Who needs Lakers-Celtics nostalgia?

The NBA Finals are fascinating and exciting on their face. Enough with the obsession over memories of Larry, Magic, Wilt and Russell.


King Kaufman
June 7, 2008 12:15AM (UTC)

I realize I'm derelict in my duty as both a member of the typing class and also a Los Angeles native who grew up rooting for the Lakers, but the tsunami of nostalgia that's accompanying the NBA Finals is leaving me high and dry. It does nothing for me.

I'm excited about the series. The Lakers are the class of the Western Conference, the Boston Celtics turned out to be the class of the East, as everybody but me -- I thought Detroit -- figured. More than that, both teams have huge passionate fan bases and plenty of other folks who hate them. Almost everybody who cares about pro basketball cares about this series.

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And I get that a big reason those teams have those big fan bases and inspire all that hatred is their storied histories, which include all those Finals series they played against each other. I just don't see how Wilt and Russell, or Magic and Bird, have much to do with the 2008 Finals. Why do we need John Havlicek to get excited about Kevin Garnett? Why do we need Jerry West to get jacked about Kobe Bryant?

Listen, I was a history major. The past is fun and every second of my life, right up to when I started typing this sentence, now exists there. I came into Lakers fan consciousness toward the end of the era when they'd lose to the Celtics almost every year in the Finals. That happened in 1962, '63, '65, '66, '68 and '69.

Everything changed in 1970. They lost to the New York Knicks instead, but I've still never spent a moment rooting for the Boston Celtics, even when they play the Knicks.

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By the time the Lakers and Celts resumed their playoff rivalry in 1985, Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and James Worthy against Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, I had moved to the Bay Area, begun my adult life and started an ill-fated relationship with the Golden State Warriors, but I still watched those Magic-Bird series. They were great fun, and I wasn't too proud to throw back in with the Lakers once the Warriors were done, which in those days was usually around Thanksgiving.

But this series would be just as exciting to me if the teams' paths hadn't crossed so often. I'd be just as excited over a Dodgers-Red Sox World Series as I am over these Finals for many of the same reasons -- storied histories, big fan bases, hatred by everyone else -- even though they've only met in the World Series once, and that was in 1916.

I guess I might feel differently about the nostalgia aspect of this series if I could return to the mutual razzing of yesteryear with some good friends who are Celtics fans. But I never really knew anyone who was a Celtics fan.

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That, it strikes me now, was unusual. Growing up in a place so many people, including my parents, had migrated to, I knew fans of all sorts of baseball and football teams. Any random neighbor, teacher, friend's parent or parent's co-worker might be a Giants or Bears or Pirates or Mets fan. With local loyalties not running deep through family histories, front-runners were rampant. My elementary school was chock full of Pirates, Steelers, A's and Cowboys fans who had never been anywhere near Pittsburgh, Dallas or even Oakland.

There were always more Giants and Cardinals fans in the Dodger Stadium stands than there were for other teams, but no home crowd at a California sporting event ever has that near-unanimous feel of crowds in Eastern or Midwestern cities. Still, I can't remember a Celtics fan, never knew a Knicks fan who wasn't a family member still living in New York.

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I'm guessing that has to do with the popularity of the NBA at the time, something I have to remind myself about when it comes up. Magic Johnson was on the ABC broadcast of Game 1 talking about how his rivalry with Bird had helped push the NBA to a new level, and it struck me how surprised I am whenever someone talks like that.

In my world, Los Angeles, the NBA had been big since the dawn of time, which was approximately 1968. Tape-delayed Finals on CBS? Yeah, eventually, but while I was forming my worldview, the local team was in the Finals every year and they were on live TV. I didn't realize till much later that Magic and Bird had pulled the NBA into the NFL's and baseball's league. I just thought it was a fun time, a nice upswing.

I had a similar view of the NCAA Tournament, which I didn't realize until later had become a big deal only in the '80s. Growing up in UCLA's neighborhood, I'd thought it was always a big deal.

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But I digress because I don't feel like walking over to the TV and turning on what I'm sure will be the continuing loop of highlights of Magic's baby hook and Larry spanking with that towel. We've got Garnett and Bryant, people, Paul Pierce doing this faith-healing thing. Let's set those time machines on "now," shall we?


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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