Replacing Legends: The NBA's Struggle To Find the Next Bird-Magic Rivalry

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2010

True rivalries are by far the greatest aspect of sports for fans.  Not last-second buzzer beaters, not Cinderella stories, or even championships.


Rivalries are everlasting.  Rivalries create excitement for even the most mundane contest.  Rivalries turn rational businessmen into petulant children when their side loses. 

Rivalries create tall-tales you tell to bore your children and grandchildren with: You wax poetic about the pageantry, the greatest game, the greatest players, and the greatest "holy s---" moments.

Finally, you highlight one of the two pillars of great rivalries: pure hatred toward the opposition.

Every fan of the opposition is a spawn of Satan. Every one of their star players is on steroids, amphetamines, or antelope testosterone.  You feel the hatred in every fiber of your being.

While fuel the fire that burns every rivalry, the greatest rivalries are ignited organically.

Take the greatest individual rivalry (save for possibly Ali-Frazier) in sports history—Larry Bird and Magic Johnson—for example.

There is absolutely no reason a white small forward from French Lick, Indiana should hate a black point guard from Lansing, Michigan and vice versa.  Well, other than race, and neither Magic Johnson nor Larry Bird is or were ever racists.

Beginning with the 1979 NCAA Championship game, hatred grew and spawned not only a great rivalry, but also one that would save American professional basketball from its demise.

When reminiscing about the rivalry, Magic Johnson recalled having one resounding feeling toward his old rival and now great friend:

"I disliked the guy...I hated the guy."

In the book "When the Game Was Ours," written by Bird, Magic, and ESPN.com's Jackie MacMullan, the two players speak of their mutual respect and hatred for one another. 

In fact, Bird said his obsession with the rivalry went far enough that he would check Magic's box scores every day and lamented if his stat sheet paled in comparison.

When asked why he "hated" Bird, Magic revealed the second pillar of a great rivalry, "I hated the guy because I knew he could beat me."

Anyone can attempt to create a rivalry through sheer hatred—hell, DeShawn Stevenson tried to create one with LeBron James earlier this decade—but without equality of talent and true competition, there is no rivalry. 

Beginning with the 1979 NCAA Championship game, the Bird-Magic rivalry spawned nine total championships, six MVP's, and two spots on anyone's "Top 10 Players in NBA History" list.

Ever since Bird's back gave out and Magic announced his HIV diagnosis, the NBA has been on a never-ending search for Bird-Magic 2.0.

Their search began with the short-lived promotion of Jordan vs. Clyde Drexler.  Going into the 1992 NBA Finals (a year after Magic's retirement due to HIV), many national columnists wondered aloud whether Drexler was on the verge of knocking MJ off his perch as the NBA's best player. 

Jordan quickly silenced his doubters, eviscerating Clyde into oblivion during the famous "shrug game" and no one ever compared the two again.

Clyde wasn't the only one.  Throughout the 90s, the NBA lined up a murderer's row of players to slay the dragon that was Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

Jordan dropped 55 in Game Five of the 1993 NBA Finals against the Suns, making voters look foolish for choosing then-Suns forward Charles Barkley as the 1993 MVP.

After another dubious MVP loss to Karl Malone in 1997, Jordan destroyed the Jazz in the Finals.  And, just for good measure, decided to do the same the next season.

Every team and player placed in front of Jordan, he beat in a more embarrassing fashion than the last.

Minus Reggie Miller and the entire city of New York—a rivalry that yielded exactly zero championships—the post-Jordan rivalries have been even more mundane.

Shaq and Duncan?  Yawn.

The only truly compelling rivalry of the past decade was between Laker teammates Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, and that rivalry was nothing but a sad combination of hatred, pettiness, and jealousy. 

For the past couple years, according to the media we have been living in the Kobe vs. LeBron era. 

Every blogger, talking head, and scout wants to give you his opinion as to who's better.

I'm no different: I spent about 3,000 words establishing a criterion for naming the NBA's 10 best players so I could come up with an answer that satisfied me. 

Some in my demographic (18-24 year-old men) were even disappointed about the Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals matchup because it "robbed" us of our generation's Magic vs. Bird—Kobe and LeBron. 

My question to them: When exactly did LeBron vs. Kobe become a "rivalry?"

I would personally categorize it as a "debate" as to who is currently the better player, but anyone who feels Kobe and LeBron are our generation's Magic and Larry is wholly misguided.

The Kobe-LeBron matchup has neither of the two proponents needed to make a great rivalry. 

For me, the last memorable moment I have with the LeBron-Kobe "rivalry" is when the two hugged after winning the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal.  Doesn't sound too heated, does it?

In addition, can anyone name me any memorable Lakers-Cavs games over the past seven seasons?  Probably not, since they were all meaningless regular season games. 

LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are two fantastically charismatic and beloved figures and are the two best basketball players in the world today, but rivals they are not.

I feel that, in our constantly moving 24-hour news cycle, we have become so desperate to create the next Magic-Bird or Ali-Frazier that we anoint rivalries unfairly.  Rivalries are not something that can just be thrown together through the media.

In addition, when looking at the NBA's current landscape, the future of individual rivalries looks bleak—all young superstars of this generation seem more focused on playing together instead of being focused on beating each other.

One could easily surmise in the era of AAU, summer hoops summits, and various All-American games that we could never see another great individual rivalry in the NBA again.

I only know one thing for certain: There will never be another Magic and Larry.


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