Great Rivalries

Having just concluded a very exciting NBA basketball final pitting two great teams and players, I am reminded of when sporting events are at their finest. It is due to great rivalries, be it players or teams. Much of the rivalry’s greatness is due to opportunity and timing, but it is also due to proximity and passion. Tiger Woods will eventually be remembered as one of the greatest golfers ever. Yet, he has not benefitted from having a great rival, as he was a cut above for most of his career. Only when he had injuries and philandering issues, did the bloom fall of the rose.

Conversely, Jack Nicklaus had several rivals throughout his career that made his greatness more memorable. Very few people remember how he was not liked at first as he was a challenge to Arnold Palmer who was literally the first TV sports star. Arnie still won while Jack was around, but it made for great theatre, when the two dueled and it became obvious Jack was the better player. Gary Player, Lee Trevino and eventually Tom Watson were up to the challenge to battle Jack. Probably the greatest golf match I have seen was at the British Open, when Tom beat Jack by one stroke with both playing at their very finest and together at Turnberry.

Tennis has several examples of great rivalries, even today. More recently, to see Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in their epic battles at Wimbledon and the French Open is about as good as it gets. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe staged several memorable breakfasts at Wimbledon (with sequels at the US Open), especially during one of the longest tiebreaker matches I have witnessed, complete with a diving McEnroe during his eventual loss to Borg. On the women’s side, seeing Chris Evert, the best clay court player, and Martina Navratilova, the best grass and overall player, battle at Wimbledon and the US Open was also a privilege.

On the basketball court, it is usually more about team rivalries, but one that transcended into individual player rivalry were two team-oriented players – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Magic’s team won five NBA titles to Larry’s three, plus Magic’s college team beat Larry’s team in their final year of college. Both were known more for their elegant and artful passing which had truly become a lost art. They made their teams better. The NBA was actually in trouble (with some finals played on TV tape delay) when the two joined the league and their rivalry brought it back to prime time.

Yet, teams sports are more about team rivalries, so the fact that Bird played for the Boston Celtics and Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers was fortuitous, as it was a coast to coast rivalry of excellence built over time dating back to the 1960s. That made their individual rivalry even greater to watch. While this was coast to coast, most team rivalries are legendary because of proximity and passion. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees rivalry is perhaps the best example in this country, but it may be “rivaled” on the college level by Duke University and the University of North Carolina, as they sit only eight miles apart.

Both sets of fans are passionate and their team’s success is as much a part of who they are as anything else. There are great HBO documentaries on both rivalries, but one of the things I most remember from watching them, is when the Red Sox rallied to beat the Yankees and eventually won the World Series about ten years ago, Red Sox fans would take pennants, bobble head dolls and ball caps to the cemetery to celebrate with their dad, mom, uncle or aunt who had passed away without witnessing a triumph over the Yankees in the playoffs. Their teams meant so much to the deceased, their children had to celebrate with them.

Please forgive me if I slighted your favorite rivalry. Ohio State/ Michigan, Alabama/ Auburn, etc. are all great rivalries. By not listing your favorite was only due to brevity not malice. And, please forgive this US centric post, as I am certain there are many rivalries that could “rival” the above. I would love to hear about some your favorites. Please share them for all to see.

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