Most of the time, we think of rivalries as being between two teams, or even two fanbases. But there are plenty of examples of players carrying on long rivalries against other players. The NBA is perhaps the league where player vs player rivalries are most common. For decades, player feuds have been at the root of some of the best team rivalries. They’ve even existed without help from their respective teams. Let’s take a look back at some of the best player vs player rivalries in NBA history.
Shaquille O’Neal vs Kobe Bryant
It was sad to see Shaq and Kobe become enemies after teaming up to lead the Lakers to three championships. The two did such great things together but turned into petulant children after Shaq left Los Angeles. We would end up seeing 11 head-to-head meetings between the two, most of which were must-see TV.
Fortunately, the animosity between the two started to fade after both retired, as it was clear Shaq and Kobe had great respect for one another despite their past differences. The pair seemed to have moved past their feud at the time of Bryant’s untimely passing with Shaq speaking at his memorial.
Karl Malone vs Dennis Rodman
You couldn’t find two power forwards who played the game any more differently than Malone and Rodman. Those differences made them a joy to watch face each there, especially when the Bulls and Jazz met in the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons.
Naturally, Michael Jordan stole the show, but the Malone-Rodman was an incredible subplot. The battle was so heated that Rodman and Malone ended up meeting inside a professional wrestling ring, which says a lot about this rivalry.
Michael Jordan vs Isiah Thomas
If you’ve seen The Last Dance, you know how much these two despise one another. Of course, the Bulls and Pistons were heated rivals, but it was very much personal with Jordan and Thomas.
After all, Jordan essentially prevented Thomas from receiving a much-deserved spot on the Dream Team, keeping him from being a part of the most prestigious team in basketball history. Long after both have retired, it’s clear that they aren’t exactly pals. In some form or another, the rivalry continues.
Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain
It didn’t get much better than two of the best big men in NBA history battling it out. For the fans who remember that era, it must have been a blast to see them on the same court. Early in their careers, the two were friends.
However, a war of words started after the 1969 NBA Finals after Chamberlain got hurt late in Game 7. For more than two decades, the former friends didn’t speak, although they did bury the hatchet and renew their friendship before Chamberlain passed away in 1999.
Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson
This rivalry got started when Magic’s Michigan State team beat Bird and Indiana State in the 1979 national championship game. The two just happened to blossom into two of the brightest stars of their generation and play on opposite sides of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. While there was mutual respect and no hard feelings between Bird and Johnson, the on-court rivalry was something special.
The Celtics and Lakers would meet in the NBA Finals three times during the 1980s with Magic’s Lakers winning twice. Those three series were the peak of arguably the most entertaining player-on-player rivalry in NBA history.