BOSTON They're like long, lost fraternity brothers who left college with bad haircuts and wearing those thigh-hugging short shorts that were fashionable during the Reagan years. They drifted to opposite coasts and barely kept in touch.
Well, they've reconnected and are getting back together.
The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are going to a reunion in a place they both know so well the NBA finals.
It's about time, huh?
"I feel like a little kid," said Celtics forward Paul Pierce, who grew up in L.A. and used to sneak into the Lakers' home arena. "Now I understand that, hey, I'm going to be a part of history. This is something I grew up watching, the Laker-Celtics rivalries."
Following a 21-year separation, pro basketball's pillars of power will revive their bitter rivalry starting tonight at TD Banknorth Garden for Game 1 of a best-of-seven series drenched in nostalgia and stuffed with enough history to fill every playground hoop from Springfield to Southern California.
The famed franchises, who have combined to win 30 of 61 league championships, are squaring off in the finals for the 11th time and first since 1987. These finals figure to deliver a needed jolt of excitement to the league, which began the 2007-08 season entangled in a gambling probe involving one of its referees and whose signature event has strained to recapture the sporting spotlight since the '80s, when Celtics vs. Lakers, Bird vs. Magic was a rite of spring.
Television ratings are expected to jump dramatically thanks to a finals loaded with juicy storylines: Kobe Bryant's run toward a fourth championship ring and first without Shaquille O'Neal; Boston's Big Three of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen shooting for their first ones; and Lakers coach Phil Jackson trying to win his record 10th title, one more than Red Auerbach, the Celtics' late legend whose presence hovers over the team like smoke from one of his victory cigars.
On the short list of celebrated rivalries Yankees-Red Sox, North Carolina-Duke, Ohio State-Michigan and Hatfields-McCoys Lakers-Celtics stands near the top.
"I think this is a great thing not just for the NBA, but just for sports in general," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "I think it's a great thing when the best gets a chance to compete against the best, and whoever comes out on top, they earned it. I think both teams should be proud to be here."
A year ago, it would have been impossible to imagine these hardwood Goliaths in the finals, especially after the Celtics won just 24 games.
The Celtics won 24 games last season, and all the mystique and charm that makes them special had seemingly vanished. Last year, Boston's immediate future looked bleak after the club failed to win the NBA lottery, a devastating blow for a team in full rebuild mode.
But the green-and-white began its rebound on draft night last June, when general manager Danny Ainge traded first for Allen and later managed to land Garnett, a superstar stuck with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and a player, as it turns out, who almost became a Laker.
"We gave a great chase to Garnett last year," Jackson revealed Wednesday before his team practiced. "We put a lot of pressure on the Minnesota franchise and felt like we had the inside track on that, and that we could end up missing out on that opportunity and still be here in this challenge, the finals, is really kind of a great story in itself."
For the Lakers, though, nothing trumps what Bryant has done to get the franchise within four wins of a 15th championship. After the club was bounced in the first round of the playoffs last season, a frustrated Bryant challenged the team's front office to upgrade the roster.
By summer, he was demanding a trade while at the same time enhancing his reputation as a selfish, arrogant, egomaniacal player. In truth, Bryant just wanted to win badly and didn't want to be on a team that didn't share his drive.
However, in his 12th season, Bryant has matured on and off the floor. He has led by example, mentoring the Lakers' younger players and winning his first MVP award, an honor he probably deserved in the past but never received in part because of his perceived me-first, team-second image.
"He's the captain of this team, and we follow his lead," Lamar Odom said. "Kobe is the first one in the gym, the last one to leave. He's the first one in the weight room, the last one to leave. You try to compete against him and there's no competing against him. If we have a 10 o'clock practice, Kobe is there at 8:45 preparing to be the best.
"And some of that has rubbed off on me and my teammates, and that's the only reason why I'm sitting here talking today."
Beyond Bryant, Los Angeles' acquisition of center Pau Gasol in a midseason trade with Memphis changed the course of its season. The Lakers went 23-5 with the All-Star in their lineup and certainly could have used him in two regular-season losses to the Celtics, who won 107-94 in Boston on Nov. 23 and 110-91 in Los Angeles on Dec. 30.
Jackson isn't putting much stock in those matchups.
"We had Thanksgiving Thursday here, played on Friday. We were full of turkey," cracked Jackson, whose teams are 9-1 in the finals. "The game in late December was much more reflective of the team. However, we wore those short shorts that night and lost our attitude early. I think the guys got a little tight."
Boston's lack of experience in the finals none of its starters have played in one previously could be a factor. But Garnett, who led the Celtics to 66 regular-season wins and an Eastern Conference title in his first season with them, isn't worried about his teammates becoming rattled in their first trip to the big stage.
"At the end of the day, it's just basketball," he said. "You play the way you know. You bring what you bring, play with your heart and soul and play together, play as a team."
The Celtics' Big Three have waited their entire careers for their first shot at history. Bryant knows that to keep them from raising a 17th banner to Boston's rafters, the Lakers will need to be the quicker team, the smarter team, the better team.
"From my experience, you have to execute," he said. "You can want it worse than anybody on the planet, but if you don't have a group of guys or a team that executes well enough to win, you're not going to win."