When ESPN launched 30 For 30 again in 2009, one of many mandates for the sequence was to inform sports activities tales that hadn’t already been wrung dry by numerous journal articles and TV retrospectives. It’s exhausting to argue that “Celtics/Lakers: Greatest Of Enemies” meets that commonplace. The NBA’s most well-known rivalry? The epochal Larry Chicken/Magic Johnson playoff video games of the 1980s? These aren’t simply well-told tales; they’re just about the foundational mythology of contemporary skilled basketball.
So give director Jim Podhoretz credit score: He doesn’t simply run by means of the identical factors which were made concerning the NBA’s two most storied franchises again and again for many years. With 5 hours to work with—unfold throughout two nights and three elements—Podhoretz gives extra scope and context. For sports-doc followers who take pleasure in detailed strategic breakdowns of basic video games, “Greatest Of Enemies” positively fills the invoice, with insider interviews aplenty. However these episodes are additionally about rather more.
Be warned: The opening minutes of “Greatest Of Enemies” aren’t particularly promising, and virtually appear designed to place viewers off. The doc has two narrators—Donnie Wahlberg representing Boston, and Ice Dice for L.A.—and so they communicate in first-person all through, describing a private connection to their respective hometowns whereas casually trash-talking one another’s groups. However they’re studying from a script, and the stiff, performative facet of their fandom is grating at instances.
After a modest quantity of setup, although, “Greatest Of Enemies” picks up steam as soon as it begins stepping into the intertwined histories of those two franchises. It begins with the better-known story: how coach Crimson Auerbach introduced in Invoice Russell, who alongside Bob Cousy and John Havlicek, dominated the league within the 1960s, in basic video games referred to as by the gravel-voiced Johnny Most. Then Podhoretz goes again additional to remind NBA followers that within the ’50s, the Minneapolis Lakers and massive man George Mikan have been the kings of professional ball, and that after a sluggish begin in L.A., the Lakers turned like Hollywood stars because of velvety announcer Chick Hearn and a roster that included Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain. The one obtrusive failure for the ’60s Lakers? They couldn’t beat the Celtics for a championship, any of the six instances they tried.
The primary half of episode one covers the ’60s and strikes into the ’70s, the place each groups had intermittent success but by no means confronted one another within the finals. All through, Podhoretz appears to be like on the waxing and waning recognition of the NBA itself between the ’60s and ’80s, and paperwork the explanations the media gave over time for why some followers stayed away.
Particularly, “Greatest Of Enemies” delves into the problem of race, each within the intellectualized bigotry of some sports activities reporters—who’d reward the virtues of “basic basketball” versus “playground model”—and within the strained race-relations inside Los Angeles and Boston. The documentary doesn’t draw any direct traces between journalists questioning Celtics coach Invoice Russell’s “impartiality” (or bristling on the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s unwillingness to smile and entertain) and the notorious picture of a white Bostonian in a race riot jabbing an American flag at a black man in a go well with… however Podhoretz additionally doesn’t gloss over the real-world points that shadowed the sport. If something, the bigger social commentary of the primary hour serves as an overture for what’s to come back.
By the tip of half one, this 30 For 30 will get to its marquee attraction: the Larry Chicken-led Boston Celtics and the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers of the ’80s. Between 1980 and 1989, the Lakers have been within the finals from the West eight instances, and gained 5 championships, whereas the Celtics represented the East 5 instances, successful thrice. The 2 groups squared off in opposition to one another solely thrice—in ’84, ’85, and ’87—however every sequence riveted the nation, producing personalities and storylines that helped set up the NBA as a real nationwide pastime, proper earlier than Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls swooped in and pushed the league to one more stage.
Half two (which is barely an hour) presents an in-depth take a look at the primary of these finals: a seven-game slugfest that followers had been pining for ever since Magic and Chicken garnered file Nielsen rankings taking part in in opposition to one another within the 1979 NCAA championship sport (as the celebs of Michigan State and Indiana State). The sequence proved to be a take a look at of two competing basketball cultures: the razzle-dazzle “Showtime” Lakers, with their halftime dancers and celeb followers, and the extra blue-collar Boston group, taking part in in a smelly previous enviornment with no air con.
Half three then pulls again a bit, returning to a number of the themes launched partially one. The central thesis of “Greatest Of Enemies” is that the Lakers and Celtics “saved” the NBA, which is the type of well-covered floor that this sequence often avoids. So this three-parter considers what “saved” actually means, and whether or not there was any reality to the standard knowledge about what damage the league within the late ’70s—be it drug abuse, competitors from the ABA, a significant broadcasting companion solely airing large video games on tape-delay, or white America not wanting to look at a sport the place the overwhelming majority of the gamers have been black.
Among the matters in “Greatest Of Enemies” have come up earlier than in 30 For 30, together with the overdose of promising Boston rookie Len Bias, and the way in which the Detroit Pistons challenged the Celtics’ “whiteness” from inside the similar convention. However Podhoretz weaves every little thing collectively effectively, with the assistance of an robust set of interviewees that vary from each main dwelling participant and coach to passionate ball followers like jazzman Wynton Marsalis and cultural critic Nelson George. (The latter two’s insights into what black America thought concerning the success of Chicken and the Celtics is so heartfelt and private that one wonders how a lot better Wahlberg and Ice Dice would’ve been in the event that they’d been requested to talk extemporaneously.)
5 hours could also be about an hour greater than “Greatest Of Enemies” actually wants, provided that there’s so little right here concerning the ’60s, and subsequent to nothing concerning the revival of the rivalry within the 2008 and 2010 finals. However basketball wonks will love the deeper dive into almost each one of many Celtics/Lakers finals video games; and those that usually solely tune into 30 For 30 when the sequence is taking an O.J.: Made In America-like take a look at the intersections of sports activities and society ought to admire how frank these episodes are about some uncomfortable topics. This isn’t simply one other documentary about how everybody was speaking about Chicken and Magic within the ’80s. It’s about what they have been saying—and what they meant.