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Feuds needn't rise to the level of Burr-Hamilton to make life interesting. But something like Cuban-Jackson, which is likely to be resolved short of gunplay, can go a long way toward restoring our will to live, especially in these wintry times.
The NBA has always offered seasonal relief, the players' colorful quarrels, the coaches' various tiffs all a tropical pick-me-up amid the snowy blasts of January. Unlike other sports, basketball is basically a schedule of one-upmanship, hypercompetitive personalities set against each other for our amusement. Inevitably, in cases in which pride is stress-tested beyond all reasonable limits, sportsmanship gives way to grudges, real or manufactured. And we are all the warmer for such wonderful friction.
What's unusual this winter is that most of the heat is coming from the people wearing long pants. Last week Mavericks owner Mark Cuban once more called out Lakers coach Phil Jackson, calling him Jeanie Buss's "boy toy." Jackson may indeed be dating the daughter of the Lakers' owner, but at age 65 he is no boy nor, with his gimpy knees, can he be said to be much of a toy. Still, there is something gloriously undignified about a billionaire spontaneously insulting a man with more NBA titles than anyone else, dead or alive, in tweener terms.
Actually, these two have been going at each other for some time now, ever since Cuban bought into the league and ever since Jackson came to the Western Conference and began denying him NBA titles. Cuban, who delights in his role of league provocateur (he maintains a full lineup of feuds, some of them, as with NBA commissioner David Stern, marked by expensive fines; others, as with Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, by cheap shots), once said he "owned" Jackson and then called him his "bucket boy." Jackson, for his part, pretends to be amused and acts as if he's the one pushing the buttons. "He's so easy to tweak," he once said.
Ordinarily, though, NBA feuds are enacted on the floor, where the players at least have the excuse of public humiliation to justify their tirades. Well, they don't always need an excuse. Shaquille O'Neal, like Cuban, is a serial feuder and has enlivened many a dreary season, elevating the most commonplace disagreements into Montague-Capulet-type disputes. Whereas his feud with Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant (who also recently crossed words with Jackson) seemed to come from a place of genuine hurt, he mostly acts out on our behalf, his inspired silliness meant as a seasonal tonic. When Orlando's Dwight Howard stole Shaq's Superman persona, Shaq went on the feudal offensive. His Twitter feed remains a welcome diversion against the unplowed driveway.
Feuds may not have been central to the NBA's rise in popularity in recent decades, but they haven't been merely incidental, either. Any rivalry gone bad serves the public good. You may not remember who won the 1998 Eastern Conference playoffs, but you might recall (with a smile, almost certainly) the scuffle between former Charlotte teammates the Knicks' Larry Johnson and the Heat's Alonzo Mourning, coach Jeff Van Gundy hanging on to Mourning's leg, sweeping the floor.
Generally, the more absurd the feud the better. Recall the Pacers' Reggie Miller going out of his way to annoy the Knicks in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals, taunting New York's most visible fan, Spike Lee, with a "choke" sign. What about the 2008 feud between then Cavalier LeBron James and then Wizard DeShawn Stevenson, otherwise forgettable except for the invocation of representing rap artists, hip-hop seconds, Jay-Z (on LeBron's behalf) and Soulja Boy (in Stevenson's corner). It was the urban equivalent of Burr-Hamilton, rhymes at 20 paces.
This, in fact, promises to be a Golden Age of Feuds in the NBA, not only because of its access to the recording industry but also because of the influence of social networking. Twitter, which destroys such traditional filters as time and good sense, is proving to be a great facilitator of feuds, allowing the slightest animus to spring immediately into all-out declarations of war, 140 characters at a time. So last March we had the Magic's Matt Barnes (what is it about that team?) stewing over an insult from the Lakers' Lamar Odom (called him an "action figure") and then tapping out:
"Morning yall up early w/the babies watchn Dora. Seems Lamar can't keep my name out his mouth maby I need 2 put my sons [expletive] diaper n it."
Not literature, exactly, "maby" not even English, but as feud starters go, gold. That it was ultimately compromised by the vagaries of the NBA (Barnes was signed by the Lakers—awkward) is neither here nor there. The point is that a tremendous potential, previously untapped you might say, for exploding the slightest slight into an entertaining feud is upon us. A Cuban Missive Crisis is right around the corner, no question. Something to do with Phil, we hope.