Decades of NBA lore are built on rivalries — epic, titanic, ego-driven clashes that lend context, subtext and the weight of history to what are otherwise just games.
People pay for that stuff, and the league and its players have cashed in, with money spilling in so quickly that it can barely be counted, let alone spent.
It’s good versus evil; pride and prejudice, and pride going before the fall. It’s Celtics-Lakers; Bird-Magic; Michael vs. the Pistons, Shaq vs. Kobe, KD vs. the Warriors and LeBron over everyone.
Some of it is straight out of the Vince McMahon playbook: storylines that keep the plot twisting through never-ending winters until games that matter finally arrive, at which point the hype machine kicks it up another notch.
If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.
But some of it is real. Some of it is based on men of giant accomplishments and massive, never-satiated ambitions coming together and pulling apart like tectonic plates on ephedrine, the league’s foundations quaking along the way.
This time it’s not an on-court rivalry that lends the final series of the NBA’s most unusual season its weight — though on paper the young, upstart Heat testing themselves against LeBron James and his insta-dynasty Lakers has all the ingredients to make it suitably delicious.
But what could make it memorable and a new plot point in the league’s decades-long drama is the way it pits two of sport’s most significant, preening, powerful, proud and successful figures against one another.
Heat president Pat Riley is 75 and his Goodfellas-inspired, slicked-back hair has long gone gray. But even in the bubble and wearing a mask, behind a glass partition, he has a presence. When current Heat star Jimmy Butler is looking for approval, he looks up into the stands, devoid of fans, for a post-game thumbs up from Riley. The Heat figurehead is the former Lakers role player turned coach turned executive turned living legend, the one who rode shotgun for Jerry West on the floor; earned Magic Johnson’s trust from the bench before pushing him too far and losing that war of wills after five championships.
Cast out from L.A., Riley perfected bully ball with the New York Knicks in the 90s, very nearly toppling Jordan in the process, before bolting for Miami, where he has somehow fused L.A. cool with New York edge, South Florida weather and no state income tax to create an NBA destination out of almost nothing.
It was Riley’s presence that attracted James after the kid from Akron was all grown up and looking to leave home. Riley plunked down a bag with the nine championships he’d won as a player, coach and executive and promised James he’d win a bunch more if they joined forces in Miami. James, without a title to show for seven years as a good soldier in Cleveland, followed the sun.
It was a perfect union – the world’s gr