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Shaquille O’Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, and the Singular Joy of Sports Hate

It’s a dislike born out of respect and admiration—and usually fear—and it’s the highest compliment an athlete can receive

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On December 1, 2000, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs 109-100. Shaquille O’Neal, who was six months removed from winning his first championship and seven months off of winning the league MVP by what was then the most overwhelming margin in NBA history (121 of the 122 possible first-place votes), was a goddamn terror, bulldozing his way into everyone. He finished that night with 36 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocks, but it was one of those times when he was just so devastating that everything seemed multiplied.

I remember this game clearly. Because I was greatly invested in the success of the Spurs at the time. Because every Spurs fan was. Because it felt like we were on a precipice. The Spurs had won the 1999 championship, sweeping Shaq’s Lakers along the way. And when that title happened, it was like, “Bang. We finally did it. We finally won a championship; the best player on our team is still in his basketball infancy; we’re about to reel off 10, maybe 12 titles in a row.” And then the following April, with just four games left to go before the postseason, Tim Duncan tore up his knee, sidelining him for the foreseeable future. The Spurs, suddenly rudderless without their centerpiece, lost in five games to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. Two months later, Shaq won his first championship and the Lakers won their first championship in more than a decade.

For Spurs fans, the thinking was (a) if Duncan had been healthy, the Spurs would’ve absolutely beaten the Lakers again in the 2000 playoffs, the same as they’d done in the 1999 playoffs, and (b) that that Lakers team, which before its title didn’t know what it took to win a championship, was now who the Spurs were going to have to stare down if they wanted to win any more rings in the coming years. For Lakers fans, the thinking was (a) nobody was stopping Shaq and Kobe in 2000, not even Tim Duncan, and (b) the only reason the Spurs had won the championship in 1999 was because the lockout had turned everything wonky that season, and so of course something bizarre like “the Spurs winning the title” happened. There was a natural tension between the two fan bases, and a natural resentment too. Both sides felt like they were not being afforded due respect, which meant that every matchup between the two teams felt like it’d been soaked in a swimming pool full of anger and spit and glass for several days, weeks, months.

Anyway, the Spurs lost that December game, and it sucked, of course, because losing to the Lakers always sucks. Worse still for Spurs fans, though, is that it ended up being a nasty little bellwether. Because before that moment, Shaq and his Lakers had lost eight of the past nine games against the Spurs (including the playoffs). He just couldn’t beat them. He wasn’t mean enough yet, or strong enough yet, or devastating enough yet. But from that night forward, for the next two and a half or so years, he was a fucking supervillain.

His Lakers went on to win seven of the next eight meetings against the Spurs, nine of the next 11, and 12 of the next 15, including eight of nine in the playoffs (the Lakers swept the Spurs in the Western Conference finals on their way to the 2001 championship, and then eliminated the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals 4-1 on their way to the 2002 championship). There was just nothing we could do to stop him. During that stretch, it felt like he owned the Spurs. That’s why I Sports Hated him.

I hate the way you talk to me, and the way you cut your hair. I hate the way you drive my car. I hate it when you stare. I hate your big dumb combat boots, and the way you read my mind. I hate you so much it makes me sick; it even makes me rhyme. I hate it, I hate the way you’re always right. I hate it when you lie. I hate it when you make me laugh, even worse when you make me cry. I hate it when you’re not around, and the fact that you didn’t call. But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you. Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all. —Kat Stratford, 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Sports Hate is the highest level of recreational dislike you can have for a player on an opposing team. It seeps into everything about them. You suddenly realize that you hate their commercials, for example, or you hate their face, or the way that they pronounce a word, or their haircut, even if their haircut is the exact same as yours. Things you maybe once found charming about the person suddenly become intolerable. (I thought Shaq was absolutely captivating when he was in Orlando and not causing any real trouble for my Spurs. Once he started clobbering us over the head again and again in Los Angeles, that was no longer the case.)

If you unpack the Sports Hate, though, you find that, beyond it being the highest level of recreational dislike you can have for a player on an opposing team, it’s also the highest compliment you can give them. Because Sports Hate is, ultimately and forever, rooted in respect. And fear. And admiration. Or some combination of the three.

You can’t Sports Hate someone you’re not threatened by.* James Harden is a great example of that.

[*This is one of the ways that Sports Hate differs from Regular Hate. You can just Regular Hate anybody for any reason.]

