LOS ANGELES – Phil Jackson knows the whole story, even if his players only seem interested in the last two chapters.

Their coach is steeped in the history of pro basketball’s most compelling rivalry, familiar with every twist in the Boston Celtics’ half-century of championship clashes with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The NBA’s most decorated franchises have battled through heartbreaks, high stakes and neck-aches while forging a true rivalry, that rarest of commodities in the age of free agency.

Jackson doesn’t mind that almost everybody playing in the franchises’ 12th NBA finals meeting, starting Thursday night, doesn’t have much of a grasp on the history sewn into the uniforms they wear.

So what if Ron Artest claims total ignorance of the Lakers’ past, while Kobe Bryant says he couldn’t care less who Los Angeles played? So what if the hatred between the franchises’ fans doesn’t seem to be truly savored by nearly anybody except Paul Pierce, the Los Angeles native turned Celtics star?

Asked why the kids these days don’t get it, Jackson smirks and sidesteps the trap.

“That rivalry is renewed it seems like every 20 years, and now here it is,” Jackson said. “This is our second time going back at them. It’s one that I think piques the interest of the fans of basketball.”

Notice he didn’t mention the players’ interest. In the age of easy team-swapping, $100 million contracts and offseason Vegas partying with in-season opponents, there’s not much actual malice between these Lakers and these Celtics.

“It’s not a personal thing,” Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said. “They’re a great team, we’re a great team. We’re both trying to get to the same goal.”

The clubs are meeting in the finals for the second time in three seasons, and the winner will walk away with the franchises’ 33rd combined championship. That’s more than half of the titles in NBA history.

Yet this confluence of Boston’s Big Three era and Bryant’s career zenith still hasn’t reached the frequency and ferocity of the rivalry’s early years. They met seven times in 11 seasons from 1959-69, and the Celtics won every time, led by Bill Russell, Coach Red Auerbach and whatever leprechaun pushed Frank Selvy’s late jumper off the rim in Game 7 of the 1962 finals, allowing Boston to win in overtime.

“It seems like most of the ’60s, the Lakers were playing the Celtics and they were never able to get by them,” Jackson said. “That was a long and arduous period of time for these fans.”

Pierce grew up in Inglewood, Calif., near the Lakers’ former neighborhood, and heard the story about the balloons. He knows the Lakers were favorites against the Celtics in 1968 and again in 1969, but Boston twice rallied to beat Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, stranding thousands of celebratory balloons in the rafters of the Forum.

“We’ve definitely got two franchises that never really liked each other because they were always playing for the ultimate prize,” said Pierce. “You can definitely sense that, and I already knew that growing up here.”

Bryant professes not to care about the rivalry, even when a victory might fulfill West’s prediction that Bryant will go down as the greatest player to wear the Lakers’ uniform.

“I’m playing in it. I don’t give a damn about it,” Bryant said. “That’s for other people to get excited about. I get excited about winning.”

Yet it’s tough to believe Bryant: He also has said his NBA education during his youth in Italy largely consisted of watching Lakers-Celtics games, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird clashed three times in four seasons.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.