15 Most Intense Player Rivalries in NBA History
Every sport has rivalries between players. In baseball, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez continue to be the subject of great debate despite having been teammates for eight seasons now. In football, people get into verbal altercations over whether or not Peyton Manning is better than Tom Brady.
In basketball, however, the player rivalry pool is not so shallow. Some players develop into on-court foes in college and carry it into their professional careers. One of the rivalries that best exemplifies this was the rivalry that existed between Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
Yet, some of these rivalries exist solely because of circumstances surrounding games played between the two parties. Even years later, some of these rivalries still exist.
Here are 15 of the most intense player rivalries in NBA history.
No. 15: Steve Nash vs Robert Horry
Now, I know that this rivalry isn't one that many think of as one of the most historical in NBA history, but it is still one that definitely deserves some recognition. For the past 10 years, the San Antonio Spurs have been a team that is unbelievably talented and physical on both sides of the floor. Some people both hate and respect the Spurs, because they are just that good.
In this particular case, the Spurs were playing the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 of the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals. Suns point guard Steve Nash—with the help of big man Amare Stoudemire—had mounted an incredible comeback, and in the closing minute, all the Spurs had to do to stay in the game was foul Nash and send him to the free throw line.
Enter the Spurs' power forward, Robert Horry. Known as "Big Shot Rob" for his ability to nail clutch three-pointers, Horry's nickname in this instance could also be interpreted as a jab at his sometimes overly physical style of play. Instead of just grabbing Nash's arm, Horry fought dirty and hipchecked Nash into the scorer's table.
Naturally, Nash's teammates rushed to his defense. Horry was ejected and suspended for two games, but the league also chose to suspend Stoudemire and fellow Suns big man Boris Diaw for violating the rules simply by leaving the bench to defend their teammate.
The Suns ended up winning the game and tying the series at two games apiece, but the Spurs won the next two games and eventually the NBA Finals. Thus, people can only wonder what would have happened had Stoudemire and Diaw not been suspended.
No. 14: Kermit Washington vs Rudy Tomjanovich
Again, this rivalry isn't exactly one for the ages; the intensity, however, is off the charts.
On December 9, 1977, the Houston Rockets were playing against the Los Angeles Lakers, and a small fracas had broken out between Houston center Kevin Kunnert and Lakers enforcer Kermit Washington. Legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar grabbed Kunnert in an attempt to stop the fight while Rockets guard Rudy Tomjanovich ran up the court to try to protect his teammate. At that point, all hell broke loose.
Thinking that Tomjanovich was coming to get involved in the fight, Washington reared back and hit the Rockets' captain in the face with a punch that, according to Abdul-Jabbar, sounded like "a melon being dropped on the floor."
In fact, the punch was so powerful that it caused spinal fluid to leak into Tomjanovich's mouth from his brain; on top of that, he needed reconstructive surgery on his face. Washington was fined $10,000 and suspended for 60 days. At the time, it was the longest suspension ever handed down. He spent the remainder of his career with the Boston Celtics, the then-San Diego Clippers, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Golden State Warriors.
Tomjanovich missed the rest of the season and came back the following year, but he was never the same player and retired in 1981 at age 32.
No. 13: Gilbert Arenas vs. Javaris Crittenton
This rivalry is intense not for any longstanding matchup between the two's teams, but rather because of the level their feud reached. On December 24, 2009, Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas got into an argument with teammate Javaris Crittenton over gambling debts owed. Instead of settling it like gentlemen, both men pointed guns at each other. Nobody was hurt, but this was a PR nightmare waiting to happen—considering how the team had changed its name from Bullets to Wizards so as not to glorify the high level of gun violence that occurred in Washington DC.
Both the Wizards front office and the NBA took this matter very seriously. In the end, both players were suspended for the remainder of the season.
As I said before, this rivalry isn't as major as the others on the list. Yet, the fact that it reached a level of men drawing guns on each other propels it to the No. 2 spot.
No. 12: Larry Johnson vs Alonzo Mourning
This rivalry is interesting not so much that it involves two teams that legendarily hate each other, but due to the fact that the two players involved used to be teammates. Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson played together on the Charlotte Hornets for four seasons and were easily the two best players on those Hornets teams.
However, that all became moot in Game 5 of the 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals. After Heat forward P.J. Brown body slammed Knicks guard Charlie Ward, Mourning and Johnson began throwing punches at each other and, of course, some of the Knicks' best players—like Patrick Ewing and John Starks—left the bench to defend their teammate.
