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The Knicks' greatest rivalries: A history of hate (Part I)

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Where do rivalries come from? Why do some survive while others fade? And what makes them so, so good?

Believe it or not, these guys used to hate each other.
Believe it or not, these guys used to hate each other.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

A little more than a year after World War II ended, the Basketball Association of America, the primordial ooze from which the NBA emerged, debuted with the Knicks playing the Toronto Huskies. New York won 68-66. 70 seasons and 5,392 games later, the players have changed, the rules, the jerseys, and the venues. Only one constant remains. The hate.

Rivalries are usually thought of as long-running blood feuds, but most are short-lived. From 1951-1953, the Knicks lost three straight years in the Finals, once to the Rochester Royals (who begat the Cincinnati Royals, who begat the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, who begat the Sacramento Kings) and then consecutively to the Minneapolis Lakers (who won it all five of their first 12 years, proving whatever deal the Lakers struck with the devil preceded their 1960 move to L.A.). In the late '50s New York's playoff bugaboo was the Syracuse Nationals, who became the 76ers in 1963.

There's surprisingly little heat in the history of the Knicks-Sixers rivalry, despite a half-century of geographic proximity that's bloomed into sports-hate in every other major sport (Rangers/Flyers; Giants/Eagles; Mets/Phillies). The first three teams to inflict heartache on the blue-and-orange no longer exist. It's hard to hate what doesn't exist. So let's look at the beefs that have burned brightest throughout Knickstory. Here in part 1, we'll examine the Knicks perma-antagonists and remember a dormant but once-fierce foe.

Eternal Flame Rivals

Boston Celtics

This rivalry pretty much has it all. Geography. History (both began play in 1946 and both survived, unlike 15 of the first 23 teams in the BAA/NBA). Inequality (Boston wins a lot. The Knicks don't). The only thing lacking has been consistency - usually when one team is good, the other isn't. But even that's meaningful: absence makes the hate grow fonder. This is a blood feud fans long for. The Knicks and Celtics haven't both been good in the same year since 1992, when Boston, after lagging behind New York all year, came from behind to win the division on a tiebreaker thanks to Larry Bird being Larry Bird even when he could barely stand upright.

But the seeds of a real rivalry grow strong in the soil of the playoffs, and Knicks/Celtics postseasons trace back to 1955, when the Bob Cousy/pre-Bill Russell Celts upset the top-seeded Knickerbockers of Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton and Harry "The Horse" Gallatin.

As the Celtic dynasty of the 1960s neared its end, the Knick glory days were kicking into gear. Twice Red Holzman's rising tide crashed and broke on the rocks of Red Auerbach's ring machine. The Boston behemoth won eight championships in a row and 11 of 13, dispatching the Knicks in 1967 and 1969. Soon the tables turned, with New York coming out on top in 1972 and 1973. In '73 the Knicks became the first team ever to win a Game 7 in Boston Garden, the NBA equivalent of breaking into Jay-Z's bedroom at 3:00 a.m., challenging him to a rap battle, and beating his ass so badly Beyonce jumps out from beneath the covers and runs off with you. The Celtics beat the Knicks in the 1974 conference finals en route to another title.

That stretch of five playoff meetings in eight years is the apex of the rivalry, but there have been some other highlights. In 1984, Bernard King's brilliance helped the Knicks push the eventual-champ C's to a Game 7. Six years later, Patrick Ewing dropped 31 points (and 10 assists!) to finish off Boston in Game 5. In 2011, the Knicks were giving a Celtic team that'd reached the Finals the prior year all they could handle, until Amar'e Stoudemire's back spasms happened, Chauncy Billups' knee strain happened, and Jared Jeffries happened. And who could forget New York's most recent playoff series win, when they put the final stake through the heart of the unholy Pierce/Garnett/Rondo/Rivers union.

Celtic hatred remains blessedly strong, the kind parents bequeath to their children. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are probably the most hated Knick opponents since Alonzo Mourning and Reggie Miller. The Knicks and Celtics are among the league's weaker sisters at the moment...which means there's a chance they could both be good and battling each other in meaningful games again soon. Fingers crossed.

L.A. Lakers

Sure, the Lakers have been vastly more successful than the Knicks -- like, 600 games ahead of them all-time, which averages out to almost 10 games ahead every year. Sure, they've won 16 titles to the Knicks' two. And sure, we're all aware of the Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing the Lakers cannot have one bad thing happen to them without 10 spectacular things breaking their way as compensation. But it's more than that.

First, there's the New York/Los Angeles thing. Despite being destined to be swallowed by the Earth as payback for all of the smog and the Kardashians, L.A. is probably the only American city that would win a popularity contest against New York. And New York is such a parochial who-cares-what-people-say kinda town that you know it just kills NY to know that. This is never more obvious than in the NBA, when every potential star free agent or trade target is linked to the Lakers. How many potential GOATs have played for the purple-and-gold? Jerry West. Elgin Baylor. Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (the Knicks had a shot at acquiring Kareem when Milwaukee reluctantly agreed to his trade request, but they didn't offer enough. If you need a chaser to wash down that sick taste, the Knicks also failed to trade for Julius Erving when the Nets had to move him). Magic Johnson. Shaquille O'Neal. Kobe Bryant. Jordan Clarkson (sure, laugh now...with Laker luck, D'Angelo Russell could totally flame out and Clarkson would turn into Oscar Robertson). How many potential GOATs have played for the Knicks? Kristaps Porzingis in Summer League and...that's it.

The actual on-the-court rivalry between the two is legit, despite playing in opposite conferences and meeting almost as infrequently as the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper. The Knicks beat the Lakers in the Finals in 1970 and 1973, with the Lakers turning the tables in 1972. They haven't met in a Finals since, coming close in 1999 and 2000, but that doesn't mean the fire's been out all that time. People still get pumped for these bicoastal battles.

Memorable moments include the Pat Riley-led Knicks' first game against the Magic-less Lakers, which ended with a controversial (and bullshit) refereeing decision; Allan Houston going off for 53 in LA; Kobe scoring 61 at MSG; Chris Childs giving Kobe a well-earned double-tap to the face; and the Lakers leapfrogging the Knicks in last year's draft lottery in the most Lakerish move of all-time. Coincidentally, both teams are currently run by guys named Jim who inherited their ownership from their fathers and whom both teams' fan bases dream of exiling beyond the wall in Game of Thrones.

Posthumous Rivals

Baltimore Bullets

Hard as it is to believe, there are actually teams who were tormented by the Knicks. For six straight seasons (1968-1974), the Bullets met the Knicks in the playoffs. Five of those meetings ended in Baltimore defeats; only the '71 Bullets came out on top. To add insult to ineptitude, at the height of the rivalry, right after Baltimore had finally beaten New York, they sent legendary baller and future Hall-of-Famer Earl Monroe to the Knicks for Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth, and a whole lotta Benjamins. This affair isn't as famed as the Celtic or Laker conflicts, but Knicks-Bullets was a war for years. Willis Reed and Walt Frazier more than had their hands full with Wes Unseld and Monroe. This was a physical, intense, year-in year-out slugfest. Then the Bullets became the Capital Bullets, then the Washington Bullets, and now they're the Washington Wizards. This is one of those sneaky rivalries that's lurking, waiting to pounce. When the Knicks and Bull-zards are both good, they generate some serious heat.

Stay tuned for part 2, when we'll look at the Knicks' most recent rivalries...among them a team led by an overrated butt-fugly two-guard who just turned 50 and who moonlights as a God-awful analyst for TNT.