Steph Curry’s face said it all. When LeBron James launched a Hail Mary three pointer from 34 feet in the much-anticipated clash between the Golden State Warriors and LA Lakers in the NBA’s play-in tournament yesterday, Curry could only watch in disbelief as the ball sailed through the air and narrowly beat the shot-clock to go in. He turned briefly to look at James as if to say, are you serious?
The basket put the Lakers up by three with less than a minute remaining, a lead they would retain to clinch the seventh playoff spot. The Warriors, meanwhile, now face a do-or-die clash with the Memphis Grizzlies tomorrow to secure the eighth and final playoff position.
The game was the latest chapter in a rivalry that has defined the NBA since the rise of the Warriors in 2015. Curry and James met four times in a row in the NBA Finals between 2015 and 2018, with Curry’s Warriors winning three titles to James’ Cavaliers one. Crucially though, James came out on top in arguably the most memorable playoff series of all time, coming back from 3-1 down to roll the Warriors at home in game 7 in 2016. That was the game where Curry threw the ball out bounds attempting a behind the back pass, the game that featured James’ heroic chase-down block on Andre Iguodala and Kyrie Irving’s clutch three pointer to clinch the title, right in Curry’s face.
When asked after the game yesterday about James’ long-distance miracle Curry could only shrug as he recalled Irving’s shot. “Well, I’ve seen it before,” he said grimly before allowing a wry smile. “About five years ago.”
Curry and James showed each other love after the game and are clearly on good terms these days. But it wasn’t always the case.
Things started rosily enough. James had been a big fan of Curry when the sharpshooter was on the rise at Davidson College. He even attended one of Curry’s games as a sophomore to cheer him on.
Due to a series of ankle injuries, it would be some time before Curry established himself as a pro and with the three-point marksman not yet a threat to his throne, James was happy to play the mentor role. But as Curry’s star began to rise the relationship cooled.
Curry’s back-to-back MVPs in 2015 and 2016, the second the result of a previously unheard of unanimous vote, irked James. Curry’s friendly, often goofy demeanour was a hit with kids and with his diminutive size and baby-face looks, he seemed the more relatable of the two. Curry was suddenly the most popular player in the NBA and by some estimations, the best. That’s why that 2016 victory was so sweet for James. He was reminding the world who the real King was.
As fierce and at times hostile as their rivalry has been, though, the truth is, having a worthy opponent to compete against has likely enabled both players to reach greater heights than they would have without the other’s presence. When you know you’re competing against an opponent who has the ability to dominate or even humiliate you, as both these players can, you’re going to play that much harder.
In This Is Your Brain On Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry and What We Can Learn From the T-Shirt Cannon, L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers write, “Something about having an opponent gets us to dig deeper, into otherwise-untapped reserves. For all the myths in sports, competition being a healthy thing is not myth. It’s something that can be demonstrably shown to be true. Rivalry is this mega-competition where it’s not just one team against another, but it’s very targeted. Both parties have told themselves, This matters more.”
Similarly, a 2014 study called “Drive to Win: Rivalry, Motivation, and Performance” published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, showed how rivalry can lead to an increased effort to succeed among long-distance runners.
In the study, the presence of at least one rival saw runners improve their times in five-kay races by nearly 25 seconds, as opposed to a race against no rivals.
The benefits of rivalry also extend to the workplace. Research published in the Harvard Business Review found just sitting next to someone who is highly productive can boost your own productivity and work quality by as much as 10 per cent.
A word of warning, though: rivalries can become all consuming, even toxic. A study published in the Academy of Management Journal found when people compete against their rivals (relative to non-rival competitors), they are more willing to behave unethically to win.
Which is why context and perspective are required when identifying a rival. A cutthroat attitude is problematic and likely divisive in the workplace, where you’re supposed to be on the same team. An opponent on the sporting field is a different matter but the bottom line is healthy rivals respect each other, something that was clearly evident in LeBron and Curry’s post-game hugs yesterday. You want to win yes, but you give it up for your opponent if they get the better of you. And silently vow, as Curry probably did yesterday, that he’d get James next time.
Here are some other celebrated rivalries:
Cristiano Ronaldo v Lionel Messi
Two players who in any other era would be alone on the mountaintop, instead are still battling for supremacy on the summit. Messi has the edge with a record six Ballon d’Ors to Ronaldo’s five, but the Portuguese star’s astonishing fitness may see him enjoy a longer prime.
Roger Federer v Raphael Nadal v Novak Djokovic
For a while Fed had the top of the tennis world to himself, racking up numerous grand slam victories in the early 2000s. Nadal emerged as the ‘king of clay’ but was largely ineffective on other surfaces until the 2010s when he became a true all-round contender for Fed’s crown. Then the Djoker came along and usurped both of them (although not Nadal at the French Open). Fed and Nadal are both locked on 20 Grand Slams but Djoker with 18 and relative youth on his side, is closing.
Bill Gates v Steve Jobs
According to Business Insider these two “went from cautious allies to bitter rivals to something almost approaching friends – sometimes, they were all three at the same time”.
Chris v Liam Hemsworth
As Chris told MH in 2019, they may have thrown ninja stars at each other as kids, but sadly for our purposes, today they’re each other’s biggest fans.
Jon Jones v Francis Ngannou
Well, we hope this becomes a rivalry. The new baddest man on the planet in Ngannou against arguably the MMA GOAT in Jones. Jones is eyeing a move to heavyweight to fight Ngannou if the money is there. So far it hasn’t been but should they ever meet in the Octagon this could be ugly, bitter and twisted . . . in a good way.
Michael Jordan v LeBron James
Aside from Curry, James’ real rival for basketball immortality is Jordan. The GOAT v The King is the subject of a billion online flame wars, dividing generations, sometimes even families. As James told Sports Illustrated in 2016, “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost lived in Chicago”. It remains to be seen whether Father Time (undefeated) will catch The King before he can catch “Black Jesus”.