The Knicks won the game, but suspensions handed down by the NBA caused them to be shorthanded for games 6 and 7. The Heat won both games and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. They may have lost to the Chicago Bulls, but the spontaneous hatred between Johnson and Mourning will forever be remembered as a turning point in NBA playoff history.
No. 11: Patrick Ewing vs Hakeem Olajuwon
Here we have our first rivalry on the countdown that originated on the college courts. Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon first began their rivalry in the 1984 NCAA Men's National Championship Game when the former's Georgetown Hoya's took on the latter's University of Houston Cougars. In this case, Ewing's team defeated Olajuwon's 84-75.
Both men went on to become the first overall picks in their respective drafts and for a time were two of the best centers in the NBA. Now, let's fast forward to 1994.
Ewing's New York Knicks made the NBA Finals and were set to face Olajuwon's Houston Rockets. Here was a rematch between two former college rivals, and the anticipation naturally mounted. The Knicks had a 3-2 lead after five games, and it appeared as though he would emerge victorious once again.
However, that was not the case as Olajuwon led the Rockets to victory in the sixth and seventh games and was named Finals MVP. It's a shame that these two never faced off in a key series again, as we all know that would have been a rubber match for the ages.
No. 10: Kareem Abdul Jabbar vs Elvin Hayes
The date was January 20, 1968. In the first regular season college basketball game to be nationally televised, the Houston Cougars were taking on the UCLA Bruins. At the time, UCLA had won 47 straight games over two and a half seasons.
The star for UCLA was Kareem Abdul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), and Houston's go-to guy was a 6'9" forward named Elvin Hayes. Long story short, this game was such an absolute dogfight that it was dubbed the "game of the century."
In the final seconds, Hayes sank the game-winning free throws to give Houston the major upset victory. He and Abdul Jabbar would then take their talents to the NBA level, where they faced off multiple times during the regular season. The NBA's eventual all-time leading scorer emerging victorious more often than not.
Still, the intensity that these two exhibited from the get-go is one that I believe has yet to be matched.
No. 9: Michael Jordan vs 1990s New York Knicks
If you were a New York Knicks fan in the 1990s, watching the team in the playoffs was torturous. The Knicks faced the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs five times in this particular decade. Four of those times, Michael Jordan ran the table and guided the Bulls to the next round.
This rivalry may only "exist" in the minds of Knicks fans, but Patrick Ewing and his teammates simply could do nothing to contain "His Airness." This rivalry was intense enough that this past season, some Knicks fans crossed their fingers for a Knicks-Bulls playoff series.
It may not seem like much, but the way the Knicks played just so they could try and stop Jordan was incredible. Given how the Knicks players were able to stretch the series past five games twice, this is a rivalry that just screams recognition.
No. 8: Lebron James vs Kobe Bryant
Three seasons ago, my friends and I did a March Madness-type pool with the NBA playoffs. This was back when Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers were on another title run and actually looking good, while in the Eastern Conference, people were waiting for LeBron James to bring a title to Cleveland.
Given how the playoffs that year featured the two most talented players in the NBA, most of us picked the NBA Finals to be the epic showdown of Kobe vs. LeBron with the Lakers winning in seven games.
Unfortunately, the Orlando Magic had other ideas. They defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals before ultimately losing to the Lakers.
Still, it cannot be denied that while James was in Cleveland (and even today in Miame, for that matter), his friendly rivalry with Bryant was something unique, especially in its major fan involvement.
No. 7: Robert Parish vs. Bill Laimbeer
In the 1980s, two of the game's most physical centers were Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics and Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons. While Parish was tough, he was also very graceful on the court and played with a sort of finesse rarely seen today. Laimbeer, on the other hand, was physical and hard-playing to the point that some considered him a dirty player.
Thus, whenever these two met on the hardwood, fans knew it was going to be a great game—both in the matchup of teams and in how these two played against each other. In the 1987 playoffs, however, the Parish-Laimbeer matchup reached a new level.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Parish basically punched and forearmed Laimbeer, knocking him to the ground. While the "rivalry" between the two may have been playoff-hyped at that point, it definitely reached a new level of intensity that night.
No. 6: Michael Jordan vs. Bryon Russell
In the 1998 NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls were once again matched up against the Utah Jazz. In Game 6, both teams went toe to toe as the game was not decided until the final seconds. Michael Jordan, despite finishing with 45 points, was not at his best, thanks to lockdown guarding by Jazz guard/forward Bryon Russell.
