Stats analyst John Hollinger has picked the Los Angeles Lakers to beat the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals, which in itself is no big deal except that it has set off nervous tweets among L.A. fans everywhere.
It’s an omen, they say.
That very silly mindset sums up the bizarre relationship between the NBA’s two most successful teams. The Lakers have whipped up on a lot of opponents over the decades, but when it comes to the men in green, it’s an entirely different story.
The Boston Celtics own the Los Angeles Lakers. Absolutely own them.
That’s why Boston fans get drunk, loud and rowdy this time of year. And that’s why Lakers fans schedule extra appointments with their therapists.
It’s Hollywood vs. Beantown again. Star power vs. Celtic Mystique. The two teams have met 11 times for the championship and history tells us that after it’s over, Hollywood just about always ends up on the couch.
The Celtics have won 17 league titles, 11 of them when that ultimate shot-blocking hydra, Bill Russell, ruled the NBA for 13 seasons from 1957 to 1969. The Celtics have lost the championship series just twice, both to the Lakers Showtime teams led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in the 1980s.
Sadly, for the Lakers, this series is not about those two wins more than 20 years ago. Those Showtime victories, it seems, are in moth balls.
In 2008, the two teams met again after a 21-year absence, and the Celtics so badly humiliated the Lakers that it virtually wiped out any good feelings about those two title wins over Boston back in the day.
First, the 2008 Lakers blew a 24-point lead at home to lose Game 4. Then the Celtics absolutely emasculated them in Game 6, 131-92, to win the title in Boston. It was a night of such deep humiliation that it breathed life into the Lakers’ inferiority complexes from the past.
Suddenly, modern players such as Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol understood that Boston/L.A. is about personal demons and curses, many of them emanating from the tortured persona of Lakers legend Jerry West, and all of them borne by circumstances best described as totally strange.
You could perhaps blame it on coach Fred Schaus, who passed away during the season. It was he who recruited Jerry West to West Virginia University back in 1956, and in so doing set in motion the karma that would keep Lakers fans miserable for eternity.
Schaus would coach West for nine straight seasons, three at WVU and six with the Lakers, a phenomenal stretch of almost one thousand games. Then he would serve as general manager for five more Lakers teams led by West. More than anything, they would share an unrivaled frustration.
West and Schaus would lose the 1959 NCAA championship by a point to the University of California team coached by Pete Newell. Then Schaus and West would join the Lakers, who had just moved to Los Angeles in 1960.
In those days, the sensation of the NBA was high-flying Lakers forward Elgin Baylor, the man with the original hang time who had come in as a rookie in 1958 and terrorized the league with huge games. The Lakers were a very bad team in Minneapolis then that had once ruled the league with George Mikan and Jim Pollard.
Even though they had a losing record in the 1959 regular season, Baylor’s high-wire act led them to the championship series where they met the Celtics for the first time.
Boston quickly swept them, the first sweep in league history, and that jump-started the karma.
Once West and Baylor teamed together in Los Angeles, they became pro basketball’s power duo. Hollywood demanded star power, and the two young players provided it. Both showed the ability to average better than 30 points a game.
But come championship time every year, their Lakers faced Boston’s confounding Russell. Six times in the 60's the Lakers challenged the Celtics for the title. Six times West, Baylor and the Lakers lost. Each time they watched as Celtics boss Red Auerbach lit up his victory cigar and hooted.
“There were an awful lot of times I wanted to shove that cigar down his throat,” Fred Schaus once told me.
As the losses to the green-clad Celtics piled up, West got to the point he could not stand the sight of green, would not wear anything green, did not want anything green around him.
“It got to the point that it controlled my life,” said West.
For the first five times that his Lakers lost, the Celtics were favored. But in 1969, the Lakers had home-court advantage, they had the giant Wilt Chamberlain, they had every reason to believe it was finally their time.
But they lost Game 7 in Los Angeles to Russell and company. West had played brilliantly and was named the Most Valuable Player of the series, the only time in league history that the MVP came from the losing team.
In those days, Sport magazine awarded a fancy car to the Finals MVP. Already inconsolable over the loss, West recoiled at the sight of the auto.
It was green.
The moment branded Jerry West indelibly, existentially, as the great Sisyphus of basketball. And it branded Lakers fans with him.
STAR POWER VS. TEAM PLAY
The numbers would have been rough for any ordinary Joe, so try to imagine what they have meant to an intensely competitive perfectionist like West. Between April 1962 and May 1969, the Celtics defeated the Lakers six times in seven calendar years.
And even after all of that, when Russell finally retired, the wicked karma rolled on. West, Baylor and the Lakers lost a seventh time in 1970 to the New York Knicks in the most celebrated and talked-about NBA championship series of all time. That made for seven championship losses in eight calendar years, if you’re counting - and everyone has, especially West.
“He was then, and still remains, the single most revered Celtic opponent of all time,” longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan said of West. “No Celtic opponent has ever had more fans wishing he would switch uniforms, and that includes Michael Jordan. ‘Noble’ doesn't begin to describe the level and style of his performances against the Celtics in the '60s. His L.A. teams lost Finals series to Boston in '62, '63, '65, '66, '68, and '69. His scoring averages in those six series were 31, 29, 34, 35, 32, and 38.”
