Every season ends with music blaring, confetti falling, a trophy awarded. It’s “One Shining Moment,” a pinnacle attained, a champion crowned. But more and more, we’re seeing trophies taken by teams that aren’t quite the epitome of excellence. We’ve entered the era of the accidental champ.
We consider the most recent winners in the six major American sports:
Connecticut, the 2010-11 NCAA basketball titlist: The Huskies finished in the bottom half of the Big East, which numbers 16 teams. They were 9-9 in regular-season conference play and entered the Big East tournament as the ninth seed. They won five games in that event, six in the NCAA tournament. They won more than half as many games (11) in the two postseason events as in the regular season (21).
Boston Bruins, the 2010-11 NHL titlist: They finished the regular season with 103 points, seventh-most in the league. They had the fewest points of any of the six division winners.
Dallas Mavericks, the 2010-11 NBA titlist: They finished second in the Southwest Division, four games behind San Antonio.
St. Louis Cardinals, the 2011 World Series titlist: They won 90 games, tying them for the eighth-best record in the majors. They were 67-63 on Aug. 24, the day they trailed the Braves by 8 1/2 games. They trailed by three games with five to play. They clinched the wild card when the Braves lost their 162nd game in 13 innings. In Game 6 of the World Series against Texas, the Cardinals twice were one strike from elimination.
Alabama Crimson Tide, 2011 BCS titlist: They didn’t win their division or their conference.
New York Giants, 2011 NFL titlist: They entered the playoffs with the worst record of the six NFC qualifiers. They won almost half as many games in postseason (four) as in the regular season (nine). They became the first Super Bowl champion to have been outscored during the regular season.
OK, I know what you’re saying. Isn’t this why we watch sports? For improbable championship runs? For these “Hoosiers” moments?
My response: Yes, but …
Let’s stipulate that being the No. 3 seed, as the Bruins and Mavericks were, doesn’t exactly constitute up-from-oblivion stuff. Let’s also stipulate that Alabama was held, rightly or wrongly, to be one of the nation’s two best teams all season in the one sport where opinion matters. Not all of these tales were created equal. But we can also argue that UConn, the Cardinals and the Giants were far better in the season’s final act than they’d been at any other time. (To be fair, the Huskies did have a nice November.)
And now you’re saying: Isn’t that also the nature of sports? Seizing the day? Grabbing that one shining moment? Running the “Hoosiers”-style Picket Fence with the Big Game on the line?
My response: Yes, but …
Underdog stories are great, but such a run of underdog champions underscores the notion that the only time to care about a sport is once the playoffs commence. (Another stipulation: Alabama was not an underdog in any game, not even in its rematch against LSU.) We’ve known for a while that the NHL and NBA regular seasons don’t count for much, and the advent of the wild card has rendered postseason baseball, to invoke the term all baseball men use, a crap shoot.
But what, in the grand scheme, did it avail the Phillies to win 102 games and the Packers to go 15-1? Given that the Phillies wound up losing to St. Louis in the Division Series, wouldn’t they have been better served tanking the final two games against the Braves?
And now you’re saying: The beauty of sports is that nothing is guaranteed — the best team on paper doesn’t always win. And I’ll agree with that almost without reservation. The reservation: We watch sports not just for entertainment but to get, at least on occasion, a glimpse of real excellence.
The 2011 Giants were not a great team: They lost at home to Seattle and Washington and were 7-7 with two regular-season games remaining. The 2011 Cardinals were not a great team: They got hot at the last possible moment and got lucky because the Braves went bad at that same moment. Of NCAA champs, only Kansas (which upset Oklahoma in 1988), North Carolina State (which upset Houston in 1983) and Villanova (which upset Georgetown in 1985) had more losses than UConn’s nine. Of BCS titlists, every one had at least won its conference — until Alabama.
What I’m saying: As nice as the upstart stories can be, it would be nice if there wasn’t another coming along every 15 minutes. Championships needn’t follow the same schedule as MARTA trains. It would be nice to see sustained excellence, as opposed to the situational kind, rewarded.
Back to “Hoosiers.” The team on which that movie was based, the 1953-54 Milan High School Indians, finished 28-2. We recall its epic upset of Muncie Central in the state finals on Bobby Plump’s last shot, but what’s conveniently overlooked is that, on that same court one week earlier, Milan had played Indianapolis Crispus Attucks, which was led by Oscar Robertson, the sport’s greatest all-around player until Michael Jordan came along. Milan won 65-52.
The point being: Even within the Milan Miracle, there was more than one shot or one game or even one month involved. There was, believe it or not, a full body of work.
By Mark Bradley