Kobe, LeBron Can Be Respectful Rivals

If a rivalry between LeBron James' Cavaliers and Kobe Bryant's Lakers doesn't come to pass, it's not going to be because the two have formed an off-court relationship in recent years.

It will be because one of those teams -- and likely one of those players -- faltered on the way to the NBA Finals. And not just faltered this year, but next year and the year after that and so on.

There's no doubt the NBA fraternity of players has gotten more close-knit over the years, and nobody likes the excessive glad-handing and embracing before games. But so what if James and Bryant are friends?

Dislike or even deep resentment isn't a prerequisite for a rivalry, although it can enhance one. What you need for a rivalry are a couple of great players on a couple of great teams, and a mutual respect between those players and teams.

In the mid-1980s, Larry Bird's Celtics and Magic Johnson's Lakers were staples in the NBA Finals, and nobody would question whether or not that was a rivalry. It was The Rivalry.

But at the height of it, Bird and Johnson taped a television commercial for Converse, which both players were wearing at the time. In the ad, Bird was on a court in French Lick, Ind., when a limousine with Magic Johnson approaches on a dirt road.

Johnson, in the commercial, tells Bird that he had heard Converse made a shoe for "last year's MVP," but that they also had made one for "this year's MVP." The reference was to Bird winning three consecutive MVPs, but that Magic was going to win the next one.

Bird and Magic always mention this commercial as a turning point in their relationship. Both acknowledged they didn't have much of one prior to that, in large part because of their 1979 NCAA Championship game.

Bird and Magic said the taping of that commercial made them realize they had a lot in common, borne mostly out of their shared Midwestern roots. Quite simply, they became friends.

In 1987, a year after the taping, the Celtics and Lakers once again went at it in the NBA Finals. The Lakers won in six games, with Johnson's baby hook in Game 4 being the series' signature bucket.

Let's be clear: the Bird-Magic friendship didn't diminish their rivalry one bit, and it certainly didn't take away from that series. Not that I can recall, anyway. What put an end to the Bird-Magic/Celtics-Lakers rivalry more than anything were the Detroit Pistons and Bird's bad back.

Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were another story. Yes, there was said to be a dislike between them during their playing days. But the two were cordial, respectful and, yes, maybe even a little friendly after their playing days were over.

It's worth pondering whether or not their relationship would have been different had they played in a different era ... say in a more modern time. Surely, their paths would have crossed more frequently, and they would have had some mutual business opportunities to consider.

Point is, it's difficult to imagine Russell being any less intense or Chamberlain being any less fierce had they enjoyed a relationship or friendship. Simply put, that's not giving either of those men enough credit for the competitors they were.

So, maybe James and Bryant don't hate each other. Maybe they hug and chit-chat and make nice before tip-off or on off days or in the offseason. And maybe they are complimentary about each other.

That doesn't mean they can't have a rivalry. And it won't be the reason why they don't.

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