In the final seconds, however, Jordan managed to outplay Russell and make himself more open to take a final shot. Sure enough, the shot went in and the Bulls took the lead, ultimately bringing home their sixth championship.
However, to this day, Russell claims that Jordan pushed off of him and that an offensive foul should have been called. Two years ago, he even said that he could beat His Airness in a one-on-one game.
The video is at the left, so the question stands, folks. Did Jordan foul Russell?
No. 5: Dennis Rodman vs Karl Malone
Easily two of the greatest power forwards of their generation, Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone was a matchup that was fun to watch whenever the Chicago Bulls played the Utah Jazz. When the teams faced each other twice in the NBA Finals, neither man gave in as they pushed and elbowed each other just to get the rebound. In the end, with a little help from some clutch shooting from Michael Jordan, it was Rodman's tenacity that emerged victorious.
Still, there's no denying that the rivalry between these two was extreme. They even took it to the professional wrestling scene. How many other rivals have done that?
No. 4: Shaquille O'Neal vs. Kobe Bryant
Despite the fact that they won three championships together, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant did not get along for most of their time together with the Los Angeles Lakers. The 7'1" center was not a fan of the young guard's cocky attitude and seemingly selfish play. On the other end, Bryant was naturally not one to take criticism kindly.
Still, these two managed to leave their personal drama off the court, helped the Lakers reach the NBA Finals three consecutive times, and emerged as winners. They made it a fourth time in 2004 but lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games—despite having a lineup featuring O'Neal, Bryant, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
After that Finals loss, head coach Phil Jackson's contract was not renewed and O'Neal asked to be traded. He was sent to the Miami Heat soon after.
The two have since reconciled and are friendly with one another, but this is still one of the most intense player rivalries in the history of basketball—especially considering how the two were teammates for eight seasons.
No. 3: Michael Jordan vs Isiah Thomas
Believe it or not, New York Knicks fans aren't the only one who hate Isiah Thomas. Back when Thomas was the star point guard of the Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" squad, he had a rough relationship with Michael Jordan on the court. In the 1980s, the Bulls and Pistons faced off in the playoffs three times and Detroit emerged victorious each time.
In 1991, however, things changed. The Pistons and Bulls met in the Eastern Conference Finals once again and the Bulls swept the series before winning the first of what would be three consecutive championships.
In this series and the previous ones with Detroit, Jordan and Thomas played very physical defense against one another and apparently hated each other so much that when the "Dream Team" was being put together, Jordan said he would not play if Thomas was also on the team.
The feud is basically moot now, but the fact that two players could have such a seeming hate for each other both on and off the court is just astounding.
No. 2: Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson
Here we have another rivalry born on the college basketball scene. In 1979, Larry Bird led a surprisingly great Indiana State team to the NCAA National Championship Game against Michigan State. The Spartans were led by a 6'9" point guard named Earvin "Magic" Johnson, and his versatility helped his team win the game, 75-64.
This rivalry carried over into the NBA as both players were privileged to be part of quite possibly the most storied rivalry in the history of the game—the one between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Bird's Celtics were a powerhouse of the 1980s as he helped the team win three championships, even defeating Johnson's Lakers in 1984.
However, the two would meet in the NBA Finals two more times in 1985 and 1987. Those times, Johnson's Lakers emerged victorious as his size allowed him the opportunity to play all five positions.
Overall, this was a friendly rivalry as both players had no ill feelings toward each other. Still, due to the teams involved, it ranks as one of the most poignant in NBA history.
No. 1: Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
This rivalry—despite the fact that both players have been retired for nearly 40 years and one is deceased—is one still heavily debated. Who was the better big man of his era? Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell?
In terms of all-around talent, the battle goes to Chamberlain. The 7'1" center had a distinct advantage over the 6'9" Russell and finished his career with averages of 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds.
However, it can also be argued that Russell was the better man because while Chamberlain was definitely talented, Russell had 11 championship rings compared to his rival's two. On top of that, Russell managed to out-rebound Chamberlain twice during the regular season, in terms of boards per game.
No matter whose side you may be on, this is easily the most intense rivalry in NBA history. The two men involved helped put the league on the map and helped make basketball the sport it is today. Even if you aren't a fan of either player, you can appreciate the intensity of their matchups.