Lakers v. Celtics: The Anticlimax?

I suppose that Hillary Clinton is doing us all a favor by waiting until Friday to declare her campaign suspended. That way, over the next 48 hours, we can focus on the real business at hand: the NBA Finals.

I grew up in Los Angeles and have been a Lakers fan for as long as I can remember. The 1984 Finals might be my worst sports memory, and the 1985 and 1987 ones my best. Not surprisingly, the press and the league are trying to recreate that time, and I can hardly blame them.

But it doesn’t quite feel the same this time around, and I have at least one reason: race.

The racial subtext of the 1980’s rivalry was palpable. It wasn’t just Magic and Bird, although it helped. Bird was a truly great player, but the press grabbed onto him at least in part because he was a truly great white player when there really weren’t any others. Bird himself didn’t give a damn about any of it, and one could even argue that Magic’s upbringing was more stereotypically white whereas Bird’s was more stereotypically black. (Bird was raised in an impoverished single-parent home; while Magic was hardly wealthy, his father was a long-time unionized auto worker).

But the real reason for the racial subtext was that the 1980’s Celtics tried so hard to find as many white players as they could. McHale of course was a no-brainer, a great player. A fading and injured Bill Walton, okay. Danny Ainge? Greg Kite? Scott Wedman? Jerry Sichting? Michael Smith? Michael Smith picked ahead of Tim Hardaway? Fred Roberts? Brad Lohaus? Conner Henry? Conner Henry?

This used to be a Boston thing. The Red Sox were the last major league team to start an African-American. It was a Boston fan thing. Larry Bird was a legend. Bobby Orr was a legend. Carl Yastrzemski was a legend. Ted Williams was a legend. Bill Russell was not a legend.

Now, it’s all different. The Celtics are all African-American. The Lakers have lots of white guys, but they are virtualy all European (except for Walton’s son Luke). David Ortiz is the most popular member of the Red Sox. Red Auerbach–whose victory cigar put today’s trash talkers to shame–is dead. A multiracial man is the Democratic nominee.

It will be a great series, and I will be miserable if Boston takes it, which I fear they will because of home court advantage. But it won’t quite be the same. And that’s probably just as well.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.