"Beat L.A.!" - A Simple Chant With A Classy History

By Jeff Neuman

It's a chant we're sure to hear when the NBA Finals start tonight in Boston. Paul Pierce and his teammates shouted it in the aftermath of their win last Friday against Detroit; the Dodgers hear it on the road, especially in San Francisco; when the NFL finally puts a team back into the nation's second-largest market, it will no doubt hear it too.

"Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!"

The Celtics-Lakers rivalry is so entrenched in NBA lore that this battle cry could only have come from the efforts of a Boston crowd to lift the home team past their California counterparts, right?

Right crowd, wrong team.

While it has become just another generic, chest-thumping, "We're Number One!" or "Let's Go Team!" shout, the "Beat L.A.!" chant began its life as something different. It started from an extraordinary, spontaneous act of sportsmanship and tribute by the Boston Garden faithful.

In the 1982 Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics were matched in a seven-game thriller against their true traditional rival, the Philadelphia 76ers. Throughout the days of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in the 1960s, these were the elite teams that measured themselves against each other nearly always to Philly's detriment. When the Sixers acquired Julius Erving in the 1970s, it wasn't long before the Celtics countered with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. In the 1980s, after the Sixers added sharpshooter Andrew Toney, the Celtics traded for Dennis Johnson to guard him.

The Lakers? They were an afterthought. Though Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were all-time greats, their team lacked the inside presence to match up with Boston. The Celtics beat the Lakers all six times they met in the Finals between 1962 and '69.

In that 1982 series, the Sixers blew a 3-games-to-1 lead, just as they had the year before against Boston, who went on to win the championship. They were beaten by 29 in game five in Boston (as the Garden crowd chanted "See you Sunday! See you Sunday!" in anticipation of the teams' return), then dropped game six on their home court, losing 88-75 while managing just four field goals in the final eighteen minutes of the game.

All the portents for the seventh game favored Boston. Over their history, the Celtics had a 9-1 record in seventh games at home, including all three matchups with Philadelphia. The ghosts of Celtics past were in attendance on that Sunday in May five fans came draped in sheets, wearing the names and numbers of Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Don Nelson, and Satch Sanders but times do change in sports, and echoes can't make jumpers. The 76ers took an early lead, weathered a Boston comeback that made it a two-point game in the third quarter, and pulled away in the fourth behind 29 points from Erving and 34 from the blazing Toney.

Both teams pulled their starters at the end, and with twenty-six seconds left on the clock and Philadelphia up by 12, the chant began.

"Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!"

The Lakers had swept the San Antonio Spurs in the 1982 Western finals, and spent a week waiting for the Eastern Conference winner. Now, with the issue decided, the Boston crowd had a wish for the visiting 76ers. For a full minute the chant continued, even through a Celtic reserve's meaningless free throws.

"Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!"

It was a classy gesture from a fan base not always noted for its warm side. "That was nice," Erving said after the game, "but it wasn't as loud as 'See you Sunday,' was it?"

Perhaps not, but when those three inevitable syllables come roaring through the TD Banknorth Garden on Thursday, take a moment to remember a time when passionate fans saluted a foe in its moment of triumph. Respect is not a zero-sum game; sometimes, when you give it, you get more in return.

Of course, that won't be much comfort if you are L.A.

Jeff Neuman is a sportswriter and editor, and co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf.

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