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Armour: Lakers-Celtics Rivalry Does Not Age Well in Documentary

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Boston's Larry Bird and Los Angeles' Magic Johnson battle for position. Photo: Boston Globe

It’s not easy to age well.

That’s one of the biggest takeaways from ESPN’s latest “30 for 30,” Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies. Oh, the rivalry is still riveting, a fascinating snapshot of race and culture in this country seen through the lens of sports. The characters are even more compelling than they were 30 years ago, their perspectives both sharpened and softened by time.

But the games themselves? Yeah, not so much.

I know it’s heretical to say that and, believe me, it pains me to do so. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are icons, and those Celtics and Lakers teams have been burned into my memory as something otherworldly. No team could match either of them for skill and finesse, and the way they played should be the model for every player and team to come.

Or so I thought.

As I watched the three-part documentary, though, I was struck by how both teams looked so … ordinary. Magic dribbling almost exclusively with his right hand, only switching to his left before he took a shot. A numbing number of hook shots and almost no threes. So much walking even Russell Westbrook would raise an eyebrow.

Even that Lakers fast break, considered avant-garde at the time, now seems predictable and simple, like something you’d see at the Y on Saturday morning.

It’s like coming across your favorite movie from 20 years ago, only to realize it wasn’t filmed in HD. It’s still good, just not quite as great as you remembered it.

This isn’t a criticism of Magic, Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cedric Maxwell, James Worthy, Kevin McHale or the many other legends on those teams. There were 10 Hall of Famers involved in that rivalry, many of whom forever altered the game.

Abdul-Jabbar is still the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. It was his deftness inside that transformed the center position and made it the focal point of NBA offenses. You can draw a direct line from Magic to LeBron James and Kevin Durant. A point guard in a forward’s body who could play every position – and did in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals – Magic shattered the notion that your size and shape dictated your position.

Or that a lineup had to have two guards, two forwards and one center.

Bird was as complete a player as you will find, and there’s a lot of his game in Westbrook’s. Sixth men everywhere owe McHale their thanks – though he ultimately entrenched his spot in the starting lineup.

But the game has evolved. Just as the set shot became outdated, the style of play from the ‘80s would now be considered one-dimensional as players and their skills have developed and advanced.

Nothing has played a bigger role in that change than the 3-point shot. It wasn’t adopted by the NBA until the 1979-80 season, and many coaches saw it as little more than a gimmick from the free-wheeling American Basketball Association.

The game was played around the basket then, with a mid-range jumper the closest anyone would come to downtown. Steph Curry, these guys were not.

“It was kind of like a last-ditch shot. `If I’m really desperate, I can go to this,’ ” said Steve Springer, who covered the Lakers for the Los Angeles Times for more than two decades, beginning in 1980.

“But it was not as good percentage-wise as a jumper or certainly a layup.”

But as younger players started developing, so, too, did their long-range shots. Now it’s as much a staple of the game as the opening tip.

The players are different, too, having been groomed for the NBA since they could hoist a basketball. Players such as Magic or Bird might have played year-round, but it was pickup ball. Not AAU leagues so competitive they rival some of the NCAA’s power conferences.

There are offseason workout regimens, strict diets, weight training. And it shows in their bodies. Look at photos of Magic, Bird, McHale or Michael Cooper in their heyday. They weren’t chiseled or strapping. Now look at Durant, Dwyane Wade, even Curry. The difference is noticeable.

“It’s just a different style of play,” Springer said.

Nothing will ever diminish what the Lakers and Celtics’ rivalry did for the NBA. But as you watch those classic games, appreciate them for what they were then, not what they seem now.

By Nancy Armour

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

1 COMMENT

  1. Watching Bird play basketball to me was akin to listening to Bach. I cared for the Lakers as a little girl when they had a player named Happy, but Magic was a sign of the times.

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