WALTHAM, MASS. — Those familiar “Beat L.A.!” chants, once the sweetest sound of springtime in Boston, were replaced by a most unrecognizable chorus in the dead of winter last year.
“MVP!” cries for a Los Angeles Laker in the Boston Garden.
Oops, make that the TD Banknorth Garden.
Plenty has changed in the two decades since the last NBA finals series between the Lakers and Celtics, and not only the arenas where it’s contested.
The rivalry that made the NBA must-see TV — the finals were still shown on tape delay when Magic Johnson was a rookie — was largely ignored in recent years, to the point that some Boston backers couldn’t even bother to show up when the Lakers were in town in January 2007, making it easier for all those Los Angeles fans to come cheer Kobe Bryant.
That’s not the way it was in the days of Johnson and Larry Bird, when you couldn’t think of one without the other — those players or their teams.
“We talked about it every day,” Johnson said Tuesday. “Actually, Larry probably will feel the same way. During the regular season, that’s all we watched. Where are the Celtics? Did they win last night?”
With the Lakers and Celtics meeting again Thursday in the NBA finals, the NBA got Johnson and Bird together on a conference call to talk about the way things were then. But it’s so long ago, it has no relevance today.
“It doesn’t mean anything now, and there’s nothing that’s similar now,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “The coaching staffs aren’t the same, the philosophy of basketball isn’t the same. The towns are still the same. A lot of the same type of people. Beantown is still Beantown, that’s for sure. But they’ve won a baseball World Series now, so they’re not so bedraggled.”
Back in the mid-1980s, when they met for the championship three times in a four-year span, Los Angeles and Boston had the most important rivalry in pro sports. It lasted through three cities, starting with the Celtics’ sweep of the Minneapolis Lakers in 1959, and more than 25 years.
Now it’s been almost that long since their last meeting, in 1987, also Boston’s most recent finals appearance. So while veterans such as Paul Pierce and Bryant can talk of Kevin McHale’s hard foul takedown of Kurt Rambis in 1984, or Johnson’s baby sky hook to pull out a victory in Boston in 1987, the younger players in this series have no memories of anything special between the teams.
“Last time it was a rivalry, I was born. It was in ’86 (actually ’87), so it’s been a long time,” Celtics second-year point guard Rajon Rondo said. “I know a little bit about the history, but not too much.”
The Celtics haven’t always been relevant since, managing only four playoff appearances from 1996-2007. The Lakers went on to have meaningful rivalries with San Antonio, Sacramento and most recently, Phoenix. Even Miami felt like a rival after acquiring Shaquille O’Neal from Los Angeles, since that game got the marquee Christmas Day national TV slot three years running.
Meanwhile, Celtics-Lakers has been mostly out of sight, out of mind.
ESPN showed a game between the teams two years ago, but ABC hasn’t bothered since it landed the NBA’s television rights. TNT, the league’s other broadcast partner, hasn’t televised a Lakers-Celtics game since 2002.
“Well, the Celtics weren’t good enough to be on TV and the Lakers were always good with Shaq and Kobe,” Celtics guard Sam Cassell said.
“The intensity is not up to that level right now. I think if they get to the finals, if we play the Lakers next year in the finals and the year after that, I think the rivalry will become like it was in the ’80s. But right now it’s just two teams who respect one another.”
AP Sports Writer Doug Feinberg contributed to this report.