Cavs-Warriors III and the allure of a sports trilogy

On the eve of their third consecutive Finals, Cleveland and Golden State have become a cultural phenomenon — and the rivalry of the decade

Don’t lecture Gene Kilroy about sports trilogies. He witnessed, from ringside, all three parts of the most famous one firsthand: the battles between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier between 1971 and 1975, including the third and final contest canonized in sport scripture as the Thrilla In Manila.

But even Kilroy, the Pennsylvanian of Irish descent who managed Ali’s business interests from 1966-81, and the man Ali valued as a close friend, is excited for the sports world’s newest high-profile trifecta.

“[Cavs/Warriors III] is … the hottest ticket in town!” he yelled into the phone from his Las Vegas home. Just the night before, Kilroy sat in his living room — in amazement — as the Cleveland Cavaliers curb-stomped the Boston Celtics by 44 points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.

A boxing lifer, he’d seen slaughter before. But even to Kilroy, Game 2 was barbaric. He’d enjoyed watching Isaiah Thomas lead Boston to the top seed all season long. But the last time an Eastern Conference team defeated a LeBron James-led squad in a series was when the Celtics, led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, beat him in 2010 en route to their second Finals appearance in three years. That was 2,575 days (and counting) and “two decisions” ago. This series was over, even by Game 2, and Kilroy’s mind was already fixated on June 1 — the 2017 Finals start date. In truth, the entire sports world has been anticipating this year’s Finals from the moment the Cavaliers did the impossible last year and rallied from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors.

For nearly every decision Ali made, in and out of the ring, Kilroy was there. When Ali decided to take on Frazier for the first time in 1971’s Fight of the Century — a bout Ali was knocked down in, and lost — Kilroy was there. Kilroy was there when Ali avenged the loss in a unanimous decision, at January 1974’s Super Fight II. Kilroy walked side by side with the man known as The Greatest. Kilroy not only understands iconic sports moments, he’s lived them. And about this year’s NBA Finals, this third contest in a rare trilogy, he could not contain his jubilation.

After all, there is no precedent for the 2017 NBA Finals. James is the 15th athlete in any of the four major sports to play in seven consecutive Finals, and the first outside the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1950s and the Boston Celtics’ of the 1960s. The Cavs and Warriors enter basketball’s final frontier a combined 24-1 this postseason. Seven of the last eight MVPs will be on the floor: James’ four, Stephen Curry’s two and Kevin Durant’s one. The last five Finals MVPs are either James or the guy tasked with staying in front of him. And never before in NBA history have two teams met in three consecutive Finals.

Seven of the last eight MVPs will be on the floor: James’ four, Stephen Curry’s two and Kevin Durant’s one.

An entire world will be watching legacies in motion, swaying between immortality and infamy with each backbreaking 3, each valiant defensive stand and each momentum-shifting dunk. Celebrities at courtside will make games feel like red carpet premieres and Grammy after-parties. Big moments will be cemented in rap songs from artists such as 2 Chainz, Kendrick Lamar, Future and Drake. It’s more than just the NBA Finals. It’s the center of the pop culture universe for at least four games — but hopefully seven.

Kilroy is clear about the grandness of a trilogy: “If you say you have two tickets for the game, who wouldn’t go? Who do you know who’s not gonna be sitting at home and watching these games? And what’s gonna be the conversation the next day?”

Once Ali shook up the world for a second time, defeating the seemingly indestructible and previously undefeated George Foreman at October 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle, the stage was set for a third and final battle with Frazier. Their trifecta serves as the bookmark for an era.

“Status,” Kilroy said, “is everything.”

The Cavaliers’ and Warriors’ rubber match joins an exclusive club of sports trilogies.

