Rivalries in sports are mainly fun.
It gives us someone to root for and against. It's something that one can share with friends and family openly. They can be passed down at least two generations depending on their age. While most rivalries can make one lose their mind for a couple of hours, it normally ends in a handshake between opposing fans.
There are a few rivalries however where the thought of fans getting along after the game is considered a sin. These rivalries has both sides only showing disdain towards each other. These rivalries tend to transcend sports and spill into every day life.
The rivalry between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks falls along those lines.
Even though the Miami Dolphins/New York Jets rivalry has a longer history it is Heat/Knicks that produces the most venom between players and fans.
It was Pat Riley's decision to resign (infamously via fax) from the Knicks and to become president/head coach of the Heat in 1995 that was the spark for the rivalry. Adding fuel to the fire was the outright disdain the residents of both cities had towards each other.
The rivalry resulted in the teams playing each other four straight years in the NBA playoffs from 1997 to 2000 with the Knicks winning three out of the four match ups. Each series was physical (the first two having bench clearing brawls and suspensions) and went to the limit.
Since their last playoff meeting the rivalry cooled in the decade that followed.
The Knicks embarked on a road to irrelevance following their trade of franchise player Patrick Ewing to the Seattle SuperSonics in September of 2000. This time was highlighted by various questionable player acquisitions, a carousel of head coaches, and underachieving draft picks. In that time they only made two playoffs appearances, each ending with first round exits.
The Heat also struggled early due in part to franchise player Alonzo Mourning not being able to play while battling kidney disease. Unlike the Knicks however, the Heat remained a playoff contender in six of those seasons and won an NBA championship in 2006.
The NBA's division realignment before the 2004-05 season did more to cool the rivalry as the Heat were moved to the Southeast Division.
Even while all this was happening the venom between the fans of the two team was as potent as ever. It has been simmering under the radar just waiting for the moment when it could explode. That time appears to be now.
The Knicks, riding the wave of the Lin-Sanity craze, is going to the American Airlines Arena tonight to face a Heat team that has been decimating opponents lately.
With the sudden rise of Knicks guard Jeremy Lin and the return of forward Carmelo Anthony along with the signing of guard J.R. Smith, the spotlight has been on a Knicks team that has despite their record been considered a legitimate Eastern Conference opponent.
During this time the Heat have quietly attained a league best 26-7 record with forward LeBron James having an MVP-type season. Guard Dwayne Wade and forward Chris Bosh are also having great seasons. The team is seen by many to be now playing at the caliber expected of them when James, Wade, and Bosh formed the 'Big 3' in the summer of 2010.
To add fuel to the fire the game is being broadcast nationally on TNT, which doesn't allow local broadcasters to simulcast. That means fans in New York can't see the game on MSG Network and fans in Miami can't see it on Sun Sports Network. That means no local bias, only national scrutiny.
One would think that a game between the best team in the league and one that barely has a .500 record wouldn't matter much. However, thanks to Lin-Sanity this has now become a statement game for both teams.
For the Heat this game has to prove a point. While they are currently on a seven-game winning streak where the margin of victory has been at least 12 points, the spotlight tonight brings familiar scrutiny. The unprecedented coverage that the team received last season produced some narratives that traveled over to this season. One of those narratives is the doubt that the Heat can win a close game against a good opponent. This game with its national spotlight is being looked at the chance for the Heat to put that narrative to rest.
For the Knicks there is hope that with the discovery of Lin they now have the right point guard to run head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense and fully utilize the abilities of forward Amar'e Stoudemire and center Tyson Chandler along with Anthony and Smith. This feeds the frenzy that fans have about returning to the days of Ewing.
Moreover, this is a statement for Lin. Most of his success has come against sub .500 teams, the exceptions being the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks. The question now is whether he can duplicate his play against a championship-caliber defense. This game against the team that is considered the prohibited favorite to win the NBA title this season is the ultimate test for him.
There hasn't been this level of hype for a game involving these two teams in a long time. Not even the intense matchups between the Heat and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals last season got this much attention. It's only fitting that the way these two teams would get this intense spotlight on them is in a game against each other.
Heat nd Knicks fans that long for the days of the Ewing/Mourning and PJ Brown/Charles Oakley matchups wouldn't have it any other way.