Few sports rivalries are as storied as Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The two teams have been separated, historically, in just about every category imaginable. The Lakers of the Sixties and Seventies were spearheaded by the twin stars of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Though Bill Russell was indisputably the head of the early Celtics, their style – predicated on smothering defense and fast-break basketball – was far more team-oriented than their Hollywood rivals. It worked, too: The Celtics began the rivalry winning 7-0 against the Lakers in the Finals, beginning with a 1959 sweep of the then-Minneapolis franchise. Boston won eight straight titles and eventually every title in the 1960s besides 1967, when the Philadelphia 76ers took home the trophy.
In the 1980s, the differences grew even more distinct. Earvin “Magic” Johnson personified the Lakers with his gigawatt smile and larger-than-life persona (and stature; he was a six-foot, ten-inch point guard). He was black and he was glamorous in ways that the NBA still hasn’t fully equalled. Larry Bird was, early on, saddled with the title of Great White Hope. Though he never did anything but play basketball, his race was a flashpoint for the 1980s NBA. The teams met three times in the Finals, each time producing a series full of iconic moments – the Kurt Rambis clothesline, Magic’s baby hook, and countless no-look Larry Bird passes—and spent the majority of the decade passing the title back and forth.
Now, ESPN has released Best of Enemies, their latest and maybe greatest purely sports-focused 30 for 30 documentary. The series is four hours long and tells a lot of stories that might have slipped your memory. But nobody will forget the rivalry in the near future.
Donnie Wahlberg, who narrates the Boston story while Ice Cube handles the Lakers, tells Rolling Stone that, though the teams were bitter rivals, they respected each other immensely.
“Magic and Bird became friends after while and became very close friends,” Wahlberg says. “I think in many ways, the respect that Bird had for Magic and the Lakers really allowed Boston to have that same respect.”
Besides the friendship and mutual respect between the two legends, here are ten things you might have forgotten about the history of the Lakers and Celtics.
1. The Celtics nearly didn’t get Bill Russell
Though Russell is commonly accepted as either the best or second-best Celtic in history, he came extremely close to not being on the team at all. The Celtics were picking behind both the Rochester Royals and Atlanta Hawks in the 1956 draft, having finished second in their conference the year before. So Celtics GM and coach Red Auerbach promised the Ice Capades to Rochester, giving them an important source of revenue. The Hawks were another matter. They actually drafted Russell, but with the intention of securing high scoring center Ed Macauley in a trade. Auerbach agreed but the Hawks demanded more in the form of Cliff Hagan, a player that had been in the Army three years and had never donned a Celtic uniform. Auerbach made the trade, which will probably go down as one of the most lopsided in history. In that same draft, Auerbach also nabbed Tommy Heinsohn and K.C. Jones, Russell’s University of San Francisco teammate. Both would become Hall-of-Famers, and Heinsohn is still the Celtics color man to this day. Russell would, of course, become the NBA’s first black star, winning the MVP five times and a record 11 titles.
2. The Lakers arrival in Los Angeles was anything but a Hollywood story
Now, it’s almost unthinkable for the Lakers franchise to so much as sneeze without drawing a firestorm of tweets. But when they moved from Minneapolis before the 1960-61 season, they did so on busses in the dead of night. The Dodgers had come to town from Brooklyn just two years earlier and were in the process of racking up World Series wins behind the dominant arms of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. The Lakers were bad the year before – they finished 25-50 and drafted West Virginia guard Jerry West, though the most excitement the team produced was an emergency cornfield landing – and gave little preview of their regular season dominance. They became the NBA’s first west coast team and went on to reach the Finals six times in the decade, losing to the Celtics each time. But when they arrived they were playing exhibitions out of the backs of vans and selling just 3,000 tickets to early games at the Great Western Forum.
3. Bill Russell’s tenure in Boston wasn’t that smooth
The Celtics early history on the court was fairly progressive. Auerbach started five black players before anybody else in the NBA did. He also, by tapping Bill Russell to replace him on the bench, introduced the first black coach to the NBA. Though they lost the title in 1967 when Wilt Chamberlain’s 76ers beat them in the conference finals, they won each of the next two years. Off the court was a different story. Russell was an outspoken proponent of civil rights in a city that was anything but. The Boston Bruins, despite not being as successful as their basketball counterparts, routinely outdrew the iconically great Celtics. Russell felt the city’s racism, best exemplified by this photo of a white man ramming an American flag into a restrained black man’s chest during forced bus desegregation, weighed on him greatly.
Wahlberg was on those busses and remembers that the climate was brutal.
“I was bused to a predominantly black area and was basically a minority in school,” he says. “While everyone else was throwing bottles and rioting and protesting outside those buses, I was one of the kids on the buses.”
Boston’s racism also affected Russell personally: Vandals broke into his home and painted the n-word on his wall. So it’s probably not exactly shocking that he had his jersey retired in a private ceremony.
