‘Don't come to my city in all black talking about it's a funeral’ are the infamous words of John Wall after the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics' Game 6 matchup this year where the two teams battled to the death. The home victory for the Wiz ended in Wall’s late game heroics, but the seven game playoff series quickly turned into a modern day rivalry with trash talk, brawls and bad blood that boiled over from the season. The NBA doesn't have nearly the same physicality or tough-mindedness as it did in the past, and there were once rivalries in sports that truly mattered. In a normal matchup there’s usually nothing personal, but the more personal the better. The game is one thing, but when it's bigger than the game itself, legacies are amplified.
Ali-Frazier was groundbreaking because two black men stood divided in a time they should've been more united than ever. Their boxing rivalry was so globalized that they fought all over the world from the U.S. to the Philippines. It was not only a domestic war, but it more importantly was a universal phenomenon. They were fighting to be the ‘people's champ’ in a thrillogy of boxing classics. We can easily overlook certain rivalries at the amateur level, but there are meaningful rivalries in college sports as well.
Ohio State and Michigan is arguably the #1 rivalry in collegiate athletics, and every year it's one of the highest rated non-bowl or championship games. Their matchup first became legendary when the two teams faced off, both undefeated, with two black starting quarterbacks in 1973. When you add in the only two-time Heisman Winner in the history of the award, legendary coaches in Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler and the fact that they play each year, it then reached rivalry status of the nth degree. The most recent installment had Heisman Trophy contenders, headlining coaches and playoff spots on the line also like in most years. The rivalry often times has very little to do with the actual play on the field, but one always tunes in because of its historical precedence. Sometimes in sports, though, rivalries are based solely on race and class such as the Lakers/Celtics longstanding turmoil that has been white and black even before Magic and Bird.
ESPN's most recent 30 for 30 documentary series Best of Enemies chronicles the east coast west coast rivalry, which took place in the NBA long before Pac and Biggie. It examines the entire history of the Lakers, being the NBA's first dynasty, before they even moved to LA then battling the Celtics head-to-head all throughout the 60’s. The first organization to have an all-black starting five and the first to hire a black head coach in the history of major professional sports acquired its ‘great white hope’ in 1979, and a true rivalry ensued.
The intense on-court battles in the 80s are overshadowed historically by the narrative depicted by their differences in style of play and skin color. Fastbreaking flare and showmanship amongst black players was the quintessential trademark of those Los Angeles Lakers while conventional, fundamentally sound, hard-nosed play is the formula for white players, especially from the Celtics of that era. The ‘Showtime Lakers’ vs. the blue collar Celtics of Boston, a city with overflowing racial prejudice—both then and now—created an unprecedented rivalry that can’t be duplicated.
A rivalry has little to do with the mere outcomes of wins and losses, and it isn't always about the game. The sports world has a profound impact on society, especially when those issues are displayed in bouts like Ali-Frazier and Celtics/Lakers. In modern society, race too often headlines conflicts outside of sports. We are plagued by injustices that many may mistaken for rivalries like the repeated slaying of blacks in this country by law enforcement.
Last week, the world should have been stunned that an officer beat the charge of second-degree manslaughter in the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota where the aftermath was displayed via Facebook Live. Officer Yanez, once again, took the black man for a threat and shot him seven times in front of his girlfriend and child, but since police continue to depict black men in this country as rivals or adversaries it comes as no surprise. It isn’t surprising to see those in blue commit such wrathful and senseless crimes against people with black skin like Philando Castile, Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and now Charleena Lyles because we are desensitized to murder at the hands of law enforcement. Yet this is a one-sided battle.
If you’re black, the rival you may face on the court pales in comparison to the 'so called' protectors of the people off it. There are officers out there that treat us like their rivals or worst enemy, but they fail to realize that we’re all playing on the same team.
Black people are being killed off one by one, and it’s time to put this feud between police and the black community to rest. Our people aren’t the enemy nor are cops, but we get treated like it because of the color of our skin. Cops and black people aren’t rivals like the Buckeyes and Wolverines, so don’t keep mistaking our bodies for your next plea for acquittal.
Our brothers and sisters don’t deserve this; no one does.