' Cinema Romantico: 30 for 30: Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

30 for 30: Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies

Sportsmanship is all well and good, sure, at the youth level mostly, but once you reach the upper echelons of sportsball events, like, say, the National Basketball Association, chivalry and decorum is best put out to pasture, as the latest ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, the three-part “Best of Enemies”, goes to show. Even a fresh-faced hardwood novice could probably tell you the NBA’s most famous rivalry is Celtics v Lakers, so fabled is the level of antipathy between these two colossal franchises. The one moment in Jim Podhoretz’s film when a little mutual respect is shown by way of Boston’s legendary Larry Bird, in the aftermath of the Lakers usurping the Celtics for the 1987 championship, admitting that L.A.’s illustrious Magic Johnson got the best of him is not really applauded but met with disgust by a few of Bird’s teammates. There is a reason why the documentary ends not with a peace offering but with Magic declaring, for like the twelfth-hundred time, that he will always hate the Boston Celtics.


Such antagonism is given voice by dual narrators in the form of L.A. native Ice Cube for the Lakers and Boston native Donnie Wahlberg for the Celtics, tour guides for this expansive history lesson, reciting names and dates and scores, sure, but who throw significant cross-country shade throughout. Perhaps to an impartial viewer that will become grating, but in the spirit of the film it nevertheless feels just right. Rivalries are not about impartiality. They are about biases and paranoia, like the Lakers, fearful of their Gatorade being tampered with by Celtics personnel, bringing their own supply of the liquid energy replenishment to Boston Garden. They are less about facts, which theoretically should be irrefutable, like the Celtics have this many championships and the Lakers have this many, and more about fandom, which is why Jack Nicholson, L.A.’s #1 fan is something like a silent supporting character, constantly glimpsed throughout in archival footage.

That’s not to suggest that “Best of Enemies” fails to wrestle with the hard stuff, such as race, the age-old incendiary topic that, like it or not, informed this rivalry just as much as a James Worthy statue of liberty dunk or an obliquely angled Larry Bird jumper. It began early, as “Best of Enemies” shows, and while it often could, like the games themselves, be suggestive of the predominantly white Boston and the multicultural L.A., with the former populated by white players and the latter by blacks, it was rarely that simple. Some of the doc’s best footage is old interviews of the Celtics’ Bill Russell, and later the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, towering over small, bulky white reporters who are asking inane but simultaneously loaded questions. Russell and Abdul-Jabbar look like they want to go off, though, of course, they can’t, lest White America get uppity, and these interviews are juxtaposed against a later photo of a beaming Magic Johnson welcoming the white media surrounding him, as if he’d deduced how best to manipulate the media for his own benefit.

Red Auerbach, Celtics coach at the inception of their dynasty and then the team’s President during their 80s run, might have deduced it too. Talking head Bryant Gumbel floats the hypothesis that Auerbach drafted black players when no one would and white players when no would, suggesting race as something less than human classification and more like transactional worth, which is just as potentially disturbing in its own way. Of course, Gumbel’s thought is a product of having the whole picture, looking at all this through the prism of time, which is what “Best of Enemies” really brings home.


It only seems like in this era of the instantaneous that we are more than ever prone to hot takes. “Best of Enemies” remind us hot takes were always made to order, recounting how early Magic Johnson failures got him labeled “Tragic” Johnson and how after Game 1 of the 1985 NBA Finals Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was written off as over the hill before he woke up the echoes in Game 2. This sensation cuts even deeper when it is recounted how Boston’s Kevin McHale played in the 1987 Finals with a fractured foot, of the moment valor with far-reaching consequences, plaintively brought home in Larry Bird’s down-home dialect. He says of McHale: “He laid it on the line for us. But if you watch him now, he don’t walk very well.” Ugh.

But that merely underscores how big this rivalry was, lording every other aspect of the NBA and all of its other teams to such a degree that the Houston Rockets, who actually played Boston in the 1986 Finals, not the Lakers, are basically just written off in the documentary as interlopers, unworthy of the team they literally beat and the team that beat them for the championship. That is how romantically we view Celtic and Laker dominance now, from the safe space of 30 years away, which makes me wonder if all this handwringing over the present day dominance by the Cleveland Cavaliers and, especially, the Golden State Warriors will, 30 years from now, be devalued too, leaving us to remember the mid-twenty-tens NBA only as the best of times.

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