Nets, Clippers breathe life into N.Y., L.A. rivalries


Heated rivalries have long been the lifeblood of professional sports.

Baseball thrives on such classic feuds as the Dodgers and Giants, with the bad blood surviving a coast-to-coast transformation. And NFL fans salivate whenever the Redskins and Cowboys lock horns.

But pro basketball, because of a schedule that limits east-west conference matchups to only twice a year, lacks the passionate rivalries of the early NBA days, when teams would meet as many as 10 times a season and supporters knew a player's every move and grimace.

But a couple of rivalries are brewing on both coasts since the New Jersey Nets and the Los Angeles Clippers, two near-moribund franchises, have established themselves as bona fide playoff contenders.

The Nets now are challenging the Knicks for basketball supremacy in the New York metropolitan area, and the Clippers are battling the Lakers for the Los Angeles turf.

New Jersey long was considered an NBA wasteland. But the Nets, who customarily fought harder among themselves than against their rivals, gained instant credibility this season by hiring U.S. Olympic coach Chuck Daly, who had led the Detroit Pistons to consecutive titles.

Daly, both in dress and ability, was viewed as a worthy challenger to the Knicks' finely tailored Pat Riley, who had won four championships with the Lakers.

"I think this [rivalry] has happened quickly for both teams," said Riley, whose Knicks have won the first two contests with the Nets this season. "Both teams are competitive now, and being just across the river, it's something that can be written about and scrutinized.

"I believe we'll need a dozen or more games to get the real feel of competition. Right now, it's really more for territorial rights."

Nets general manager Willis Reed also senses the start of something big.

"It could develop into a rivalry like the Knicks had with the Baltimore Bullets in the late '60s when I was going against Wes Unseld," said Reed. "We had some classic matchups: Walt Frazier vs. Earl Monroe, and Dave DeBusschere vs. Gus Johnson."

Things already are heating up. In their last confrontation at the Meadowlands last Tuesday, Knicks guard Rolando Blackman got a shoving match with the Nets' Drazen Petrovic.

"Drazen talks trash with an accent," Blackman said.

Just as the Nets were regarded as the Knicks' poor cousins, so has it been for the Clippers, long overshadowed by the high-profile Lakers and the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy.

After the Clippers ended a long playoff drought last season following the hiring of Larry Brown, the once-barren L.A. Sports Arena became a place to be seen, with Billy Crystal among the courtside regulars.

Clippers owner Donald Sterling has had several offers to re-locate the team elsewhere in Southern California, but he is determined to remain in the heart of Los Angeles and battle the Lakers for attendance. The franchise he purchased for $12.7 million in 1981 is now worth $100 million.

Said marketing director Mitch Huberman: "We've been selling futures for a long time. The expectations of the fans here have yet to be met. This is the year they're telling us, 'OK, show us.

Fighting words

After his Philadelphia 76ers were throttled at home by the Utah Jazz, 112-98, Friday night, Doug Moe said, "Somebody asked me before the game if I'd been embarrassed by anything this year. I said I hadn't, but this was embarrassing.

"When we're faced with adversity, we just wilt. When we should get tough and knock the ---- out of somebody, we become like Jell-O. If we haven't hit rock bottom, we will in Chicago tomorrow."

P.S. The 76ers shocked the Bulls, 98-96, Saturday night.

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