by Alex Langer
“There’s always next year.” It’s a refrain you’ll hear in any sports bar at the end of a particularly disappointing season. Whether it is a NCAA basketball team, chock-full of five star recruits, losing in the Sweet Sixteen and failing to make a Final Four for sixteen years running, or an MLB team finishing one game out of a playoff spot, or a talented NBA team with one of the best players of all-time losing resoundingly to one of the greatest collections of talent in NBA history, within minutes of a loss, fans, coaches and players inevitably turn their minds to the next year. Even for victorious teams, whether they be the New England Patriots or the Alabama Crimson Tide, quickly the focus turns to next year. Next year, this player will take the leap and become an “elite” player, making the team even better. Next year, the team will have more experience and know to give the ball to the star in the last twenty seconds, and they won’t lose early in the tournament. Next year, we have a top recruiting class coming in, and these players are the real deal.
It’s a malady of sports fandom, this focus on next year, rooted in the overwhelming importance of championships. I believe that the constant focus on the next year, especially for fans, comes from an outsized focus on championship banners. In college basketball, sixty-eight teams compete for a national championship each year. In professional leagues, around thirty teams compete for a title. Most storied franchises have around five championships to their name. The great many seasons teams participate in end in tears and heartbreak. It is no wonder that, instead of dwelling on the pain of defeat, fans would rather focus on how the next year will be different. Would it not be better to focus on the great moments of the preceding season, instead of letting the concrete moments of joy fade, to be replaced by feverish fantasies of a perfect future?
by Chris Foss
In February, I questioned whether LeBron James could fulfill the hype that accompanied him out of high school to become the “King” of the NBA. In the 2017 NBA Finals, perhaps more than ever in his storied career, James played like a King. With 33.6 points per game, 12 rebounds per game, and 10 assists per game, James became the first player in NBA history to average a triple double in the Finals. He left it all out on the court;: in the five games, James played between 39 and 46 minutes per game each night. With a Game 5 tally of 41 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists, James was not the reason the Cleveland Cavaliers came up short against the Golden State Warriors, by a margin of four games to one. Indeed, James had to go up against perhaps the greatest assemblage of talent ever on an NBA floor. This rationale aside, however, LeBron is further away than he was four months ago from getting to the status of greatest of all time, and it’s far from certain that he’ll even win another NBA title.
With his loss this year, James not only dropped to 3-5 all-time in Finals series, but to a surprisingly poor 18-27 (40% win rate) in Finals games, among them 4-0, 4-1, and 4-1 embarrassments. His win percentage removes him from the class of all-timers Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Shaquille O’Neal (who won four of his six NBA Finals appearances), Kobe Bryant (who went five for seven in the Finals), and Tim Duncan (five of six). With his loss this year, James falls closer to the category of memorable NBA “losers” like 1960s-era Lakers greats Jerry West (who won in 1972, but fell in the Finals of 1962-63, 1965-66, 1968-70, and 1973), Wilt Chamberlain (who won in 1967 and 1972, but lost in 1964, 1969-70, and 1973), and Elgin Baylor (who lost in all eight of his Finals tries). True, James has more overall championships as a player than any of them did, but he’s also come up short far too often to be in the GOAT conversation.
by Keith Aksel
In the last week, the UEFA Champions League Final was completed, Scooter Gennett from my Cincinnati Reds completed an astounding feat by hitting four home runs in one game, the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals completed, and the U.S. men’s soccer national team earned a tie against Mexico in the always-confounding Estadio Azteca. Needless to say, this was a busy week in sports, and fans had plenty to watch.
I got around to viewing about half of it. Weeks like these usually result in my just tracking scores from my phone, as watching the waves of live sports becomes an overwhelming prospect. I have a (somewhat) adult life, complete with adult responsibilities, which assumes that I can’t sit in front of a TV for every single big sporting event without being accused of man-child-ness. Still, it is still important to me to remain in the know regarding the sports world, and I want to be able to follow the talk the next day about what happened in the matchups the night before.
by Alex Langer
In early June each year, the Final of the Union of European Football Associations Champions League takes place. Three out of the last four years, the winner of that tournament has been Real Madrid, who earn bragging rights as Europe’s (and, due to the strength of European leagues, typically the world’s) best football club. Most of the best players in the world, and most of the money in world football, are in five leagues: the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, and the French Ligue 1. With very few exceptions, these are the leagues with the money and the star players. The Champions League may be the most important international tournament that many Americans know little to nothing about(the World Cup, for instance, seems to have fully penetrated the national zeitgeist). In this article, I’m going to take you through the history of the UEFA Champions League, from its inauguration in 1955 to the present day. Think of the Champions League as the true test for many European elite clubs. In American sports, the Cleveland Cavaliers are not judging their success by winning the NBA East. Neither are the New England Patriots measuring success by AFC East victories, nor the Los Angeles Dodgers by NL West crowns. Likewise, Bayern Munich and Paris San-Germain worry very little about whether they will win their domestic league. Juventus, this year’s runners-up in the Champions League, have won Serie A for six consecutive years, and are favorites to win a seventh. For the super-clubs that dominate world football, the Champions League, and the ways it encourages super-clubs, is the true measuring stick of success.