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The epic Celtics-Lakers rivalry inspires one of the best 30 For 30s

Larry Bird, Magic Johnson (Photo: ESPN)
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When ESPN launched 30 For 30 back in 2009, one of the mandates for the series was to tell sports stories that hadn’t already been wrung dry by countless magazine articles and TV retrospectives. It’s hard to argue that “Celtics/Lakers: Best Of Enemies” meets that standard. The NBA’s most famous rivalry? The epochal Larry Bird/Magic Johnson playoff games of the 1980s? These aren’t just well-told tales; they’re pretty much the foundational mythology of modern professional basketball.


So give director Jim Podhoretz credit: He doesn’t just run through the same points that have been made about the NBA’s two most storied franchises over and over for decades. With five hours to work with—spread across two nights and three parts—Podhoretz provides more scope and context. For sports-doc fans who enjoy detailed strategic breakdowns of classic games, “Best Of Enemies” definitely fills the bill, with insider interviews aplenty. But these episodes are also about much more.

Be warned: The opening minutes of “Best Of Enemies” aren’t especially promising, and almost seem designed to put viewers off. The doc has two narrators—Donnie Wahlberg representing Boston, and Ice Cube for L.A.—and they speak in first-person throughout, describing a personal connection to their respective hometowns while casually trash-talking each other’s teams. But they’re reading from a script, and the stiff, performative aspect of their fandom is grating at times.

After a modest amount of setup, though, “Best Of Enemies” picks up steam once it starts getting into the intertwined histories of these two franchises. It starts with the better-known story: how coach Red Auerbach brought in Bill Russell, who alongside Bob Cousy and John Havlicek, dominated the league in the 1960s, in classic games called by the gravel-voiced Johnny Most. Then Podhoretz goes back further to remind NBA fans that in the ’50s, the Minneapolis Lakers and big man George Mikan were the kings of pro ball, and that after a slow start in L.A., the Lakers became like Hollywood stars thanks to velvety announcer Chick Hearn and a roster that included Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain. The one glaring failure for the ’60s Lakers? They couldn’t beat the Celtics for a championship, any of the six times they tried.

The first half of episode one covers the ’60s and moves into the ’70s, where both teams had intermittent success yet never faced each other in the finals. Throughout, Podhoretz looks at the waxing and waning popularity of the NBA itself between the ’60s and ’80s, and documents the reasons the media gave over the years for why some fans stayed away.


Specifically, “Best Of Enemies” delves into the issue of race, both in the intellectualized bigotry of some sports reporters—who’d praise the virtues of “fundamental basketball” versus “playground style”—and in the strained race-relations within Los Angeles and Boston. The documentary doesn’t draw any direct lines between journalists questioning Celtics coach Bill Russell’s “impartiality” (or bristling at the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s unwillingness to smile and entertain) and the infamous image of a white Bostonian in a race riot jabbing an American flag at a black man in a suit… but Podhoretz also doesn’t gloss over the real-world issues that shadowed the game. If anything, the larger social commentary of the first hour serves as an overture for what’s to come.

By the end of part one, this 30 For 30 gets to its marquee attraction: the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics and the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers of the ’80s. Between 1980 and 1989, the Lakers were in the finals from the West eight times, and won five championships, while the Celtics represented the East five times, winning thrice. The two teams squared off against each other only three times—in ’84, ’85, and ’87—but each series riveted the nation, generating personalities and storylines that helped establish the NBA as a true national pastime, right before Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls swooped in and pushed the league to yet another level.


Part two (which is only an hour) presents an in-depth look at the first of those finals: a seven-game slugfest that fans had been pining for ever since Magic and Bird garnered record Nielsen ratings playing against each other in the 1979 NCAA championship game (as the stars of Michigan State and Indiana State). The series proved to be a test of two competing basketball cultures: the razzle-dazzle “Showtime” Lakers, with their halftime dancers and celebrity fans, and the more blue-collar Boston team, playing in a smelly old arena with no air conditioning.

Part three then pulls back a bit, returning to some of the themes introduced in part one. The central thesis of “Best Of Enemies” is that the Lakers and Celtics “saved” the NBA, which is the kind of well-covered ground that this series usually avoids. So this three-parter considers what “saved” really means, and whether there was any truth to the conventional wisdom about what hurt the league in the late ’70s—be it drug abuse, competition from the ABA, a major broadcasting partner only airing big games on tape-delay, or white America not wanting to watch a sport where the vast majority of the players were black.


Some of the topics in “Best Of Enemies” have come up before in 30 For 30, including the overdose of promising Boston rookie Len Bias, and the way the Detroit Pistons challenged the Celtics’ “whiteness” from within the same conference. But Podhoretz weaves everything together well, with the help of an strong set of interviewees that range from every major living player and coach to passionate ball fans like jazzman Wynton Marsalis and cultural critic Nelson George. (The latter two’s insights into what black America thought about the success of Bird and the Celtics is so heartfelt and personal that one wonders how much better Wahlberg and Ice Cube would’ve been if they’d been asked to speak extemporaneously.)

Five hours may be about an hour more than “Best Of Enemies” really needs, given that there’s so little here about the ’60s, and next to nothing about the revival of the rivalry in the 2008 and 2010 finals. But basketball wonks will love the deeper dive into nearly every one of the Celtics/Lakers finals games; and those who typically only tune into 30 For 30 when the series is taking an O.J.: Made In America-like look at the intersections of sports and society should appreciate how frank these episodes are about some uncomfortable subjects. This isn’t just another documentary about how everyone was talking about Bird and Magic in the ’80s. It’s about what they were saying—and what they meant.


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