What Has Happened to NBA Player Rivalries?

Throughout NBA history, teams have relied on superstars. From Oscar Robertson, to Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, to Wilt Chamberlain, to Bob Pettit, to John Havlicek, to Dominique Wilkins, to Clyde Drexler, to Gary Payton, to Magic Johnson, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe, to etc…

There has been no shortage of NBA superstars since the very origins of the game of basketball. So, since the league is so reliant on superstars and there seem to be so few of them in today’s NBA, that means that they would be spread out fairly evenly across the league, right? Nope. The modern NBA has changed from the 1980’s and 1990’s where players like Magic and Larry Bird were bitter rivals and guys like the bad boy Detroit Pistons dominated the NBA with their physical, no funny stuff mentality. Today’s NBA is filled with players who want to join forces both on the court and off, in contrast to players in years past who were content to compete on the court and be friendly enough off of it. If this truly is the trend of the modern league, when, why, and how and who is really to “blame”?

Before we get into the real story, I am going to set the stage a bit. The year is 1988. In all the years leading up to the 1987-1988 offseason, players had two options after their contracts had expired: re-sign with their current team, or re-sign with their team, and be traded. There wasn’t anything like the widespread free agency craze that we have today, simply because it didn’t exist. So, the year is 1988. The player is Tom Chambers. Despite coming off of a career year in ’87, Tom Chambers was part of a Seattle Supersonics team that wasn’t likely to continue to desire his services. As a result, Chambers was prepared to do what every other player in the history of the NBA would have to have done in his situation: sit tight, and wait for the organization to find the right trade to ship him out of town. This was all status quo, until a man named Larry Fleisher called Chambers’ agent. Fleisher was the head of the NBA player’s union at that time and he had a league altering proposition to make to Tom Chambers. He asked Chambers to decline the deal that Seattle was going to offer him, and that chain reaction has snowballed into modern free agency. Chambers agreed and a few days further into 1988, free agency was born.

I know it sounds a bit far fetched at the moment and you are probably asking yourself, “how does Tom Chambers and NBA free agency fit into the modern superstar team up that we are seeing?” Okay, maybe that’s not exactly what you were asking, but that’s how I’m going to sum up the rest of this article. Chambers acting as the catalyst for the free agency process gave the players liberty to choose their own team rather than rely on their current employers to decide that for them. He freed LeBron from Cleveland and Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Hundreds upon hundreds of NBA player’s careers have been changed because of one phone call in the summer of 1988. That phone call shifted the NBA landscape from a rivalry oriented one, to a sort of “buddy system”. As soon as Tom Chambers signed with the Phoenix Suns, NBA stars were free to go play with their buddy across the country, or play with a former rival. The NBA players union really should build a shrine to Tom Chambers and Larry Fleisher, because without those two men, the entire history of the NBA would be completely altered.