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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Celtics Commentary

The good ol' days -or something like them

The lowdown to this is simple.

On June 8, 1986, the Boston Celtics hung up their 16th NBA championship banner, an achievement that remains peerless throughout the North American professional athletic kingdom.

A year and six days later, the ever-revered parquet prowlers lost out on their shot at #17, submitting to the hated LA Lakers in Game 6.

Still another year and several weeks after all that, this writer was born. But only now, with yet another Celtics-Lakers championship tussle set to commence in the Hub on Thursday, does anybody in or below their 20s truly understand what the nostalgic fuss is all about.

You could get a substantial idea just by paging through your basketball history texts, no doubt.
You can trust the endless string of highlight films all crammed together for equally endless buildup on ESPN this week. You can listen to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as they rehash their firsthand accounts of when NBA supremacy was torn strictly between two stark corner points of the country.

But for this new wave of sporting buffs, it's all a puzzling hologram until it resurfaces, which it now has -even if its just a Baskin-Robbins type of free sample versus the gourmet platter our parents and grandparents once consumed.

I can distinctly remember the first time I was told that the Celtics and Lakers were rivals. Around the time of the 1999 ALCS between sports' two least mistakable enemies -the Red Sox and Yankees- NESN ran a poll asking which Boston-related rivalry ran the best second to this one.

Three of the choices were worthy candidates: BC-BU and Patriots-Jets made no-duh geographic sense. Bruins-Canadiens carried (and still carries, especially after this season) the same sort of bitterness that the pre-2004 diamond tales always did.

But seeing Celtics-Lakers in that mix, and at that time having lived through 11 years of blah-blah B-ball in Beantown, I didn't follow. If they had said "Celtics-Knicks," then there would have been no questions.

But how can you be rivals when you don't even play in the same conference? How do you cook up genuine, long-lasting animosity when you are bound to lock horns no more than twice per season barring a spontaneous championship encounter? And with so many teams in this league now, what are the odds of even that happening?

Oops. I think I just threw out a piece of ammo for those old school fans who want David Stern to consider contraction. Let's not go there.

Even if the competitive pool was shallower back in the day and even if that did nurse a healthy, intriguing, coast vs. coast rivalry, all those elements evaporated in a hurry. From 1987 onward, New Englanders stopped going Gardening this deep into the spring. If anything, we were just happy to see Rick Pitino ushered back to the collegiate sidelines where he belongs.

Other than that, the Celtics cultivated next-to-no relevance because they kept banging their heads against rock bottom, conventionally a sign that things will turn around, but never bothering to kiss the Blarney Stone. It still must befuddle lottery ball technicians everywhere that a team going on an 18-game nosedive still settled for the #5 draft pick last year.

The Cs sure took their sweet time rekindling their banner caliber ways, but from November through May, its been plenty savory.

And now, right after one refreshing sip of the past by means of a six-game triumph of the Detroit Pistons, it's a titanic tussle between the NBA's two former throne-switching monarchs. According to the standings, it's 1987 all over again. Tops in the East versus tops from the West.

But you see, right there, how tough it now is to rerun the same matchup. In the former days, it was Celtics-Lakers 10 times in the space of 28 seasons. Now a 21-year "drought" for this "rivalry" has been splashed.

In other words, by all means get in on the "Beat LA" fervor the same way Paul Pierce is, just so long as you don't start thinking this'll happen 10 times more between now and 2035.

Really, it's nice to have all of the history to hearken back to as Thursday's tip-off looms, don't get me wrong. Even the students to the subject will take that extra dollop of appreciation and incentive.

But, most importantly, the new Garden is getting its first look at a championship clash. A new generation is that close to seeing it's first NBA banner. Whoever they beat, or whoever prolongs the disappointment, is second-rate to the end result.

It's that simple.

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