The NBA finals tipoff Thursday in what is billed as renewing the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.
It’s been 21 years since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson squared off for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. And, while replays of the legendary games between Bird and Magic have been frequent over the past few days, something will still be missing when Game 1 begins in the Boston Garden.
The history is there. The Celtics and Lakers meet for the 11th time in the finals, matching the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodges for the most between two franchises in a championship series.
Boston has the most NBA titles with 16. L.A. is second with 14.
But the rivalry part is not the same.
When Bird and Magic matched up three times in the finals during the 1980s, the battles were as intense as any. Their rivalry actually began in 1979 when they met in the NCAA championship game.
The two biggest stars in this series, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, didn’t even go to college.
From 1959-66, Bob Cousy and Bill Russell led the Celtics to eight straight championships, the very definition of a dynasty. In the 1980s, Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the best frontcourt of their era, garnered four NBA finals berths.
The Laker teams of the 1960s were led by Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and, later on, Wilt Chamberlain. L.A. went 0-7 against Boston in the finals between 1959-69.
In the 1980s, Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabar and James Worthy helped the Lakers to five NBA titles, two coming against the Celtics, and eight trips to the finals.
It’s a rivalry that was built on history, something this NBA finals lacks.
Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher helped the Lakers to three titles earlier in the decade. Boston’s Sam Cassell helped the Houston Rockets to back-to-back crowns in the mid-1990s. But of the others with prior finals experience are not exactly household names.
L.A.’s Didier Ilunga-Mbenga played sparingly for the Dallas Mavericks two years ago during their finals run. The same can be said of Boston’s Scott Pollard and L.A.’s Ira Newble (an ex-Oklahoma Storm player), both who were on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ roster last year. Boston’s James Posey was on the Miami Heat’s title team in 2006. Fellow Celtic Brian Scalabrine saw little action during the New Jersey Nets’ finals appearances in 2002-03.
The names on front of the jerseys may be familiar to fans of yesteryear. But the names on the back of the jerseys will take a little more getting used to before the word ‘rivalry’ truly applies.
Hein is a News & Eagle sports writer.