Tonight, elderly sportswriters around the country will soil themselves in unison as the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers take the court to kick off this year's NBA Finals. This will mark the 11th time that the two franchises have met in the Finals, which we admit is remarkable given that the league has only had 62 championships in its history.
But in their rush to hype the series--which really doesn't need any hype, given the quality of the teams and players involved--nearly every major media source has gone out of its way to run columns touting the "historic rivalry" between the two teams. This trend culminated in Sports Illustrated's decision this week to run a two-page pictorial spread of nut-hugger-shorts-era meetings between the two teams.
But all of these maudlin reminiscences do raise a question that we here at the GRBG love to ask when we notice a pre-event hype meme: Who cares? Why should we care about this historic rivalry? The answer is that we probably shouldn't. Because the NBA has no history, and at this point the Celtics and Lakers don't have a rivalry.
History is Dunk
As the blank verse all-stars over at Free Darko have alluded to, the NBA is among the least history-obsessed of the North American sports, and that lack of historical focus has trickled down to the way fans perceive the game. When's the last time you heard anybody (other than Bill Simmons) cite the historic implications of an NBA matchup as a reason to watch? Or indeed seen any media reference to any person or event from the pre Larry-Magic NBA era?
Let's face it: in the collective mind of the general sporting public, the NBA does not exist prior to 1979, giving it an institutionalized sporting memory only slightly longer than that of street luge. Appeals to championship rivalries before that time are as meaningless as baseball references to the dead ball era--Sam Jones might as well be Old Hoss Radburn for all most people care, and peach baskets and flannel uniforms are of limited mass appeal.
So, this recent rash of historical perspective from the eight people on the planet who give even a fractional shit about the pre-Magic era is roughly as useful as tits on bull for 99% of the sporting public. It's useful mainly to keep Bob Ryan off the streets, and does nothing to deepen the average fan's anticipation for or appreciation of this year's series.
Some Learning and Growing May Occur
"But," we hear you say with impeccable straw man timing, "What about the 3 post-1979 Finals between Boston and L.A.? Doesn't that make coverage of the C's-Lakers rivalry relevant to this year's Final?"
Well, no. Because it's not a rivalry if nobody gives a shit about it for 20 years.
Let's perform a little thought experiment: Other than Celtics-Lakers, what are some other great '80s rivalries? And do those rivalries live on in the present?
The big one, obviously, as in the '80s the U.S. spent billions of dollars and untold psychic energy to battle an artificial, polyglot empire of potato farmers and goat herders. The average Celtics fan hated any random Soviet hurdler more than they hated anyone on the Lakers (except Kurt Rambis). But as of about 1991, we all stopped caring. The next time the U.S. plays Russia in hockey, we confidently expect a total television audience of 2.
Remember those playoff battles? Those were great, right? No, we're seriously asking, because we no longer remember.
3. Tiffany-Debbie Gibson
You get the idea.
Rivalries need regular tending in order to have continued resonance. Celtics-Lakers has been limited to generally meaningless bi-annual meetings for the past 2o or so years. That's an awfully long time to have to nurture memories of the halcyon days of yore. We all grew up and stopped caring. And who can blame us?
So please, media, let's have a little more about this year's teams--stuff like Kevin Garnett's competitiveness, Luke Walton's pedigree, Paul Pierce's stab wounds, Kobe Bryant's assault history . . .
On second thought, let's just stick to the box scores.