How Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' could foretell the revival of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the NBA

Meredith Cash
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  • In Cynthia Lewis' new book "The game's afoot: A Sports Lover's Introduction to Shakespeare," the author compares the rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics to the age-old feud between the Capulets and Montagues in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
  • Although the rivalry has been less relevant in recent years, LeBron James's arrival in Hollywood and his tense history with Celtics star Kyrie Irving could put their teams' ongoing feud back in the spotlight. 
  • The two teams will face off for the first time this upcoming season in Boston on February 7.


Historically, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics have been the NBA's marquee rivalry, and despite its secondary status in recent years, there is a chance it could revive itself.

First, it was Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Next came Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Most recently, Kobe Bryant reigned supreme versus Kevin Garnett and a band of sharpshooters in the 2010 NBA Finals. Now there is a new legend in the rivalry in LeBron James and maybe a lesson from Shakespeare.

In her recent book "The game's afoot: A Sports Lover's Introduction to Shakespeare," author Cynthia Lewis examines the parallels between Shakespeare's plays and modern spectator sports. In one section, Lewis likens the rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics to the age-old feud between the Capulets and Montagues in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Could teammates-turned-foes LeBron James and Kyrie Irving become the title characters in the historic rivalry's next chapter?

All signs point to yes, according to Lewis's criteria for a powerful and sustained rivalry.

First, Lewis points to status and social hierarchy discrepancies as a hallmark of any great feud. Back in fair Verona, "the fact that human reason provided for speech meant that the use of language also distinguished human beings from beasts" (Lewis 14). Employees of the Capulets mocked Romeo's speech throughout the play, casting him as inferior and unworthy of Juliet and the stature that accompanies her courtship.

According to Lewis, similar tropes have historically characterized the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, which TIME journalist Charlie Duerr boils down to "Hollywood glamour versus East coast working-class grit." Players from today's Los Angeles and Boston teams largely fall into these same roles. James has been linked to multiple Hollywood productions, including a sequel to "Space Jam" announced earlier this week, and teammate Lonzo Ball and his outspoken father LaVar have been at the center of intrigue regarding their personal merchandising machine in Big Baller Brand. The Celtics have expressed much more humility across the country, with Irving spewing flat-Earth theories, Gordon Hayward not-so-subtly expressing his disappointment at finding out his third daughter was on the way, and Jayson Tatum trying everything to get his newborn son to sleep in his crib.

Lewis also stresses the importance of role players in the success or failure of either side of a rivalry.

"Romeo and Juliet are no more singly responsible for their tragedy than would be Magic, Bird, Kobe, or Garnett for a win or a loss," Lewis wrote.

As evidenced by the Cleveland Cavaliers' loss in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals caused by guard JR Smith's major gaffe, King James is not immune to this reality. The Lakers will surround James with a young cast of characters in Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma. Irving and Hayward, too, will have to rely on young players such as Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier.

Finally, Lewis cites strong mentorship as a crucial component to these rivalries. Both Romeo and Juliet turn to Friar Lawrence for guidance in moments of desperation, and Lewis says that "an analogy between the Friar as spiritual/life counselor and an athletic coach is not farfetched." James and the Lakers hope to thrive under the combined leadership of head coach Luke Walton and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson while the Celtics lean on head coach Brad Stevens, who is often lauded as a basketball genius.

All of these factors—combined with the added tension of Irving's dramatic departure from Cleveland in the summer of 2017—will undoubtedly rejuvenate one of the fiercest rivalries in all of the sports. The two teams will face off for the first time this upcoming season in Boston February 7. Check out Lewis's takes on other sports-Shakespeare parallels in "The game's afoot: A Sports Lover's Introduction to Shakespeare," which you can buy here.

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