A recent post on the NBA finals got Editor-at-Large Andrew Cooper thinking and he wrote to me:
The Lakers/Celtics rivalry is the greatest in U. S. team sports. When I was about eight years old, I saw a picture in Sports Illustrated of Elgin Baylor shooting the ball while suspended in mid-air at some impossible angle, and I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I’ve been a Lakers fan ever since. Baylor and Jerry West were my basketball heroes, and year after year they would lose in the finals to the hated Celtics. It was heartbreaking. Years later, I was at the Zen Center of Los Angeles when the Magic/Bird rivalry hit its stride. Sports don’t get more intensely competitive than that. And now here they are again: the Lakers and the Celtics, going at it like nobody’s business, both teams repositories of history and both separated from the rest mainly by their knowledge of what it takes to win when it matters. People who look at the Lakers as spoiled frontrunners don’t understand the game of basketball. And those who view them as a Hollywood team don’t understand what it means to be a true Lakers fan, at least a lifetime fan. Nor do they understand the city of Los Angeles. The Lakers/Celtics rivalry started in years of misery. The key to understanding the Lakers is Jerry West, the very soul of the team, and whether as player, coach, general manager, or advisor, he is why they keep rising to the top. A lot of teams get talent; few know how to cultivate and maintain it. There’s a reason these two teams have so dominated the league for its entire history, and it’s not money. It’s not even talent. It’s knowledge of how the game works.
Here’s a picture of Baylor doing his thing, with old-school uniforms to boot. I love how old basketball photos always look like they’re playing in a pitch-black room. It’s partially the effect of the flash photography, but even on TV you can tell the lighting is a lot less high-wattage. Plus Red Auerbach could fire up a cigar and nobody’d say a thing.
Cooper also has a funny story about desperately trying to escape his work translating Dogen for Maezumi Roshi so that he could go to a Lakers-Sixers game in (I think) the Dr. J era. (In his defense, they were great seats.) It’s from his 1998 book Playing in the Zone: Exploring the Spiritual Dimension of Sports and is reproduced here for your reading pleasure.
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