4. The Lakers were the NBA’s first super team
Chamberlain was already a legendary player when he forced a trade to the Lakers after his Sixers blew a 3-1 lead to the Boston Celtics in the 1968 playoffs. The best haul Sixers general manager Jack Ramsay could get from the Lakers was Darrall Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers. Chamberlain joined Jerry West and Elgin Baylor to give the Lakers a real shot at unseating the Celtics. They met in the Finals, but Chamberlain blew out his knee in the closing minutes of Game 7 and Russell once again prevailed before retiring. After the game, Russell derided Chamberlain for quitting on his team and created a rift that lasted more than 20 years. The Lakers eventually did win a championship with Chamberlain, in 1972, when they dominated a shorthanded Knicks team. The next season would be Chamberlain’s last, having never beaten Bill Russell in the Finals.
5. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson met in a title game before they even arrived in the NBA
Magic and Larry would go on to become perhaps the most storied rivals in NBA history. But even before that, they met in the NCAA title game. Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores met Magic’s Michigan State University Spartans, drawing a giant national audience. The 24.1 rating it drew is still the highest of any basketball game ever. The Spartans won, 75–64, behind Magic’s 24 points. Bird scored just 19 on 7-21 shooting, perhaps his worst-ever game when the chips were fully down.
6. The Celtics invoked a little-known and outdated rule to draft Larry Bird
Though Bird was declared eligible for the draft as a college junior, many teams shied away from him because they knew he wasn’t ready to come to the NBA. Auerbach didn’t blink, drafting him with the 6th pick of the 1978 draft. Bird returned to college to finish out his senior season, leading Indiana State to the aforementioned title game. Auerbach publicly said that he wouldn’t pay Bird more than any current Celtic, and Bird threatened to declare for the 1979 draft. Eventually the sides agreed to a five year, $3.25 million contract, which was the richest in league history. The NBA changed its rules the next season to prevent that from happening again in a rule that became known as the Bird Collegiate Rule. Bird has another provision named after him, the Bird Rule, which allows teams to go over the cap to resign a hometown player if he’s played a certain number of years for the team.
7. “Showtime” came from a Santa Monica nightclub
Newly-minted Lakers owner Jerry Buss was glitz and glamor personified. He loved the nightlife, loved his new high-scoring team, and loved anything even remotely close to the spotlight. His use of “Showtime” to describe the Lakers was a bit of branding almost as genius as the Lakers Girls, the league’s first dance team. Where he got the idea was a little lesser-known. At Santa Monica nightclub the Horn, the staff would come out and sing “it’s Showtime” before the evening’s entertainment began. Buss liked it so much he cribbed it for his own team’s nickname. If you’re keeping track, that’s the only good idea ever to come out of a Santa Monica nightclub.
8. The Celtics built their dynasty on a draft-day swindle
Larry Bird was a great player, but even he needed some help. Reinforcements arrived in perhaps the most lopsided trade in NBA history. Before the 1980 NBA draft, the Celtics held the first overall pick and had the opportunity to draft consensus top player Joe Barry Carroll. Red was playing chess, however, and sent the pick and another first to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for the third overall pick and little-known center Robert Parish. He selected Kevin McHale, who went on to play a major role as a low-post threat. Parish became known as “The Chief” and played until he was 40 as the Celtics dominant center. Joe Barry Carroll was colloquially referred to as “Joe Barely Cares” and had a solid if unspectacular NBA career.
9. Pat Riley became Lakers coach after some weird press conference shenanigans
After Magic Johnson requested a trade, Jerry Buss fired coach Paul Westhead in an effort to make his star happy. He announced that Jerry West would be stepping into the role as offensive coach. Assistant Pat Riley, who had been brought from the broadcasting booth to sit on the bench, would be taking over as… coach. The two roles were undefined and seemed basically equal. Jerry West, by then the NBA’s logo and still an iconic front office presence for the now-champion Warriors, got to the podium and put all that stuff to bed. He made it clear the Pat Riley was the coach and he would be reporting to Riley. Things worked out, as the Lakers became Finals fixtures with a mixture of Riley’s tough-nosed defense and their own brand of high octane basketball.
10. Boston wasn’t above some dirty tricks to gain an edge in their matchup
When the Lakers and Celtics finally met in the 1984 Finals, the matchup was already hotly anticipated. That included by the city of Boston, which pulled out all the stops to make sure their Celtics would beat the hated Lakers. James Worthy says Lakers players were nervous to order room service at the hotel, sure their food would be tampered with. Their fears were somewhat justified when a fire alarm went off at four in the morning, meaning the hotel had to be evacuated. Red Auerbach may have had a hand in some of the tricks; he arranged for the Lakers to practice at a school gym well outside town. When the team arrived, they found the gym locked with the lights off. At the next game, and all subsequent series, the Lakers brought their own water and Gatorade.