Saturday, December 4, 2010

The NBA: Where Rivalries (Used To) Happen

LeBronageddon has come and gone. A Cleveland fan base that had spurred the Cavaliers to a surprising second place in NBA attendance has to feel like they’ve been sold out yet again. This time, though, instead of a player taking his talents to South Beach, the fans got the shaft from the players who’ll keep flaunting a lack of talent on the shore of Lake Erie.
I grew up a child of the 1980’s, cutting my basketball teeth on the NBA Finals battles between the Lakers and Celtics. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird shared a perceptible mutual respect, but each would rather set the other on fire than crack jokes or discuss what club they were headed to after the game. For that matter, the two teams didn’t get along all that well on the whole.

As an Indiana kid in the 1990’s, I was able to enjoy the long-bombing, swashbuckling, trash-talking style of Reggie Miller. Anyone who was watching basketball in 1994, or anyone who’s watched ESPN’s entire “30 for 30” series, has seen how much Reggie was able to tick off the entire city of New York. Miller talked noise so the rest of the Indiana Pacers could do their jobs in peace.

That brings me to Thursday night. The fans were heated up, ready to welcome LeBron with barely bridled rage and hostility. Security was heightened in fear of anyone making a move on the court after having too much liquid courage and not enough brains.

And as for the players? Anderson Varejao walked up and gave LeBron a pre-game hug. At that moment, the Miami Heat clinched victory.

For all the countless hype about their mediocre start to the NBA season and their ridiculously top-heavy roster, the Miami Heat still have a lot more talent than the Cleveland Cavaliers. The only hope for the Cavs to win that game was to establish a psychological edge, especially over LeBron.

Freeze him out during pre-game introductions. Leave him hanging if he goes for a high five or a handshake. Hammer him McHale-style when he drives to the basket. Do anything but shake his hand, hug him, and make him feel at home.

When he feels at home, he does things like score 24 points in a quarter and 38 for the game. The Cleveland players knew that, since they’d borne witness to it plenty of times over the years. They chose instead to laugh, slap fives, and do everything but pose for the pregame air pictures, just like the old days months ago.

The Cavs needed LeBron to shoot something like 2-for-17 from the floor. To do that, they needed to rattle him and remind him that Quicken Loans Arena is no longer his comfort zone. They did none of that, therefore they never had much chance to win.

NBA Commissioner David Stern won’t want to read this, but here goes. Reason number 311 that the NBA is losing visibility is that the rivalries are gone. Lakers/Celtics, Pistons/Bulls, Pacers/Knicks: those were the reasons the NBA got hot to begin with in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now, free agency and salary-dumping trades mean that everyone will play with everyone else at some point, so there’s little to gain from on-court hostility.

Miami/Cleveland had a little potential to be the next huge basketball battle, but the players chose instead to embrace the enemy. Winning a game is your job, and the opponent’s goal is to stop you from doing said job. Varejao embracing LeBron was like a guy sending flowers to a girl who stole his wallet after a one-night stand. The fans were ready to be angry, but the players sold them out again.

Consolation for Cleveland fans: there’s always the Indians and Browns. (Wait...does Akron hate them by now, too?)

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