Liotta: Rivalry isn’t rekindled … yet

Lakers vs. Celtics.

The NBA rolls out the clips, trying to muster the importance of the rivalry. All it needs is a little time.

To longtime basketball fans, the matchup rekindles memories of the game at its best. However, no matter what the 2008 versions of these two teams do in these Finals, it won’t match history. Not yet at least.

For the decade known as the ’80s, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics were two heavyweights at the top of the division, eyeing their rival from the opening day of training camp. They were the measure of one another. Ali-Frazier. McEnroe-Borg. Nicklaus-Palmer.

For 10 NBA seasons from 1979-80 and 1988-89, either the Lakers or the Celtics were part of Finals, with the two of them meeting three times and the Lakers taking two of the three. It was as great a rivalry as sports can muster.

Magic vs. Bird. Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy vs. McHale and Parrish. Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, with a touch of Bob McAdoo. Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge — even Bill Walton getting involved.

The Lakers had the Forum and the celebrities. The Celtics had the Garden, the parquet floor and the mystique of history. Throw in Chick Hearn and Johnnie Most, and you had all every element you needed.

The thing about it then was that every basketball fan, no matter what team they rooted for all season long, took sides with passion when these two teams squared off. There were no bystanders when it came to the Lakers and Celtics.

Many of these elements are in place today and the game may be better now than it’s ever been, but it’s going to take both teams playing at the top of their conference the next three or four years for the rivalry to reach the heights it enjoyed in the ’80s.

Random thoughts:

» If the Stanley Cup finals set your postseason bar, the NBA Finals have a tall order ahead. The Pittsburgh Penguins winning Game 5 in triple overtime after tying the game with 34.3 seconds left in regulation. The Detroit Red Wings prevailing in Game 6 on Pittsburgh ice.

The swings in momentum. Exhaustion. Pucks to the face. Bone-rattling checks. The upstart Penguins gave a good account of themselves, but it was obvious the Red Wings were the superior team.

To see Chris Chelios in the Red Wings’ championship photos at the age of 46 is mind-boggling.

» Anybody who says professionals are above it all should watch the great ones try and reach a big milestone. The latest example? Ken Griffey Jr.’s attempt to reach 600 home runs is another case of a great player trying too hard, thinking too much.

Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner.

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