In 1921, 1922, and 1923, Babe Ruth’s Yankees squared off against the New York Giants in the World Series. Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson starred in a double trilogy — with Robinson winning five of the six fights. The Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions (in the pre-NFL/AFL merger days) battled for championships in 1952, 1953 and 1954. In the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings — in a series filled with some of hockey’s biggest names, such as Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard — met three consecutive times from 1954 to 1956. The Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers met four times in five years during the 1950s — a tetralogy — and those battles featured Jackie Robinson for Brooklyn.

A chestnut named Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978 — the horse’s rival, Alydar, came in second in all three races. During the 1980s, Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics met in the Finals three times in four years. Although their second and third fights were nine years apart, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran’s fights are boxing’s second most well-known trilogy. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal squared off at Wimbledon three consecutive years (2006-08). And Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos battled in what many consider the greatest trilogy in mixed martial arts history. These battles defined eras, but even more so made legends of the competitors. There is not, at least in real time, a definitive superior. A trilogy is about who stands the longest. It’s about who can withstand the opponent’s harshest haymaker — only to return with an even more devastating combination. Cavs-Warriors III is no different.

But, by far, the alpha and omega of sports trilogies remains Ali and Frazier. Kilroy is adamant: Nothing compares to those three bouts. “There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, ‘We’re never dead as long as our name is remembered.’ Ali-Frazier will always be spoken about like bacon and eggs. It will always be remembered.”

It was deeper than boxing. But they weren’t always sworn enemies. During Ali’s exile from boxing for refusing induction to the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Frazier reportedly loaned Ali money on several occasions and supported Ali publicly. When Frazier captured the world title (the one stripped from Ali three years earlier) in 1970, he openly called for Ali’s reinstatement. When Ali returned, Frazier outclassed Ali in their first bout in 1971. “No one would’ve beat Frazier that night,” Kilroy said. “He was so zoned in and zeroed in. I don’t care if Muhammad came at him with a machete.”

Ali, who had been only two fights back from his three-year banishment before the Fight of the Century, returned the favor in Super Fight II. But what had appeared to be mutual respect in their first two bouts changed drastically in the buildup to 1975’s Thrilla in Manila. Ali challenged Frazier’s status as a black man in the weeks leading up to the fight. “There are two types of slaves, Joe Frazier’s worse than you to me,” Ali said before the third fight. “That’s what I mean when I say ‘Uncle Tom,’ I mean he’s a brother, one day he might be like me, but for now, he works for the enemy.”

But was this strictly a gimmick? To drum up anticipation for a fight that didn’t necessarily need it? Showmanship? Ali’s taunts were unrelenting — beyond Uncle Tom, Ali called Frazier a “gorilla” and accused him of being the “white man’s champion.” Frazier was enraged by the character assassination. “My kids had to go to school and hear, ‘Your daddy’s a gorilla! The Gorilla in Manila!’ ” he yelled to Kilroy. What had been a grudge match became a referendum on the state of black America.

“This country has never been more divided than it was in the ’70s over the issues of black power, civil rights and the Vietnam War. All of those things were part of the drama between Ali and Frazier,” said Matthew Andrews, a sports history lecturer at the University of North Carolina. “Who you rooted for in those fights somewhat had to do with your larger social view.”

Part of both Frazier and Ali did die that night in the Philippines. “Closest thing to dying that I know of,” Ali would later say. Of Ali’s heart, Frazier said, “I don’t like him, but I gotta say in the ring he was a man. In Manila, I hit him with punches, those punches, they’d have knocked a building down. And he took ’em. He took ’em and he came back, and I got to respect that part of the man.” Frazier continued, finding solace, “But I sent him home worse than he came. He was the one who spoke about being nearly dead in Manila, not me.”

Neither fighter was ever truly the same. Kilroy sat ringside as sweat mixed with blood exploded off gloves into the stands. With both eyes swollen shut, Frazier begged legendary trainer Eddie Futch to let him come out to fight for the 15th and final round. Futch threw in the towel — he dramatically waved it. Ali was awarded the victory, and the Thrilla In Manila is considered his last great fight. Ali praised Frazier as a world-class pugilist both in the media and privately to Frazier’s son Marvis, but the damage had been done. To both men. Physically and mentally.

