August 18, 2013 by NowhereButPop
Without a doubt the one thing that is ruining sports today is not drug use, nor are it athletes who want to be rappers, nor is it revenue sharing. No, what is ruining sports across leagues is the lack of any discernible or intense rivalry between teams. It seems like the days of intensive and worthwhile rivalries are over and done with. Whatever happened to rivalries like the Knicks-Pacers rivalry of the 90s, or the Al Davis and the Raiders-rest of the NFL rivalry of the 70s and 80s? Even the fabled Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has cooled off in recent years. Maybe it’s because sports in general have become much softer, or the prevalence of all this buddy-buddy bullshit between opponents. But whatever it is, sports just aren’t as much fun to watch if the opposing teams don’t hate each other’s guts (regardless of if there’s a reason or not).
Most, if not all rivalries adhere to the basic superior-inferior model, where one participant is the defender trying to reassert their dominance, while the other is the challenger, hoping to finally breakthrough and defeat the champion who’s held them down for so long. Certain rivalries that fulfill this paradigm are Bulls-Knicks, Packers-Vikings, Braves-Mets, and Yankees-Red Sox, just to name a few. But there’s one rivalry that sticks out as diverting from this model, and it’s one of the most legendary and transcendent rivalries of them all: Lakers-Celtics. Neither team can claim to be the superior one anymore, as they are both on pretty even footing in regards to each other. Equality doesn’t breed rivalries, but their rivalry has changed so much over the years, that they’ve broken that superior/inferior dichotomy and yet have maintained such a heated rivalry.
Now, if either party can be considered the inferior one in this rivalry, it is the Lakers and it’s because in comparison to the Celtics, they and their fans still see themselves as being the underdog. They feel they have to break the Celtics’ hegemony and establish themselves as the dominant franchise in the NBA. Ironically enough it’s this mentality that keeps them from achieving this potential. Now, between the two teams they’ve won 33 NBA championships, which is half of all NBA Finals ever played. In other words, both the Lakers and Celtics each account for 25% of all NBA championships won. Contrast this to the MLB where the Yankees are the only team to win over 20% of all championships, or the NFL where the Steelers who have won 6 Superbowls, only occupy 15% of all championships won.
By comparison and to fans of the other 28 teams in the league, the Lakers and Celtics are equals to each other with no clear cut winner or loser of the rivalry. But the truth is, both teams would consider themselves the loser of this rivalry. The Lakers have won one less championship than the Celtics, but more importantly are only 3-8 against the Celtics in the Finals. Bill Russell is the reason why Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, and Elgin Baylor only have two rings between the three of them. Bill Russell made everyone forget about George Mikan and the NBA’s very first dynasty: the Minneapolis Lakers. Russell not only upstaged the Lakers by winning 11 championships in 13 years, but he did it by constantly defeating the Lakers. It wasn’t until 1985 that the Lakers finally broke the curse and bested the Celtics. Even if the Lakers win number 17 and 18, they’ll still see themselves as being the underdog behind the Celtics because it’s been ingrained in their collective memory. Although the Lakers are 3-1 against the Celtics since 1985, it doesn’t erase the dominance the Celtics held over the Lakers before that. As a result, a mentality of being perennial losers, despite winning, still exists because the balance of power that exists between the Lakers and the Celtics still favors the Celtics.
To the Lakers, the only thing that matters are the Celtics. The Lakers compete as a dynasty and not as a team; they exist in the past present and the future as all dynastic franchises tend to do. The only other team that compares to them are the Celtics who have crafted their own dynasty at the expense of the Lakers. The Lakers and their fans already know that they are better than all the other teams in the NBA, as a result the Celtics remain the only target remaining, the only opponent left to vanquish.
By contrast the Celtics and their fanbase sees the Lakers as the new kid on the block, the young upstart with designs on them next. This is absolutely true, but what worries the Celtics the most is that they know the Lakers will never stop. Truth be told since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976 the Lakers are the clear cut winner of the rivalry. They’ve won more championships and have beaten the Celtics more times than they’ve lost to the Celtics. As a result the Celtics know that their power base is crumbling, and that it may only be a matter of time before the Lakers officially supplant them as the most successful and dominant franchise of the NBA.
While the Celtics have more championships, and a better record against the Lakers, the Lakers own the monopoly on the fun factor. The fun factor is much more important than most think because it gives way to a legacy, and it proves to be more attractive to fans. The Lakers simply have more fun with their fans and with their legacy. The Celtics are too serious about it almost to the point of self-flagellation. They see it as a burden, something that has to be safeguarded lest someone else overtakes them. Even the Celtics legends don’t want any part of the Celtics. Bill Russell has only gone back to Boston like three times, Kevin McHale is in Houston, and Larry Bird has more loyalty to the Pacers than he does to the Celtics. The Lakers by contrast adore and attract the colorful personalities of Magic Johnson, Kareem, and Shaq. All of these guys are loved by their fans, and can be spotted attending games of their old team. They love the legacy, and want to be a part of its continued success.
Unlike most rivalries, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry transcends both time and players. For as long as the NBA exists the two teams will always be at each other’s throats. One is fighting to maintain their supremacy, and the other is fighting justify their own. It’s not like most other rivalries where one is simply trying to vanquish the other, or where the inferior is trying to breakthrough and supplant the superior. By all definitions the Lakers and the Celtics are both the superior. They only exist as the inferior in their minds. Unlike say the Knicks-Bulls rivalry which only existed for ten years, where the Knicks simply wanted to beat the Bulls, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry is not about defeating an opponent on the court, but it’s about having the better legacy, and being the dominant franchise. Whereas the Bulls beating the Knicks never took anything away from the Knicks, nor did they gain anything by beating them, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry is a zero sum game. A Lakers win is a Celtics loss and vice versa. Because in a rivalry cultivated over 60 years, that has come to serve as the ultimate paradigm, the stakes are at their highest. For neither can live while the other survives.