|Wednesday, July 10
The fleeting (and haunting) art of the sports dynasty
By Greg Garber
Jan Stuart, whose knowledge of Chinese dynasties is exceeded only by her fabulous title -- associate curator of Chinese art at the Smithsonian Institution Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery -- is a good sport. Last week, while it was simmering outside her air-conditioned office in Washington, D.C., she tried to place the Los Angeles Lakers in a context with the heralded Tang, Sung, Yuan and Ming Dynasties.
How, Stuart was asked, do Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant stack up against that kind of formidable competition?
"To me it's a little bit amusing, given how short-lived these sports dynasties are," Stuart said at length, stifling what sounded like a giggle. "But, really, it's not a complete historical inaccuracy. In some ways, it's actually a good description. There are a lot of similarities."
Could O'Neal post-up Kublai Khan, the Mongol phenom who became the first outsider to rule China? How about his grandfather, Genghis? Would the high-spending New York Yankees hold their own back in the day when free agents were mercenary soldiers? Should the Detroit Red Wings and their Dominator be considered a worthy parallel to, say, Confucius?
Probably not. Clearly, the D-word is thrown around too loosely these days. The dynasty, like the dollar, has felt the harsh effects of inflation. The dynasty, it turns out, has become irrevocably devalued.
For example, the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 B.C.) reigned for nearly 900 years, or some 896 seasons longer than the current Lakers team, which has won three consecutive NBA titles. The Yankees have taken home four World Series in six years and the Red Wings have collected three of the past six Stanley Cups. In today's fleeting-attention-span, damn-the-values, microwave-the-dinner, newspapers-are-dead, Adam-Sandler-does-Frank-Capra, get-it-done-yesterday world, these are what will have to pass for dynasties.
"The landscape has changed," said Geno Auriemma, coach of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team that has won three NCAA titles in the past eight years. "I think in the historical context of things, dynasties used to be reserved for teams like the Yankees, Boston Celtics, Montreal Canadiens and UCLA men's basketball.
"Today, if you do something great two years in a row, you're a dynasty. It's just the way things have gone. It's very difficult now to sustain any kind of excellence."
The top shelf
The second tier features the Lakers, NBA champions 14 times going back to their days in Minneapolis, when they won five of six from 1949-54. The Red Wings are 10-time Stanley Cup winners, although that success is framed around 42 years of frustration. The Green Bay Packers won three NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls between 1961-67. The Pittsburgh Steelers won four of six Super Bowls between 1974-79. The New York Islanders are on the short list of teams with four consecutive championships, accomplished from 1980-83. The Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson three-peated twice in eight years. If Jordan hadn't temporarily quit basketball to chase curveballs out of the strike zone, it might have been 8-for-8 and a spot on the top shelf.
So many factors work against winning in today's brave new world of sports. There is more money, more player movement, more media -- and with it, more pressure. Patience is a rare, if unseen commodity. The NFL, that quaint little experiment in socialism, has gone so far as to legislate the end of dynasties entirely with field-leveling drafts, weighted schedules and a salary-capped free agency system that gives teams no more than three years to win their championships before crumbling into sub-.500 dust.
"It is categorically, systematically impossible to ever have another dynasty like the Yankees of the 1950s," said Peter King, the author of "The Season After: Are Sports Dynasties Dead?" "The system is designed to drag you down."
Just winning a single title can be an exercise in exhaustion.
"Everything has to fall into place," said Scotty Bowman, the outgoing Red Wings coach. "There are moments in each playoff season where it could go either way. A lot of people never thought we'd get out of that first series with Vancouver after we lost the first two games. And then you look back and even though we won the last series in five games, there were times … we fell behind in Game 3, tied it up with a minute to go and 75 minutes into overtime, we get the winner. If Carolina scores that goal, they've got another game at home and it's a different series.
"The margin for error is so slim. You don't realize it until it's over."
The Lakers are a good example of the odds teams face these days. They are, in the words of former NBA coach Dr. Jack Ramsay, "a thin, thin squad" after O'Neal and Bryant, perhaps the two best players in the game. If not for the good fortune of Vlade Divac's rebound tipped directly into the hands of Robert Horry, whose 3-pointer saved Game 4 for the Lakers, the Sacramento Kings probably would be emperors of the NBA. The inevitable entropy of history suggests something will prevent the Lakers from winning a fourth straight title.
"Kobe will decide he wants to make movies instead, Shaq will get involved with more music videos or his feet will finally give out on him," King said. "Something -- I can't tell you what it will be -- will happen to knock them off the pedestal."
Even the greatest dynasties are not forever. Let the word, in its most basic form, instruct you: die-nasty. When you're on top, there can't possibly be a good outcome when it's finally over.
