Fresh off of an NBA Finals “three-peat” appearance and ESPN’s recent inside look at the Boston Celtics/Los Angeles Lakers documentary, rivalries have been the trending topic over recent weeks. Golden State’s 4-1 series win over Cleveland was another chapter in their growing rivalry, but NBA fans were reminded of the even greater competition between the Lakers and the Celtics. That series basically dominated the 1980s but was established in the ‘60s before reemerging in the late 2000s. Packed with star players and bigger-than-life personalities, the Lakers vs. Celtics matchup defines what rivalries are all about. But was it the best rivalry ever? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate this question.  

FILE – In this June 2, 1987, file photo, Los Angeles Lakers’ Earvin “Magic” Johnson scrambles for the ball on the floor of The Forum during the NBA finals, in, Inglewood, Calif. Johnson is surrounded by unidentified Boston Celtics players. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is at left. It’s the rivalry against which all others are measured, the one essentially responsible for the modern NBA evolving from a fringe sport that put its championship series on tape delay to a global sensation built around the most recognizable athletes in American sports. (AP Photo/Mark Avery, File)

Riley: Michigan vs. Ohio State, Yankees vs. Red Sox, North Carolina vs. Duke and Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier are just a few of the greatest rivalries of all time but it’s hard to top Celtics/Lakers. There was something iconic about the green versus gold that other rivalries just couldn’t touch. The star power was there, the two contrasting cities were there and iconic figures were there. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson symbolized more than just basketball in an era where White versus Black was at the forefront of the Association at the time. It also helped that the two franchises are the two most winningest organizations in all of basketball so the prestige was unlike no other. Lakers and Celtics are the gold standard when it comes to great matchups. 

Green: Don’t forget about Auburn/Alabama, the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington football franchise, Army/Navy and even Arnold Palmer/Jack Nicklaus or even the Baltimore Ravens/Pittsburgh Steelers. The Celtics and Lakers rivalry was boosted by its longevity and the teams’ headliners but to call it the best rivalry in all of sports is insulting to the other great rivalries. It might be the best ticket in all of basketball but it’s not the annual tradition like Michigan/Ohio State is or Yankees/Red Sox. A true rivalry gives you something to look towards yearly. Take away the Finals matchups in 2008 and 2010 and you would have to go back more than 20 years to find the last time Celtics/Lakers even mattered. Consider the current state of the Lakers and it might take another long stretch before we even see Boston/Los Angeles again in an important matchup. We don’t know when those two franchises will matter again but what we do know is that North Carolina/Duke and Michigan/Ohio State will definitely matter next season and probably the year after that.

Riley: In-season rivalries are great but the thing that separates Lakers/Celtics is that it’s a championship matchup when it matters. Two teams from two opposite coasts playing in two opposite conferences, but when they collide in the NBA Finals it’s a big deal. Sure, college rivalries give you yearly ratings but tell me the stars playing in next season’s Michigan/Ohio State matchup or Army/Navy? Fans can make a rivalry more than what it is but Lakers/Celtics is pure star power and franchise tradition. The names on the back are just as important as the names on the front and that’s something you rarely find with any other traditional rivalry. That’s what made the series iconic and that’s what will keep it preserved until the next time the two teams meet in the finals.

Green: Waiting for decades at a time to re-live “the best rivalry in sports” just is not rational to me. Even in the NFL we saw San Francisco/Dallas every year, Baltimore/Pittsburgh every year and New England/Indianapolis or New England/Denver every year featuring Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. You shouldn’t have to wait years at a time for the matchup to be iconic. A good rivalry is in your face and on your television screen every single year. The Lakers/Celtics were absolutely the best thing going back in the ‘80s because we saw it routinely and couldn’t escape it if we wanted. There were T-shirts, video games and merchandise sales through the roof. It was something sports fans could bank on. It’s not like that anymore; it’s mere history at this point.

Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley

AFRO Sports Desk