At the Auerbach Center, the Boston Celtics’ new training facility, the team installed two sets of championship banners to match the official banners at their arena seven miles down the Mass Pike.
To say that these 17 banners of the organization are sacrosanct might be an understatement. So why not have as many duplicates as possible?
One morning in the building last June, as team owner Wyc Grousbeck prepared to officially announce his decision to promote Brad Stevens to team president, the two men struck a pact under those symbolic flags.
“We made a commitment to each other to win Banner 18,” Grousbeck said, “or die trying.”
Banner 18. It’s the fashion slogan for the NBA’s two legacy organizations: the Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.
That championship fight shrouded in a decades-old rivalry makes the Lakers a shadow opponent to the Celtics during this unfolding 2022 NBA Finals. Both teams are sitting at 17 and it’s a deep, high-stakes race to take the all-time lead in the league.
The Lakers have won six titles over the Celtics since the turn of the century, closing the historic gap. When the Lakers won in 2020, they split the teams for the first time since 1963 (the Minneapolis Lakers won six of the first eight titles in league history).
This season in LA, there were high hopes that the acquisition of Russell Westbrook would propel the Lakers to add an 18th star to their center court logo, a driving force for the Buss family to fulfill a dream of their late patriarch .
“It was always Dr. [Jerry] Buss’ goal is to overtake Boston,” said Lakers great Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who led the Lakers to five of those championships. “The Lakers never want the Celtics to win.”
“Dr. Buss always said that losing is bad enough, but losing to the Celtics was unacceptable,” said Mychal Thompson, who won two LA titles, including one against Boston in the 1987 Finals.
“We’re all Warriors fans now,” he said. “You must do us a favor and tie us to Boston. We can’t let them get to 18 before us.”
The long-running rivalry has been narrated in a long line of books, films, Broadway plays and most recently the HBO series Winning Time, which saw some dramatized trash talk between Buss and Celtics legend Red Auerbach. However, this final is just one example of the many proxy battles that have been fought between the two sides over the years.
It has taken many shapes and forms. For example, in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Philadelphia 76ers held Game 7 in Boston Garden, the crowd dropped their disappointment and chanted “Beat LA” in encouragement for the 76ers and their upcoming Finals matchup. The Lakers won in six.
When Doc Rivers, who led the Celtics to the 2008 title over the Lakers, joined the LA Clippers as team president and coach in 2013, he ordered the Lakers’ championship banners to be covered during Clipper games at what was then the Staples Center. It was part of a branding movement aimed at giving the Clippers their own identity … with the added benefit of disguising the Lakers’ success.
It continues today. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who grew up a Lakers fan in Southern California, would love to help the Celtics win the game on May 17.
“I grew up with Magic and [Larry] Bird go in the ’80s,” Kerr said. “I literally sat on the back row of the forum when Kevin McHale took out Kurt Rambis and changed the series [in 1984].”
The warrior guard Klay Thompson, Mychal’s son, has the same wish.
“I looked [Lakers vs. Celtics] in college, Game 7, at the Staples Center, with my dad in 2010, and now it’s 12 years later and I get to play the team I was rooted against,” Thompson said. “So life comes full circle now to be able to play them in the final.”
There are countless stories like this – of the slights the sides have sustained over the years.
As former Lakers coach Pat Riley published his book Show Time in 1988, he put it this way: “The ‘Boston Mystique’ promotes the lowest common denominator of fan behavior Boston management. They are the Klingons of the NBA.”
In 2004, when coach Phil Jackson was leading the Lakers to the Finals and was within sight of surpassing Auerbach’s record nine championships, Auerbach complained in an interview with The Washington Post, “Why can’t he just say, ‘I’m lucky SOB that [general manager] Jerry West got me these guys?’”
The Pistons won in five games. Four years later, as the Celtics won their only title in 36 years by defeating Jackson and the Lakers in six games, Grousbeck declared, “This win is for Red Auerbach,” who had died two years earlier.
In 2019, Grousbeck and current Lakers owner Jeanie Buss partnered with co-owners Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets and Wes Edens of the Milwaukee Bucks to launch a high-end tequila brand. But when Grousbeck attended a kickoff event at a Lakers-Phoenix Suns game, the Celtics owner made it known he wasn’t there to support LA.
“I’m cheering for the Suns tonight,” he said in an interview on Spectrum SportsNet. “If I cheer for the Lakers, Red Auerbach will come out of his grave and strangle me.”
With the Celtics now three wins away from No. 18, the rhetoric is likely to be ramped up again. And above all the trash talk.
“It always means everything when you play the Lakers,” said Cedric Maxwell, who won two titles in Boston, including MVP of the 1981 Finals, and is known for supporting Laker greats James Worthy both in the media and with to throw barbs in confidence.
“They are supposedly connected to us,” he said. “People say they’re the standard bearer of the NBA, but the Celtics have been from the start. And James Worthy, after we win this championship, I want you to smell our ass as we drive by.”