THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

It rivals anything we've seen

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / July 31, 2011

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With or without Nnamdi Asomugha, the New England Patriots have themselves a right proper rivalry with the New York Jets.

How lucky are we in this rivalry matter? The Red Sox and Yankees have had something going since the day Harry Frazee sold The Babe to New York in 1920, and we can rightfully argue that it’s never been any hotter than it is right now, 91 years later.

In the ’60s and ’80s, basketball fans had the NBA’s best-ever rivalry between Boston and Philadelphia. Russell vs. Wilt practically defined the idea of individual rivalry, and later Larry vs. Dr. J was pretty good, but the great embellishment was that the bad blood runneth over to include peripheral personnel. Iconic Celtics announcer Johnny Most couldn’t stand iconic Philadelphia public address announcer Dave Zinkoff, whom he referred to as “Hysterical Harry.’’ Fans in Boston and Philly didn’t need extraneous motivation such as pregame videos and music blaring to get revved up for the game. All they needed was to see “Boston vs. Philadelphia’’ on the schedule.

Speaking of which . . .

Jets at Patriots, Sunday, Oct. 9, 4:15 p.m.

Patriots at Jets, Sunday, Nov. 13, 8:20 p.m.

My only question: How could Mr. Schedule Maker be so obtuse as to have the Patriots and Jets conclude their regular-season business seven weeks before the end of the season? C’mon, this is a shocking abrogation of wit, of soul, and of sheer common sense. Can you imagine the fervor of a Patriots-Jets division-settling confrontation on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Day? With all due respect to our friends in Miami (Dec. 24) and Buffalo (Jan. 1), your presence is going to be rather bland compared to What Might Have Been had the Jets been rolling into Gillette with something to play for.

Having a consummate rival in the league is one thing. Having a consummate rival in your conference is even better. But having a consummate rival in your division is the ultimate, unless, of course, the rival municipalities have been measuring each other since colonial times, as have Boston and New Amster, er, York. Let cities in all our major sports rhapsodize about their glorious rivalries (e.g. Los Angeles-San Francisco; Chicago-Green Bay; Houston-Dallas). Then ask how many of them had their citizens arguing supremacy in anything and everything before the first George Washington inauguration.

But let’s get back to the division thing for a minute. Though the ultimate goal of all sports teams in any season is to win a championship, the journey does matter. And when you know one of the main impediments to achieving said goal is a division rival, the very thought of whom affects the blood pressure of your core constituency, there is an extra motivation in your own day-to-day activities. The concerns are both practical and emotional, but they are very real. It does give you an extra reason to spring out of bed each morning. It may even lead you to make moves specifically geared to counter that respected/hated foe.

“It’s certainly a priority, but you can’t focus on any one team, because the big goal is to win a championship,’’ says Jan Volk, who, as a young fan whose father was an Auerbach confidant, then as Red Auerbach’s right-hand man, and finally as general manager himself, was front and center for the entire Celtics-Philly fun, which began when Wilt showed up in 1959.

“But the games themselves are always on your mind,’’ Volk continues. “When the schedule comes out, those are the ones you circle. When you play, what are the games leading up, what’s the back-to-back situation, who you play after? There was nothing you could do about the schedule, but you were very interested.’’

The Russell-Chamberlain subplots made every game with Wilt in a Philly uniform an Event, and then there were playoff Boston-Philly confrontations in 1962, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, and 1969 (no Wilt). In the Bird-Dr. J ’80s, they had playoff battles in 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1985.

How competitive was the rivalry? From 1979-80 through 1984-85, the regular-season tally was 18-18. The best of all Celtics teams, the 1985-86 squad, only had a 4-2 advantage over their great rival.

And that’s not all.

“Remember that in those days we also played them in exhibitions,’’ reminds Volk. The great Auerbach-Moses Malone duel, during which Billy Cunningham ripped his sport coat, was during an exhibition game! Yes, and who can forget the epic Bird-Dr. J scrum?

No matter what anyone says, deals were made with the other in mind. The Sixers got Lionel Hollins, so the Celtics got Pete Maravich. The Sixers beat the Celtics, 4-1, in 1980, simply because, with 7-footers Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones, they were too big for a 6-8, 6-8, 6-5 Boston frontline. The Celtics got big in a hurry with Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. There were even some draft-day shenanigans with an eye toward one-upmanship.

In the end, the great fan treat was that they knew management cared. “To have a really great rivalry,’’ says Volk, “the other team has to be someone you love to hate. And we certainly had that.’’

Now while we can’t see Coach Bill and Regal Rex wrestling at the 50 either before or after a game, we know there is a genuine feeling of enmity between the two organizations that dates from the instant Bill Parcells switched sides to set off what he laughingly labeled “The Border War.’’ Oh, and he took Curtis Martin with him.

Bill Belichick turned up the flame the day he decided he really didn’t want to be the “HC of the NYJ.’’ And here are two words for you: “Eric’’ and “Mangini.’’ Can’t forget Mo Lewis blasting Drew Bledsoe, which turned out to be a pivotal day in both Patriots and NFL history.

But nothing has so enhanced the rivalry as the presence of Rex Ryan, who established his position by declaring that he had not come to New York in order to kiss Coach Bill’s rings. Meanwhile, though everyone had a good yuk with the 45-3 regular-season triumph last December, which team played longer in each of the last two years? And which team has not won a playoff game since New York (Giants) 17, New England 14 in Super Bowl XLII?

So here we are in 2011. At least one Vegas tout has made the Patriots AFC favorites. Rex, of course, has established the Jets as his AFC favorites, with or without Nnamdi Asomugha.

I’m gonna guess you folks have Oct. 9 and Nov. 13 circled on your calendars.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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