When Kobe Bryant retired in 2016, a lot of fans believed that the NBA lost the league’s last true competitor. But with Black Mamba now gone, the power vacuum he left in this realm showed that this wasn’t only a problem in basketball, but rather this presence is lost across all four-major professional sport leagues in North America.
In an episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, former Laker teammate Luke Walton explained what it was like to play against Bryant. “He was such an asshole. He’d tell you about too … If you’re competing on the court, he was trying to kill you and he was telling you about it. As a man, it’s tough to hear someone tell you about how they’re going to kill you and then [watch them] kill you.”
If you were to look across the NBA, NHL, MLB and the NFL, there’s not many people who are talked about in the same vein as Bryant here. This has caused the illusion to fans that the competitive edge has left sports. But is this true?
If you were to look at the NBA for an example, there isn’t as much of an outward focus on mind games between players anymore. Brought to light by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and made prominent in the Michael Jordan dominated era of basketball, regular season matchups were statement games to prove not only who was the better player, but who was more competitive.
Looking back on highlights, these games were filled with trash talk, hard fouls and a dog eat dog mentality.
Fast forward to today, and besides the odd push and shoving match, there isn’t as much animosity amongst players. Yes, once the game tips off, players turn into gladiators who battle it out till the very end. But off the court, things have changed.
Best personified by LeBron James and the Banana boat crew, the league has become a lot friendlier. Super teams have become almost inevitable and off season training has changed to have non-teammates spend their summers together.
In the old NBA, this would have never happened. The term “Super Team” didn’t exist. Superstars had too much pride and we’re too competitive to join forces or work together in the primes of their career.
Team rivalries were also a lot more prominent in the now-nostalgic NBA. Pistons v. Bulls, Celtics v. Lakers, Celtics v. Pistons, really, the list could go on and on. Every team in the NBA during the 80’s and early 90’s had some sort of brewing feud amongst each other. In today’s NBA, you can’t find one massive rivalry that people look forward to seeing play.
A major reason for sense of feeling being gone is because in front of the media, players have begun to sing a lot more praise about their opposition. Any questions about rivalries and what they think about other players are often side stepped, or they answer by commenting how great they’ve been playing.
Look at the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. With arguably three of the NBA’s best players in this matchup, this match-up has been one of the best on the court rivalries in league history. But when the players discuss playing the opposition, they only ever trade subtle jabs.
If you listen to Curry here, he never really describes his relationship with James as a rivalry. Very selective with his words, Curry makes sure the competitiveness nature between the two is focused to the lines inside the court.
The loss of team rivalries isn’t only prone to the NBA. Ever since 2004, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox hatred for each other has only felt present between the fans and has dwindled amongst the players.
I think fans have begun to question the competitive nature about a league’s regular season because of this very change in tune. Since on the surface leagues have changed, there has been some backlash from supporters. But if you were to look deeper at this question, you can draw some positives from the situation up for discussion.
Now that professional athletes are more comfortable around one another; they don’t mind pushing each other in the offseason. Yes, it has resulted in more players mimicking each other moves, tendencies and style of play. But the result has allowed the overall skill level of professional sport to improve as well.
Also, the lack of personal hostility hasn’t diminished the competition we see on the ice, field or court. Playoff series have been more competitive than ever; championship games have produced some of their sport’s best moments and this change in perception won’t stop us from tuning in to watch more.
The term rivalry has changed over time throughout professional sports. It is good or bad? Only time will tell.