The Death of the Rivalry
For better or for worse, I think we can safely say that rivalries as we know them are dead in the NBA. Perhaps some genuine rivalries will arise from the ashes in the coming years, but I think at this point in time, we are forced to acknowledge the fact that there is no legitimate and/or interesting team-vs-team rivalry currently present in our NBA landscape.
Long gone are the days of a team like the Pistons storming off the court (in a play-off game, no less) before time has expired in a calculated display of disrespect; or the days where the odds of the teams breaking down to fight at some point were somewhere along the lines of 2:1 (a la the Miami Heat and New York Knicks in the mid-to-late-90s); or even the rivalries that were deeply informed and nurtured by a deep-seeded history that expressed itself in the minutia of every game. These days are long gone. They are relegated to the realm of semi-obscure rap lyrics voiced by Grammy winners (“A n**** who smokes Reggie Miller”) and ESPN classic spotlights.
In fact, the only rivalry that has really been of any interest whatsoever in the past decade or so has been the Kings and Lakers rivalry from the early years of this century. Of course, this rivalry was of a completely different breed than the historic rivalries of yore. The Kings-Lakers rivalry was built on the fact that seemingly every time the two teams played in the play-offs, they were damn good games. Shaq eventually started playfully insulting the Kings by calling them “the Queens,” and a bit of a rivalry developed, but let’s be real here: any real rivalry has no room for playful insults. Real rivalries are based on two things: either (a) a genuine sense of dislike between the teams that can be sensed every single second of the game or (b) a historical dislike between the teams that the players have (somewhat inexplicably) embraced. In either case, in these “real rivalries,” every single possession of the game seems to express the urgency of the rivalry and, in turn, makes watching the game one of the most compelling experiences you’ll have as a sports fan, whether or not you really care about either of the teams involved.
But, these days are gone in the NBA. I suppose I’m here to summon my inner-Jadakiss and ask “Why”?
The most common explanation for why rivalries have disappeared is the age-old “these black folks are making too much money” excuse that white people love to pull out. The theory goes that rivalries are dead because these guys all make so much money that they don’t care about much of anything and they all like each other and everything is hunkydorey and blah blah blah.
This is hogwash.
Players in the NFL are rich but the Eagles and Cowboys (as well as the Eagles and Giants) rivalry is as alive as its ever been. And what about baseball? The Sox and Yankees rivalry has resurfaced as one of the most hyped events of the sporting year. So, why has the NBA rivalry dynamic all but been eliminated while it has flourished in the other well-paying black sports? It simply can’t be that these rich guys are just so happy being rich that they don’t have time to hate each other. There’s something deeper at play here.
I tend to think the main reason rivalries have gone the way of the dinosaur and underground hip-hop is because of one man: Michael Jordan. This might be disputable, but it is my contention that Mr. Jordan single-handedly ushered in the “this is a league of stars” ethos that we here at FreeDarko have embraced like our own little long lost puppy. Jordan reinvented the league by transcending it: being so fucking dominant that he was the ultimate enemy, inspiring so much hate and fear and dominance that the other contenders wound up nurturing a competitive hatred that seemed to hold no bounds, expanding outwards to other teams. So, what’s remarkable about Jordan’s influence on the league is that he not only instigated hatred towards himself and his team, but his dominance was so widespread, so all-encompassing that his very presence inspired hatred that extrapolated outwards and in all directions. In other words, Jordan’s superhuman dominance not only made everyone hate Jordan, it inspired everyone to hate each other.
The Association benefited from this proliferation of hate. It was more fun to watch than it ever was, and it’s not hard to find the predictable nostalgist talking about the good ol’ days that are covered with little more than a decade’s worth of dust and nostalgic optimism. Again, this is a disputable point, but I think the moment we most clearly hear rivalries' death knell is when Jordan’s influence waned.
My reading of the story goes like this: Within the Association, Jordan was just the dominant bad guy, inspiring awe and fear and hate as he trampled everyone in his path, winning championships with a frequency that likely won’t be duplicated any time soon. Outside of the Association, to the fan/viewer, Jordan helped redefine how we understand the game. His abilities were so transcendent that, despite the fact that he won with such frequency and that the stamina and potency of his competitive desire was incomparable, the ultimate impact Jordan had on the game was his insistence that the “performative” (the HOW the game was played) was what made this game special. Jordan didn’t change the game simply because he won so much--lots of Stars in the NBA have won a shit load of games. He changed the game because he won in such unbelievable, aesthetically-pleasing (and, if you were rooting against him like I perpetually was, heartbreaking) fashion.
And so, in the wake of Jordan-era, we live in a world where the Association has embraced the “performative” over the simply “competitive.” To some degree, the league’s rich history has been abandoned, and all we are left with is the day-to-day performances of individuals (who grew up watching Jordan) battling out whatever it is they need to battle out on the court, and doing so unapologetically, the only way they know how.
Somewhat paradoxically, Jordan—through his inability to lose—helped make us see that this is “NOT a league of winning and losing.” There’s simply no room for sustained rivalries--historical or personal--when the “performative” is the dominant way that the players themselves (and the proud FD readers) engage the NBA. During Jordan's unparalelled tenure in the league, rivalries flourished because he inspired hate everywhere. When he left, the locus of hate was gone and we were left with a generation of players that weren't responding to any sense of hate, but instead were living embodiments of the legacy of performativity that Jordan left us.
Things done changed.