WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) -Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have had two decades to nurse the memories of their fading rivalry, keeping it alive in their minds because the Lakers and Celtics have had little to compete for on the court.
Largely because of Boston's unprecedented title drought, the matchup that helped establish the league has been dormant since the Celtics' last appearance in the NBA finals in 1987. Now they're back, and the Lakers are again waiting.
It's Kobe and KG.
Paul and Pau.
East and West.
But, mostly, the Celtics against the Lakers.
``It was just great to be able to be in that heated rivalry for so many years,'' Johnson said Tuesday. ``The cities disliked each other; the teams disliked each other. But we respected each other because we knew they were so talented of a team, and also well-coached.
``We always wanted to play the best,'' Johnson said. ``And that was the Celtics.''
Winners of 30 NBA titles between them, the Lakers and Celtics will meet in the NBA finals for the 11th time starting on Thursday night with Game 1 at the new Boston Garden. And with the rekindling of that rivalry, the NBA got Johnson and Bird on a conference call with reporters to talk about the old days.
``It was extraordinary, great competition. It was battles every game,'' Bird said. ``I just feel very honored being able to be in an opportunity, with the great teammates that I had, to compete against a team either better or on an equal level as we were. It was an extraordinary time.''
Bird said the anticipation of meeting the Lakers each year was so intense that he was actually disappointed when they lost to the Houston Rockets in the 1986 Western Conference finals.
``I know all of us felt down a little bit because we weren't going to be able to play the Lakers again,'' Bird said. ``(But) when you think of the Celtics and Lakers, it didn't start with me and Magic. It goes back to the '50s and '60s.''
The teams first hooked up in the finals in 1959, when the Lakers were still in Minneapolis and Boston was on the cusp of a dynasty. The Celtics won that one - and the next seven times they met head-to-head - as they piled up an NBA-record 16 championships.
``It was hard to call it a rivalry because, you know, the Celtics always won,'' Johnson said.
And it was hard to keep the rivalry going while Boston kept losing.
The Celtics went to the finals four times in the mid-1980s, but they haven't been back since 1987. Meanwhile, Johnson made it back to the finals three more times - beating Detroit in 1988, losing to the Pistons in '88, and losing to Michael Jordan and the Bulls when Chicago won its first title in '91.
The Lakers went through a dry spell before winning three more championships with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in 2000-02. The Celtics missed the playoffs entirely nine times in the past 14 years.
``Every great franchise must go through downtime,'' Johnson said. ``A mark of a true and great franchise is whether they can come back. Both of them have come back, and come back in a big way.''
The Celtics did it all in one year, adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to mainstay Paul Pierce to turn last year's 24-win team into the NBA leader with a 66-16 record this season. The Lakers didn't drop as far or rise as quickly, riding Kobe Bryant's MVP season to the best record in the West.
Now they're back in the finals again, and facing each other again. But everything else - the players, coaches, even the arenas - is different.
``The intensity is not up to that level right now,'' Celtics guard Sam Cassell said. ``If we play the Lakers next year in the finals and the year after that, I think the rivalry will become like it was in the '80s. But right now it's just two teams who respect one another.''
In the end, Johnson said, it's not about the rivalry anyway.
``Trust me, when that ball goes up on Thursday, they'll understand,'' he said. ``They'll have their own rivalry because it's for all the marbles, it's for everything. It doesn't matter whether they understand the rivalry or not. They're going to create their own new rivalry, right, on Thursday night.''

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