Monday, May 6, 2013

New NBA Culture Affects The Game's Rivalries

Is the passion and intensity of NBA Rivalries like Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson fading? (

Everyone loves a rivalry. Red Sox vs. Yankees, Lakers vs. Celtics, and Duke vs. North Carolina are a few of the more recognized matches we as fans look forward to each year because of the added disdain each team has for the other.

Tensions between these teams have a tendency to rise and boil over, which makes the ultimate goal of victory mean that much more and taste that much sweeter to a team. Who doesn’t have a story with siblings or friends that you hold over them and constantly retell, just to make sure they remember that one time you were the best? And how much do you hate it when you’re the one on the short end of the stick? Take those feelings and desires to never to be on the losing side of backyard bragging rights, and multiply it by infinity. Then you might begin to have an understanding of what rivalries mean to collegiate and professional athletes.

We’ve heard about the killer instinct. Magic Johnson had it. Larry Bird had it. Michael Jordan had it. It was a necessity to be great in the NBA. A requirement. A prerequisite. A burning desire to be better than the guy next to you that ran so deep, you were in the gym long after the janitors had finished their rounds. Once they stepped on the court, they knew they were better than you, and they made sure you knew it.

That’s how it used to be. Anymore, though, we as fans and media see less and less of it. Kobe Bryant is the most notable active player that media and fans would say has that instinct. But outside of him, who else is there? You could make arguments for few players like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, or Dwayne Wade, but they would all be met with contention and dispute. Even the league’s nearly unanimous MVP, LeBron James, was referred to as a choke artist and not having the desire to take the big shots until he finally won the title. The attitudes players have toward the game have definitely changed and it has created a very different atmosphere on an NBA court.

There has been a movement away from trash talk and wanting to own the spotlight, and a movement toward keeping verbal exchanges clean on the court, and creating “dream teams” during the regular season. This is not to say that teams of old didn’t have multiple talented players on the court at one point. Just look at the Lakers and Celtics teams form the 60s, 70s and 80s. Even more recently, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Bulls, Stockton and Malone with the Jazz and Kobe and Shaq with the Lakers were all dynamic duos that needed each other to win titles.

Now, with the explosion of free agency, players are looking to team up in pursuit of the ever-elusive ring. The Celtics started it when they went out and acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to go alongside Paul Pierce. Then the Heat dominated the headlines by bringing in arguably the most gifted player to ever grace the court in LeBron to go along with Dwayne Wade, as well as Chris Bosh. Even before those moves, the Lakers brought in Paul Gasol to fill the void in the post left by Shaq and to take some pressure of Kobe, and then this past offseason brought in Dwight Howard as well.

While it is certainly entertaining to see such prominent names play alongside one another, something is lost in sports when players decide they no longer want to be solo in the spotlight and team up: the rivalry. Players are now best friends on the court, as well as off it, rather than being bitter adversaries during a game. Even the Olympics has contributed to this new movement in the NBA, where players like Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and many other All-Stars spend their time as friends and teammates, rather than competitors and rivals. And while some of the greats like Jordan, Magic, and Bird played together in search of a gold medal, they didn’t have the added element of having “dream teams” once they were back on an NBA court. It was back to the rivalries, the trash talk, and the desire to beat their fellow man and make sure they remembered it. That element is slowly fading away with today’s current players.

While, as before mentioned, Kobe is one of the remaining players in the league who most fans and media would say has the killer instinct, he may also provide one of the better examples of a player expressing the desire of teaming up with another superstar, as opposed to wanting to own the spotlight and push anyone wanting to share it back into the shadows. In an article written by ESPN’s Jackie MacMullin back in February, Kobe says if the Celtics didn’t want Rajon Rondo to, “send him my (his) way,” and that he, “loves that kid…he’s one of my favorites.”

Think about that for a moment: a Laker expressing his desire to team up with a Celtic. Is there a fan out there who can see Bill Russell teaming up with Jerry West? Or Magic teaming up with Bird? If you happen to be that fan, I imagine you are the only one. Those players wanted to be the best in the world, and to be the best they had to beat the best. While sportsmanship is very important, the decline of trash talk and the killer instinct is leaving the NBA with less and less rivalries and with more and more players wanting to create the next powerhouse in the league with their buddies.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t go too far, or rivalries may soon not have nearly the importance they once did.

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