Well, parts one and two of the new ESPN 30 for 30 "Best of Enemies" Celtics vs. Lakers documentary finally premiered Tuesday night, and delivered nicely after much anticipation - similar to the defining Boston/LA rivalry of the 1980s. While I feared it was going to be a very stereotyped rehashing of the Celtic/Laker rivalry, I was pleasantly surprised that director Jim Podhoretz put together two pretty good segments of solid depth and historical background thus far.
I was particularly impressed by the even-handed approach to the 1960s rivalry and how that era of the Celtics were at the forefront of racial progress on the court and sidelines. However, they did gloss over too much of those great 1960s Finals, which probably have less film to rehash than the 1980s series.
I also liked how the show did not back away from the obvious racial overtones and implications of the 1980s Boston vs. Los Angeles rivalry in politically correct fashion. The show met the complex yet clear racial story-line that added a crucial, intense subtext to the rivalry head on, replete with the issue of busing in Boston and in Lansing, Michigan, Earvin Johnson's hometown.
Still, there were a few omissions that bothered me. They did not mention that Jerry West became the first and only player from a losing team to win the Finals MVP award after the crushing seven-game loss to Boston in the swansong of Celtic greats Bill Russell and Sam Jones in the 1969 championship series. West authored a 42-13-12 triple-double with a strained leg muscle in that demoralizing 108-106 game seven defeat - after scoring 53 and 45 points in games earlier in the series without the three-point line or star calls. A disconsolate West dragged his injured leg all the way to the top of the Forum for post-game interviews and the trophy presentation, yet never complained, showing true grit.
It is hard to imagine a superstar player doing that today, with all the whining and complaining that regularly happens in games now - despite (or maybe in part because of) all the star calls, great salaries, chartered flights, high per diems and other player amenities enjoyed now that pioneers like West and Russell helped pave the way for. Given a green car as MVP, West gave it away because the color reminded him of the Celtics (reportedly he won't even wear green to this day) - plus he was disgusted by losing agonizingly for a sixth time that decade to Boston in the Finals, three times in seventh games by a combined total of seven points.
When summing up the attendance and ratings problems of the NBA in the late 1970s, the show completely glossed over serious in-game violence and racial factors. When then-Laker Kermit Washington slugged popular Houston All-Star forward Rudy Tomjanovich in the face in 1977 - nearly killing him while Rudy T merely was rushing in to break up a fight - white America shuddered and got turned off. At the time the Steelers and Cowboys were in the midst of their version of the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry in the NFL, which was far, far more popular than the "brown ball league" in the late 1970s.
Another scary black on white fight included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar slugging rookie Milwaukee center Kent Benson, the overall number one pick playing in his VERY first game in 1977, with a sucker punch from the side that broke his cheekbone and nose, and gave the rookie two black eyes. Many observers feel like the punch took away Benson's natural aggressiveness and effectively curtailed his career. Benson actually elbowed Kareem in the stomach to start it, but Jabbar's response was very disproportionately excessive.
In another big fight, Jim Eakins was cold-cocked by Bob Lanier. Several other similar incidents also took place, too numerous to note in this article. Also, the big popular big market teams (and their stars) who defined and drove the NBA in the 1960s and early 1970s were no longer very good. The uber-popular New York Knicks fell apart in 1974 after the retirements of Hall of Famers Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas. Wilt Chamberlain retired in 1973, followed by Jerry West in 1974. Thus, the Lakers dropped to last the year after Mr. Clutch retired. Oscar Robertson also retired in 1974 after his Bucks lost to Boston in the 1974 Finals, and Milwaukee also sank to last despite still having Jabbar.
John Havlicek retired in 1978 after winning eight titles in 16 seasons with a rapidly declining Boston club that missed the playoffs in1978 and 1979. The team that was anointed to replace the Knicks and Celtics as the denizens of great team basketball that appealed to the mostly white fan base, the 1977 champion Portland Trailblazers, saw their mini-dynasty implode due to devastating injuries to superstar flower-child center Bill Walton, Bob Gross and others. The Blazers had started out 50-10 before league MVP Walton went down, and he was never the same dominant player. The budding Walton vs. Jabbar Western rivalry, which promised to be the new Wilt vs. Russell with a UCLA and racial twist, was over before it really heated up.
