[EIC’s note: This is the third piece in a series we’re calling “Rivalry Week” — running up until the start of the season talking about Mavericks’ rivals, whether historic, current, imagined, or something else. The pieces will be sometimes serious, sometimes funny, and sometimes both. Catch the first two here, here, also here!]
Rivalries can sprout up in sports for a variety of reasons. Geographical superiority. A blood feud since the dawn of time. A 7-foot, 285 pound young center targeting a sub 6-foot, 185 pound energizer bunny mid-air in the fourth quarter of an elimination game in the NBA Playoffs.
2011 was a different time for the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers. The Mavericks, led by Germany’s gift to basketball, had a track record of relevance with a reputation for choking away opportunity. The Lakers, a franchise built on dynasty after dynasty was sniffing a third straight title. And on May 8, 2011 their stories collided, mid-air above the lane in American Airlines Center when Andrew Bynum took a cheap shot at a scrappy J.J. Barea, with the game all but over.
And in that moment, everything stopped. We couldn’t believe what we just saw. It was absurd, to say the least. The Mavericks had pulverized Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and that Lakers squad, coincidentally (or maybe not) ending The Zen Master’s coaching career, and Bynum soon became a bust. The moment was chaos.
In a grander scope, it was one stepping stone on the way to the most unforgettable run in Mavericks history.
But zoomed in, this could have been the gasoline to drench a rivalry as two legends closed out their careers. Somehow amidst both teams’ success, this was the only time Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki faced off in the playoffs. This should have been a jumping off point.
Both Dirk and Kobe had good seasons left in them as their paths crossed that May. And both franchises didn’t immediately slip into obscurity like a basketball Homer Simpson meme. It’s nothing compared to their success since 2000, but both teams combined for six playoff appearances in the next five seasons. But there’s no doubt, everything changed after this summer.
The Mavericks carried the Larry O’Brien Trophy into the lockout with ideas of outsmarting the system. Mark Cuban opted to blow up the championship squad, scheming to hoard dry powder like he’s Tony Montana, with hopes of nabbing a superstar in free agency. Plan Powder turned into a broken record, wasting the final third of Dirk’s career.
In LA, the Lakers stayed relevant, carried by Kobe. But then they pulled the pin on the grenade in their hand by bringing in Dwight Howard; then hoped all could be mended by trading for all around nice guy and NBA legend Steve Nash. But the wheels came off, and then Kobe battled injury and his own ego.
Just because the Mavericks and Lakers missed on the chance for a legendary rivalry in the twilight of two careers, it doesn’t mean we missed on iconic moments between the two teams.
What a time to be alive. Dirk being Dirk, under the lights at Staples Center, right in front of Kobe. The shot is great, the exchange between the two after is gold. And while the next moment didn’t feature the Black Mamba, this one-legged fade has left a permanent mark on the AAC floor. Literally.
And now both teams start new eras. The Lakers cling to the hopes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis ushering a new season of success. While the Mavericks, with the most exciting young player in the league in Luka Doncic and armed with the Unicorn Kristaps Porzingis, have plans to be dominant for years to come. Perhaps in just a few years these two teams battle summer after summer.
As J.J. Barea flipped through the air, as Bynum stalked down the floor, tore off his jersey and headed to the exit, as the sound grew deafening in the AAC, I could have sworn it was the birth of a new rivalry.
The Mavericks and Lakers were likely entering different eras soon after they met that May, no matter the decisions made. It would have been special to see Kobe and Dirk drag their teams to the playoffs and face off one or two more times, but the basketball gods would not will it so. But we’ll never forget that moment, that summer, when time and again we said we couldn’t believe what we just saw.