Afterall, "Dynasty," the lavish primetime soap opera that featured John Forsythe and Linda Evans as Blake and Krystal Carrington, only lasted nine seasons (1981-89).
Dynasty defined, debated and debunked
Is it pure, unadulterated championships -- those bottom-line, musty-smelling banners hanging in the rafters? How many, exactly, are enough? Two? Three? Four? Sixteen? Is it a brilliant core of future Hall of Famers? Is it leadership, on and off the field of play, with uncommon vision? Is it sustained brilliance over time? If so, how brilliant? How much time?
Is Tiger Woods, who is likely to have a legitimate chance at winning golf's Grand Slam for the next dozen-or-so years, a dynasty? Are the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, a dynasty now that they have won seven of the past 12 women's singles Grand Slams? And what of American cyclist Lance Armstrong, who is said to be in superb form heading into the quest for a fourth consecutive victory in the Tour de France? Is he a dynasty?
Naturally, it depends on whom you talk to. Everyone has an opinion. And just who decides when a team has reached dynastic quality? The fans themselves are the first arbiters, but they tend to have these parochial and emotional attachments -- how can you objectively assess the Yankees' performance when you are a Red Sox fan? -- that can cloud their vision. It often falls to the media -- which always has the last word -- to make the hard choices.
In the wake of Tuesday night's All-Star Game, we find major professional sports gone on holiday for another 24 hours. There is absolutely nothing going on. Unless you are a big fan of Major League Lacrosse, what will you do with all of that free time? Read on and learn how the architects of some of the great dynasties in sports see it. We have assembled an all-star cast in an effort to produce the equivalent of that hot summer commodity, the beach-season, page-turning whodunit.
The answers, not surprisingly, fell into three distinct camps:
1) The hard-line, old-school, cold-war approach: "A dynasty is winning it and then having the ability to sustain it, to continue winning. That's the name of the game, to win. Second? That's bulls---," says Red Auerbach, whose Celtics won eight straight NBA titles from 1958-66.
2) The moderate, down-the-middle approach: Consistency is the hallmark of sports' greatest teams, says Bill Walsh, the architect of four Super Bowl championships with the San Francisco 49ers.
3) Glasnost: Everyone is a winner: "Establishing dominance over a period of time, regardless of who does it, is a tremendous accomplishment," says John Wooden, who led UCLA to 10 NCAA titles.
They just don't make 'em like they used to
He reportedly has fallen for actress Jordana Brewster, the granddaughter of a former Yale University president. Jeter, who makes $18.9 million a year to play shortstop for the New York Yankees, was recently spotted dancing and chatting with Brewster at his 28th birthday party at Flow, a SoHo club.
When a team wins a championship, invariably, the will and determination that pushed it to that destination begins to wane. It is human nature to relax when you get to the pinnacle. The rewards for today's athlete and those who build teams for a living are so great it's far easier to relax than it was a generation ago.
Players, living large in their new reputation, don't hit the weight room as hard as they did the previous year, they skip the off-season conditioning program, they come into training camp a little further out of shape than usual. For million-dollar athletes, motivation can be a difficult pulse to find.
"Keeping the focus on football is harder than it ever was," said former 49ers coach Bill Walsh. "When I think of the '80s in the NFL, I think of the great rivalries we had with the Giants and Redskins. The Bears could have been a dynasty from that era, but they just mishandled it. I think 11 players wrote books and 14 of them had radio shows. I think that Super Bowl Shuffle video was a huge distraction as well."
There is a general perception that today's athletes don't want it as badly as those of previous generations.
"Oh, I don't believe that," said John Wooden, whose UCLA men's basketball teams won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. "There may be more outside interests, but with proper leadership I think they want to win just as much as they ever did."
According to Chuck Daly, former coach of the Detroit Piston who won back-to-back NBA titles in 1989-90, it gets harder and harder to motivate players each year.
"I still think there are players and teams that want to win. You are basically a salesman of the first order. Your ideas, your philosophies … you're trying to convince them to be better, train more, work harder. You sell, sell, sell, all day long. Some guys buy into it more than others."
"It's human nature," King said. "Adam Vinatieri (the Patriots' placekicker) probably made more money during the offseason than he made in salary last year after they won the Super Bowl. Two generations ago, (Cardinals slugger) Roger Maris had to work for Anheuser-Busch to support his family in the offseason.
"The same is true for the architects of the good teams. It's almost like if you win once or twice, you move on to make huge money or retire. I'm not criticizing (former Packers GM) Ron Wolf, but would he have retired if he was making $53,000 and didn't have two homes? Would (former Packers coach) Mike Holmgren get a huge raise and a new title? Now, even the people who run the franchises are rich, too. They don't have to work their whole adult life, as (Dodgers executive) Branch Rickey did three generations ago, to retire and live in Boca."
