Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier — sporting history is built on fierce rivalries.
It’s something basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas knows all about. His Detroit Pistons side — back-to-back NBA champion in 1989 and 1990 — relished feisty, physical encounters with rivals the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics.
The former point guard misses those days.
“I think with rivalries, they’re not as bitter as they used to be,” Thomas told CNN, referring to today’s NBA.
“That’s something that all sports kind of require. That genuine kind of dislike and competitiveness — it really does bring out the best in you as a performer, as a player.”
Rule changes mean basketball is less of a contact sport than it was in the 55-year-old’s heyday, which has reduced the frequency of tempers boiling over on the court.
Now, the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony have close friendships despite playing for different teams, often posting pictures of each other on social media.
But Thomas is hopeful that NBA players will rediscover on-court aggression while still maintaining close friendships off it — particularly if the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers continue to meet each other in the finals.
“You can have hugs and friendships but kill at the same time,” Thomas laughs.
“At some point in time I do think you’ll have some bitterness. Like if Golden State gets back to the finals, and Cleveland gets back to the finals? There’s some bitterness there that can turn into real hate.”
The Cavs and the Warriors have met in the past two NBA Finals, the former winning last season and the latter in 2015. A repeat this year could be likely as both sides top their respective conferences.
Thomas’ Pistons — nicknamed the “Bad Boys” — won those two NBA titles after eliminating the Bulls in the postseason each time. But the Bulls got their revenge by winning three straight championships from 1991-93.
Playing styles and tactics in the NBA have also changed since Thomas strutted his stuff.
Over the past few seasons, NBA records have started to tumble at an ever-increasing rate. Three-pointers are very much in vogue.
In November, the Warriors’ Steph Curry sank 13 three-pointers in one game, off the back of shooting a record 402 in the 2015-16 season.
Two weeks later, Kevin Love of the Cavs scored the most points ever (34) in an NBA first quarter.
Then in December, the Houston Rockets made (24) and attempted (61) the most threes in a game.
“The scoring, the shotmaking, the record-breaking that’s happening and occurring on the offensive side of the ball is historical,” Thomas said.
“I think the players are phenomenal, what they’re doing is at an historical pace. You love watching it. It’s entertaining.”
This outrageous shotmaking, Thomas thinks, signals a return to how basketball was played over 50 years ago — before the NBA and the American Basketball Association (the ABA) merged.
After the merger in 1976, high-flying, above-the-rim play — exemplified by slam dunks — gained in popularity.
The first halftime slam dunk competition was introduced at the All-Star game that year, and the likes of the Harlem Globetrotters — which included stars such as Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins — brought an air-bound athleticism to the game.
“I don’t know if the game’s evolved, or if it’s reverted back to the ’50s and early ’60s before integration. Back then, the jump shot was a thing; ball handling was a thing.”
He adds: “Then when the leagues integrated, the ABA and everything else came in, Dr. J (Julius Erving) came in with the big hair and he was dunking and doing stuff above the rim, you had the Harlem Globetrotters, Connie Hawkins, and some of their wizardry coming into the game.
“Then we had the above-the-rim game and the below-the-rim game.
“Right now we just have the below-the-rim game.”
While some have criticized today’s high-scoring brand of play, Thomas maintains that the enjoyment factor is still there.
“Whatever it is, we like. People enjoy it,” he says.
Thomas is impressed by the skill levels of players today, most notably Curry.
“Curry is probably one of the most fundamentally sound players in the league,” the 12-time NBA All-Star said. “His shot is fundamentally, traditionally, classically perfect.
“You can’t do the things that he does from that great a distance without having a great, solid, fundamental base which allows you to be able to shoot that far and shoot that distance very effortlessly.
“Understanding the fundamentals of the game gives you the opportunity to add some creativity to the game, add some originality. But if you’re just trying to be creative without fundamentals, then your tune sounds really bad.”
Tip for the title?
For June’s finals, Thomas isn’t looking past the Cavs and the Warriors — though he says San Antonio Spurs, which has the second-best record across the two conferences this season, could provide an upset.
“You always go with the defending champs. I’m traditional in that way. The champ is still the champ until someone beats them, and right now it’s LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers,” he said.
“Golden State — they have the best talent in the league in terms of Klay Thomson, Curry and Kevin Durant. Those three together, no one has a trio like that.
“But don’t underestimate San Antonio. They’re not sneaky good, they’re very good. Last year they were the second best team in the NBA, and right now they might be the first or second best team in the NBA again. They’re really right there.”