A New Old Rivalry?

Photo Credit: James Riley

MIAMI, December 16 – The New York Knicks had their eight-game winning streak ended by the Boston Celtics, themselves streaking, Wednesday night, perhaps slightly lessening the impact of the Miami HEAT’s first visit to Madison Square Garden Friday.

But that’s only a small bother to the fresh narrative: that the Knicks have a winning team again, and it has everyone bringing the “R” word back to life after most of the decade on the shelf.

Rivalry.

The only problem is, nobody seems to be sure what one is, or at least, what defines a modern rivalry. The NBA thrives on the lack of such definitions. What exactly are the specifications for an MVP? What does it mean to be a star? An All-Star? A Superstar? What on earth describes the Most Improved Player from season to season?

Those are all discussions that, though ultimately about semantics, are at the very least interesting, and somewhat harmless to have. After all, they are all qualitative awards set upon the game by everyone not actually playing the game. Their value is only as much as we make it.

But a rivalry describes an emotion, and us saying the HEAT and Knicks are renewing an old feud seems to ascribe to individuals the feelings that are most convenient for us to have them feel.

“Everyone looks for rivalries,” Dwyane Wade said. “It’s a great storyline, its great for the game.”

It may be fair, given the circumstance of athletic celebrity, or not, but the idea offers us a question worth asking and, if not answering, framing properly.

That question being: What makes a rivalry?

Is it something derived completely of historical context? Would the Lakers and Celtics have been described as the same sort of rivals had those teams not done battle, over and over and over, in a smaller league decades earlier?

If so, HEAT-Knicks certainly qualifies, as tales of their grind-it-out, defensive minded playoff series’ in the late 90’s are quick off many a tongue. Unlike the rematch rivalries that are so prevalent today – the forced Celtics-Hawks feud in 2009 comes to mind – the history is there.

Is it more about the individuals? Did people simply feed off of Magic and Bird, or Jordan’s quest to topple the Detroit Pistons? Did Pat Riley’s coaching change – and stylistic imprint on each team – give future cause to those franchise’s duels, or did it all drift away as Starks, Houston, Spreewell, Ward left that chapter behind along with Hardaway, Brown and Mourning?

That can be supported, too, as the Summer of 2010 indirectly links both rosters.

Or is it more about the fans? It’s not important that the Blazers-Lakers rivalry is only so to the people of Portland. It matters to them. For a handful of games a year, given a chance meeting in the NBA Finals, Boston wants nothing more than to beat Los Angeles.

“The fans are going to make it a very big game,” Wade said. “We all are looking forward to the atmosphere. This is probably one of the biggest games of the year.”

That’s up to you, and whether enough people agree.

But remember, too, and it’s a point often made, the league isn’t the same as it once was. Players know one another better, and the physicality of the 90’s is no longer tolerated. You can no longer tell someone not to like another player or team, “just because”. They have to experience it, and make up their own minds.

Wade, for his part, already has.

“HEAT-Knicks will always be [a rivalry],” he said.

And above all, they have to play. The seed can be planted during the regular season, but the games that are remembered come in the playoffs. The HEAT beating the Knicks in seven in 1997 is remembered fondly, and losses to New York in the next three playoffs sting just the same.

That’s all today’s players can be involved in: the game. The history and the fans surround Friday’s game, but it will only be what LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton and Danillo Gallinari make it.

Because while a rivalry can be composed of any number of ingredients, before the ball goes up, it’s only a hopeful label. And the one thing we know is true of every rivalry is that we know it when we see it unfold.