Agents of change
"Free agency has been gigantic," said Jerry West, former Lakers general manager and now the Memphis Grizzlies GM. "Players don't stay the way they used to. In some ways, it makes it easier to build a team."
And easier to dismantle others. West wooed Shaquille O'Neal from the Orlando Magic and -- presto! -- the Lakers, with the addition of coach Phil Jackson and high schooler Kobe Bryant, were on the verge of a dynasty. The Magic, after one NBA Finals appearance, was effectively done. Championship teams tend to load up with good players through free agency, only to have them appropriated by other teams.
"When you win the Cup," Bowman said, "that comes into play. We don't have a salary cap in hockey, but definitely salary sense becomes a factor. Players want to cash in when they win and teams, obviously, are looking for players from winning programs."
Red Auerbach, who coached the Celtics to eight straight championships, sees a darker trend lurking beneath the dazzle of the dollars.
"I think one thing that has changed dramatically is the concept of what a team is," he said. "See, free agency has changed the loyalty of players to their teams. With all the money we see in free agency, guys want to get numbers so they can appeal to other teams.
"When I coached, I based salaries on the contributions each player made, whether it be scoring, passing, playing defense, rebounding. Today, the free-agency system doesn't reward a guy who plays good, hard defense. That's why defenders are so hard to find."
Good players, in general, are harder to find. That's because there are many more teams tapping a fixed pool of American talent. In 1927, the NHL began with six teams. Today there are 30. Similarly, the NBA fielded eight teams in 1947-48 and today it has 29. The NFL, which had eight teams in 1943, will have swelled to 32 when the Houston Texans kick off this fall. Major League Baseball, which featured eight teams each in the National and American Leagues in 1901, is up to 30 -- although contraction may shave off two from that total.
Another drastic change over the years? Media and more media, which leads to unnatural pressure. Good plays and bad are replayed again and again on television and wise-cracking anchors break down every faux pas in gruesome detail. Players see the good stuff and think they're better than they are. They see the bad and believe the opposite. Either way, it doesn't promote good sporting health.
As sports has become big business, mom-and-pop ownership has given way the currency of corporations.
"A lot of these (new) owners made their money very quickly," Walsh said. "The person that overnight owns the team expects the same response from the franchise as he's gotten in business. But it's different. Sports is people, it's psychological. It's not just producing a product or pushing the stock up a few points."
How would Walsh, who lost 24 of 32 games his first two seasons, have fared in today's climate? How about Tom Landry (0-11-1 in his inaugural season with Dallas) or Chuck Noll (1-13 to begin in Pittsburgh)?
"I don't know what would have happened to me going into that third year or those coaches going into their second," Walsh said. "Let's just say I'm happy it's only a point of discussion."
The last word in the breakdown of civilization as we know it (at least in the grand arena of sports) goes to Tom Kelly, who retired from the Minnesota Twins last fall, ending at 15 years the longest active tenure for any American League manager/coach.
"I think most baseball managers struggle with the fundamentals of the younger players," Kelly said during his final season. "A pretty good majority don't understand the fundamentals. We spend a lot of time trying to bunt the ball, things we would think are simple but, really, turn into an ordeal. Things we learned when we were 8 or 9 years old. That's a big disparity between now and only 10, 12 years ago.
"The young kids don't understand the importance of advancing the runner, things that help you win. Nowadays, people think it's somewhat trivial. It's the way they're brought up. They say, 'It's OK. Maybe it'll get done next time.' Well, it's not OK."
Exceeding the sum of the (expensive) parts
Not unlike championship trophies in sport.
"I guess you could make that connection," Stuart said, a little tentatively. "There is a lovely Chinese phrase -- the Mandate of Heaven -- that can be applied to dynasties in China and in sports, too. The Chinese believed that a leader, in order to have the backing of the courts, the politicians as well as popular support, needed a legitimacy called the Mandate of Heaven. A series of earthquakes, for example, might be seen as Heaven withdrawing its mandate. The ruler is called upon to keep the heavenly and earthly works in balance with harmonizing rituals. Part of that is folded into political strategizing and economic development. This idea of a mandate you can see in sports.
"Even though we no longer believe our sports stars are necessarily ordained by Heaven, clearly they have some special powers. The great teams, they have some magic about them."
Or something like that. In a word, the epic teams all share a single commodity.
"Talent," said former UCLA coach John Wooden. "No coach wins without talent. Of all the common threads in great teams, talent is placed first."
All of those great Chinese dynasties -- the Ming, Tang and Sung -- they had some pretty good people playing for them.
