“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Probably the best way to describe what happened on May 23, 1982, in The Boston Garden. The Celtics were down 3-1 earlier in the series and managed to clinch a Game 7 at home. They had the momentum and home-court advantage, things were looking good.
But, Dr. J and Andrew “The Boston Strangler” Toney had other plans. With help from Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones, the Sixers won Game 7, 120 – 106, and went on to the Finals. You can imagine the heartbreak in the Garden. Your team makes an improbable comeback, and then you lose at home. Would anyone be surprised if the crowd at Boston Garden made it a bit unpleasant for the Sixers in the final few minutes? No. That’s why everyone was surprised when this happened.
Yep, that’s the entire Boston Garden cheering the Sixers on, wishing them good luck against the LA Lakers. It’s not like Boston and Philly had a history of friendly relationships, far from it. But there was always mutual respect. Those flashy, Hollywood LA cats, on the other hand, didn’t get a lot of respect on the East Coast. The Lakers weren’t just a rival from the other side of the country. For the rest of the league in the 80s, being a Lakers fan immediately identified you as a bandwagon fan.
The Garden was a building from 1920, and it had no airconditioning or any other entertainment factor except ten guys playing basketball. The Forum was brand new, had a jumbotron, cheerleaders, they would play loud music to make the game seem more attractive, shoot out t-shirts from a cannon, and they had the most popular night club in LA inside the arena. For everyone else, the Lakers were not a basketball team; they were the lead role in a highly produced Holywood reality show.
This reminds me of my mom and her attitude towards my practice of performing chores around the house. My folks worked a lot, so my sister and I would have duties around the house. Saturday mornings were my time to vacuum the entire place. I’d make it entertaining, blast music in my ears, and dance around the house. One time my mom came home early and found me sitting in the kitchen and vacuuming the entire room without getting up. (It worked, trust me.) She was confused, a bit annoyed, and felt it symbolized everything that was wrong with my generation. (Above all else, she laughed her ass off and used it as a crown jewel in her, partly legitimate argument, that I wasn’t the most hard-working kid she ever met.) What I came to realize from the conversation that ensued and others like it, was that for my mom there had to be a certain level of suffering involved for it to qualify as work. Having so much fun meant I was doing something wrong.
For basketball fans in the 80s, you appreciated basketball if it came at a price of joining thousands in a communal sauna experience, going through boring time-outs and half times with basketball as the main star. Now these LA guys were having a blast the entire time?? They must not appreciate the game as much as we do if they are not suffering as much! This came on top of a long Celtics – Lakers rivalry. It started in the 60s with Bill Russell beating the Lakers six times in the Finals that decade. Then Magic and Larry showed up at the same time, and it was on.
To be fair, I don’t want to make it seem like the Celtics were everyone’s darling when playing against the Lakers. There was another side of the rivalry that drew roots from something that’s still one of the most critical social issues in the US. Here’s how LA Times columnist Scott Osler wrote during the rivalry.
“Is it bad that a segment of white sports fans in Boston have jumped on the Celtic bandwagon because the team’s leader and superstar, Larry Bird, is white?”Scott Osler, LA Times
Boston never had a stellar record when it came to racial equality. Bill Rusell called Boston “a flea market of racism” and agreed to have his jersey retired under the condition that there were no fans in the arena. Russell knew the event would be full of cheers and adoration, and he felt it would be an uneven representation of his experience in Boston. An experience that included his house in north Boston vandalized with racist graffiti and someone defecating in his bed.
“You know. I remember when [Carl] Yastrzemski was a rookie [for the Red Sox]. One of the writers said, ‘Too bad he ain’t one of us.’ This is what made Boston different for me. It really went past black or white. They would be into ‘Is he a Jew?’ ‘Is he Irish?’ ‘Is he Italian?’ And it seemed all the ethnic groups were contemptuous of each other. It wasn’t just that the whites were contemptuous of the blacks, or vice versa.”Bill Russell, Boston Globe
That being said, for hardcore basketball fans on the East Coast, loosing to their conference rivals sucked. Losing to the Lakers left a scar. That’s why “Beat LA” survived all these years later, and can be heard in basketball arenas, ballparks, and football stadiums. Jumbotrons and T-shirt cannons may have been replaced with avocado and kale chips, but the point remains the same.