“West was West,” former Laker Hot Rod Hundley pointed out. “Jerry burned the Celtics every time he played them. He killed the Celtics, really played well against them every time. He loved playing against Boston.”
In his last game against Russell’s great team, West registered what may well be the most impressive triple-double in league history - 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists— in Game 7 of the 1969 championship series. And still they lost.
West has acknowledged that the championship losses took his inclination toward unhappiness to dark, dark places.
“Why?” West asked again and again. “Why can’t we beat them?”
Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn has long held the answer to that mystery. The Celtics, he said, were structured as a true team while the Lakers seemed to build everything around their two stars, Baylor and West. It always came down to the Lakers’ two great players (and Heinsohn, who has spent decades playing, coaching, and broadcasting the sport, contends that Baylor and West were two of the five greatest players ever) battling Boston’s immense depth and team play.
“We ran things,” Heinsohn said, “and we moved without the ball. If we were open, we got the ball. We played basketball. They were playing on the school yard.”
Fred Schaus once indicated that he used West and Baylor so much because he believed that provided him the best chance to win. “In all honesty, we had no post game,” Schaus said. “…We survived on what West and Baylor did. They were fearless.”
Heinsohn explained that the Celtics were focused solely on taking advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses. One night that might mean that a certain Celtic had the advantage. On another night, someone else from the team would be the star.
“There was nobody that felt they had to defer to anybody,” he said of the Celtics teams that won eleven championships in thirteen seasons. “On any given night you would take advantage of a weakness on the other team. A particular guy might take advantage. I don’t think that was ever in the Lakers’ game plan.”
Actually, most of the teams in the NBA approached the game the same way the Lakers did. It’s just that the Lakers seemed to take the matter to extremes, and they did so with great intent.
Mitch Chortkoff, who covered the team for years as a reporter, first worked for the Lakers as a publicity assistant in 1962-63. He recalled noticing the trend then and asking general manager Lou Mohs about it.
“I asked Lou Mohs, ‘Why do those two shoot all the time?’” Chortkoff recalled. “Lou Mohs said that in baseball every player comes up to bat four times a game. By virtue of baseball’s rules every player gets to bat. He said, ‘We don’t have such a rule in our sport. Those two guys are going to take all the shots.’”
In all fairness, the league’s illegal defense rules created a playing format where the secondary players would “clear out” and move to the other side of the floor so that the most talented offensive players could attack the basket in a one-on-one or two-on-two format.
Such an approach had been the standard of pro basketball for decades.
“I thought Fred Schaus was a good coach,” said Mike Waldner, who covered the Lakers during that era. “He isolated Elgin and Jerry on the weak side. It was always like, ‘You three get over there and let them play two on two.’ And then they played two on two. He took advantage of the rule.”
Yet even old NBA hands scoffed at the absurd extremes to which the Lakers took things.
“When I was coaching the Bulls,” the late Johnny 'Red' Kerr once recalled, “we were playing against them in L.A. We were up by one, if you can believe this, and I’m over in the huddle during a timeout. There’s about 10 or 15 seconds left in the game. They’ve got the ball. I’ve got all my players around me, everybody listening. I’m saying what we’re gonna do. I look down at their bench and at Freddie Schaus. All their players are sitting on the bench. And Schaus is talking to Elgin and Jerry. He’s talking to two guys.”
“Those two guys were going to beat you,” Heinsohn said. “I mean we never even had a guy who was a top-ten scorer. They just never trusted their team members, just never trusted them,” Heinsohn said finally. “They were going to go and win it by themselves and our approach was completely different.”
In the modern game, when critics took issue with the play of superstars such as Michael Jordan or Bryant, that issue was most often selfish, individualistic play. The phrase often used to describe this selfish play was, “They never trusted their teammates.”
Asked about Heinsohn’s pointed criticism, West said, “That’s the way we were encouraged to play. That’s the way we were gonna play, the way the coach wanted us to play. It had nothing to do with selfishness, by the way.”
Heinsohn said the Lakers finally became a team in 1971 when former Celtic Bill Sharman became their coach. Sharman moved a 33-year-old West almost exclusively to point guard for the first time in his career. That move was made to open up the team’s playing format. It was a dramatic shift for an aging star, but Sharman confirmed that West made the move and sacrificed his own game without the slightest resistance.
The “Celtic-led” Lakers ran off a 33-game win streak and won the 1972 title over the Knicks.
Still, even that victory added to the Laker torment. Yes, they had won, but they had needed two great Celtics - Sharman and assistant KC Jones - to show them how.
Even though the decades have rolled on, the 2010 Finals offers fans a variation on the eternal theme. The Lakers bring the star power of Kobe Bryant to the series, and the Celtics thrive with an impressive team defense.
Question is, will those guys from Boston send Hollywood to the couches this time around?
Roland Lazenby is the author of Jerry West, The Life And Legend Of A Basketball Icon, recently released by ESPN Books.