June 8, 2010

The term conflicted is defined as a “mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.” The NBA Finals offers a perfect illustration of this term as part of me will be rooting for the Los Angeles Celtics to win, although I would be equally happy with a Boston Lakers victory.

I have been a conflicted NBA fan since my very first NBA game in 1974. The Boston Celtics decided to play a rare game in nearby Providence (my hometown) against none other than Kareem Abdul-Jabaar’s Milwaukee Bucks (who had the league’s best record). It was a sellout crowd, but about half of those attending were, like me, rooting for both the Celtics and Kareem. This would repeat in the playoffs that year, as the Celtics faced off against the Buffalo Braves (who are now the Los Angeles Clippers) led by hometown hero Ernie D. who had taken Providence within minutes of the NCAA Championship game the year before.

Nonetheless, I celebrated the Celtics’ championships in 1974 and 1976 and then endured the lean years that followed until Larry Bird came to the rescue. There was no inner conflict during the Bird era as I devoutly watched the epic battles between the Celtics and the Lakers, Sixers, Pistons and Rockets en route to three more championships. I fondly remember watching Bird’s first championship in a dive bar in an alley where the crowd was more “The Iceman Cometh” than “Cheers” and to this day believe that the 1986 Celtics team was one of the greatest of all-time.

In 1994, I moved to Los Angeles and quickly became a Laker fan. I remember hi-fiving with my neighbor as Kobe and Shaq won the first of their three championships or watching my neighborhood erupt after another Robert Horry game-winning shot. There was no conflict with my Celtics roots throughout this period since the Birdless Celtics simply sucked. Not only did they have losing records for 11 of my first 14 years in LA, but they lost 50 or more games in three of those seasons becoming the Clippers of the East. They were lucky if they made the playoffs, let alone reached the finals to face the Lakers.

Then came the Celtic revival with the addition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and the team went from losing 58 games in 2007 to winning 66 games in 2008. More importantly, KG, Allen and Paul Pierce led the Celtics to the first Boston-LA championship series since 1987.

Now I was conflicted. I debated simply rooting for whichever team had the ball, but the constant replays from the Bird-Magic era and the faux rivalry between Coach Jackson and Red Auerbach began to trigger my dormant Celtic Pride. I decided to play it safe, avoiding local sports bars and instead watching Game 1 in a sushi restaurant that had a big screen TV. I maintained my neutrality throughout the first half but a monster KG dunk in the second half elicited a scream of “YES!” That was it — I had outed myself as a Celtics fan (and had everyone in the restaurant staring at me) and rooted for them the rest of the way.

Oddly, what I remember most from the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is Magic’s heartbreaking, game-winning hook shot in Game 5 in Boston Garden from the 1987 series that led to the Lakers’ second triumph over the Celtics. I will be rooting for the Celtics again this series, but should Kobe match Magic’s feat there will no heartbreak and I will simply remember it as another great play, by another great player as part of a truly great rivalry.

Go Team (both of them)!