ESPN has a channel that features replays of legendary athletic performances and highlight footage of some of the greatest players in sports. The channel is simply called ESPN Classic. Of course, 24 hours of programming gobbles up quite a bit of archived footage so ESPN producers sometimes have to reach.
One feature they have is a program called “Instant Classic”. Typically this forum is used to replay a recent game of some notoriety. A great example of one of these so-called “instant classics” is the recent Fiesta Bowl where Boise State upset Oklahoma. It was a great game and it more or less proved that the term “instant classic” isn’t quite as oxymoronic as some people perceive it to be.
We’ve all seen sports history in the making. Tom Brady coming off the bench and out of obscurity to lead the New England Patriots through the playoffs and on to a Super Bowl win was one of those moments in time where one can feel the legend being written. You just knew when Tom Brady flashed that million watt smile and hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy something special was happening. That wasn’t the case when Kurt Warner led the Rams to a title, his was a feel good story but it wasn’t one of those timeless moments.
We like those moments. Tom Brady took us back to Joe Montana and made everything seem OK. Football would always be football. The more things change the more they stay the same. We want great teams, great players and great moments but sometimes our desire to replicate history overcomes good sense. Such is the case with LeBron James and the San Antonio Spurs.
We want LeBron to be Michael Jordan and can’t figure out why he hasn’t won six titles yet. Part of it might be because LeBron just finished his third season and hasn’t had enough opportunities to win and part of it might be that at the age of 22 LeBron still has some work to do before he becomes the best player he can be. It’s also reasonable to place some of the blame on the rest of his team. Jordan seemed destined to share space in championship purgatory with Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Dominique Wilkins until Scottie Pippen showed up. In the King’s defense Jordan had a lot of work to do at the age of 22 as well. One might say that LeBron is better than Jordan was at this early stage in his career. One would have a hard time arguing otherwise. One thing's for sure: LeBron is a better teammate.
We are also pondering whether or not the Spurs are a dynasty. Which begs the question: what is a dynasty in sports? It’s not an official term but subjective opinion seems to maintain that a dynasty demonstrates a consistent level of success over a long period of time. If that’s the case the Spurs might have something going but many feel that their championships are too spread out to qualify them as a true dynasty. The Spurs haven’t won back to back and in the middle of this supposed dynasty the Lakers pulled off three titles in a row. Who has the dynasty?
In my not-so-humble opinion the test of time is what makes or breaks a sports dynasty. The Spurs are a great team right now but what will we think 15 years from now? Will they be held in the same esteem as the Celtics and the Lakers? It doesn’t matter what we think now; that’s a question for the ages but I think the fact that the Spurs allowed a conference rival to pull off a three-peat in the midst of their run will haunt the legacy.
Does a dynasty have to win multiple titles? Some would say so but the word implies some level of consistent dominance. You can't win a title, sleep walk through a season or two and win again. You have to win or be in the position to win year after year. To that end the Spurs aren’t the most dominant team in their conference or division. Since they broke through in 1999 they are 4-0 in the finals but the Lakers are 3-1 and Shaquille O’Neal has been a member of four championship teams with five appearances in the finals. Perhaps the Spurs dynasty will be overshadowed by Shaq’s. It’s hard to argue with his credentials.
Switching back to football one of the most impressive accomplishments is the four straight Super Bowl appearances by the Buffalo Bills in the 1990’s. Talk about consistency! This is a team that won four consecutive conference championships and from 1988 through 1993 made six consecutive post season appearances. And the NFL doesn’t have a playoff field like the NBA It’s hard to make the playoffs; you have to win to get in. The Bills continued to be highly competitive over a period of 12 years. From 1988 through 1999 they made the playoffs 10 times and compiled a regular season record of 124-74. Impressive? I dare you to say no. Dynasty? Well….
You’ve got to finish. Winning titles is certainly part of the dynasty equation but not the only one. A dynasty must demonstrate consistent success over a period of time. Dynasties are generally associated with dominance and that means the success must be significantly greater than a team’s rivals over that period. You can’t just be one of the best teams every year, you have to be the best more often than not. Michael Jordan demonstrated exactly what a dynasty is when he won three titles in a row, took a couple of seasons off and came back to win three more. Six titles in eight years and the Bulls were in the hunt during his two season hiatus. That's one efficient dynasty. You have to dust off the Bill Russell Celtics before you can find that sort of success. Granted that was a much different NBA. The compeition wasn't that impressive.
Go back to the Lakers. Not the Sha-Kobe Lakers that threw a three-peat monkey wrench in the midst of a Spurs dynasty but the Showtime Lakers of the 1980’s; for that matter look at the Celtics of the same era. From the 1979-1980 season through 1990-1991 the Lakers made it to nine finals and won five of them. They made consecutive appearances and won back to back titles in the span but what’s important is that for more than 10 years the Lakers defined the playoffs and the NBA finals. During that stretch the Celtics won three titles in five appearances. If not for the Lakers the Celtics would have ruled the 1980’s.
That’s a dynasty. The Lakers dominated everybody. The Celtics, though often linked to the Lakers as their chief rival and regular foil simply don’t even compare when the results are examined years later. The Celtics were a great team but history proves that the Lakers were better…by far. Dominance.
The Spurs might be like the Celtics. The Lakers could make some moves, win two more titles over the next three years. Then we’ll look back at this era and call it Showtime II. The Cavaliers could get aggressive in the off season and embark on a period of dominance that overshadows everything the Spurs have done to this point. Or perhaps the Spurs will finally pull off that magical repeat next year and put history in a stranglehold. We don’t know how this book ends because there are still chapters waiting to be written.
Perhaps we should stop worrying about how to define the present and simply enjoy what we have. The Spurs are a great team and the Cavaliers clearly have a bright future. It’s hard to put what we’ve seen into historical perspective because we simply don’t have the vantage point of time. Let’s take a breath and wait.