Frazier’s resentment lasted long after their trilogy, and Parkinson’s robbed Ali of his gift of gab. When Ali famously lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, it was Frazier who cracked, “It would have been a good thing if he had lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.” It would take years for Ali and Frazier to come together on cordial terms — it was when they met at the 2002 NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia, at Kilroy’s insistence. Ali found the strength to attend, with more than 4,000 others, Frazier’s 2011 funeral. Frail and visibly trembling, he fervently applauded and saluted his fallen rival, friend and man who handed him his first professional loss. “It was sad to see Muhammad there. He could just about walk. He was shaking and all,” Kilroy recalled. “You looked at him and you say, ‘I wonder how long God’s gonna keep [Ali] with us.’ It was sad.” He felt he had to.

Thankfully, the Cleveland Cavaliers-Golden State Warriors trilogy lacks the long-term consequences of Ali-Frazier. Before Cavs-Warriors II in 2016, the two teams spent the better part of a year trading shots. Not disrespectful barbs, but passive-aggressive innuendos used to get under the other’s skin.

Over the past year, in the buildup to Cavs-Warriors III, there was more of the same. Durant signing with the Warriors last July sent shock waves through the entire league, but the intended epicenter was at 1 Center Court in Cleveland — the address to Quicken Loans Arena. The Warriors wanted Cleveland again, but this time they’d bring with them the best player on the planet not named James.

And the Cavs’ pettiness was on full display at the team’s Halloween party — equipped with “3-1 Lead” signage and Curry and Klay Thompson tombstone cookies. Then came Draymond Green’s well-timed tweet after the Cleveland Indians blew their own 3-1 lead to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. And the Cavs muting Warriors references in Drake songs during pregame warm-ups. And then there was the Warriors vs. Cavs Christmas Day game, an instant classic that included a 14-point fourth-quarter Cleveland comeback led by Kyrie Irving. This only threw gasoline on a firestorm of anticipation.

No matter how both teams downplayed a potential rematch for the third straight year, the collision course was basketball’s worst-kept secret. Russell Westbrook’s historic season became the season’s marquee narrative, as did the season-long discussion of his relationship (or lack thereof) with Durant. The New York Knicks made more headlines because of team president Phil Jackson and owner James Dolan than they did on the court. And the formation of the new twin towers in New Orleans with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins whetted basketball appetites for what it could mean for the careers of the game’s two most talented big men. But the desire for Cavs-Warriors III was the overriding storyline of the season. It seemed preordained.

“They’re always in the back of [each other’s] minds,” former Boston Celtic Cedric Maxwell said of the Cavs and the Warriors. He’s now an analyst for Celtics broadcasts on WWZN AM, and more than most, he’s qualified to speak on rivalries and trilogies. Maxwell was named Finals MVP in 1981 and etched himself into Boston lore with his pivotal role in defeating Johnson and the Lakers in 1984 — their first of three Finals meetings over the next four years in a rivalry that defined ’80s basketball.

So the man nicknamed “Cornbread” understands the Cavs’ and Warriors’ reciprocal obsession. They’re each other’s litmus test, a standard by which history will ultimately judge them. “[The 76ers] were in the back of our mind when we had to play them during the ’80s. The Lakers were definitely in the back of our minds,” Maxwell said. “Sometimes we’d be playing other opponents, and putting one of the Lakers in [a player’s] spot, to hate them and despise them that much more.”

Where the Lakers/Celtics ’80s trilogy was driven by a mutual dislike and also racial narratives, the Cavs and Warriors find other motivations. Both teams are plagued by sports’ most crippling question: what if? The Cavs were, as James said, “outmatched” in the 2015 Finals. What if Irving and Kevin Love hadn’t suffered season-ending injuries in the playoffs? The Warriors are haunted by Green’s 2016 Finals suspension. What if the officials’ decision hadn’t turned the series on its head and kick-started James’ explosion into the greatest three-game stretch in Finals history? Player health and a momentary lapse in judgment shifted the course of NBA history — and altered the possibility of a three-peat in either direction.

