There was no team that former Lakers star Magic Johnson despised more during his playing days than the Celtics. The five-time NBA champion had a heated rivalry with ex-Celtics great Larry Bird, and his Lakers beat Boston in the Finals twice in three meetings in the 1980s.
But even with his strong allegiance to his beloved Lakers, his love for the NBA and Celtics star Paul Pierce makes Johnson "happy" to see the Celtics as a powerhouse again. And for Pierce, respect for his boyhood idol is more than mutual.
"It's a bitter rivalry, but it doesn't bite me," said Johnson recently in a phone interview in honor of NBA Heritage Week. "Actually, I'm happy that they're back. When you think of the Lakers and the Celtics, those are two of the really biggest brands [in the NBA]. The Celtics are always going to have a following like the Lakers have a following. With them being back it makes the league better. You can't have New York and the Celtics be bad at the same time like we've had for the last few years. So, it helps the league.
"I'm happy they're back because of that. But I'm happy, No. 1, that they're back because of Paul because I want him to be on the big stage. I want him to win."
Johnson was a 6-foot-9-inch point guard who revolutionized the position. Pierce grew up in Inglewood, Calif., and idolized the Lakers' "Showtime" teams of the 1980s that were led by Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy.
"He's been my inspiration for the game of basketball, especially as a little kid following the Los Angeles Lakers and what he's doing on and off the court," said Pierce, whose Celtics took yesterday off after beating Chicago Saturday night to improve to an NBA-best 17-2. "I honor and respect every word that comes out of his mouth. To me, that was the greatest team that ever played."
Johnson says the ego-less camaraderie shared by Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen is similar to his Lakers teams and also the rival Celtics that featured Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish.
"[This Celtics team is] similar because, first, everybody has to throw their ego out the door," Johnson said. "Everybody has to understand it's still about the team, it's still about winning. If everybody just does their job, then at the end of the day we all benefit. They are doing it just like we did it."
Moreover, Johnson said he believes this season's Celtics will be in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1987, when the Lakers beat them.
"They got a good chance to go all the way and really give whoever represents the West all they want," Johnson said.
Pierce played against Johnson in pickup games at UCLA while attending Inglewood High and the University of Kansas. But the five-time NBA All-Star was too in awe to speak to Johnson until he was drafted by the Celtics in 1998. Pierce and Johnson immediately became friends and talked basketball for hours after pickup games.
"The reason why [Golden State's] Baron [Davis] and Paul are so good is they would sit around as young men after we played basketball for two or three hours and talk about basketball for two hours and how to do certain things," Johnson said.
"They are students of the game and not just using their talent. They adjusted to play with their heads as much as their talent."
Said Pierce: "Any time he has something to say, I'm going to soak it up. He was the greatest of all-time."
Johnson hosted a charity event in Los Angeles for 20 years called the "Midsummer Night's Magic," which included pro and celebrity all-star games over a weekend during the offseason. Almost $20 million was raised over the two decades, and in 2006, Johnson passed the event to Pierce and Davis, also a Los Angeles native. Pierce and Davis's charity event is now called the "LA Stars Celebrity All-Star Charity Weekend" and includes an evening of fashion, music, and games on Los Angeles' famed Rodeo Drive.
"They played every single year [they were invited], so I want to thank both of them for doing that," Johnson said. "They knew the ins and outs of the weekend, of the game. And when I told them, 'Hey, I hope you want to take this over when I'm done with it,' they both jumped on it.
"I told them, 'I don't want you to do anything I did, make it your own.' And they made it their own. It's been great."