OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks loved the Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird rivalry in the NBA Finals. Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra smiled while reminiscing about his beloved Clyde Drexler facing Michael Jordan while growing up a Trail Blazers fan in Portland. And Bill Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain first came to mind for Hall of Famer Charles Barkley when he pondered elite stars meeting in the Finals.
Another rare NBA superstar showdown in the Finals is upon us with LeBron James and the Heat versus Kevin Durant and the Thunder starting Tuesday night. James is averaging 30.8 points per game in the playoffs while Durant is at 27.8. The two are now considered the world's best basketball players. Adding to the fascination is neither has won an NBA title.
Let the stargazing begin.
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"Our star players drive the business. They put the people in the building," said the Thunder's Derek Fisher, a five-time NBA champion. "They sell the jerseys. They sell the T-shirts. Those are the guys whose stories are followed the most. People will have their opinions about which guy is their favorite for whatever reason."
There isn't a more star-driven league in American pro sports than the NBA. So when the biggest collide, which isn't often, the Finals hype is immense. The first megastar battle in Finals history was in 1964 when Russell and Chamberlain jumped center against each other.
Russell and Chamberlain played against each other 142 times over a 10-year span with the former winning 85, but faced each other in the Finals just twice. Russell's Celtics defeated Chamberlain with the San Francisco Warriors in 1964 and with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969. Russell won 11 championships to Chamberlain's two. But Chamberlain did knock off the Celtics en route to an NBA title in 1967 as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.
"It was just an awesome thing with Wilt with his scoring, size and presence," said Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, now a Heat assistant coach. "Russell with his defense, always making the right play, always blocking a shot at the right time or making the right passes for a streaking Celtic on a fast break. It was just fantastic basketball."
Former Celtic Tom "Satch" Sanders said Russell-Chamberlain should be considered the greatest Finals matchup between stars of all time since it is revered without the help of big-time television or Internet.
"None of the other rivalries were game-changing," Sanders said. "Those were just important rivalries of skilled players."
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Most would beg to differ, lobbying for Johnson-Bird, whose rivalry dated back to 1979 when Magic's Michigan State Spartans defeated Bird's Indiana State Sycamores in the NCAA championship game. Johnson had two titles and Bird one when they first battled in the Finals in 1984. They met each other three times with the Lakers winning twice.
"The greatest Finals rivalry was Magic-Bird because they played so many times and in college," said the Heat's Chris Bosh. "They had a history. To play the same team over and over again in the Finals, that's amazing."
The intense Johnson-Bird rivalry sparked a Converse shoe commercial, a video game, documentaries, books, a recent Broadway play and even racism.
"This was a traditional rivalry where both franchises hated each other," said former Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell, who played with Bird. "East Coast versus West Coast. White against black even though people don't want to say it. The funny thing I was a brotha, but the brothas treated me like I was a white boy because I was playing for the Celtics."
Barkley fondly remembers all the media attention surrounding the 1993 Finals mainly due to Jordan's immense popularity. But even as mammoth of as star as Jordan was, the attention he received in the 1990s pales in comparison to what NBA stars receive now. With seemingly the whole world watching on TV or the Internet, Barkley's advice to James and Durant is to embrace it all and have fun.
"You're the only game in town," Barkley said. "Thinking about it, every basketball player is done except these two teams. Every television network is going to be there. Every basketball fan in the world is there. It's the only time of the year where you get the whole thing to themselves."
So which superstar will be the victor in these Finals? Durant and James humbly put more emphasis on the team, not themselves.
"Everybody is going to make the most out of the matchup or me versus LeBron, but it's the Thunder versus the Heat," Durant said.
Said James: "I don't really get involved in the best player in the game. It doesn't matter to me, really."
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