Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies

CelticsLakersPosterUpdatedIt's appropriate, given that the NBA Finals just ended and we witnessed the resumption of another great NBA Finals rivalry between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, that ESPN would release their latest 30 for 30 documentary, which focused on the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s. Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies, which was released in three parts, tells the story of this rivalry, how it started and what it looked like from the point of view of two notable residents of each city: Los Angeles' Ice Cube and Boston's Donnie Wahlberg. Replete with great archival footage and featuring interesting and insightful talking head-style interviews with many of the rivalry's prominent figures and the people who covered it, it's another worthy entry to the network's series of outstanding sports documentaries and a very entertaining watch. But, even though I did enjoy Best of Enemies, that doesn't mean I didn't have issues with it. Perhaps my biggest complaint with this entry into the 30 for 30 series is that it takes too narrow of a focus and spends the bulk of its time on the 1980s portion in this rivalry. What makes the Celtics-Lakers rivalry so special and interesting is that it spans the decades. You can talk about the Baylor and West Lakers teams versus the Russell and Cousy teams in the 60s or the matchup in 1969 that saw the aging Celtics in Bill Russell's last season defeat the Wilt Chamberlain-led Lakers. To say that the eighties installment of this rivalry is the only period worth noting is a bit short-sighted.

I do understand that those eighties matchups are not as far away from our collective memory as those older ones were and thus would resonate better with the viewers of today. However, with those matchups in the 1960s somewhat lost to history in the minds of some contemporary NBA fans, it might have been worthwhile to give more time to those older series and really mirror them with the series from the 1980s, providing a very defined parallel. I mean, I consider myself an NBA aficionado and I don't know  all that much about those classic series and what happened in them so I would have enjoyed a little bit more history. I have the broad sense of things-- that Russell won and Jerry West lost and the loss in the 1969 NBA Finals that included Chamberlain and was Russell's final season-- but beyond that it's all a bit of a blur to me. Making the historical sweep a little bit bigger and making this about the entire rivalry rather than just one portion of it would have made for a more interesting and informative viewing experience.

Along those lines, I found it distracting that there would be a kind of laser focus on certain games or even moments within games (plays and series) that felt a bit like overkill while other parts of the larger narrative were left underdeveloped and under considered. The section on the 1984 NBA Finals felt like it could be a documentary unto itself while the last part of the documentary moved so fast it felt like years were covered in a matter of minutes. The pacing felt a little bit off and the ending felt rushed and uneven. There could have been more done to bring the whole thing to a nicer and more even conclusion.

But though I have these criticisms, overall I think it's a great entry to the series and one of its best. Maybe I'm biased but I think the NBA-centric entries to the 30 for 30 series (Bad Boys, This Magic Moment, Winning Time) are amongst the strongest and some of my favorites. This entry certainly belongs alongside those. The interviews are insightful and interesting, which is not surprising when you get people like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and James Worthy and Pat Riley and Danny Ainge and Jerry West on film. But beyond the marquee figures in this rivalry, it was interesting to hear from players that were important to it but that maybe you don't hear all that much from, players like Cedric Maxwell and Jamaal Wilkes and Michael Cooper, to name just a few. They provide a depth and insight to the narrative that make it more than just "Larry vs. Magic," as it easily could have been.

Though I also feel like the focus was a bit too much on the Magic-Larry stage of this rivalry, I do think the documentary did a good job of providing historical and cultural context. In particular, discussing the elements of race that were in play with this rivalry and how each team carried with it certain racial implications gave the whole thing a bit more weight and heft to it. This quality of Best of Enemies is frustrating because you see a little bit of what could have been had they decided to really expand the scope and not limit themselves as much as they did.

As a way of circling back to the opening of this and calling attention to one of the more interesting parts of this documentary, I think some of the discussion of how the Showtime Lakers were discussed and seen relative to the Boston Celtics of that time really resonates today with how we see the current NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors. Those Lakers, as represented by Magic Johnson's perpetually upbeat demeanor and the flashy style of play that was very aesthetically pleasing, were viewed as being not "tough" or "strong" enough relative to the Boston Celtics and the workmanlike attitude they possessed that was symbolized by players like Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. While there was obviously a prominent racial element to this (the "flashy" Lakers are represented by an African-American man while the "workmanlike" Celtics are best symbolized by two white players), there's also the issue of masculinity in play as well.

The Lakers were not seen as tough or strong, words that carry a certain gendered charge to them. The Lakers were not a "manly" team in the same way that the Celtics, the team treated as the strong and tough team" were. Watching the clips of people talking about the Lakers from that time, it sounded like how people like Charles Barkley and other more traditional NBA voices discuss the Warriors and the play of their star, Stephen Curry. I've discussed this issue of the Warriors and how they are discounted because they do not conform to our more traditional notions of masculinity but some of these elements were already in the NBA discourse already, though it's interesting to consider these things alongside the racial elements in play (and that, in some ways, are still in play with the Warriors and teams often contrasted with them like the Cavaliers, but in a much more subtle way).

Though I did have my issues with it, Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies was a very entertaining and interesting piece of sports documentary filmmaking and another example of the great work that's been done under the heading of the 30 for 30 series at ESPN. Even if you didn't have any rooting interest in this rivalry, you'll find yourself getting caught up in the story and enjoying the story that's being told.