John McGrath: Disappearing rivalries the price star-driven NBA pays

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comFebruary 19, 2014 

Miami star LeBron James has lots of All-Star responsibilities, including numerous interviews.


After an All-Star “game” that found two teams combining to launch 100 shots beyond the 3-point line, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged self-evident concerns about the event’s format Tuesday.

Seems such prime-time talents as LeBron James need more time for rest and recreation than the four-day layoff allows.

“A guy like LeBron, All-Star Weekend is not a break for him in any way,” Silver told ESPN Radio. “He’s going around the clock with a combination of things the league is asking him to do, personal commitments, and I think it makes sense if we can work in the schedule a few days so the All-Stars can get a break, as well.”

Rearranging the schedule to accommodate LeBron James? It makes sense to me, perfect sense.

Conceived 68 years ago as a modest pro basketball circuit with 11 franchises in variously populated cities and no household names in any of them, the NBA is now more a staging place for internationally recognized players than an affiliation of grimly competitive teams.

Marketing individuals is a sound business move, not just for the NBA but those on the outside — broadcast companies, advertisers and apparel distributors — enjoying the benefits of a league whose identity is steeped in the familiar faces fans see on billboards.

But the transition from We to Me is not without a cost. Gone are the grudge matches that used to provide some flavor to a long season. Gone, too, are the richly anticipated playoff showdowns once known as rivalries.

“There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days,” James told the Miami Herald in December. “You don’t see the competition enough, or play the competition a lot.

“Cowboys-Redskins is a rivalry. Ohio State-Michigan is a rivalry. Duke-North Carolina is a rivalry. Bears-Packers is a rivalry.”

That the world’s premier pro basketball league has no rivalry comparable to those examples — or to such eternal baseball feuds as the Red Sox-Yankees, Dodgers-Giants and Cubs-Cardinals — is not solely the consequence of the NBA’s choice to emphasize stars over teams.

Players often share AAU connections from childhood, and are represented by the same group of agents.

Then there are the Olympic Games, which require players to bond with their NBA opponents for a few weeks (a good thing), leading to friendships that culminate with the notion of becoming free agents who reunite as teammates (maybe not such a good thing).

This is what happened in 2008, when James had such fun with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Beijing — they brought home a gold medal for the USA — that the trio agreed to a sort of pact: If we ever get a chance, let’s collect an NBA championship ring, too.

They got their chance in south Florida with the Miami Heat, the two-time defending league champions.

Once upon a time, the premise of impact players on different teams collaborating to form the nucleus of a dynastic team would’ve been seen as a violation of sports ethics. Then again, once upon a time, sharing a pleasant, pregame conversation with an opponent on a baseball field — “fraternizing” — was worthy of a fine levied by a league president.

The ban on fraternizing (listed at 3.09 in the MLB rulebook ) still exists, though it’s ridiculously antiquated and hasn’t been enforced in years.

But it was a rule and Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, for one, took it to heart. When Joe Torre, then a catcher for the Braves, tried to make small talk with the Cardinals’ pitcher in the clubhouse before the 1965 All-Star Game, Gibson brushed him off.

It was nothing personal — they would become teammates in St. Louis and lifelong friends — but Gibson had a natural, old-school hostility toward anybody who wore a different uniform.

Gibson’s reluctance to share All-Star Game pleasantries with the enemy contrasts with the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who two seasons ago embraced the possibility of Celtics guard Rajon Rondo relocating to Los Angeles.

“Send him my way,” Bryant said. “I love that kid … he’s one of my favorites.”

The Lakers and Celtics once participated in a storied rivalry sustained over 20 years, from the confrontation in the late 1960s of aging low-post behemoths (Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell) to the convergence in the 1980s of the improvisational miracle workers (Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird).

Bryant’s plea for the Lakers to pursue a Celtics star concisely summed up the state of the NBA’s No. 1 rivalry in the second decade of the 21st century.

Send him my way. He’s one of my favorites.

From a distance — NBA owners approved of the SuperSonics’ relocation to Oklahoma City six years ago, and it might take six more years before the Sonics are reincarnated in Seattle — Adam Silver’s most urgent priority, it seems to me, is to rekindle the rivalries that turn so-so games into must-see spectacles.

The NBA never was better than when teams such as the Lakers and the Celtics owned the spotlight, and players fit into their roles. Nowadays it’s the other way around: Players own the spotlight, and teams sort of assemble around them.

LeBron James, in any case, wants an extra day or two of rest after a whirlwind All-Star Weekend, and the commissioner sounds as if he’s determined to oblige him.

The tail wagging the dog? Hardly. James and his fellow stars own the league. The commissioner’s task will be make sure they’re comfortable, and that each of the eight pillows on their hotel bed are sufficiently fluffed.

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