NEW YORK — Last season the NBA and its fans got what they sold their souls for, a showdown between the Celtics and Lakers . . . the league’s two most venerated and decorated franchises.
Too bad their Game 6 inequality wasn’t worth the 19-year wait.
This season, outside of leprechauns hemorrhaging green, we’re all drooling for a June monsoon of LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant.
Three immortal Ali-Frazier bouts even now have us spellbound. Thirty years later, the NCAA title game pitting Magic Johnson and Larry Bird still has us intoxicated, and from 1984-87, they raised their rivalry to exotic heights in three-of-four Finals.
Getting a whiff was a blessing and far too much fun to be legal.
Meanwhile, LeBron and Kobe have yet to meet once when it really counts. Here it is, 2009, and all we’ve witnessed is inconsequential contact twice annually during the regular season, in addition to some silly All-Star shenanigans. A legitimate rivalry cannot commence until they compete for Larry O’Brien’s crown jewel.
I can care about seeing them compete for only so long. Wait much longer . . . when Kobe exceeds his prime . . . and no one will care.
This is LeBron’s sixth season. Kobe had a seven-year head start. Two perfectly aligned superstars in faultless flight. It’s unimaginable to think conditions for a cosmic collision being more alluring.
Their teams flash conference-leading records. Medical charts are scrubbed. Depth graphs are 10-deep. Momentum is cresting.
At the same time, their closest challengers are doing their best to cooperate:
Kevin Garnett’s fitness is no longer is a mystery in light of Doc Rivers’ quote, “It’s not official he’s out for the entire playoffs, but it’s official as far as I’m concerned.”
Manu Ginobili is out for the duration; Tyson Chandler returned for the Hornets finale (10 points, three rebounds, two blocks, 20 minutes) after being out since March 2 with an inflamed left ankle.
Hedo Turkoglu (sprained right ankle) and Rashard Lewis (tender right knee) were expected to be functioning slightly below 100 percent when the playoffs begin.
Are you sensing what sports books are sensing?
Mohawk Gaming Group’s Jimmy Shapiro has established the Lakers as 5-to-4 favorites to win the title, while the Cavaliers are 7-to-5. The odds against the Garnett-less Celtics (4-1 with him) and the other 13 playoff teams are out bets.
That’s the kind of chalk talk we want to hear.
If only we could be sure Phil Jackson and Mike Brown won’t punk out should their teams finally get to socialize at David Stern’s velvet-roped after-party.
Except for isolated instances, Magic and Bird, who were the same size, but played strikingly different positions, never intentionally guarded each other.
LeBron and Kobe were born to confront and check each other . . . and a pox on any referee who dares to interrupt their duel with a foolish foul.
We’re overdue for this rivalry; Kobe and LeBron owe it to themselves to give us history on the hardwood; it starts with one championship Ali-Frazier round.
Naturally, nobody on The Redeem Team would dream about trading their Olympic experience or gold medal. But surely their undivided commitment, and all the training it entailed . . . followed closely behind by an 82-game schedule, has drained the participants.
I mean, other than LeBron. “This is the best I’ve felt at this point in the season in my six-year career,” he told me in late March.
How can that be?
“The help we added has helped,” said LeBron, namely Mo Williams. Having Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak (2008 acquisitions) and Anderson Varejao (contract dispute) for a full season has made a big difference, too.
“Also, this past summer is the hardest I’ve ever worked. You know, individual workouts with the Olympic team, more time in the weight room, and hours of shooting practice.”
In the past, Olympic players broke down in the subsequent season at a higher rate than the rest of the league.
LeBron can’t understand why that happened.
“If you look at those guys from our roster, a lot of them are doing as well or better than they’ve done in their careers. People said the Olympics may hurt us, but Dwyane (Wade) has had an MVP-type year. Kobe also is having an MVP-type year. And the same goes for Chris (Paul) and Dwight (Howard).
“All of us — Deron (Williams), Jason (Kidd) — the list goes on. We’ve all built on that success and carried it into the season with our teams.”
Hold on, not so fast.
I may be slow on my toes, but I later examined Team USA’s roster and discovered not everyone was unscathed. Williams missed Utah’s first 14, Carlos Boozer was sidelined for 45, Michael Redd lost 49 to injury, while various tribulations and afflictions cost Carmelo Anthony 14.
I don’t wish opponents of the Lakers or Cavaliers any bad luck. What I’m openly rooting against from the press box are upsets that last more than a game or three.
We’ve been yearning for the playoffs since All-Star Weekend and aching for a meaningful Kobe-LeBron mano-a-mano for six seasons.
Give us that and I’ll buy Vanessa a diamond.
Peter Vecsey covers the NBAfor the New York Post.