Monday, June 12, 2006

The Cycle Of Winning Can Vary, But It's Always There

Sports runs in cycles. How long those cycles last, is anyone's guess.

When it comes to expansion teams, the learning curve before graduating into winners has varied.

The Toronto Blue Jays didn't sniff postseason hopes until their seventh year in existence, in 1983. Two years later, they won their division, and have been strong contenders, off-and-on, ever since. They won two World Series, to boot.

The Philadelphia Flyers actually won a Stanley Cup in year #7, dispatching the much older Boston Bruins. The Buffalo Sabres were finalists in their fifth season.

The Florida Marlins won a World Series in year #5. In the NFL, the Carolina Panthers played for a conference championship in just their third year of existence.

Others have provided their respective leagues with slapstick much longer before turning from ugly ducklings to swans.

Our own Pistons were a league-wide joke for 30 years after moving to Detroit, before they wore championship rings. They were, throughout the 60's and 70's especially, a dysfunctional organization with a fetish for firing coaches and placing oddballs in the GM chair, like radio announcers, accountants, and lawyers. Then Bill Davidson bought the team and put an end to that nonsense -- Dick Vitale excluded.

The Dallas Mavericks sit this morning halfway to their first NBA Championship, after dismantling the Miami Heat, 99-85, in Game 2. The Mavericks are in their 26th season. Their learning curve, apparently, had a few twists and turns in it.

In 1981, after their maiden season, the Mavs had a chance to draft either Mark Aguirre, a scoring forward from DePaul, or Isiah Thomas, the smiling point guard extraordinaire from Indiana. The Mavs went with Aguirre, because the prevailing feeling back then was that you can't build a title team around a 6'1" point guard.

Mavs coach Dick Motta raved about his new selection in 1981. He couldn't talk enough about how Mark Aguirre was going to lead the Mavericks to the promised land.

Years later, the marriage dissolving, Motta would call Aguirre "gutless" and a "jackass."

The Mavericks did, however, reach the conference finals in 1988 -- year #8 for them. But that was that with Mark Aguirre, and a season later, he was a Piston, joining friend Isiah. And Mark Aguirre got his championship ring -- two of them, actually -- after all. Even jackasses can be winners sometimes.

The Miami Heat are in their 18th season as an NBA team, and they gave the league's fans the expected amount of Keystone Kops for their first several seasons. But it wasn't until past their tenth season that they became semi-serious title contenders. It has always taken longer in the NBA.

It's always fun to see how teams will go from being champs to chumps, usually over a period of X-amount of years. Today, the Portland Trailblazers are snickered at. "The Jailblazers", they are called with derision. But there was a time when the team from Portland was the league's yardstick. They won a championship, and played for a couple more. They were all but invincible at home.

The Green Bay Packers were the NFL in the 1960's. Then, in the 70's and 80's, they were among the dregs of the league. The uniforms stayed the same as those title teams of Vince Lombardi, but the play was 180 degrees different. Then the Packers traded for Brett Favre, and we were once again reminded what a competent quarterback could do for a franchise.

The Yankees had a down time in the mid-to-late 1960's. Fans everywhere gloated when the Yanks were scraping the bottom of the American League. They don't gloat any longer.

The cycles run, and nobody can do anything about them, it seems. This year, in the NBA, it's a first-timer's year to wear the ring. And someday the Mavs and the Heat will once again be laughed at. The Pistons were slapstick just a few years after their second straight championship. So it can, and does, happen.

Sports churns.

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