For those of us who can recount the days when Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge hoisted the Boston Celtics on their backs and turned upside down our delicately crafted notion of who was supposed to dominate the NBA – anyone but a bunch of white boys – as the Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers meet for the 12th time to decide the World Champions in 2010 some perspective is required.
As a teenager growing up in Philadelphia in the 1980s, my hatred for the Celtics knew no bounds. After all, this was supposed to be Dr. J’s game, a racial heirloom passed down to him by the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, Oscar Robinson and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.
Even the white media had conceded hoops to the colored. The message was crystal clear: You can have basketball; it’s yours. Just don’t ever get the sick and twisted notion in that little head of yours that one day you can be , say, president, governor, run a Fortune 500 Company or anything else that doesn’t require you to break a sweat.
That was cool with me – well, not actually— until Bird and Co. came on the scene and commenced to dismantle my manicured concept of the hoops hierarchy. The “Hick from French Lick” and his band of Caucasian marauders seemed to have a hit list of brothers they were going defrock. Julius Erving. Check. Marques Johnson. Handled. Dominique Wilkins, a mild nuisance.
It was so easy to hate the Celtics and what they appeared to represent. For starters, the white community had been marginalizing African-Americans since before the days of the Constitution. There was slavery, a civil war, segregated armed forces and restrooms, Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral, the murders of Dr. King and Malcolm X, the Southern Strategy, all before Bird arrived.
And adding insult to injury, the Celtics represented Boston, which to me and folks in my age group growing up in the “enlightened” northeast represented Selma, circa 1985. Boston was best known for its bigoted southern section and segregated busing. It was about a protest in 1976 at City Hall where the famous picture of a white teenager wielding the American flag as a weapon against Ted Landsmark was snapped. It was about a well-to-do-racist named Charles Stuart who would close out the 1980s by murdering his pregnant wife and claiming that a black man did it in order to collect on an insurance policy. Stuart’s charge turned out to be fraudulent – he killed himself shortly after his brother dropped dime on him – but this was after Boston police had gone door-to-door in the black community looking for someone who fit Stuart’s description. A black man.
Bird went on to win three championships, is universally regarded as one of the 10 best players in league history, and he was a perfect killer on the court. If Robert Parish blocked a shot at one end and Bird gathered in the ball and appeared to be headed for an easy lay-up, this wasn’t good enough for him. Bird’s method had to include the element of demoralization, so he would spot the 3-point line and pull up from there for a five-point swing, arrogant smirk included.
Bird’s Celtics were so disdained in the black community that even Boston’s black players drew our ire. M.L. Carr, a reserve, routinely whipped the crowd at the Boston Garden into a frenzy, turning the un-air conditioned building into what appeared to be a version of the GOP convention, with the grinning Carr channeling an early version of Michael Steele.
The Lakers were the antithesis of all of this, and they came riding to the rescue, brothers in white hats, sitting atop stallions. Magic was from Michigan (Motown). Jamal Wilkes was nicknamed “Silk.” But more importantly he was actually “Cornbread,” from the unapologetically black movie Cornbread, Earl and Me. And of course there was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar had long since exchanged his government name, Lew Alcindor, and had adopted the Muslim faith. Black Power couldn’t have been anymore personified than it was in the 7-foot, 2-inch jazz aficionado who wore dark shades on the regular.
The 80s-era Lakers faces off against the Celtics three times, falling to Boston in seven games in 1984 and then exacting revenge twice, defeating the Celtics in six games (1985 and 1987). As a result of the legendary match-up between Bird and Magic the league was saved, and order was returned.
But most of us missed something. Viewing so much of what we are conditioned to see by the media as being black or white with no room for give and take, most of us don’t realize that Boston, which will start five black players tonight, was at the forefront of breaking down racial barriers that many of us, black and white, seem to want to hang around forever.
It was Boston that made Chuck Cooper the first black player ever drafted. It was the Celtics in 1964 that fielded the first all-black starting lineup in the league, beating Texas Western, the first team to win the NCAA Championship with an all black starting five, to history. It was Boston that made Bill Russell the first black coach in league history, and it is Boston that today begins its quest for its 18th championship with African-American coach Doc Rivers at the helm.
While America was watching this great rivalry through the prism of race – one of the things we have perfected along with the help of a brain-washing media – most of us failed to notice that Bird and Magic weren’t remotely concerned with beating the coon or the cracker. They had a common goal and that was simply playing at the highest level possible to win a championship. Unity is crucial to any success in team sports, just as it is important in our day-to-day existence.
We just haven’t gotten the message yet.
Check out a slideshow of the best moments from past Celtics-Lakers finals here