The New York Yankees vs. the Boston Red Sox, the Decepticons vs. the Autobots, the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors, or even the East Coast vs West Coast rap beef—storied rivalries take on a life of their own. Perhaps the greatest of them all is the Boston Celtics vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, which gets the proper 30 for 30 treatment in Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies.
Time, and superficial breakdowns, have often led to the rivalry being painted with a broad brush stroke of the Lakers being the squad black people gravitated to, while the Celtics were the go to for white basketball fans. It’s undeniable that the stark take is a chunky part of the story, and its nuances are intricately and smartly weaved throughout the doc. But the rivalry encompassed so much more.
The cliché of “having to hear both sides” rings true, and the doc’s narrators sometimes directly and often subtly make sure viewers come to understand the complex layers, over a lengthy five hours.
Celtics lore is covered by Donnie Wahlberg, Boston native and Marky Mark’s brother. Holding down the Lakers side of the equation is Ice Cube, a GOAT MC and L.A. native. They prove to be ideal historians, breaking down the intrepid sagas of both squads, through the ups and downs of the franchises.
Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies is a history lesson steeped in sports and race. The Lakers were great when they were in Minneapolis, but gaining respect when they moved to Los Angeles was an uphill battle. It didn’t help that they were food to the Celtics, who beat them seven times in the NBA Finals. The Lakers fielded great teams, featuring Jerry West aka The Logo, but didn’t get a championship until they beat the New York Knicks—a bittersweet consolation, no shots.
The key cog in the Celtics mountainous dynasty that the Lakers couldn’t summit was Bill Russell. Despite his epic feats on the court, the city of Boston’s racist leanings (LeBron James’ home recently getting graffiti’d with a racial epithet is nothing compared to what Russell endured), the blue-collar town failed to rally behind a team full of black guys. Tellingly, the team’s popularity thrived when it stars lacked melanin (see: John Havlicek). Talking heads like Wynton Marsalis and Bryant Gumbel, former players and renowned sportswriters also offer up key perspectives that include NBA issues (black players being stereotypes as drug users) and social issues (bussing to desegregate schools in Boston).
But the meat of story will easily be the Magic Johnson (who was bussed in Michigan) and Larry Bird era of the 1980s, when their respective teams routinely battled each other for NBA supremacy. Despite not appreciating the tagline, Bird was the Great White Hope. Magic’s smile and flashy game made him a star, but those code words (“playground basketball”) still trailed him.
By the time Bird and Magic went from college hoop phenoms to NBA superstars, their win at all cost desires, and the fact that the “Showtime” Lakers still were in the Celtics’ shadow, fostered the NBA’s bitterest of rivalries.
Although race might have crept on to the court occasionally (i.e. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar offering to bless “white boy” Larry Bird with the fade) winning for the name of the team emblazoned across your chest is what mattered. A key moment showing how sports can foster racial understanding was when Celtic standout Cedric Maxwell first played against a rookie Larry Bird in practice. The Hick from French Lick proceeded to give the vet copious amounts of buckets, and Maxwell had to cede his biased notions that white guys can’t play. Even more so when the Celtics nabbed future Hall of Famer Kevin McHale.
At the end of the day, this is a sports doc, so seeing archival footage of players like the aforementioned as well as James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes and even the most hated Danny Ainge will be a treat. New age fans seeing Bill Russell swat away shots, Jerry West sharp shooting and watching Bird’s off the charts b-ball I.Q. at work or Magic’s slick passing will fully understand what all the fuss it about. Besides the athletic feats, the precursors to the usual NBA water cooler talk is established as such examples as Magic catching flack for a $25M, 25 year contract, and getting his head coach fired, or Red Auerbach ushering in trash talk by lighting cigars when Celtics wins were evident and finessing Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish for a player you probably won’t remember (sorry, Joe Barry Carroll).
Shit-talking and injuries aside (this was the NBA when flagrant fouls were non-existent), time heals all wounds. Rivals can surely sit down and discuss often turgid times with smiles, as all the players who participated do. But at the start of the doc when Magic Johnson says, “If there’s one thing I hate in life, it’s the Boston Celtics,” you know this 30 for 30 is going to be lit.
Adam Perry is a Brooklyn, New York based writer who hopes his favorite team—the New York Knicks—really wins the Paul George sweepstakes. The three part 30 for 30: Celtics/Lakers premieres tonight (June 13) and Wednesday (June 14) at 8:00 p.m. EST.