This past weekend, I found myself in the strange position of being at a comic book convention and talking pro basketball.

The Lakers are the closest thing the Suns have to a true rivalry.
(Noah GrahamNBAE Photos)

For those of you who have never been to a comic book convention (I write comics and collect them, which makes me a geek in two fields, I suppose), talking pro basketball at such an event is a little like talking trout farming at a quilting bee.

But there I was, talking to an editor who happened to be a big Portland Trailblazers fan. He said he wasn’t much of a Suns supporter, owing to the beatings the Suns have given his favorites over the last ten years or so, and I reminded him that the Blazers of the Drexler-Porter-Kersey vintage broke the Suns’ hearts a few times in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After we’d finished our little exchange, I asked him, “But do you really hate the Suns? Do you feel like the Suns and the Blazers are or were really rivals?”

He shrugged. “I guess not. Not really.”

“How about the Blazers and the Sonics,” I went on to ask. “At least they’re closer geographically than Portland and Phoenix.”

Again he shrugged. “Rivals? Nah. In fact, when Seattle wins, I kind of feel good for them. It’s a win for the Northwest, you know?”

Good grief, what’s happened to sports?

Ask any Suns fan who the Suns’ rival is, and they’re likely to tell you it’s the Lakers. Ask any Lakers fan if they feel the same way about the Suns, and they’re likely to give you a weird look, then run you over with their Ferrari.

That, folks, is not a rivalry.

A rivalry is a mutually-agreed-upon deep-seated dislike between two sports franchises. Ideally, it’s balanced, with neither side dominating the other for too terribly long. In my opinion, rivalries are best when there’s some geographic proximity between the rivals, but this isn’t a deal-breaker. And rivalries are long-lasting, existing regardless of who’s playing – it’s the name on the front of the jersey that fuels the rivalry, not the names on the back.

Over the years, throughout sports, there have some been some doozy rivalries. The Cowboys and Redskins inspired strong emotions in fans of the teams when they clashed on the football field (so, too, did Cowboy-Eagle games and Cowboy-Giants games). The Dodgers and the Giants had some incredible animosity over in baseball. And, of course, the Lakers had the Celtics for about 30 years.

Now, thanks to free agency, marketing of stars, and the pervasiveness of national media, rivalries are pretty much a thing of the past. Fans root for individual big-name players, rather than teams, and because of free agency, stars can change teams many times, making it hard for fans to build loyalties for their hometown squads. Further, players aren’t as invested in the teams they play for. There was a time when playing for Boston really meant something – there really was such a thing as “Celtic pride,” just ask John Havlicek or Bill Russell or Larry Bird. And with the Internet and cable television serving as global media resources, you’re less likely to find your news dominated by the local teams – You’re seeing the highlights of everyone equally.

If you want great rivalries these days, you look to college – where the players can’t jump teams quite as easily, and the big money isn’t as out in the open as it is in the pros, so local communities can relate better and invest more emotionally. There’s nothing like a Duke-North Carolina basketball game – Tyler Hansbrough has the broken schnoz to prove it. Or a Texas-Oklahoma football game. Or an ASU-U of A game, for that matter.

There have been brief rivalries in the NBA over the years since the Celtics-Lakers thing sort of fizzled. Remember when the Bulls and the Pistons would fill local emergency rooms after their games? Remember when you could tune into a Knicks-Heat game and wonder if you might see a coach biting another player’s ankle? Even those high points are starting to feel like a long time ago. The best the NBA has done recently is an extremely manufactured Christmas Day matchup over the last couple years between the Lakers and the Heat… And that’s more about morbid curiosity over the Shaq-Kobe feud than anything else.

I love any Suns game I get to attend, it doesn’t matter who they’re playing. But I think it’d be even more fun to look at a schedule when it comes out and circle the dates when “you know who” is coming to town, whoever “you know who” happens to be. There doesn’t have to be bad blood, just an extra level of intensity. But who could fill the bill as that nebulous “you know who?”

Considering the criteria listed above, the Lakers would be an obvious choice. There’s geographical proximity, and a reasonable expectation that both franchises are going to remain competitive for years to come. They played a riveting 7-game series in the playoffs last season, during which tempers flared, and a healthy dislike for each other appeared.

But the Lakers organization is a smug one. They barely acknowledge the existence of other teams, let alone that any might be their equal. If anything, they regard the Suns as a pesky little brother. Suggest the possibility that the Suns might be on par with the Lakers, and their fans will just sniff at you and point to the banners on the wall of Staples Center. And though it kills you, you don’t really have a comeback.

Then, to make matters worse, the Lakers’ fans will again run you over with their Ferraris.

The Suns and Utah had a good thing with the Suns going in the Malone-Stockton years, particularly when KJ and Tom Chambers were running their own version of the two-man game. But Phoenix and the Jazz are in different divisions and don’t meet frequently enough, or with enough at stake, for there to be any real rivalry.

I had high hopes that the Clippers and the Suns might start something good and long-lasting after last season. The Clips finally appeared to have a foundation in place that would keep them competitive and maybe even start some kind of tradition, and they extended the Suns to the limit in a well-played playoff series last year. But this year they’ve taken fifty steps back. Besides, the Clippers need to prove they’re the best team in their own building before they can be anyone else’s rival.

So here we are. The Internet isn’t going away, and neither is free agency. The Lakers are the Lakers, and the Clippers are the Clippers. And I doubt the NBA will be expanding into Chandler anytime soon. It’s a shame, because I really think it would make the whole experience more interesting, but it doesn’t appear the Suns are going to find a rival anytime soon.

Unfortunately, it seems about as likely as someone talking trout farming at a quilting bee.

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