My aging, early-to-bed friends had barely finished rejoicing over the Boston Celtics' return to the NBA finals after a 21-year absence—with the bonus of a renewal of the team's rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers—when they started griping about the post-9 p.m. ET tipoffs that guarantee the league its own brand of midnight madness.
These old-timers have obviously forgotten that when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the NBA almost 30 years ago, the league was at its nadir. Its dwindling fan base was forced to watch the finals on tape delay—kind of the same status as Australian rules football—starting at the ungodly hour of 11:30 p.m. It was the double dazzle of Magic and Larry Legend that rescued pro basketball and, with Michael Jordan as a high-flying punctuation mark, made the league a decidedly prime-time affair.
MJ may have ultimately soared above all, but it was Johnson's Lakers and Bird's Celtics that delivered the game's consummate entertainment. I treasure every memory, the yin and the yang of it: the brutality (for Celtics fans, anyway) of Magic's game-winning mini-sky hook that propelled the Lakers to the '87 title, the last time the two teams met in the playoffs; the elegance of Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis as he drove for a layup, a foul that was credited with reversing momentum for the Celtics en route to the '84 championship. If you're looking for a measure of how much the NBA has changed in 25 years, it is not the disappearance of the skyhook from the offensive repertoire but rather how McHale's foul, de rigueur in its day, would today rate an ejection and a suspension.
The '80s, with three Lakers-Celtics finals over four seasons and a combined eight titles for the teams (L.A. five, Boston three), were a heady time for the NBA game. But trust me, on the court it had nothing on that same rivalry from the '60s—six finals between Boston and L.A. in eight seasons, each won by the Celtics during their dynastic run. For all the '80s star power of Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy vs. Larry, Kevin and Robert Parrish, those '60s teams could match them, perhaps even surpass them with basketball immortals: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek wearing the green vs. Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and, later, Wilt Chamberlain in purple.
Through the haze of history and the blur of almost half a century of sports, I remember 1962, that first finals encounter, as if it were yesterday. Most of all I remember Frank Selvy. The Lakers had been the dominant team of the nascent NBA in the '50s, winning five titles in six years behind the league's first dominant center, George Mikan. But all those championships were won in Minneapolis, before the team's 1961 move to that noted lake country, Los Angeles. (The "L.A. Lakers" was a precursor of the foolishness that later would turn the New Orleans team into the Utah Jazz.) When the Celtics and Lakers collided in the 1962 NBA finals, they were indisputably the top two teams. Boston had won three of the previous four league championships, but the Lakers were an offensive juggernaut featuring perhaps the greatest 1-2 offensive punch in NBA history: Baylor averaging 38.3 points per game and West 30.8.
To my mind, Baylor is the greatest NBA superstar to never quite get his due. That may be because of his long, undistinguished stint as a team executive with the most-always hapless L.A. Clippers. Still, it seems that whenever the Air Jordan revolution is discussed, it gets traced back to the '70s and Dr. J. But Baylor was flying high long before that. Going into the '62 finals against Boston, Baylor had missed much of the season finishing a military obligation. He figured to be a little rusty, or at least that's what Celtics fans hoped. But the Lakers' offense was clicking on all cylinders—it had averaged 123 points a game in the previous playoff round against Detroit—and against Boston Baylor was unstoppable. With the series tied at two and Game 5 in the Boston Garden, Baylor scored 61 points, still an NBA finals record, to lead the Lakers to victory. But the Celtics won big in L.A., forcing a Game 7 back in the Garden.
Which brings us to Frank Selvy. Selvy never quite fulfilled the promise of the days when he was known as "the Corbin Comet" and, as a college senior at Furman, scored 100 points in a single game. Still, he was a solid journeyman pro through nine seasons in the NBA, the final four with the Lakers. During that '62 season he had proven to be a nice complement scorer, averaging 14 points a game. In Game 7 it was Selvy, not Baylor or West, who provided the late heroics. He had scored the last two baskets to tie the game at 100, and the Lakers had the ball—with a timeout and a handful of seconds left on the clock. Here's how I remember it: Selvy inbounded the ball to "Hot Rod" Hundley, who had designs on the game-winning shot. But the Celtics played off Selvy and double-teamed the ball. Selvy cut to the baseline and got a return pass, leaving him with a wide open 10-foot jumper for the championship and for Laker immortality. But Selvy bricked it, the rebound skying straight up where Russell, far above the fray, grabbed it and cradled it for overtime. The Celtics went on to win 110-107.
They would beat the Lakers again the next year, again in '65 and '66 and again in '68 and '69, that last one another seven-game series and the triumphant finale of Russell's career. The Lakers would exact their revenge with Magic's magic. And it may still be their era today. I find it hard to argue with the conventional wisdom that Kobe Bryant's singular talent and the Lakers' depth will tip the scales. But the lustrous matchup of Kobe vs. the Celtics' new Big 3 (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen) seems, at the very least, a worthy successor to what has come before.
Like most of my generation, I enjoy looking back as much as, if not more than, looking ahead. And sometimes I think that had Selvy sunk that shot, basketball history might have been very different. It might now be the Lakers shooting for a record 16th championship. "Hot Rod" Hundley used to tell reporters how, periodically, he would call his old pal Selvy, say "nice shot" and hang up. For his part, Selvy admitted that he would have traded all the baskets in his life for just that one short jumper. As for me, I wouldn't trade the precious memory—even for another Celtics title. And as much as I may root for an 18th banner to hang in Boston Garden, what I hope for most of all is a memorable series that will still stir today's young fans' juices come 2054.