The Rockets and the Spurs are natural enemies. And Harden is currently one of the two or three best basketball players on the planet. So it would seem to make sense for Spurs fans to Sports Hate him. But we don’t—or, at least, I don’t. I can’t quite get there. He’s not scary enough to Sports Hate yet. I’m not afraid of him the way I was afraid of Shaq.** He’s had big games against the Spurs, sure. (He hung 61 on us last season, which was super not fun to watch. And he hung 50 on us earlier this season, which was absolutely fun to watch because he was cheated out of two points and then the Rockets lost in overtime.) But you can’t just be a threat during the regular season. You have to be a threat when the stakes are the highest.*** And to this point, Harden hasn’t beaten the Spurs in the playoffs yet. I need that to happen once or twice before I can officially Sports Hate him. (The one time that the Rockets and Spurs have played in the playoffs during Harden’s tenure in Houston, it ended up producing an iconic playoffs moment that featured him, just not in the way he was hoping, I’m sure.)

[**It always seemed like Shaq enjoyed causing misery for other teams; like he just got a great big ’ol kick out of sticking the knife in your neck. And beyond just the actual basketball game, rooting against Shaq always carried with it the threat of being publicly embarrassed in the media. He was a master at kicking you a few times in the ribs during a postgame interview. The very worst one for me was when he was being interviewed after Derek Fisher hit that ridiculous 0.4-seconds shot to give the Lakers a 3-2 lead over the Spurs in their 2004 playoffs matchup. The interviewer mentioned something about it being a lucky shot, and Shaq, in that way that only he could, responded by saying something about how the shot that Tim Duncan had hit immediately before Fisher’s was lucky too. It was a perfect insult.]

[***Starting with the 2000 season and ending with the 2004 season, the Spurs won more than 70 percent of the playoff games they played against teams that did not have Shaq. When they played against him in the playoffs, though, they won just 33 percent of the time.]

Here’s what’s curious about Sports Hate, and what I find to be the most enjoyable part of it: Sports Hate wears off. It goes away. Once the player retires, or even once they’re no longer a threat, the hostility you feel toward them just sort of dissipates. Which means what you’re left with is all the good stuff. That’s what’s happened in my head these past couple of years with Shaq. I find myself being weirdly nostalgic about him, and even territorial on occasion. It’s why you so often hear Bill Simmons say nice things about players from those Lakers teams that warred with his Celtics, or why a longtime Kings fan will come to the defense of Shaq when someone says he would be anything less than dominant in today’s NBA. (This is always the easiest way to tell the difference between a player you once Sports Hated and a player you simply Regular Hated. Spurs fans had Sports Hate for Shaq. They have Regular Hate for, say, Karl Malone.)

You know who’s going to be perfect to Sports Hate? Luka Doncic. He plays for the Mavericks, another natural enemy for the Spurs. And also he’s wildly charming, one of the three or four most likable players in the league. And also he’s proving himself to be historically good. As of now, he’s across-the-board wonderful—I greatly enjoy him, and have no bad things to say about him or anything he does. But after he beats the Spurs in the playoffs, which I have to imagine will happen in the coming years, all of that is going out the window. Just like it did with Dirk Nowitzki, who next to Shaq is the only other player I have ever Sports Hated.

What was so jarring about Dirk moving into Sports Hate territory is that none of us really saw it coming. From the 1999 season through the 2002 season, Dirk lost 15 games against the Spurs, which was more losses to the Spurs during that stretch than every player in the league other than Walt Williams (he had 17 losses). It very much felt like Dirk was going to be a kind of novelty player that Spurs fans could like from afar because we never had to worry about him beating us. Then he had his breakthrough, and suddenly it felt like every time he walked onto the court against the Spurs he was carrying a bratwurst-scented scythe, like some German grim reaper.

From the 2003 season through the 2007 season, he won 14 games against the Spurs, which was more than every other player in the league during that same stretch. The Spurs won titles during that time, yes, but Dirk bested them in their mammoth 2006 Western Conference semifinals matchup, culminating in a Game 7 win in San Antonio where Dirk not only rung up 37 points and 15 rebounds, but also had the series-saving and-1 to get the game into overtime. He was terrifying. And all of the things that were fun and interesting about him before—his hair, his one-legged fadeaway jumper, the way he would rainbow his 3s 50 feet up into the sky—began to turn acidic.

It feels like that’s all going to happen again with Luka. He’s going to ding us for 40 in an elimination playoff game, and it’s going to be miserable. I can’t wait.