Who To Hate?

By Sean Carroll | June 10, 2008 11:24 am

We have been remiss in not addressing the major event going on right before our eyes: the NBA Finals. In my case, it’s literally before my eyes, as I live just a couple of blocks from the Staples Center in LA, where action resumes tonight. I fully expect to run into Jack Nicholson drinking himself into a stupor at a local bar later this evening.

Now, every year the NBA Finals are a momentous event, but this year is especially noteworthy, as the teams involved are the LA Lakers and the Boston Celtics — a remarkable 11th Finals rematch between these two franchises. However, to a Philadelphia 76ers fan such as myself, one needs to say “the Hated Lakers” and “the Hated Celtics.” One or the other of these evil organizations has been responsible for bouncing my beloved Sixers out of the playoffs on countless occasions, most recently in 2001 when a Lakers juggernaut led by Shaquille O’Neal made short work of a plucky Philadelphia squad led by Allen Iverson — a David vs. Goliath matchup in which Goliath won fairly easily, as seems to usually happen in the real world.

So the question of “who to root for?” becomes one of “who do you hate less?” A truly thorny issue. Points to be considered:

  • As much as the Lakers are historically annoying, there is no question that the Sixers-Celtics rivalry is the deeper and more passionate one. Two Eastern Seaboard metropolises with inferiority complexes regarding New York, this rivalry blossomed over the course of the famous Russell-Chamberlain duels, the like of which have never been repeated in NBA history. (I will just note that nobody would ever have asked Bill Russell to star in movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
  • But then Wilt left the Sixers — to join the Lakers! One of an unending series of Philadelphia sports tragedies.
  • Overall, the Lakers are probably more deserving of our disdain. Boston fans, while notoriously parochial, are at least passionate about their team, while for Lakers fans basketball games are just another opportunity to appear on TV.
  • Both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were really annoying, even if one must grudgingly admit that they were good at basketball. But only Bird got into a fight with Julius Erving on the court. So that’s a point against the Celtics.
  • The Lakers are coached by Phil Jackson, who is quite a good coach but an incredibly irritating human being. After Celtics forward Paul Pierce was injured in Game One and managed to return to the game, Jackson was mockingly dismissive, scoffing that angels must have visited him at halftime. Phil Jackson does not deserve to win anything ever again.
  • LA is led by Kobe Bryant, while Boston is led by Kevin Garnett. A complicated situation. Both very talented, obviously. Kobe is originally from the Philadelphia area, but has managed to alienate his hometown fans so thoroughly that he cannot play against the Sixers without hearing a constant barrage of boos. More importantly, Garnett has always been intensely dedicated to the game and a consummate team player who struggled with inferior teammates and accordingly received all sorts of undeserved media criticism; Kobe, meanwhile, has always been a selfish and petulant media darling who undermined the Lakers franchise for a number of years by pushing Shaquille O’Neal out of town.

In the final calculation, and as painful as it is to say out loud — one has to root for the Celtics. Emotional attachment to a sports franchise is ultimately a completely irrational feeling, arising from unpredictable factors of geography and history rather than a sober contemplation of objective criteria. So you have to go with your gut, and my gut would very much like to see Kevin Garnett finally win the NBA Championship he so richly deserves. We’ll have to put aside the ugly reality that he’ll be wearing one of those horrible green uniforms when he does it.

And wait until next year.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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