It was West who brought Shaquille O'Neal to Los Angeles from Orlando -- talk about magic! It was West who made Kobe Bryant a controversial draft choice straight out of a Pennsylvania high school. West was the one who persuaded Phil Jackson to get off his motorcycle after months of riding around the plains of Montana and coach the Lakers.
In today's world, talent requires vast quantities of another single word: money.
O'Neal makes $52,837.58 -- each day. One and one-half years ago, he signed a three-year contract extension worth $88.4 million. The Lakers say they will offer Bryant a three-year, $54.8 million extension that would keep him in gold and purple through 2008. The funny thing? He might not accept it. Even Jackson is a pricey free agent; he has two years left to run on a $30 million deal.
The two other reigning dynasties, the Yankees and Red Wings have traced similar trajectories when it comes to free-agent spending. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is, to coin a phrase, the King.
While he spent early and often in the 1970s and '80s, mostly for hitting, more recently Steinbrenner has stockpiled pitching. He brought in Roger Clemens ($10.3 million annually) in 1999 and Mike Mussina ($12.64 million) in 2001. He has committed $393 million to keep his young nucleus together that included Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. Then, after last season, when it was deemed that Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez were no longer productive enough, the Yankees put up $138.25 million for Jason Giambi, Rondell White and Robin Ventura. When the right field platoon of Shane Spencer and John Vander Wal wasn't quite pulling its weight, the Yankees brought in Raul Mondesi last week at a cost of $12.5 million over the next 1½ seasons.
The Yankees' average payroll last season was $3.9 million, nearly double the major-league average of $2.1 million. The thing is, New York has the money. It generated $242.2 million in revenues last year, some $100 million more than some relatively well-to-do teams. All of this causes a fair share of backbiting in baseball.
Still, in the 15-year period from 1979-93, when the Yankees had baseball's highest payroll, they failed to win a single World Series.
"There are a lot of things that get lost in the shuffle when people talk about (all that money), and we certainly get defensive about it," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, whose very name reeks of quid. "This is my fifth year as general manager, and in the first four it seems like there was this perception that we had the highest payroll every year. Two of my first four years we didn't have the highest payroll.
"The bottom line is, fortunately for us, for the last seven years or so, we've had so much success. Therefore, it's easy to say, 'Well, the reason they win is because of the money.' We had money in the '80s and we had money in the early '90s, just like we have money now. But we didn't win in the '80s and we didn't win in the early '90s."
Around the NHL, the Red Wings share the same modus operandi. After Colorado won the Stanley Cup last season, Detroit went on a binge: Luc Robitaille, 36, signed for $4.5 million a year in July, later goalie Dominik Hasek (37) and his $8 million salary arrived in a trade. Thirty-seven-year-old Brett Hull ($3.5 million) signed in August. The Red Wings became the second-oldest team to win the Stanley Cup, after the 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs.
"It's been that way for four years, that we're about to fall off the map," said assistant general manager Jim Nill. "We've got too many guys playing at the peaks of their career."
Added general manager Ken Holland: "It takes more than money to win in this league. You still have to use that advantage and make it happen."
In addition to well-paid employees, these successful teams share a number of other qualities.
"We try very hard to find guys that are hungry to win," said Bowman, whose nine Stanley Cups are the most ever for an NHL head coach. "You sign guys like Hasek and Robitaille, guys that haven't won it before, and it helps you. Look at Colorado and Ray Bourque a year ago."
Somewhere on the edge of all that chemistry is dynamic tension. The kind of fire that (allegedly) led to Bryant demanding a trade during his celebrated feud with O'Neal. Phil Jackson, Joe Torre and Bowman will tell you that leading a championship team, by definition, doesn't guarantee popularity among the entire team. All three will tell you, however, as the titles pile up that they are wiser as well as older.
"As Mr. Lincoln said so well, you learn the things not to do," Wooden said. "You learn so much along the way you can't help but be better at your job."
Dynamic management is another common denominator.
"It can sustain focus in difficult times," said Walsh, the former 49ers coach. "Those who continually stay at the forefront of strategies of the game, those who command respect and response from athletes are going to succeed."
And when the end comes, it is readily apparent.
Take their eye off the ball.
"You see bad social or economic conditions," Stuart said. "An internal rebellion occurs, a new group overthrows the existing dynasty and sets up a new power structure. That's how it usually happens."
The true dynasties never stop to contemplate their place in history -- they're too busy trying to dominate their time and place.
"When you're in the middle of it, believe me, you're not thinking dynasty," Walsh said. "I never looked up and said, 'You know something, we've got a dynasty going right here.' You're only thinking of surviving, trying to win and get to the next game."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com