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Thursday, May 30, 2002
Updated: May 31, 3:20 AM ET
Long-suffering teams finally smelling success

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com

Assuming the right set of results, the NBA and NHL Finals could be populated by teams who haven't been finalists in (a) history, (b) history and (c) 51 years.

Julius Erving
Nets fans haven't had this much to cheer about since Dr. J's heyday.
That's (a), as in the Carolina Hurricanes, nee Hartford Whalers, nee New England Whalers. That's (b) as in the New Jersey Nets, nee New York Nets, nee New Jersey Americans. And that's (c) as in Sacramento Kings, nee Kansas City Kings, nee Kansas City-Omaha Kings, nee Cincinnati Royals, nee Rochester Royals.

If the Nets and Kings hold their 3-2 advantages and face each other in the NBA Finals, the meek will not have inherited this much earth since, well, (a).

Of course, historians will note that the Nets won the 1974 ABA title, and that the Whalers won the '73 Avco Cup as the best team in the WHA.

But let's be honest here. You weren't watching then. Many of the Nets and Whalers of that era weren't watching then, either. And even if you wanted to count those cheap baubles as real stuff, well, you're still looking at teams that have gone more than a quarter-century without a sniff of a championship.

We're not talking about winning here. We're just talking about getting to argue about a championship.

This is, frankly, fascinating -- very nearly as interesting, in fact, as the recent revelations about steroids in professional wrestling.

Still, it should be noted that very few teams have been able to survive in this past quarter-century without one moment of glory. In these egalitarian everybody-plays-everybody-gets-a-certificate times in which we live, it is amazing to consider how few teams aged 25 or older haven't been kissed by God at least once in that time.

But we can see you're begging for a list, so ...

Hockey: Toronto (35 years); St. Louis (32 years).

Basketball: Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles Clippers, New Jersey (never); Sacto (51 years); Atlanta (41 years); Milwaukee (28 years); Golden State (27 years).

Football: New Orleans, Seattle, Tampa Bay (never); Arizona (54 years); Detroit (45 years); New York Jets (33 years); Kansas City (32 years); Indianapolis (31 years).

Baseball: Anaheim, Houston, Montreal, Seattle, Texas (never); Chicago Cubs (57 years); Chicago White Sox (43 years).

Take the 'Canes, Nets and Kings out of that equation, and you're left with only 18 teams flying successfully below the competitive radar, taking the fans' money while providing them with a few Miss Congeniality banners in the rafters and nothing more.

And we still don't know about the Kings or Nets. They lead their respective series 3-2, and you can barely get even money on either one of them.

Still, most of us spent our formative years knowing that the world was divided into two camps -- the contenders and the no-hopers. They would meet in the middle of the season, the poorer team would assume the position (on back, twitching), and they would do the whole thing over again the next year.

Well, most no-hopers have been replaced by expansion teams, leaving only the above list of underachievers to marvel at in speechless disgust.

Much too much already has been said about the long-suffering Chicago baseball fan, though in rebuttal one must take note of the fact that Chicago had Michael Jordan, and shut the hell up.

But try being a Lions fan. Try being a Hawks fan. Hell, try being a Cardinal fan. No, on the other hand, scratch that last one. Anyone still backing that dead horse deserves exactly what he or she gets. I mean, how much empirical evidence do you need?

Even Falcon fans, Charger fans and Eagle fans have that one shining moment, when they beat the reaper and got to the pinnacle of the NFL art -- only to find that someone already was sitting in their seats.

Still, they got a sniff.

Hey, try being a Leaf fan. They've reached their share of conference finals, including the last one. Toronto is Hockeytown in ways that Detroit hasn't even explored yet.

But when it comes to the Finals, Toronto feels the same way Vatican City would feel if it lost the world Catholic bake sale to Las Vegas. I mean, Raleigh, North Carolina? What next? Starkville? Ecuador? Mauritius?

On the other hand, try being a Laker fan, or a Celtic fan. All that history, all those banners, all that mythology -- hey, all that crushing snobbery -- all in danger of falling to Sacramento and Piscataway. It's not the not winning that would get them, it's the losing to those towns.

But there is still the matter of finishing, and the Kings and Nets aren't safe yet. Right now, only the Hurricanes are in, and their fans are always one Dale Earnhardt Jr. win away from losing that hockey jones.

But at least they're in. There are still a few teams who would kill to be in, just once, just to make the laughing stop.

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.