The Year of the Celtics and Obama

lakers celtics The Year of the Celtics and ObamaOn a Sunday afternoon 21 Junes ago, James Worthy dove for an impossible loose ball and somehow swatted it to a streaking Magic Johnson, whose early third quarter lay-up ignited the crowd and signaled a decisive shift in momentum. From there, the home-standing Lakers, who had trailed the Celtics by five at halftime, breezed to a 106-93 victory that sealed their 10th N.B.A. championship.

In Los Angeles, there was celebration, and three thousand miles east in Boston, where “Beat L.A.!” served in the 1980’s as the unofficial motto that “Yankees suck!” became earlier this decade, there was dejection.

But not in all of Boston. In the city’s black neighborhoods, whose children had been pelted by rocks just 12 years earlier when court-ordered busing had transported them to white South Boston, the Lakers tended to be treated like the home team. Boston, after all, was the town that Bill Russell once labeled “a flea market of racism.”

Celtics-Lakers was the N.B.A.’s signature rivalry in the 1980s, and no one can dispute the on-court artistry that defined their match-ups. But the racial polarization it revealed, in Boston and across the country, is also part of the rivalry’s legacy. The Lakers, with Magic, Worthy, Kareem (and one dorky white guy named Kurt Rambis) were the “black” team, while the Celtics, with three white starters (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Danny Ainge) were the “white” team.

These labels may have been grossly unfair (Boston was coached by a black man, K.C. Jones, and the racial record of the franchise’s patriarch, Red Auerbach, was admirable, and wasn’t Lakers coach Pat Riley a star for Adolph Rupp’s whites-only team at Kentucky?) but it also seemed fitting that the city of Boston, where George Wallace had fared disturbingly well in the 1972 Democratic primary, should harbor the unofficial team for white America.

And the N.B.A. of 1987 had profited mightily from this polarization. At the start of the decade, the league had been in decline, an entity made up almost entirely of black players at a time when American cities were emptying thanks to white flight. CBS actually aired the 1981 N.B.A. Finals on a tape-delay, after the late local news and safely out of primetime.

In their suburban havens, white Americans were surrounded by messages that reinforced their decision to remove themselves from “black” cities: soaring inner-city crime statistics, a crack cocaine epidemic, a president who spun apocryphal stories about “welfare queens,” and an entertainment industry that liked to cast the city itself as the villain – typified by the movie “Adventures in Babysitting” and its depiction of the danger and nefariousness that awaited innocent suburbanites in the dark and scary city, which debuted a few weeks after that ’87 series.

Against this cultural backdrop, the N.B.A. badly needed a star like Bird and a team like the Celtics that the denizens of White Flight America could identify with. The caliber of basketball was essential to the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, but the black-vs.-white clash it brought out surely helped the league’s television ratings, which soared in the ‘80s, transforming the N.B.A. into the international corporate behemoth it now is.

At the time, the ’87 series, the third Finals meeting between Boston and L.A. in four years, was supposed to be only the middle chapter of their story. Magic was only 27 and Bird 30. Instead, the Celtics never sniffed the finals again – until now. A masterful trade last summer transformed Boston, the league’s second-worst team in 2007, into an instant contender and once again, it’s a Celtics-Lakers title match.

But it’s different this time.

Celtic pride still lives in Boston’s white neighborhoods, and in suburban towns across Massachusetts. But now you’ll find Celtic jerseys in Roxbury too, and in black neighborhoods across the country. There are Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom jerseys in most cities too, but race is no longer a fundamental component of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. It’s not surprising that black Bostonians have embraced this team, since every member of the Celtics playoff roster (not to mention coach Doc Rivers) is black. But these all-black Celtics are South Boston’s team, too.

That is not all that’s changed since 1987. Just two years ago, Massachusetts elected a black governor, Deval Patrick, for the first time. More surprising: Patrick carried Southie, the same neighborhood whose support George Wallace once liked to brag about.

Something similar has happened nationally, where the forces that exacerbated the country’s racial divide 20 years ago – crime, welfare and their exploitation by politicians and by Hollywood – have weakened dramatically. Fear has ebbed, and white Americans are rediscovering cities.

In 1987, Jesse Jackson set out to run for President for the second time, but few people outside his campaign thought it was more than a symbolic candidacy, its appeal directly linked to the number of black voters in any given state. In 2008, a black man named Barack Obama has just won the Democratic presidential nomination – and he owes it to victories in Idaho, Utah and Alaska.

This country’s racial journey is far from complete. But it only seems fitting that in the year of Obama, there are black kids in Roxbury and Harlem and on the South Side of Chicago cheering for the same basketball team as the kids in Southie.

skornacki@observer.com