Jun 06, 2024, 06:27AM

I Hate the Celtics!

Loving the Lakers had one mandatory provision.

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In Game 4 of the 1985 NBA Championship, Dennis Johnson hit a buzzer beater to defeat the Lakers and tie the series at two games each. As a 20-year-old Lakers fanatic, I lost my mind. I watched the game with my dad at my parents’ house and went into the backyard to channel my rage. I kicked a stray basketball into the neighbors backyard. A moment later, I heard the sound of shattering glass followed by a woman’s scream. The basketball destroyed the neighbor’s glass table and sent shards everywhere. No one was hurt, but I had to fork over $500 to replace their poolside table.

My hatred for the Boston Celtics was cemented that day. As Lakers star Magic Johnson once said, “It’s one thing to lose, but losing to the Celtics is the worst feeling I’ve ever had.” This was from a man who endured an HIV-positive diagnosis. To Magic, learning he might die was less painful than losing a basketball game to his rival. This is irrational. But I get it, Magic.

As a teenager and young adult, my love for the Lakers knew no bounds. Any true Lakers fan will tell you that loving the Lakers also means hating the Celtics. Why? It goes back to 1959 when the Celtics first defeated the Minneapolis Lakers for the championship.
For the next 10 years, the Celtics dispatched the Lakers seven times in the NBA finals. The Lakers had Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain but it wasn’t enough. 

With each victory, Celtics coach Red Auerbach lit up his cigar and gloated. The greatest indignity occurred in 1969 at the Los Angeles Forum. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke placed 5000 balloons in the rafters in anticipation of his team finally beating Boston. Thanks to a lucky bounce on a Don Nelson jumper, the Celtics won again and the balloons never came down.

Most of this happened before I was born or during my early childhood. My dad was a huge Lakers fan and he felt the pain. In 1972, he took me to see the Lakers beat the New York Knicks for their first championship in Los Angeles. We celebrated by going for corned beef and brownies at Arts Delicatessen in Studio City. I never saw my dad so happy. We cheered and hugged and talked about the stellar play of Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain. From that day forth, loving the Lakers was a way to get closer to my father and achieve ultimate happiness.

The Lakers and Celtics struggled through most of the 1970s. Then came 1980 when the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson and the Celtics chose Larry Bird. These two superstars brought new popularity to the NBA and revived the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. Each player embodied his city. Magic was flashy, stylish and charismatic. He was a movie star in an athlete’s body. Larry Bird was a blue-collar, trash-talking assassin. He embodied the tough-minded Boston ethos, like Whitey Bulger in a basketball uniform.

I hated Bird. Every time he played the Lakers, he destroyed us. He admitted hating the Lakers and Los Angeles as well. In my mind, this meant he hated me. Bird became public enemy number one.

In 1984, Magic and Bird finally competed against each other in the finals. The Lakers were better. I’ll always believe this. But thanks to a few unlucky breaks (James Worthy’s bad pass, Kevin McHale’s dirty takedown of Kurt Rambis, M.L. Carr’s disgusting white towel), the Celtics won. Magic Johnson was crushed. So was I. My dad was so disconsolate, he remained silent at the dinner table for the next month.

The following year the two teams met again in the Finals. The Lakers prevailed. What made the victory sweeter was that it happened on Boston Garden’s parquet floor. While my dad and I celebrated in front of the tv set, we loved seeing the agonized faces of Celtics fans. This wasn’t a moment for humility. It was a moment of jubilant redemption for all those agonizing years of losing to the Celtics. The greatest image was the look on Red Auerbach’s face as he witnessed the Lakers celebrating on Boston’s floor.
Once again, my dad and I drove to Arts Delicatessen to celebrate. We cheered madly among countless Lakers fans as the confused octogenarian waitresses delivered bowls of matzo ball soup and bulging pastrami sandwiches.

Loving the Lakers had one mandatory provision. You had to hate the Celtics and the city of Boston. Not mere dislike, but unadulterated hostility. My brother lived in Boston. Whenever I visited him I maintained a chip on my shoulder, scowling at every neighborhood kid shooting baskets with his friends. I took a special trip on the T Line subway so I could stand outside Boston Garden and spit on a poster of Larry Bird.
In my case, hating the Celtics meant banishing green from my wardrobe. If a restaurant had a green awning, I refused to eat there. If a friend drove a green car, I wouldn’t drive with him. When chewing green food like broccoli or asparagus, I bit down extra hard as if chomping on Bird’s finger or biting off Kevin McHale’s toe.

One of the Celtics’ biggest fans is sports personality Bill Simmons. In his book The Book of Basketball, he wrote about attending Celtics games as a boy with his father and booing the Lakers. He was like me, except he’d gone to the dark side. He loved disparaging Kobe Bryant, emphasizing Kobe’s selfish nature. Like many Celtics fans, his childhood hero was Larry Bird. In 2012, Simmons interviewed Bird. He asked, “If you were to start an NBA franchise today, what player would you select?” Bird answered, “Kobe Bryant.” Simmons’ eyes bulged in disbelief and horror as his childhood hero expressed admiration for his adulthood villain. As a Celtics hater, this memory still brings infinite joy.

Hating the Celtics stayed with me as I grew older and more mature. In 2008, the Lakers and Celtics met again in the finals. The stars this time were Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. It was 21 years since their last Finals meeting but for true Lakers fans the animosity remained. I’m certain Celtics fans felt the same way.

Before Game 7 of the 2008 finals, I was so nervous I took a four-mile walk with my wife. We ended up on Larchmont Avenue and stopped at Crumbs Bakery for sweets. I chose a red velvet cupcake. My wife made a fateful decision that triggered the biggest fight we ever had. She bought a piece of Boston Cream Pie.

“How dare you,” I screamed as if I’d caught her drowning our cat in the bathtub. “You’ve cursed the Lakers.”

She laughed, thinking I was joking. I wasn’t. I fumed as we walked home, giving her the silent treatment. I slammed the front door then watched the game in a state of pique. The Lakers were destroyed by 39 points. I was convinced my wife played a role. It took several weeks for me to apologize. In truth, I never fully forgave her until the Lakers avenged the defeat in 2010 beating the Celtics in seven games.

This irrational hatred for the Celtics is a character flaw. But even as I reach 60, my anti-Celtics fervor remains though I no longer hate Larry Bird. (His Bill Simmons interview redeemed him.)

The Lakers were eliminated in the opening round of this years playoffs. The Celtics have made it to the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. If they win, they will surpass the Lakers for most NBA championships ever. (They’re currently tied at 17 championships each.) For the next two weeks, I’ll cheer against the Celtics with all my heart. I’ll avoid anything green including salads, vegetables and grapes. I understand how pathetic this all sounds. But it’s part of who I am. And I have no regrets.


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