Yet, while the Cavs’ and the Warriors’ rivalry is defined in part by its lineage of trash talk, and a mutual respect permeates both teams, both franchises must look to their own rafters to see that empty spot where a second banner should be. The 2017 NBA Finals isn’t about hatred or revenge. It’s about retribution. It’s about coming to get a title that was taken. It’s as Kilroy described Ali’s continual desire to purify his place in history. “Anytime he got beat,” Kilroy said of Ali, “he wanted to come back and clean his record.” Kilroy could easily be talking about James, Green or Curry.

Such is the beauty of the unknown. We know NBA Finals history is happening, but we don’t know when we’ll witness a play, a game or an exchange that we’ll take with us for the rest of our lives. “Trilogies all have signature plays or a signature moment,” said Ron Thomas, who covered the Warriors in the 1980s for the San Francisco Chronicle and is now the director of the Journalism and Sports Program at Morehouse College. “Those types of moments that become part of the history of the game sometimes arise from these trilogies. I think that’s another reason why people are so fascinated by them.”

For Durant, these Finals represent a shot at the ultimate redemption — an undeniable “I told you so.” For Green, the unquestioned leader of the Golden State superpower, four more wins absolve him of the sin that was his suspension, which left an asterisk by the Warriors’ 73-win season. For Thompson, it’s the stage a marksman like himself should lather in, a chance to reverse court on an otherwise quiet offensive performance in Golden State’s first 12 games. For Curry, still the reigning two-time MVP, a standout performance this Finals dilutes the less-than-Curry performances of his 2015 and 2016 Finals.

But the man nicknamed “Cornbread�� understands the Cavs and Warriors’ reciprocal obsession. They’re each other’s litmus test, a standard by which history will ultimately judge them.

Meanwhile, for Love, this year’s Finals are his chance to remind everyone that the Cavs are built around a “big three.” For Irving, whose intensity from the moment the Warriors were mentioned last week spoke volumes — there are few better big-game players than Irving. The former 2011 No. 1 overall pick wants his name among the game’s most exalted point guards, and Irving, much like his mentor Kobe Bryant, has a flair for the dramatic. As for James, the sun in this series’ solar system — and the only player in NBA history to lead both Finals teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks — the goalposts keep moving with regard to his career’s magnum opus. These Warriors present him with the greatest professional challenge. Slaying a dragon the likes of which the NBA has never seen only gives more credence to the argument that James doesn’t just live in his idol Michael Jordan’s neighborhood. They live in the same cul-de-sac.

But the Warriors enter Thursday’s Game 1 as heavy favorites. They haven’t lost since April 10 and haven’t experienced a losing streak since early March. It’s a position both teams are comfortable in: Golden State as the biggest bully on the block and Cleveland as world beaters. Love, though, thinks it’s funny how it goes, and perhaps he’s right. “The whole underdog thing is funny to me,” he said. “We are defending our title.”

For a 2017 postseason that has been called “boring,” it’s only fitting that this Finals match provides the excitement the playoffs have largely lacked. Because the 2016-17 NBA season was only supposed to end one way: with the Cavaliers and Warriors exchanging figurative punches atop basketball’s Mount Olympus. With the huge exception of our national and global timelines of continuous political developments, no bigger narrative than Cavs-Warriors III exists in culture right now. It’s the story. It’s got the characters. It’s got the anticipation only sports can create.

“If Cleveland comes out of the East, I want to destroy Cleveland,” Green said back in October 2016. “No ifs, ands or buts about it. If and when we get to that point, I want to annihilate them.”

“He wanted us,” Love said last week, “and he has us starting next Thursday.”

What a time to be alive.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.