The Disappearance of Basketball's Animosity
Updated: Oct 16, 2018
Earlier this year, a video published by Uninterrupted showed LeBron James and Kevin Durant strolling through Cleveland in the back of an Uber exchanging views on the game of basketball, their childhoods and politics. Several months later, Draymond Green appeared on LeBron James television show "The Shop" alongside several other NBA players and personalities. During this same time, Stephen Curry, Steve Kerr and many members of the Warriors organization congratulated LeBron James on the opening of the I Believe School in Akron, Ohio, dedicated to providing students from low income communities an opportunity to go to college. As all of this happened, regular uploads of NBA superstars such as James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard training together in the offseason popped up across newsfeeds.
Rewind the tape by a couple of decades to the ruckus and hysteria of the late 80s and 90s. The Detroit Pistons, or the Bad Boys, as we now know them had just come up with the NBA equivalent of the Magna Carta to stopping Michael Jordan. The strategy was called the "Jordan Rules.” It required the Pistons to allocate nearly the entirety of their defensive scheme to targeting only one player: Jordan. They would immediately double team him, they would constantly force him left and according to Pistons coach Chuck Daly, “Anytime he went by you, you had to nail him.” The scheme ultimately paid off as the Pistons would win two championships under its use, but it would do little to repair the already fractured relationship between Michael Jordan and Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas. According to many, the main reason Isiah Thomas was snubbed from the 1992 USA Dream Team was because Jordan gave an ultimatum to the coaching staff: it was either him or Thomas.
Rewind the tape ahead by a couple of years. Reggie Miller, “The Knick Killer” is torching the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and trolling Spike Lee night in and night out. The Indiana Pacers would face the New York Knicks 6 times in the playoffs in the span of 8 years, each meeting often more violent and eventful than the last. Miller’s performance in 1994 was memorable in that he famously gave Spike the choke sign who had the best seats in the house to watch Miller score 8 points in 9 seconds.
Jordan as you might expect was not too fond of Miller either. Or of anyone really for that matter. A year earlier in 1993, Michael had punched Reggie Miller in the face at half court in a regular season game. As a consequence for Jordan’s actions, Miller was thrown out of the game. Jordan was fined $6000. (He would eventually be handed a 1 game suspension.)
All in all, the picture is clear. The 90s were the golden years for NBA rivalries and fights. Shawn Bradley was getting more action from defenders than a professional UFC fighter, Latrell Sprewell was choking out his own coach and Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson were well on their way to becoming semiprofessional boxers.
As a result, it is often argued that the 90s were “tougher” than the modern game. Many people believe that the NBA today has gotten much softer and it is nowhere near as tough and aggresive as it was decades ago. The intensity to the game has squandered.
I don’t think these criticisms are true.
I think guys in the 90s were just much more hostile to each other.
The rise of the NBA’s image in the public sphere, perhaps as the most progressive sports league in the world, has fostered bonds between players that go beyond their roles as athletes. The modern NBA superstar has transcended the sport and has become firstly an ambassador for the league and secondly, a player from an individual franchise. This was not a role that many of the players in the 1990s held. In fact, very little avenues existed for players from opposing teams to spend time with one another outside the court.
Today, the NBA has expanded the notion of the player community beyond the confines of individual franchises. Rather than isolate teams, the league has done the opposite. It has provided athletes with ample opportunities to intersect with one another without the pressures of competition. The NBA has grown in popularity worldwide and it offers programs, camps, and hundreds of events for communities throughout the world which require the involvement of players from different teams .
As a result, we see players from division rivals not only training together in the off season, but doing various other activities as friends rather than as teammates or opponents. Do you know how many times you would see Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller in the back of a cab in the 1990s talking about their childhoods while a camera filmed them? Precisely 0 times.
Back then, guys cared about winning more so than they did about anything else. What they did off the court was simply not as important as it is today. And the league didn’t offer much else to care about besides the 48 minutes that played out on the court. This is not to say that today’s players do not value winning. They do. They just also value other things as well.
Yes, the rivalries in today’s NBA are not as intense or violent as the ones between the Knicks and the Pacers or between the Bulls and well...everyone else. On the plus side however fans have begun to see their favourite players as more than just athletes. In fact, this has become a central slogan of LeBron James' campaign,
Transcending the boundaries involved with being a player in the NBA, something which seldom occurred in the 90s, comes with the added cost of not vehemently hating the guys you go up against on a nightly basis.
Would the NBA Finals have been more enjoyable to watch if LeBron and Durant had a few extra scuffles here and there? Probably.
Does the fact that they didn’t throw punches at one another make the NBA less tough than it was 20 years ago? No.
The modern-day rivalry in the NBA is characterized by athletes competing against each other on a bedrock of mutual respect and admiration hidden beneath the hardwood. This necessarily creates some glass ceilings with regards to conduct on the court that were nonexistent in the 90s. The reputation associated with the NBA two decades ago wasn’t a matter of toughness, it was simply a matter of isolation and disdain between competitors.
Today, the NBA has evolved past this solitariness and animosity. With it come several sacrifices which will ultimately prove worthwhile in the long run.
Avel Ivanov is a columnist at The Bench. He can be reached on Twitter at @av3ll