Kevin Cullen

Bring on the Celtics-Knicks rivalry

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / April 17, 2011

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A couple of months ago, I was shooting the breeze with the president of the Boston Celtics, and he was saying it was good for the league that the New York Knicks were getting competitive again.

The president of the Celtics is named Rich Gotham.

Which is like the Knicks having a president named Ned Irish.

Actually, the Knicks did have a president named Ned Irish.

Gotham’s a good guy and he had a good point: renewing a Celtics-Knicks rivalry is a good thing.

If New York is the Mecca of Basketball, having produced more NBA players than any other city, Boston is the Mecca of Championships, the Celtics’ 17 banners setting the gold standard for excellence.

The Knicks and Celtics haven’t met in the playoffs in 21 years. When a sports writer asked Celtics captain Paul Pierce what he thought of the Celtics-Knicks rivalry, Pierce replied, “I didn’t know we had a rivalry.’’


The Yankees used to talk about the Red Sox that way. Rivalry? What rivalry?

When it comes to championships, the Celtics are more like the Yankees and the Knicks more like the Red Sox. The Knicks have won it all just twice. It’s because of that disparity that the ultimate Celtics rivalry is with the Lakers.

But the Celtics and Knicks are NBA pedigrees, two of the league’s original teams, the only two that remain in the cities where they were founded. And when it comes to head-to-head playoff meetings, the history is pretty even: the Celtics have won seven times, the Knicks six. Given that both teams were founded in 1946, it’s incredible they’ve gone head to head so seldom.

The Knicks had a player who ran for president: Bill Bradley.

The Celtics had a coach who should have run for president: Red Auerbach.

Auerbach, a native New Yorker, drove the Knicks absolutely nuts.

Irish was the Knicks president in the 1960s, when the Knicks were perennial cellar dwellers and the Celtics won the championship almost every year. In 1967, after the Celtics won the championship for an eighth consecutive year, Irish concluded that to match the Celtics he needed to hire a coach from Brooklyn named Red who smoked cigars and whose father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia.

So he hired Holzman and the Knicks won their only championships, in 1970 and 1973, under The Other Red. In that stretch, from the last couple of years of the 1960s and through the mid-70s, Celtics-Knicks was huge. It helped that this was before expansion, and the two teams played more often than the measly four games they do now each season.

The intensity of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry goes without saying. The Bruins-Rangers rivalry — while nowhere near what it was when Madison Square Garden fans were waving rubber chickens at Derek Sanderson and Terry O’Reilly was climbing into the stands to brawl with Rangers fans — has always maintained a low-intensity burn.

When it comes to the Jets, the Patriots might as well be the Sharks: it’s always a gang fight.

But Celtics-Knicks has for too long been a rivalry that wasn’t. The biggest problem is that the Knicks and the Celtics have had an inverse relationship with winning. With few exceptions, whenever the Celtics were good, the Knicks were bad, and vice versa.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, it wasn’t that way. Two things I remember about going to Celtics-Knicks games as a kid in that era: Even though the Celtics were perennial champions, the old Boston Garden was half empty, and half the crowd cheered for the Knicks. It was my first introduction to New Yorkers and they were, um, different.

For 20-plus years, the celebrity face of the Knicks fan, the Jack Nicholson of the East Coast, has been the filmmaker Spike Lee. Lee is a die-hard New York-anything fan. As such, he knows exactly what to say or do to aggravate Boston fans.

Not for nothin’ was the protagonist of his great urban tale “Do The Right Thing,’’ named Mookie. (For you youngsters, Mookie Wilson was a light-hitting outfielder for the New York Mets, who with the Red Sox poised to win their first World Series in 68 years, rolled a routine ground ball to Red Sox first baseman Bill. . . . On second thought, I can’t do this. Just Google it.)

Lee gets the Boston-New York thing. In “Do the Right Thing,’’ a white guy in a Larry Bird jersey runs over Mookie’s fresh white sneakers with his bicycle. The guy in the Larry Bird shirt, played by the great John Savage, insists to a bunch of black kids from Bedford-Stuyvesant that he’s not some blow-in yuppie, that he’s actually, really, truly from Brooklyn. They hoot him into his brownstone.

Lee got some stick for suggesting Bird was the most overrated player in history. But when he was asked to pick his all-time team he named two Celtics — Bill Russell and Bird — and no Knicks. That’s what I call doing the right thing.

It’s Celtics-Knicks. And the Acela trains are jammed.

“I would be shocked if Spike Lee doesn’t find his way into the building,’’ Gotham said.

Welcome back, Mookie. We missed you.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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