Instead of an almost certain repeat, the Blazers lost in round two to upstart Seattle. In 1978 and 1979, two good but not very exciting or popular small-market teams met in consecutive Finals - 44-38 Washington and 47-35 Seattle. The ratings were not good and the slowdown, bruising brand of ball was not exciting or artful, even though both series were close and competitive. In addition the top Washington player, Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes, was seen as selfish and was not a popular player. Seattle, which started out 5-17 in 1977 before catching fire and upsetting the Walton-less Blazers, featured a bunch of relative unknowns including future Celtic great Dennis Johnson, backcourt mate Gus "the Wizard" Williams, seven-footer Marvin "the Human Eraser" Webster and a young center-forward named Jack Sikma from tiny Illinois Wesleyan.
As a result of poor playoff and declining season television ratings, the NBA was sinking into its darkest period when the 1980 and 1981 Finals would be shown on tape delay on weeknights. In addition during that era, many top white players who appealed to the white fan base suffered severe injuries that curtailed their careers and dampened interest in an increasingly black-dominated league. First Walton, the latest savior and great white hope, went down. Philadelphia All-Star guard Doug Collins suffered multiple foot stress fractures and then a severe knee injury, and had to retire in his prime at age 30. Well-liked Hall of Fame 76er forward Billy Cunningham was been forced to retire in his early 30s in 1975 with a major knee injury despite still having some good seasons left. Rick Barry, the 1975 Finals MVP, retired in 1980 after losing to Boston and rookie Bird in the playoffs. Cerebral Knick sharpshooter and passer Bill Bradley, a popular everyman turned Rhodes Scholar from Princeton, retired in 1977 to go into politics. In his prime, defending scoring champion and fan favorite Pete Maravich blew his knee out landing awkwardly after throwing a long pass between his legs in 1978. He never fully recovered and retired prematurely after a short stint with the Celtics in 1980.
Another Celtic great, Dave Cowens, also had to retire in the pre-season of 1980 due to nagging foot injuries. Perhaps more than any other player of the 1970s, the athletic and intense redhead embodied the type of all-out effort player many white fans loved to cheer, admire and emulate. Flashy ex-Celtic guard Paul Westphal suffered a sress fracture for Seattle shortly after playing in his fifth straight All-Star Game, and never was the same. Mitch Kupchak, arguably the league's best sixth man and a key member of the 1978 Bullets title team, blew out his knee 26 games into his Laker tenure in 1981 and was relegated to being a backup power forward the rest of his career. His North Carolina twin tower runningmate Tom LaGarde also suffered two severe knee injuries that ruined his promising career. Bob Gross, the high-flying, skilled and cerebral small forward who moved without the ball well a la Havlicek, never was the same after his foot injuries in 1978. In addition, the merger with the ABA brought a playground style of one-on-one basketball into the staid NBA that turned off a lot of basketball purists.
My own high school varsity coach, a dyed in the wool basketball fundamentalist to the Nth degree, used to abbreviate/call the NBA "No Basketball at All" even in the resurgent days of the early and mid 1980s, and his attitude was shared by many others. Needless to say any flashy NBA type shots, 20-footers or one-on-one play were seriously frowned upon by this coach, who hated missed blockouts, loved 44-42 final scores and loved even more untalented guys who gave up their body to take charging fouls. Our pre-game warm-up music highlight was even "Gonna Fly Now" from Rocky, but I digress.
All these things contributed to a major downturn in NBA popularity in the late 1970s. But then Larry Bird, Earvin Johnson and Julius Erving helped resurrect a dying league - yet it was mostly Larry, who appealed to the white fan base, who revived the league's most popular and polarizing franchise, and in turn, the NBA. One very small thing done in many video recaps happened early in part one when Bird was shown grabbing the back of his head while the fans stormed the Boston garden court, implying that it was after beating the Lakers - when it was really after Boston beat the 76ers 91-90 on his last-minute banker in game seven of the 1981 eastern finals, the best series I have ever seen (the 1984 Finals is the best FINALS I have ever seen).
I can't say I am a fan of the very biased, angry narration of Laker fan Ice Cube either. I guess they had to find a counterpoint to the more understated Celtic narration done by Bostonian Donnie Wahlberg.
The show also failed to mention that when Bird was named Rookie of the Year over Johnson in 1979-80, Larry was also voted first team all-league and was third in the MVP balloting. Johnson was voted to start the All-Star Game by the fans, BUT BIRD was not, despite a mostly white fan base. Larry still was the main reason the East won the 1980 All-Star Game, and his two long corner shots and miraculous batted out of midair no look lefty pass to George Gervin as the pass of the season - yet was not shown in the section talking about Larry's passing skills.
