Twenty-one years later, they meet again.
The Boston Celtics nodded in destiny’s direction a day after the Lakers did, bringing together two of the most relevant sports franchises for the NBA Finals.
It will be intriguing, laden with superstars and heavy with symbolism matched only by an expected meteoric rise in TV ratings.
Somewhere, David Stern is smiling, along with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, James Worthy and Kevin McHale.
Celtics-Lakers, play it again, for an 11th time in Finals history, as Phil Jackson tries to pass Red Auerbach by winning a record-setting 10th NBA championship as a coach.
It will be symmetrical, with each team trying to make sure its Big Three win a Big Four (games) before the other does.
It will be physical, judging by the bludgeoning the Lakers bore in two regular-season losses to the Celtics.
And it will be emotional. Just ask anybody before Game 1 begins Thursday in Boston.
“It brings back a lot of good memories because it was two great teams at a great time of NBA basketball,” said Kurt Rambis, who played for Lakers teams that faced the Celtics in the 1984, ’85 and ’87 Finals. “Two teams that were loaded with talent, the greatest possible competitive environment. . . . It just made it such an enjoyable time in my life.”
Rambis also has some work to do. Now a Lakers assistant coach, he was in charge of keeping tabs on the Celtics throughout the season and will be the primary author of a scouting report handed out to players.
He won’t be able to use much from the two regular-season games between the teams because they were literally last year.
In November, the Celtics won with ease in Boston, 107-94, never being challenged beyond the first six minutes in a game that gave way to a host of derisive “Kooo-beeee” chants beginning in the third quarter.
The Lakers didn’t fare much better at home in late December, victims of another lopsided loss, 110-91. Bryant scored 22 but made only six of 25 shots.
In the Lakers’ defense, one important thing was missing in both games -- Pau Gasol. He was acquired a little more than a month after the teams played in December.
The Celtics had to work harder to get this far, needing 20 playoff games to 15 for the Lakers. They went the full seven against both Atlanta and Cleveland in the first two rounds, and six games to eliminate Detroit on Friday in the Eastern Conference finals.
Still, they had nine more victories than the Lakers during the regular season and found a way to make three All-Stars (Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce) chase one common goal. They also saw improved efforts from speedy second-year point guard Rajon Rondo and physical 23-year-old center Kendrick Perkins.
“They can hurt you in several ways,” Rambis said. “The development of their role players, particularly Perkins and Rondo, has really helped them out because at the beginning of the year, those were the weak areas. You’ve got defensive concerns in that you’ve got to limit what their Big Three can do, but you’ve got to be concerned about their role players too.”
The Lakers counter with their own trio of talent -- Gasol, Bryant and Lamar Odom -- and some key role players.
They won’t want to be the fabled franchise that falls. The memories of losing to Detroit in the 2004 Finals still linger.
“Getting there [my] rookie year and losing was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in my life,” Luke Walton said. “It’s a lot of fun to go, but you don’t want to experience that.”
Bryant was effusive in his praise of Lakers officials past and present after winning the West finals. He again complimented Mitch Kupchak, saying the Lakers’ general manager had done a “terrific job.”
“He has made some key trades, obviously the Pau one, which, when I talk to other people around the league and I say it was a great trade, they look at me and laugh and they don’t want to call it a trade. They want to call it a donation,” Bryant said. “But whatever the case, he did a fantastic job with that and Trevor [Ariza] as well, and [he] drafted well.”
Bryant also spoke of Jerry West, Kupchak’s predecessor, who presented the conference trophy after the Lakers eliminated San Antonio.
“He is the one responsible for bringing me into the league,” Bryant said. “He has always been my mentor and will always be my mentor. I remember like it was yesterday -- I was 17 in his Lexus riding around, scared to talk because I’m sitting next to ‘Mr. Clutch.’ It is pretty awesome.”
Best-of-seven series; all games 6 p.m. PDT, Channel 7 (*-if necessary)
Game 1: Thursday at Boston
Game 2: June 8 at Boston
Game 3: June 10 at Staples
Game 4: June 12 at Staples
Game 5: June 15 at Staples*
Game 6: June 17 at Boston*
Game 7: June 19 at Boston*