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By S.A. Prince
“Rivalry is the life or trade, and the death of the trader.” Elbert Hubbard
I was listening to the TruHoop TV, podcast 168 with Amin Elhassan, Pablo Torre, Ethan Strauss, and Big Wos. As always they bring up excellent subjects, and are the feather in the hat that is the baroque subsidiary, ESPN. One of the subjects covered was:
What happened to rivalries in the NBA? Listen to their pod to see what their answer was (Click Here).
The internet is what “happened” to the rivalries in the not only the NBA, but in all sports. The internet has brought the world together, and as a result diluted the traditional rivalry. In particular, the NBA has become a worldwide game, driven by the players as oppose to the teams. College basketball is also suffering from the same issue (although their lack of popularity and lack of rivalries are related to college players leaving early, I wrote about this in College Basketball: A Failing Brand). Basketball is player driven as oppose to team driven, creating fanatical loyalty toward the player rather than the team. NBA fans are no longer fans of the Bulls or the Blazes, but are fans of Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and etcetera.
There are sports that still have strong rivalries, baseball (MLB) and football (NFL & NCAA) to name a couple. The reason that these sports have maintained strong rivalries is because they are regional. The divisions are set up with most teams relatively near one another. “Yankees vs. Boston.” “Ohio State vs. Michigan” football. The “Red River Showdown.”
In order to make it to the playoffs in the MLB and the NFL you have to win your division, or earn a wild a coveted “wild card.” In the NBA the divisional races matter less, because you don’t have to win your division to make the playoffs.
Television rights must also be considered when discussing the diluting of traditional sports rivalries. The average fan has more access to the game, and while that has certainly increased the NBA’s overall popularity, we traded in an authentic appreciation of the game. It used to be when the Lakers, Celtics, or Bulls came to town, it was a BIG deal. Getting tickets to see that game was like finding Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. Those days are over as everyone has access to watch every NBA game.
Finally, NBA players switch teams a lot more than they used to. “Back in the day” you wouldn’t see the game’s top stars leaving their teams. Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson are just a few of the NBA stars that spent their entire career with the team that drafted them. Those players wanted to beat the likes of Michael Jordan, Dr. J, and Hakeem Olajuwon, not play with them. The NBA has lost its “Us” versus “You” edge.
Will there ever be another “Bulls vs. Pistons” or “Lakers vs. Celtics” rivalry? Probably not. The future of the NBA is in pushing fandom of the individual, not the team. That’s why Kobe’s final game was immensely more popular than the Warriors going for their 73rd win, an all-time record. The traditional rivalry was a byproduct of the NBA’s Romantic Era, an expression we needed to grow the game, but one that we have moved away from. I don’t know if I’ll miss the NBA rivalries, but for what they were, and when they were, they were perfect.