New York and Los Angeles may be the two largest media markets and metro areas in the United States, as well as natural geographically opposed sports rivals, but with fewer than 10 title meetings all-time across major American sports, the LA-NY championship matchup is rarer than you might suspect.
When the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings face off Wednesday night at Staples Center in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, the rivalry clock will be reset. And just because LA-NY hasn’t happened that often doesn’t mean we don’t have some memorable moments to appreciate, including these top five bicoastal showdowns.
No. 5: 2002 WNBA Finals
OK, the 1981 World Series might be the last time New York and Los Angeles met for a title in one of the four major professional sports, but if you cast the mental net just a tad wider, you’ll remember (maybe?) that the New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks met in the 2002 WNBA Finals. The Liberty lost the series, 2-0 — their fourth Finals defeat in six years — but the league finally had its long-awaited NY-LA championship bout. From the WNBA’s inception, the most publicized "rivalry" was the one between Rebecca Lobo’s Liberty and Lisa Leslie’s Sparks. The first game played in WNBA history was, in fact, between the two clubs.
Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie was an old pro by the time she led her team past the New York Liberty in the 2002 WNBA Finals.
Only problem was that Cynthia Cooper’s Houston Comets won the first four titles in league history. So by the time 2002 rolled around, Lobo was traded away (to Houston, of all places) while LA still had Leslie, who won Finals MVP honors for the second straight year.
No. 4: 1981 World Series
The last memorable matchup between the Dodgers and Yankees went the way of the west, thanks in large part to the fever dream known as Fernandomania and the lousy luck of the Yankees’ bullpen. The Bombers actually won Games 1 and 2 behind the masterful pitching of Ron Guidry and Tommy John, but New York blew a lead in each of the next four games and reliever George Frazier ended up taking the loss in three of them.
Rookie phenom Fernando Valenzuela was on top of the world in 1981, leading the Dodgers to a World Series title.
The player strike wiped out nearly 40 percent of the 1981 regular-season schedule, but the playoffs brought a dramatic conclusion to a weird and tumultuous season for MLB. It’s been 33 years since LA and New York met in a major championship final, and while so much has changed since then, you could argue that the introductory TV graphics were never better.
The series win was actually a nice measure of revenge for the Dodgers. In the ‘78 World Series, the Yankees became the first team to ever lose the first two games and then win the next four. In 1981, the Dodgers became the second.
No. 3: 1963 World Series
The Bums lost six of seven World Series matchups to the Yankees while they were intracity rivals, but a move west boosted the Dodgers’ winning ways rather quickly. Los Angeles brought home a title in 1959 – just their second season since leaving Brooklyn. The following year, the Yankees started their streak of five straight American League pennants. In Year 4, they met Los Angeles and 27-year-old ace Sandy Koufax, who was unstoppable, winning Games 1 and 4 as the Dodgers swept their old nemesis. Koufax, with his 23 strikeouts and three earned runs over two complete games, was named MVP.
Mickey Mantle may have been The Man, but Frank Howard and the Dodgers towered over the Yankees in the ’63 Fall Classic.
"Never before had the mighty Yankees been subjected to a four-in-a-row humiliation," The New York Times said. "Against the Dodgers, they were not much more effective than the Mets would have been." Ouch.
No. 2: 1970 NBA Finals
The good news for the Lakers was that this showing was their seventh time in The NBA Finals in the previous nine seasons. The bad news? They lost for the seventh time in that stretch. (The San Francisco Warriors lost the other two finals. Go California!) New York and Los Angeles would meet for the title three times in four seasons, but the Knicks came out victorious in this initial and most memorable matchup. Jerry West averaged 31 points and nearly eight assists while Wilt Chamberlain averaged 23 points and 24 rebounds, but the combination of series MVP Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier — all future Hall of Famers — was too much for Los Angeles over the long series.
Walt "Clyde" Frazier was unconscious in Game 7 — 36 points, 19 assists, and seven rebounds — and helped lead the Knicks to their first title in club history.
Of all the memorable singular performances over the long Dodgers-Yankees postseason history, Reggie Jackson smacking three home runs on three swings in the clinching Game 6 ranks above them all. The pitching from both teams was the good-but-not-great kind that you always dread on a national stage like the World Series, but the Yankees had just enough of a balanced offense — Jackson, in the series, actually had more runs scored (10) than hits (nine) — that they brought home their first title in 15 years.
Three swings, three home runs. Reggie Jackson nearly beat the Dodgers singlehandedly in the deciding game of the ’77 World Series.
Led by the pitching of Guidry and Catfish Hunter, as well as Jackson’s lethal swing (.391 average, 1.196 OPS in six games), the Yankees knocked off the Dodgers in six games again in 1978 to repeat as champions.
Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 33 years (or 12 if you count WNBA!) to see Los Angeles and New York meet again for a title, but maybe let’s enjoy the Rangers and Kings battling for the Cup. You know, just in case.