In fact, after Larry came off the bench late and missed a 20-footer at the buzzer of regulation with the game tied, Johnson clapped his hands right in front of Bird as they both went to their respective benches. That should have been included, as well as the Bird explosion in OT that won the game. They still did not play up the James Worthy push in the back of Cedric Maxwell in game six of the 1984 Finals nearly as much as the much-publicized McHale clothesline of Kurt Rambis in game four.
The show also played into the myth of Earvin Johnson playing center in the 1980 Finals sixth game when Kareem was out with an injured ankle. Former 76er center Darryl Dawkins has also called "BS" on this mythology CBS and the major media put on the public for the popular rookie. Jabbar had actually dominated the series with 33 points and 14 rebounds a game, and reportedly was named Finals MVP after the Lakers upset the 76ers in game six at the Spectrum. But supposedly the NBA PR people asked the media to re-vote since Jabbar was not on hand to get the award since he was back in LA nursing his badly sprained ankle and preparing for what everyone expected to be a game seven showdown.
Johnson did play the game of his life in game six with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists, but he did not play center. Ex-Cleveland big man Jim Chones, a 6-11 veteran center, played the pivot. Just because Johnson showed up in the circle for the opening jump does not mean he played center, and as I recall he did not even jump for the tip. Johnson did not guard 6-11 muscular post Dawkins (an Orlando native and precursor to Shaquille O'Neal), he guarded 76er forwards Bobby Jones and Julius Erving, as well as their much shorter guards. he did not play inside much, like centers of that time.
The unique Laker "smaller-ball" lineup also threw the 76ers off, who probably had an unforgivable letdown with the dominating Jabbar, the league MVP, out. Underrated Laker small forward Jamaal Wilkes also badly outplayed 76er favorite counterpart Julius Erving, scoring 37 points in the clincher, but that always gets lost in the hype and headlines about Johnson, who had played just an ok championship series before game six.
Another Johnson gaffe was not mentioned that led ultimately to the dismissal of head coach Pual Westhead, an issue part one covered. In the 1981 playoffs with the Lakers behind 87-86 in the final seconds of the decisive third game of the then best of three first round mini-series, Earvin Johnson disobeyed coach Paul Westhead's orders to get the ball into Kareem on the last play and tried to be the hero again. Instead Johnson dribbled down and shot a foul line fade-away air-ball over 6-2 Houston guard Tom Henderson, then whined that he was fouled when replays showed Henderson never came close to touching him.
This massive choke job eliminated the Lakers and really paved the way for Westhead to be fired after Johnson complained he was "not having fun" and requested a trade early in the next season.
Incidentally, unheralded Rocket guard and future NBA coach Mike Dunleavy had nailed the winning perimeter jumper to put Houston ahead 87-86 in the decisive game of the mini-series. In the recap of the game five (aka Sauna Game) of the 1984 Finals, they showed Bird faking out Jabbar, then heading upcourt to receive a return pass from Maxwell for a slam dunk that I am pretty sure happened in game seven. They also failed to mention that Maxwell and ML Carr were calling Johnson "Cheesy" throughout the series because of his supposedly cheesy, fake smile. Then McHale began ceiling him Tragic after his major gaffes at the end of games two and four - and he was tragic at the end of game seven.
Overall, I thought the first two parts were pretty good, better than I anticipated. They did a good job of laying the groundwork of the Laker/Celtic rivalry from the 1950s and 1960s, building up through the late 1970s downturn and on to the 1980s trilogy of great Finals.
One thing that most people may not know is that after Bird finished his senior season at Indiana State, the Celtics tried to get him to play the last month or so of the 1978-79 NBA season to get his feet wet and capitalize on their newly-popular star's meteoric rise from obscurity to college Player of the Year. But Bird was playing baseball for the Sycamores and wanted to finish his education degree, and said no.
The show also, understandably, did not talk about another seamy side to the 1984 Finals that I clearly recall at the time. There were major rumors that the series was fixed after the late, tying game two Henderson steal and layup, and subsequent gaffe by Johnson of dribbling the clock out. The cries got a little louder when strange officiating in game six at LA helped the Lakers erase a double-digit deficit and force a game seven ratings bonanza. Even Bird complained publicly about the league and new commissioner David Stern potentially costing him and the Celtics a title in exchange for increased interest and golden seventh game TV ratings that would allow the struggling league to charge far more in advertising dollars.
I also think it may have been a mistake to add part two's one-hour segment right after the two-hour opening segment. It almost seemed like too much a bit too long, for opening night. Would three nights in a row be too much?
