who] they want to see in the finals, they would pick these two teams."

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