- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

When Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and the Boston Celtics begin their battle with Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers this week, they will be playing on the NBA’s biggest stage.

But at the same time, they will be playing with the shadows of giants looming over them.

The players will renew a rivalry that features two organizations with a combined 30 of the NBA’s 61 championships.

This year’s matchup marks the 11th time the two have met in the finals.

Those Lakers-Celtics title bouts of the past featured numerous Hall of Famers, including Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy, Elgin Baylor, Kevin McHale and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And of course, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

“It’s a dream come true, man, just thinking about it,” Pierce told reporters Friday. “I think that rivalry really revolutionized the game of basketball, and now I’m a part of it.”

But it hasn’t been much of a rivalry the last 21 seasons.

After denying the Celtics title No. 17 in the 1987 finals, the Lakers returned to the championship round seven more times and captured four more Larry O’Brien trophies. The Celtics, however, failed to reach the finals again following the 1986-87 campaign.

The teams’ reunion in the finals has sparked memories of old and ignited a media frenzy involving Johnson and Bird, who met in the 1984, 1985 and 1987 finals. Although they enjoy seeing their former teams back at the top, both of them prefer to watch from the shadows.

“I’m just happy to see these new Lakers in the championship with these new Celtics because it’s not really about Larry and I now,” Johnson said in a teleconference yesterday. “It’s about what we, of course, have built over the years, but now this is their stage. It’s Kobe’s stage, Garnett’s stage, Paul Pierce’s stage, Ray Allen, Odom’s stage. They will take advantage of it. It’s Doc Rivers’ and Phil Jackson’s stage.”

Said Bird: “Like Magic said earlier, it’s their stage. I really felt bad about doing this [news] conference because I felt that it’s really the players of today’s game. That’s what they should be focusing on. It really doesn’t matter what happened in the ‘80s or ‘50s, ‘60s. It’s what’s happening now.”

Bird said although he and Johnson are the two most commonly associated with the rivalry, the battles began long before they entered the league.

“If you really look at the history of the NBA after the finals, the Celtics and Lakers were combined for half the championships that have been played over the years,” he said. “When you think of the Celtics and Lakers, it don’t start with me and Magic. It goes back to the ‘50s and ‘60s with Russell and Chamberlain. We had a period of a couple decades go by before it really got back into the finals against each other.”

And now two decades after the Bird-Magic induced revival, the Celtics and Lakers are back at it, which both former stars consider good for the game.

“Even though the names have changed as players and coaches, when you think about the most fans around the world who watch basketball, if you ask them what team would they want to see in the finals, they would pick these two teams,” Johnson said.

Bird regrets that Red Auerbach, the architect of Boston’s dynasty, didn’t live to witness his Celtics return to the finals.

“There’s no question that Red would be proud of what’s transpired there in a short period of time,” Bird said of the Celtics’ rebound from last-place team to title contender. “He was all about winning, all about championships. He built the Celtics. That was his body of work, you know. Red Auerbach is a Celtic.

“He’d be thrilled to death right now, probably wouldn’t be able to sleep, be as nervous as the players. It would be great for him. I just wish he was around to see it.”

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