I am not looking forward to part 3 because of the outcome in the 1985 and 1987 Finals, but both times Boston was shorthanded due to injuries - Maxwell (knee) in 1985, and especially 1987 after the pre-season death of number two overall pick/surefire star Len Bias as well as injuries to Bill Walton (foot), Scott Wedman (heel), Robert Parish (multiple sprains on both ankles in playoffs), Danny Ainge (sprained knee in game 7 vs. Milwaukee) and Kevin McHale (broken foot, sprain on other ankle, flu).
Larry Bird played what I believe is still a post-season record of 1,015 minutes over 23 grueling playoff games that hot spring. There is no doubt in mind that his over-exertions and back injuries led to the double Achilles surgery early in the 1988-89 campaign. And Kevin McHale still limps to this day from playing valiantly (and well) with a broken bone in his foot throughout those rancorous 1987 playoffs.
Look to see if they show the classless LA fans jeering him as he hobbled off the court after re-injuring his foot in game two at the Forum in part three. After his clothesline of Rambis in 1984, numerous Lakers (Bob McAdoo, Johnson, Byron Scott and A.C. Green in game four of the 1987 Finals) tried to pick fights with McHale because Bird was too bad to mess with and the normally unaggressive Kevin was looked on as relatively soft - and unstoppable. As Johnson admitted years later, the Lakers, despite Riley calling the Celtics bullies and whining incessantly over rough play, were as big as or bigger than Boston (featuring a 6-8.5, 230-pound point guard, two 6-9 forwards and a 7-2 center) and were in their own way "very physical. We bumped you, we pushed you, we didn't let you run in a straight line," said Johnson.
Also, will they detail how the Lakers faced TWO sub-.500 teams out West in the first three rounds of the memorable 1987 playoffs, as well as a 42-40 Golden State team, en route to rhe Finals. In the West Finals, LA swept a 39-43 Seattle team!! The rested and healthy Lakers played just 12 mostly blowout games in the run and gun West to reach the 1987 Finals, while the Celtics battled through 17 far tougher games back in the much more rugged, humid and brutal East.
Meanwhile, injury-plagued Boston had to play Jordan's Bulls in round one, then survive two bruising seven-game series with 50-plus win teams in Milwaukee and Detroit - completed over just 26 days. One could argue that the first round sweep of the MJ-led Bulls provided as tough a series opponent as any team LA faced out West.
We will see how much the pivotal game four of the 1987 Finals is portrayed, because there were NUMEROUS missed bad calls in the second half that allowed LA to rally from 16 down. Especially a goaltend by Jabbar that referee Earl Strom, who was miked up for the game by CBS, admitted later that he and his partner Hugh Evans blew in a critical game that eventually was decided by a single point. In game four at Boston, the Lakers shot 14 free throws in the fourth quarter, compared to just one by the Celtics. 14-1! I wonder if that will be mentioned in part three. Michael Cooper kicked a pass out of bounds that was erroneously called a jump, which subsequently was prematurely called a jump again when Ainge had possession clearly. LA then won the tip. With Boston ahead 107-106 after a Bird corner three-pointer, a missed potential tying free throw by Jabbar in the final seconds that led to the winning hook shot by Johnson was actually tipped out by Mychal Thompson, who also clearly pushed McHale in the back on the rebound.
Watch closely for this in part three. Evans ruled the ball went out in LA's favor, a call almost never given to the shooting team when the whistle is in doubt. No wonder an incensed Red Auerbach followed the refs to their dressing room, screaming that they cost Boston the game - and in reality the title and the rubber match in their trilogy of 1980s title showdowns. Instead of a 2-2 tie and having game five at home under the 2-3-2 format instituted in 1985, beaten and bruised up Boston was down 3-1. Not until Cleveland in 2016 did a team ever come back from a 1-3 Finals deficit to win.
Watch also Larry's heroically stoic reaction after missing the rushed 22-footer at the buzzer which would have won game four, straight on line and just a hair long. Surrounded by lakers near their bench, he never whined, complained, fell to the floor, cried or made excuses that he was fouled. He simply walked off the floor after suffering the most crushing defeat of his pro career, one that ultimatelyy tipped the championship series rivalry in the Laker (and his nemesis Johnson's) favor for the decade. I can't help but think Larry had the many game four blown calls in mind when about 25 years later, when Bird and Johnson appeared on the David Letterman late night talk show show together, he semi-joked that "the Lakers cheated" to win the title over Boston.
To contact the author, you can email Cort Reynolds at email@example.com.