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The Larry O’Brien Trophy
When the NBA playoffs come to a close in June, the Larry O’Brien Trophy is hoisted overhead by the winning owner and passed among the players as a symbol of basketball excellence. Some of the world’s best-known athletes have had their hands on the trophy since it debuted in 1977, including Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Raising basketball’s most famous prize is the highlight of any career and, as those who have won multiple times will tell you, it doesn’t matter how often it happens, it’s always incredibly special.
Officially known as the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy, the current prize for winning the NBA Finals replaced the Walter A. Brown Trophy in 1977. Initially, the name remained the same from the first trophy to the next, but was changed in 1984 to honor the former NBA Commissioner after his retirement in 1983.
Created to resemble a basketball falling through the hoop, each year a new trophy is manufactured by the Tiffany & Co. Silver Shop at a cost of $13,500. Comprised predominantly of sterling silver, a thin sheet of 24 karat gold is laid over the two-foot-tall structure to give it the trademark luster seen in champagne-soaked locker rooms and crowded municipal victory parades all over the United States. One of the more remarkable triumphs of the design is the 9-inch-diameter basketball – it is nearly the same size as a regulation ball used by the NBA. After the prize is awarded, engravers etch the year and team name into the face, allowing them to be displayed in team offices or in cases at the team’s arena.
For NBA executives, the Larry O’Brien Trophy has produced a somewhat perplexing problem: despite the international rise in the league’s popularity, few people can identify the trophy. To counter this issue, they have made an aggressive effort to showcase it both at venues during playoff games and on international tours. In just 2004, for example, the trophy toured the state of Michigan after the Detroit Pistons won the title. This was the first time any such event had been carried out, yet it led to a Legends Tour the following summer – in which the trophy was accompanied by NBA greats to fan experiences – and eventually a tour of Asia, where the sport has exploded in popularity in recent years.
Los Angeles Lakers (1980-91)
Many modern basketball fans long for this era of the NBA, when Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers were speeding up and down the court producing highlight-reel plays. For more than a decade, the franchise was in the thick of the title hunt every year, winning five championships and ending as runners-up another four times. Led by Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the team was one half of the best rivalry in possibly the league’s golden age.
Boston Celtics (1981-87)
For every likable, free-wheeling team you find, it seems there is always a cold, workman-like foe. Those Lakers teams of the ‘80s had their match when the Larry Bird-led Celtics came to town. Big and strong, with excellent outside shooting from Bird and forceful play near the basket from Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale, the Celts were able to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy three times in six years, finishing as runners-up to the Lakers twice.
Chicago Bulls (1991-98)
After Magic and Larry stepped away from the game, Michael Jordan officially became the face of the NBA. Having battled with Bird’s Celtics when he entered the league in the early ‘80s and been pushed out of the playoffs by the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” teams in 1989-90, victory in 1991 with Scottie Pippen and the rest of the squad was incredibly sweet. But for two seasons where Jordan was away from the game due to a brief retirement, the Bulls were the dominant force in the league – and may have won eight straight instead of two sets of three.
Los Angeles Lakers (2000-04)
With a young Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in his prime, this group of Lakers became the de facto heirs to the Bulls’ throne as perennial championship threat. Coached by Phil Jackson – the same man who led Jordan’s teams to six titles – the Triangle Offense seemed to flourish with the balance of a superlative big man and high-scoring guard. With three straight victories to being the new millennium (and a runners-up spot in 2004), the Larry O’Brien Trophy returned to the City of Angels.
Los Angeles Lakers (2008-10)
Appearing in three straight NBA Finals has been accomplished a surprising number of times (11), but no franchise has done so more than the Lakers. (To be fair, though, the Celtics appeared in 10 straight during the late ‘50s and ‘60s.) This team, with Kobe Bryant as the elder statesman, resembled that of Michael Jordan more than those with Magic and Kareem. After losing to the hated Celtics, the team returned to sweep two straight championships and seal the Lakers as the dominant team of the Larry O’Brien Trophy era.
Los Angeles Lakers (10; 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88, 2000-02, 2009-10)
Chicago Bulls (6; 1991-93, 1996-98)
Boston Celtics (4; 1981, 1984, 1986, 2008)
San Antonio Spurs (4; 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007)
Detroit Pistons (3; 1989, 1990, 2004)
Video: The Larry O’Brien Trophy