By the time the Los Angeles Lakers met the Boston Celtics for the third time in the NBA Finals in the 1980s, defensive stopper Michael Cooper had enough with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and the rest of the Celtics.
“It’s respectful to acknowledge the person that you’re playing, but I’m not taking you out to dinner,” Cooper said, thinking back on those days. “I’ll spit in your food before I eat with you.”
Lakers vs. Celtics. Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. East Coast vs. West Coast.
It’s the rivalry against which all others are measured, the one essentially responsible for the modern NBA evolving from a fringe sport that put its championship series on tape delay to a global sensation built around the most recognizable athletes in American sports. And as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors prepare to face off in the finals for the third straight season, the two teams that have grabbed a stranglehold on the rest of the league over the last three seasons are drawing comparisons to the game’s greatest matchup.
“I think basketball-wise it’s going to be great,” said Celtics Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, now an analyst for NBATV. “That is going to lend itself to people talking about it years from now. But really, (the Lakers-Celtics) was the birth of the NBA and the average fan across the country was that Larry-Magic time. It was completely unique unto itself.”
McHale was directly involved in one of the defining moments of the rivalry, when he clotheslined Lakers forward Kurt Rambis on a breakaway layup during Game 4 of the 1984 finals in Los Angeles. It’s a play that lives in Celtics lore, the gritty, Northern Minnesota forward blasting the Showtime Lakers right in front of Jack Nicholson. The play touched off a mini-brawl between the two teams and helped spark a Boston comeback that evened the series that the Celtics went on to win in seven games.
“We knew how dirty they could get. I loved it back then,” said Cooper, who now coaches the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA. “In today’s game, he would’ve got a two or three-game suspension. Back then, it made it fun. Rambis’s neck wasn’t broken? OK, get up. Kevin got dunked on a couple times and we made a big melee out of it. You come out and live to play another day.”
The more often the teams met on the big stage, the more heated the rivalry became. Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell gave James Worthy a choke sign after he missed a free throw. Bird went toe-to-toe with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It’s the kind of edge and nastiness that is often said to be lacking in the modern NBA with the high salaries and player movement. But last year’s series – won by Cleveland in seven games – had its share of tension, from LeBron James‘ dismissive scoff at Stephen Curry after blocking his shot in Game 6 to Klay Thompson suggesting James “got his feelings hurt” to James stepping over Draymond Green in Game 4, a confrontation that led to Green’s suspension and the turning point of the series.
“I’m hoping there’s some real fiery competitiveness and some dustups and guys willing to fight each other for it,” McHale said. “I think that’s fine. There should be that feeling.”
The Lakers and Celtics met three times in four years, with Los Angeles winning in 1985 and 1987. The only thing that prevented four straight meetings was a Houston Rockets upset of the Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference finals, something that McHale laments to this day. The Celtics desperately wanted the Lakers because they knew Magic and Worthy and Kareem would push them to their competitive limits.
“I think the Lakers were one of those teams that you knew you could play well and still lose. We had a good enough team where if we played well, normally it just took care of itself,” McHale said. “We’d win. If we played well, the outcome was determined just by our play. Against the Lakers, you could play really well and still lose.”
When two teams play that often at the highest level, there are no more secrets, no tricks to be pulled, no gimmicks said Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, whose Detroit Pistons faced the Lakers in back-to-back finals in 1988 and 1989.
“The intensity level is off the charts, just in terms of the team competition and also the individual competitions on the court,” said Thomas, now an analyst for NBATV. “Both of you really do know each other so well. You know all of their tendencies, all of their habits, all of their plays.
“Then it becomes a game of concentration. Who can concentrate for that two-and-a-half hour period without making a mistake?”
For the most part, the Cavs and Warriors have tried to downplay any talk of acrimony or tension, with Curry saying this week “you can call it a rivalry, but it’s still in development.”
In many ways, when Game 1 tips off on Thursday night in Oakland, California, a new generation of NBA fans will get to understand what it felt like to watch the Lakers and Celtics battles from the 1980s that their fathers and grandfathers still rave about.
But McHale remembers sitting in his office as an executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the mid-90s and finally reflecting on how far the league had come. Salaries were skyrocketing. The game’s influence was growing overseas and the NBA Finals – the ones that were shown on tape delay during McHale’s first championship with the Celtics in 1980 – were now must-see, primetime television.
All that success couldn’t have happened without Larry, without Magic, without those three epic showdowns between the Lakers and the Celtics.
“It was like somebody seeing color TV for the first time,” McHale said of being a part of that history. “There was a whole different vibe that had nothing to do with the game. It was the NBA just growing. It’s different. That was like watching the moon walk. There’s never another thing like that. That was just amazing.”