The Lakers will meet the Celtics in the NBA Finals starting Thursday. I come at the Lakers-Celtics rivalry from a deeply personal place. Earvin Johnson grew up about a mile from where I was raised, and was slotted to go to the high school I attended until a bussing initiative sent him across town to Everett High School. For most folks, going from being a West-side Winner to being a South-side Sucker would have been devastating, and Earvin has stated that he was initially pretty bummed out about it. But he was a winner wherever he went, and soon led the Vikings to a state championship, picked up the nickname “Magic,” and became the hottest basketball recruit in the country. He signed with hometown Michigan State, and my parents, like so many other locals, immediately purchased seasons tickets to watch Magic lead Jud Heathcote’s Spartans at Jenison Fieldhouse.
I was a pup at the time, and my memories of MSU’s run to the 1979 National Championship over Larry Bird and Indiana State are fuzzy at best. I remember everyone was happy, and to this day I don’t recall a time before I was conscious of Magic. In 1980 I was somewhat conscious of Larry Bird, too. When he became a Celtic, though, I remember being confused that there had been a black guy who wore number 33 in green and white and whose poster was on my bedroom wall who dominated on the court, and then the following year there was a white guy who wore number 33 in green and white and dominated on the court.
Magic was a major a presence in 1980s Lansing, from the “Magic Johnson Donuts” at local bakery chain Quality Dairy (gold frosting with a purple “32” drawn on top), to the softball team he played for in the summer that would draw hundreds of spectators, to the constant reporting on the trajectory of his career. If you didn’t know him personally, you knew someone who did, and I met him multiple times as a kid. He visited my elementary school on a couple of occasions, and in fourth grade I won a competition for a full scholarship to the local basketball camp he ran with his agent, Charles Tucker. I attended the camp two consecutive years, spending a week each year in the presence of Magic and other stars of the 1980s NBA: Isaiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Spud Webb, Tiny Archibald, Mark Aguirre, Herb Williams, Jay and Sam Vincent. Roy Tarpley and William Bedford, two talented big men who would soon snort themselves out of the NBA, served as counselors (I remember Bedford being especially nice). I remember two specific encounters with Magic: one, a left-handed lay up drill done without a ball, so you would concentrate on your form. Magic stood under the basket and if you did it wrong, he made you do 20 push-ups. I was absolutely terrified, but somehow managed to fluidly lift off my right foot and pass the test (though I could never make a left-handed lay up in a game). The second was my second year, when I made the All-Star team for my age group. I hit a 15 foot jumper in the All-Star game and Magic, who was reffing the game along with Herb Williams, gave me a high five as I ran back down the court.
It’s from within this context that I approached the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, which reached its rabid apex in the 1980s. (To learn more about the rivalry between Magic and Bird, see the terrific documentary “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals”). Everyone I knew rooted for the Lakers, mostly because they loved Magic. But there was a broader national breakdown along racial and social lines, crudely constructed as follows: If you were black or liberal or hip, you rooted for the showtime Lakers, and delighted in Magic’s daring passes to Worthy and Scott, and Kareem’s skyhook. But if you were working-class white, or conservative, or lame, you rooted for the Celtics, and celebrated Bird’s grit, McHale’s low post moves and wet hairy armpits, the Chief’s stoic gaze, and whatever the hell Danny Ainge did. Of course, regional allegiance played a large role in who you rooted for, but the sense that the breakdown was as described above did much to invigorate the rivalry by embedding it within the broader political narratives of Reagan’s America. Both teams represented elements of that transitional decade: the Lakers were glitz and excess, and the Celtics were a resurgent conservativism and traditionalism. If nothing else, the rivalry revealed the resilience of the racialized lens through which much of the American public saw sport (and thus life). Yet at the heart of it all was a deep truth: these were two fundamentally brilliant basketball teams, with styles fully realized and stars in constant search of another challenge to conquer.
I pulled for the Lakers through their championship years until they met my Detroit Pistons in the Finals in 1988, when I maturely said to Magic: you’ve won enough. It’s the D’s turn. My Magic love persisted, though, so much so that November 7, 1991 is just as seared into my memory as January 28, 1986. But as Magic’s career ended awkwardly over several years, I lost interest in the Lakers.
The NBA has changed significantly since the 1980s, when Magic and Bird rescued the league from its image as a refuge for drug-addled social miscreants, and handed to Michael Jordan and David Stern a “product” primed for global expansion and resonance, and set to churn out megarich icons. The game has changed, too, from an era when big stars regularly threw down in pursuit of a win to a league where accruing too many physical fouls well get you suspended. Fact is, college basketball is a much more physical game than the NBA, which is part of the reason that it’s more watchable.
It’s also part of the reason that we don’t have rivalries like what we had with the Lakers and Celtics in the 1980s. Too many players and coaches are mercenaries, playing for their next contract. These guys are professionals, to be sure, and most care deeply about winning (no one can tell me Kobe Bryant wants to win any less than Magic or Bird). The skill level and physical ability is amazing, and the game is played at as high a level as ever. But, the context has clearly changed; the game is too clean, too corporate, too image conscious, and exceedingly concerned with being family friendly. As a result, the politics that infused Lakers-Celtics in the 1980s are absent from the contemporary game and hard to imagine ever being so prominent again. Rivalries now only gain intensity from tight contests in the immediate past.
I’ll watch the upcoming Finals, but it won’t be must-see tv in my house. I’m sure these guys’ll play great basketball, and the networks will roll out references to the “Memorial Day Massacre” and the “Baby Hook” in an attempt to infuse these games with the weight of history. Personally, though, I don’t really care who wins, and unless something unexpected and remarkable happens, I’ll probably forget this year’s Finals as quickly as I forgot the 2008 Finals. The fact that I can barely bring myself to hate the Celtics anymore probably has something to do with the fact that I’ve aged and mellowed and have better priorities more widely dispersed. But it also has something to do with the game, which is at least as responsible for my connection to it as I am.