That absolute slugfest of an election (Go Biden-Harris!) between the Dems and GOP got us thinking about rivalries. What are the biggest rivalries in basketball? Derek Fisher v Matt Barnes? Heat culture v South Beach culture? Let’s find out.
As long as there have been sports, there have been rivalries. The ancient Greek free states battled in the OG Olympics. Siblings battle in everything. Rivalries add a kick to the competitive thrill. They can build easy camaraderie when you find someone on your side and also cause instant distrust when you discover the opposite.
This sense of US vs THEM has also been a part of the political landscape as long as the concept of “leadership” has existed. In modern history, politics have seemed to mirror the sports world more and more. Political parties have team colors. Are you red or blue?? You root for your side regardless of policy. It’s kind of like how I’ve stayed a loyal Celtics fan even after Danny kicked Isiah Thomas to curb immediately following his heroic playoff performance in the wake of his sisters tragic death. (Still working through that one.)
We just lived through one of the largest rivalry games of all time. Democrats were desperate and had to full court press. Even with that, it looked like the offensive–yes I mean that word both ways–game of the Republicans was just too strong. But like the Patriots/Falcons Super Bowl, no lead is safe until all the votes are counted. The Democrats chipped away and chipped away before pulling it out in the end. The fans went wild. Conspiracy theories went wild. Trump is acting like Tim Donaghy is in charge of counting ballots. I’ll move to the next paragraph while you google Donaghy.
In honor of the Super Bowl of politics just wrapping up, I am going to list my top 5 all-time hoops rivalries. The rules are simple. The choices can be teams or individuals at all levels. A rivalry has to be a series of contests that are somewhat evenly matched. I also need to state that none of these have the same emotional stakes or importance of the election. That was life and death in many cases. Bird and Magic weren’t on that level. But maybe on the level of the Georgia Senate race runoff?
Just kidding. We love music, movies, and hoops here, but we also haven’t lost our minds. And on that note, Stacey Abrams, you are the ultimate superstar!
5. Golden State Warriors vs Cleveland Cavaliers
Yes, this is a recent and also short lived selection. However, I feel that I must include it because it is my list and I thought it was fascinating. Neither team had enjoyed much sustained success before 2015. Then everything changed. The Splash Brothers Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were unleashed and Draymond Green emerged as the ultimate NBA Swiss army knife. For the Cavaliers, a man by the name of LeBron James came back to hoop for them. The two teams met in the finals for four straight years from 2015-2018.
Like I said, a rivalry has to include success for both sides. The Cavs are the only team in the NBA Finals to come back from a 3-1 series deficit. They did so in 2016 and stunned the sports world. Even after the Warriors added the titan Kevin Durant—very reminiscent of The Beatles adding Ringo—the series remained more competitive than its final outcomes suggests.
In game one of the 2018 Finals, LeBron put up a 51 point, 8 rebound, 8 assist game in 47 minutes. To me, it was the most impressive individual performance I’ve ever witnessed. The game went to overtime and they lost, but that’s J.R. Smith’s fault. It…it still leaves me speechless when I remember how dominant LeBron was against a team of All-Stars on the other bench. Honorable mention for this list is LeBron James vs Father Time. Right now, it’s a stalemate.
4. Michael Jordan vs. Dominiuque Wilkens–nope, wait—
Michael Jordan vs Clyde Drexler–yeah, not it either–
Michael Jordan vs Charles Barkley–he got him good, so what about–
Michael Jordan vs Karl Malone–No, killed him too–
Michael Jordan vs hubris? Meh. Not really, when you technically are the GOAT.
Jordan didn’t have a rival because he vanquished them all. The closest we came was those Pistons teams in the 80s and for that you should just go watch The Last Dance.
3. Big Men vs Getting Dunked On
This has been a struggle for as long as the rules stated that jumping and shooting the ball before you landed included slamming the ball through the peach basket. The biggest of players generally try to deter the smaller players from doing so. Sometimes they succeed and those plays can be spectacular. Sometimes they fail and those moments are jaw dropping. For the latter, I am partial to Vince Carter dunking on Frederick Weiss or Baron Davis on Andrei Kirilenko. Going back a bit, I also enjoy Dr. J slamming on Bill Walton. The list goes on and on and on.
But the big man persists. Most recently, in the 2020 playoffs when Bam Adebayo ate Jayson Tatum’s lunch. That block sealed the game for the Heat. Manute Bol once got 4 blocks in a row on the same possession. JaVale McGee had the smoothest block I’ve ever seen on a Wesley Matthews dunk attempt. So the fight must rage on. People will jump high into the air and battle over the final destination of an orange ball. The contest will be thrilling. I fall on the side of a block being more exciting than the dunk. You may fall on the side of the rim rattler. That is why these debates roll on.
2. North Carolina vs Duke
Here we are, the premier rivalry in college basketball. Perhaps college athletics period, although I am not too current on the UCLA-Florida gymnastics blood feud. What is particularly remarkable about this one is that so many people have a side. I did not attend either one of these schools, I am not sure that I know anyone who did, and I’ve never rooted for either one at any particular time. Yet, I am fiercely in the UNC camp. I don’t believe I’m alone there. A fake poll I did said that many people agree. That is a special benchmark for a rivalry.
North Carolina leads the all-time series 139-114, although Duke is currently riding a 3-game win streak. The proximity of these two schools also helps. They are so close that their worlds can overlap much more than two cities across the country from one another. They also both have shades of blue in their teams colors so depending on which you prefer, you may lean in one direction. It also helps that these teams are two of the more successful teams in the country year in and year out. Thus, when they meet, more is usually on the line than simple bragging rights. All-American after All-American have lined up on both sides. So many of them for Duke have been white. That’s weird. It’s one of the few college basketball games I’ll watch in which the University of Florida is not playing. That’s high praise.
1. Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers
You all had to know this was coming, right? It’s a rivalry that has lasted basically 60 years. Both teams have won at the highest level. They have memorable encounters in almost every decade in that time.
The Celtics lead the all time series 204-162. In NBA finals meetings, the Celtics are 9-3. Part of what makes this matchup the number one spot is the fact that they often have to settle it on the biggest stage. Their regular season meetings are always heated, but the championships are the furnace where the true heroes are forged. The Lakers have the most recent triumph, winning the 2010 Finals. That would rank second on my list of worst sports moments of my life. I was crushed. But that is exactly the point. Generations of fans have felt that same way. I read a quote from Jerry West that when the Celtics were routinely beating him, he couldn’t even wear something green he hated them so much. And have you seen Jerry West? His palette is perfect for green. The number of Hall of Famers that have made their mark is incredible. The number of role players who’s names are etched in the memory of the fans of these two franchises is equally great. I sports hate Derek Fisher. So this has to be number one. Even non-basketball fans recognize this one as the big one.
That’s my list of favorite basketball rivalries. I’m sure we all have our different lists and I’d love to hear some of them on our social media. As for the reason this post came about? The Dems and the GOP go back to their facilities and start training up for next season. I’m still waiting for the Beto O’Rourke professionally taken, training-hype IG pics a la Ben Simmons.
That is where the analogy falls a little flat. What I wish would happen is that the two sides would decide that governing should be an All-Star game and not just a rock fight. Let’s get the best minds together and instead of squabbling over personal glory or financial interests, get them throwing lobs off the backboard on the issues that really matter for the people. Not just the people who agree with them, but the people as a whole. Because most basketball fans I know, they want to watch good basketball and a fun game more than anything.