Last night's game 6 of the NBA Finals continued a new chapter in one of sports' most historic rivalries, and the Lakers' comprehensive 89-67 win sends the two teams to a decisive game 7 on Thursday. The decades-long beef between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics is so storied that it basically once helped save the NBA. In the 1970s, the league was in a slump, suffering from poor attendance, meager television viewership, and a general lack of enthusiasm. With the introduction of several new teams from the ABA (including the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, and Indiana Pacers), the decade saw eight different champions, but none that defined the league the way that the Boston Celtics had in their multiple matchups with the Los Angeles Lakers in the previous decade. Fans missed the romance of a great rivalry.
Enter Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Polar opposites, Bird and Johnson injected new life into a weary league and jump-started the engine on a heated rivalry. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers met in the Finals seven times prior to the Bird-Johnson years, the first in 1959 when the Lakers were still based in Minneapolis (they would relocate to Los Angeles in 1960). While the Celtics won that contest and the next six, the series were hard-fought three of them went the full seven games ('62, '66, and '69) and the battles between hall-of-famers Bob Cousy and Jerry West, and Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were a precursor of what was to follow.
Without a single Finals meeting between the two teams in the 1970s, fans on both sides were long overdue for a taste of that old classic series action. Even the most hopeful among them, however, weren't prepared for the impact of Magic, a silky smooth point guard with a stupefying command of the basketball, and Bird, a gawky country boy with an unorthodox but deadly jump shot. The pair may have differed stylistically, but both were fierce competitors and when they faced each other in the 1984 Finals it was the dawning of a new era in the NBA. The Celtics prevailed following a grueling seven games, including a legendary Game 5 that saw Bird drop 34 points, a performance that led to his crowning as series MVP. The series was a classic grudge match. Shoving and hard fouls were the norm, verbal taunting was rampant, and cups of beer were hurled from the stands. It helped that L.A. and Boston fans lay at such extremes Hollywood glamour versus East Coast working class grit.
The Lakers regrouped to claim the title in 1985, the first visiting team to win a championship at the famously unfriendly Boston Garden. Bird and Johnson's third and final faceoff was in 1987. Both players turned in career-defining performances, but it was Johnson who led his Lakers to their second title. Averaging 26.2 points, 13 assists, and 8 rebounds, Johnson was nearly perfect in his MVP performance, which included the famous "junior sky hook" he sank in the last seconds to win Game 4. The two teams would not meet in the Finals again until 2008.
For many, the Bird-Johnson years were the NBA's Golden Age, and there was a sad sense that it might be gone forever. But the two matchups in 2008 (Boston in six) and 2010 have reignited a nostalgic spark. This year's finals are the most watched of recent history the first two games averaged nearly 15 million viewers, up 10 percent from last year's championship and the best opening for an NBA Finals since 2004. Let the Silver Age begin.