Assuming the Nets can ever agree to a worthy destination and a worthier return for Kevin Durant, that will put a lid on the Nets’ recent dalliance with one of the most loaded word in sports: contender.
There is a time in every sporting timeline when being a contender is a good thing: It presages something better. Muhammad Ali was a contender before he was a champion. The 1969 Knicks were contenders before cashing out on 1970; so were the 1984/1985 Mets and the 1984/1985 Giants. When contention leads to glory, it’s a splendid word.
When it is a bookend and not a bridge?
Right now, that’s what the Nets seem destined for — assuming Durant is an ex-Net by the start of next season, assuming Kyrie Irving may be redirected elsewhere, too. For a fan, there is nothing quite so melancholy as this. Islanders fans, surely, are wondering if they’re staring at the same fate, if back-to-back losses to the Lightning in the 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup conference final might’ve cauterized their case as contenders who never delivered on the promise.
We’ve had a few of those around here through the years, teams that were good enough to win championships and, for one reason or another, never did. These were terrific teams who, as it happened, deserved to be remembered fondly, just not in the same way as championship teams are remembered. There’s no crime in missing out on a ring. But there is regret. Such as these great — but not forever — teams:
The Pat Riley/Jeff Van Gundy/Patrick Ewing Knicks
In modern times, it is hard to remember that baseball season, even in a passionate baseball town, never began until the day after the Knicks were eliminated in the 1990s. And those Knicks, though flawed, hypnotized the city year after year until their ultimate, inevitable stumble. They finished a game shy in ’94, three games short in ’99, and yet their best shots were probably ’97 (until the Miami brawl) and ’93 (until Charles Smith).
The Buck Showalter/Don Mattingly Yankees
The sting of 1994 was lessened for fans by all that came soon after. Still, this was the first Bombers team in 13 years to hint at being championship-caliber. They blossomed in Year 3 of Buck Showalter and were running away with the AL East at 70-43 when the strike hit. The Yankees-Expos World Series That Never Was might’ve been one of the most intriguing of all Fall Classics ever. If only.
The Bill Parcells/Vinny Testaverde Jets
A tantalizing and torturous disappointment in two acts. Act I: Up 10-0 in the AFC title game in Denver, with a highly beatable Falcons team awaiting them in the Super Bowl, the Jets completely fell apart in the second half, looking 180 degrees different than the team that entered the game on an 11-1 roll. Act II: Everybody’s favorite to clean up the next year, when they looked even better, the whole ship capsized once Testaverde blew out his Achilles in the first half of the first game against New England.
The Jason Kidd/Kenyon Martin/Byron Scott Nets
Yes, they were beaten in the NBA Finals by two quality champions, the Lakers and the Spurs. But the Lakers were incredibly fortunate to survive Sacramento in 2002, and the Nets matched up superbly with the Kings; the Nets also should have been able to beat the Spurs, too, but lost two out of three at home and that was that.
The David Wright/Jose Reyes/Willie Randolph Mets
Forget the collapses of 2007 and ’08 that defined this era, the ’06 Mets were the best team in baseball and almost certainly would have run as roughshod over the Tigers as the Cardinals did. But they lost El Duque Hernandez on the eve of the playoffs, then could never recover from blowing Game 2 of the NLCS, late, against St. Louis. And, well … that curveball.
The Y.A. Tittle/Sam Huff/Allie Sherman Giants
A distinction from the Charley Conerly/Sam Huff/Jim Lee Howell Giants, who got their hearts broken by the Colts in 1958 and ’59 but did beat the Bears in the ’56 NFL title game. The Tittle/Sherman partnership was an electric one that yielded three straight NFL Championship appearances, and if the first two losses, to the Lombardi Packers, are understandable, the ’63 loss to the Bears at Wrigley Field remains galling, all these years later.
I was overwhelmed by the reaction to last week’s ode to beer jingles. The runaway winner of write-in votes goes to Ballantine’s various efforts through the years. I must confess: Ballantine was a smidge before my time, hence the omission. But I still recommend a trip to YouTube (“Make a ring, and then another ring…”). It’s worth it.
Whenever you can, wherever you can, watch “It Ain’t Over,” the Yogi Berra documentary that was the sensation of the TriBeCa Film Festival this year. I had the great good fortune to know Yogi, but even if you only knew of him this film, directed by Sean Mullin, is an absolute treasure.
Four members of the ’69 Mets — Art Shamsky, Ron Swoboda, Ed Kranepool and Cleon Jones — will venture up to Cooperstown later this month to watch their old boss, Gil Hodges, earn induction into the Hall of Fame. “He was a man ahead of his time,” says Swoboda. “There would have been no miracle in 1969 without Gil Hodges.”
I can’t be the only one who shakes his head realizing that Jeff Bridges in FX’s “The Old Man” — if you haven’t started watching, you really should — is five years older than his pop, Lloyd, was in “Airplane.”
Whack Back at Vac
Marc Aronin: The Mets retiring 17 begs a question: Which numbers from the New York teams remain overdue for retirement? Mine is 34 from the Knicks, but I know the chances of that are about the same as paying $2 for a gallon of gas this summer.
Vac: The absence of Bernard King’s No. 30 from the Garden rafters has been a travesty for years, and will remain one until it is rectified.
George Corchia: One positive consequence of the Baker Mayfield trade is that we’ll never again see those incessant commercials with Mayfield living inside the stadium in Cleveland.
Vac: Does that mean we get more ads with Patrick Mahomes and Jake the State Farm Guy? Because that might negate the positives …
Vito Vaccaro: A short comment on the Mets: Unless they get another big bat and upgrade the pen, they won’t get past the Braves.
Vac: And you thought I was the most cynical Vaccaro you know! (By the way, Vito’s right.)
@fomoco6: Bad things always seem to come in threes: Sonny Corleone, Paulie Walnuts, Corporal Agarn. Wicked bad couple of days.
@MikeVacc: Godspeed to James Caan (an all-time fave; he could’ve read the phone book and I’d have plunked down a sawbuck to see), Tony Sirico (who stole every scene he was ever in) and Larry Storch (the “F-Troop” theme song was the greatest of all TV theme songs, who’s with me?). Tough week indeed.