The great rivalries in sports have been forged through years of intense competition and mutual dislike, the combatants forever bonded in our minds: Lakers-Celtics, Yankees-Red Sox, Bears-Packers, Duke-North Carolina.
Locally, fans have witnessed some historic feuds: Redskins-Cowboys, Nationals-Braves, Capitals-Penguins and, before conference realignment ruined it, Georgetown-Syracuse.
But what about the Washington Wizards? Which NBA squad is their rival?
“Um … I don’t know,” Wizards forward Trevor Ariza said. “I couldn’t really tell you. What do you think?”
Well, because of a combination of irrelevance (the Wizards haven’t made the playoffs or even sniffed .500 since 2008), distance (Washington plays in the far-flung Southeast Division, where Charlotte is the closest team) and turnover (fourth-year point guard John Wall is the Wizards’ longest-tenured player), Washington is a team without an adversary.
“There’s not one team that’s our rival,” second-year guard Bradley Beal said. “I guess there’s Philly, Cleveland, Charlotte and New York’s not that far, but I don’t think we view anyone that way.”
The last time the Wizards scratched and clawed their way to relevance, they developed a heated competition with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who sported a rising young star in a guy you might have heard of:
LeBron James. The teams met in the playoffs for three straight seasons, from 2005-06 to 2007-08, with the last showdown earning a special place in Washington lore.
In 2008, then-Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson called James “overrated,” which led LeBron to say Stevenson’s crack was akin to upstart rapper Soulja Boy dissing hip-hop mogul Jay Z. Soulja Boy then sat courtside at Game 3 of the playoff series, and Jay Z called out Stevenson in the song “Blow the Whistle.”
In the end, it was a lopsided rivalry at best, as Washington lost to the Cavs in each playoff series, signaling the beginning of the end of a brief window of positive NBA vibes in D.C. And since six seasons is a long, long time in NBA years, the landscape has changed greatly.
LeBron took his talents to Miami, the Cavaliers fell apart, Gilbert Arenas’ gun fiasco changed the course of the Wizards’ franchise, and Washington has been trying to find a new team to hate ever since.
“I would say maybe the Sixers because we see them so much,” Wall said. “After the lockout, we played them like eight times in two months.”
To some extent, rivalries work better at the college level, where playing for your school’s bragging rights goes a long way, as opposed to the NBA, where highly paid professionals who change teams every few years don’t need the extra motivation.
“There’s a history behind it in college,” Beal said of his time at Florida. “Us playing Florida State or Kentucky or Tennessee, it was one of those things where you had to beat them. Those are definitely the games that go in the memory book. You play too many teams in the NBA.”
But what about such classic NBA rivalries as Lakers-Celtics or such new-school showdowns as Heat-Pacers or Bulls-Heat? The defining element seems to be postseason success, of which the Wizards have had little.
“You can’t say you’re like Lakers-Celtics — they have history,” Wall said. “We’ve won one championship here. You look at Miami and the Pacers. They’ve been to Eastern Conference finals and have played Game 7s.”
Do the Wizards even need a rival? In theory, no, but having an enemy to rally around would help the staid crowds at Verizon Center and give fans a focal point.
“I think that every team we play is a rivalry,” Ariza said. “That’s what it’s supposed to be about. You’re supposed to go in and get the best of another team. I think it’s more so for the fans being involved in the game, but that’s a good thing. The fans being a part of the game definitely helps the players. It’s like in Portland — when the fans are into the game there, it’s a tough place to play.”
Until the Wizards find a way to get back into the playoffs, they’ll have to settle for merely playing big games against Miami, the Lakers, Chicago and New York, games where there’s an influx of fans clearly rooting for the visitors.
“Whenever you play a talented, upscale team, you get up for it because you know it’s either going to be a good game or a blowout quick,” Wall said. “But most of the teams who have a rivalry have been playing in the playoffs the last couple of years or they had championship battles. So, it’s kind of tough to say that we have one.”
The Wizards have been seeking a perfect match — the peanut butter to their jelly — for years. To help them in their, um, courtship, we offer this profile:
Name: Washington Wizards
Age: 53 and frisky
Location: D.C. (unwilling to move)
Within: The continental U.S. (sorry, Toronto )
Relationship status: Wide open for a pass
Have kids: Yes, our starting backcourt is 23 or younger
Last relationship: We had a little something with the Cavs, but it was so one-sided. And it just wasn’t the same when LeBron left.
Type you’re looking for in a match: Young and talented. Not afraid to get involved with someone we may have a little history with.
Faith: We have a lot before every season, but by the end of the year we start losing it.
Perfect date night: A nice night out at Verizon Center with 20,000 of our closest friends. We’d start off slow, with a little back-and-forth. Then, things would heat up before the night ended with a swish.