It was the first meeting in the finals for these two teams, and matched two of the greatest NBA players of all time—the Lakers’ Elgin Baylor and the Celtics’ Bill Russell against each other.
The Celtics swept the series in four games, winning their second championship in three years and the first of what would be eight in a row.
The greatest rivalry in all of American professional sports was born.
It has been a rivalry that, in the 50-plus years since that first finals matchup, has featured most of the biggest talents in the NBA.
Players like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwan, Julius Erving, and Charles Barkley have generally been exceptions to the rule that the biggest names in basketball have always played for the Lakers and/or the Celtics.
Somehow, the Lakers and Celtics have had no trouble at all developing the “there must be something in the water” caliber talent. The list of greats developed by these teams includes Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, Jerry West, John Havlicek, Gail Goodrich, Russell, Baylor, and Bob Cousy, amongst others.
The Lakers and Celtics have also always been apt to acquire the right pieces to put their teams over the top.
Indeed, the key to the Lakers’ greatness over the years may not have been developing talent so much as it has been acquiring the greatest centers to play the game. I'm talking, of course, about Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal.
Meanwhile, the Celtics have built two of the greatest teams of the last 30 years on the strength of other teams’ players.
The 1980s Celtics dynasty depended on key players acquired from other teams, including Robert Parish, Bill Walton, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, and the incomparable Tiny Archibald.
Of course, the Celtics have put together one of the most talented teams since the 1990s Bulls disbanded, with the likes of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rasheed Wallace (a.k.a. “talented when he wants to be”) joining Pierce and Rajon Rondo for the last three years.
But this isn’t just about the players. If it were, I’d be remiss not to mention the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, and San Antonio Spurs. This is also about a rivalry being played out on the championship stage.
The Lakers and Celtics have matched up in the NBA Finals an unfathomable 19 times in the last 50 years. No rivalry in any of the other major professional sports leagues even comes close, not even the NHL, whose reluctance to expand kept the league very small until the late 1960s.
None of the other great rivalries in sports are championship rivalries.
All of Major League Baseball’s rivalries—Yankees-Red Sox, Giants-Dodgers, Cubs-Cardinals, Mets-Phillies, Indians-Tigers—are intra-divisional for Pete’s sake. Other than a couple of great 2003 and 2004 playoff series, these teams rarely even meet in the playoffs, let alone the World Series.
The great rivalries in the NFL tend to be either intra-divisional or, at the very least, intra-conference. Only Patriots-Colts, Cowboys-49ers, and maybe Raiders-Bengals (all you youngsters can check it out on YouTube) seem to cross the divisional boundary lines.
The best the NFL can offer up to the Lakers-Celtics would be the Cowboys-Steelers rivalry. These two teams have met for the NFL Championship (via the Super Bowl) three times, in 1975, 1978, and 1995. And while those Super Bowls featured the team of the 1970s (the Steelers), and the team of the 1990s (the Cowboys), this is hardly a tradition that rivals Lakers-Celtics.
MLB’s version of Lakers-Celtics would be Yankees-Dodgers, which hasn’t been a heated rivalry since the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1958, and hasn’t even been a World Series matchup since the two teams squared off in 1981. All told, the Yankees and Dodgers have met in the World Series 11 times, with the Yankees taking eight of the 11 series.
Perhaps only the NHL—the league with whom the NBA has to share its arenas—can come close in the championship rivalries department, with the Montreal Canadiens having done battle with every team in the NHL at least once, and with teams like the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Chicago Blackhawks at least five times each.
It's not great rivalries—it's scarcity. If you put together a league of basically six teams, and have them play for 80 years, eventually the head-to-heads begin to add up.
This brings us to another factor which sets Lakers-Celtics apart from all others—resiliency.
Going back to the Basketball Association of America, a precursor to the NBA founded in 1946, the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers have appeared in the NBA Finals in every decade of the BAA/NBA’s existence, while the Celtics, who missed the 1940s and the 1990s, have won the most total Finals overall and appear to be poised to be the first team to make it to the finals in the 2010s.
No other major professional sports league has had two teams accomplish this.
Major League Baseball has been dominated by the New York Yankees since the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Bombers in 1920—the Yankees have won 27 World Series titles, and no one else has more than 10.
For all the hoopla about Yankees-Red Sox as a great rivalry, the Red Sox have only triumphed over the Yankees two or three times in their history.
Is this a rivalry?
The NHL has simply been dominated by the Montreal Canadiens essentially since its inception. The Canadians have won 24 Stanley Cups, while no other team has won more than 13.
The NFL doesn’t have much of an all-time most dominant team, because it seems to change every decade.
In the 1960s, it was the Green Bay Packers; in the '70s, the Steelers; in the '80s, the 49ers; in the '90s, the Cowboys; and in the first decade of this century, it was the Patriots. NFL dominance doesn’t carry over from decade to decade—NFL dynasties come and go, to be measured against each other without getting to face off against each other.
Meanwhile, in the NBA, the Lakers and the Celtics are neck and neck for the title of most dominant team. With their victory over the Orlando Magic in last year’s Finals, the Lakers now have 15 titles, which is only two behind the Celtics' 17. No other team has more than the six that the Bulls put together in the 1990s.
When it comes to rivalry, no two teams can match the Lakers and the Celtics. These two teams are essentially locked in an epic, Highlander-style, decades-long battle for NBA superiority, and it is far from over.
Truth be told, the aspect of Lakers-Celtics that makes it the greatest rivalry above all others is that, sitting here today, there is no clear answer to the question “What is the Greatest NBA franchise of all-time?”
Fifty years after meeting in an NBA Finals for the first time, the Lakers and Celtics are still battling that one out, and I doubt they’ll have it solved by the 100th anniversary of that meeting.
Maybe they’ll have an answer before the end of the 21st century.
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