Celtics: A History of Agony for Lakers

They came from Minneapolis 50 years ago- you think a team in southern California ever would be named "Lakers?'' - and nobody seemed to care.

The big games played in L.A. in those days were not under a roof. As the Ramones sang, people were out there having fun in the warm California sun. Not indoors.

The Rams owned the city until the Dodgers, arriving in 1958, took it from them.

Lakers colors were blue and white. There was a cursive "Los Angeles'' across the jersey. The first home game, October 1960 against the Knicks in the Sports Arena, which had opened only a year earlier, drew 4,008.

Even making the playoffs, which management only could get on local radio by buying airtime, were of little help. You think that rookie named Jerry West had a chance in a personality contest against Sandy Koufax. Huh? Jerry Who?.

It changed the next year. The Lakers made it to the NBA Finals in April 1962, against the Celtics. The rivalry had begun. So had the heartbreak.

The seventh game was tied with seconds remaining. Frank Selvy, who once scored 100 for Furman, had a medium-range jumper. The ball spun out. The script was written. The agony would repeat season after season.

It was Groundhog Day with layups, Celtic layups.

Seven times in nine years the Lakers were in the NBA Finals and couldn't win a single one. The anonymous Lakers became famous in L.A. For disappointment. Your basic Hollywood story, boy meets girl, basketball team loses playoff.

The worst was the 1968-69 season. Again a final against the Celtics. Now the uniforms were gold, and the label on the front was "Lakers.'' They had moved to The Forum, built for spite by new owner Jack Kent Cooke, a feisty Canadian who eventually would dump the franchise and grab the Washington Redskins.

Cooke was pretentious, arrogant and all too positive. The Celtics are old. The Lakers have Wilt Chamberlain. Cooke orders dozens of balloons held in nets, to be released when L.A. wins. But L.A. does not win.

Wilt hurts his knee and leaves the game. Don Nelson, now coaching the Golden State Warriors, throws up a shot that hits the back of the rim, bounces up maybe two feet and drops through; Boston takes it, 108-106. L.A. takes another blow to the jugular.

Fifteen years later, after the Lakers in 1972 finally gained their first title in L.A., whipping the Knicks in the last round, the old battle was renewed. Lakers vs. Celtics in the 1984 finals.

As someone wrote, a new generation learned there really is a hex.

L.A. leads in the last minute of Games 1-4, but the Celts steal Games 2 and 4, in the second game Gerald Henderson intercepting James Worthy's pass. In Game 4 Boston's Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis, a play shown all too often on videotape for the comfort of Laker fans or Rambis, now coach at Minneapolis.

Naturally, there was a Game 7, and naturally, in Boston Garden, where the announced temperature was 91 degrees - winter sport, hah - the Celtics win.

At last in 1985, almost a quarter-century after the frustration began, after the Celtics have beaten L.A. seven consecutive times in the finals, Lakers history is altered. Not that it comes easily.

It was Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird a second straight year, and it was the "Memorial Day Massacre, a 148-114 Celtics win in the opener. Laker coach Pat Riley goes so far as to rip Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has been outplayed considerably by Robert Parish.

A little brains, a little talent, go the lyrics from a song in "Damn Yankees,'' with an emphasis on the latter. Game 2, Kareem erupts 30 points and 17 rebounds, and Riley is not at all critical. The Lakers close it out in their torture chamber, the "Gahden,'' and even the home fans show their appreciation.

Two years later, the Lakers make it two straight against the Celtics, with Magic flipping in that junior sky hook we'll see so frequently in replays the next few days, as long as the current drama goes on.

A half-century ago, nobody in L.A. had a clue about pro basketball. They learned. They adopted. They embraced.

The NFL hasn't been in L.A. for 15 years. The Dodgers haven't won a World Series in 22 years. The Angels are a distant rumor, 30 miles to the southeast in Anaheim.

It's a one-team town, Los Angeles, and the team is the one which worked its way from nowhere to Jack Nicholson's $2,500 courtside seat. The one which the player whose jersey outsells all others and whose jumpshot is all but unstoppable, Kobe Bryant.

Lakers vs. Celtics. For both teams, a lot of history. For L.A., a lot of agony. But all worth it.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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