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Wednesday, July 10, 2002
Oh, those teams we love to hate

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

The entire argument in favor of dynasty, reduced to Stuart Little proportion: The only thing more fun than rooting for the Yankees is hating their guts.

Jason Giambi
Jason Giambi's grand jury testimony that he used steroids brought to light serious concerns in the game.
That is the essence of dynasty in sports -- and sure, the current Yankees are a shaky model. They represent the most flawed version of the notion, if only because they exist in the midst of baseball's singularly silly revenue system, one that allows someone like George Steinbrenner to trade for a $12 million a year mediocrity like Raul Mondesi at midseason just because he can.

And yet, with all that said, the Yanks still fulfill the basic requirements of dynastic behavior: They win quite a bit, they are the gold standard of their sport, they give opponents a level of performance either to reach for or to mock, and they inspire heated passion on whatever side of the discussion you'd care to take.

I say Torre the Great, you say Lucky Timing Award. You say Giambi Finally Home, I say Mercenary Rich Getting Richer.

The great teams do this in sports, no matter how they arrive at it -- and it's one reason why there's a distinct downside to actually achieving that long-sought level playing field you keep hearing so much about. Truth is, the dynastic model works.

Begin with this: Sports are a national conversation piece -- on the radio, down the block, in the newspaper, via chat rooms. Depending upon your frame of mind and with whom you're talking, in fact, the conversation is often better than the event itself. I'd rather listen to Kornheiser and Wilbon yammer about the Redskins than actually watch the Redskins, 'bout half the time.

Dynasties fuel that conversation. They're the kindling. Consider that people still invoke the Chicago Bulls on a near-daily basis when the topic turns to the NBA, whether it's to lament Michael Jordan's subsequent comeback, analyze Phil Jackson's standing among the all-time great coaches or figure whether Scottie Pippen really was that good playing opposite Jordan or merely the beneficiary of the greatest pairing of players since the Russell-Chamberlain days.

Had the Bulls won only once, that conversation never takes place. Heck, the Detroit Pistons won twice at the end of the '80s and still have trouble getting much heated conversation going. But the Bulls won three times, and then three more -- and now we're getting somewhere.

It's the winning that forces the issues of history, legacy, comparative quality -- all the good stuff. It's the winning, in the end, that makes the chatter go.

The Yankees of history were dynastic in spurts, plenty enough for them to actually become "storied," one of the most casually misused words in sports. The Green Bay Packers matter to an entire generation of football fans because, right at the advent of the Super Bowl, the Packers were truly that good. Other teams, and their fans, either despised Vince Lombardi's squad for its quality or wanted desperately to match it -- and it was winning that sparked that emotion. It was seeing those guys hoist the trophy that kick-started the debate.

Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal
Now that we know more about the Burger King jacket, maybe someone can explain those leather numbers Kobe and Shaq wore.
It is impossible, just now, to know how Shaq and Kobe ultimately will be recalled by basketball's casual fans and its self-appointed jurors, but what is beyond question is that the two will have to be recalled somehow. Why? Because the Lakers have won three straight, that's why. This Lakers franchise is hereby admitted to the room. It has to be dealt with. And that is, almost inherently, a good thing.

We use the word loosely, dynasty. It's important to understand that, in the context of sports, "dynasty" takes on a meaning that won't be found in the word's application to the rest of world history. A team wins a few pennants in a row, it's getting close to dynastic behavior. That's just how it is.

But even within that framework, the notion of dynasty is threatened. The NFL, with its more restrictive salary cap and its revenue sharing, has come the closest of any major pro league to establishing a league in which any team honestly can claim to have a shot -- the whole "any given Sunday" approach.

In some ways, it's a winner; the NFL's system allows a team like the Packers to thrive despite being located in a small market, and no one would argue that that's a bad thing.

Still, it isn't just that anybody can win in football -- it's that anybody usually does. Last season it was the New England Patriots' turn, a particularly sublime but wholly unforseen bit of timing; before that, the Baltimore Ravens; before that, the St. Louis Rams. Teams come together and blow back apart with the changing of the seasons, as front offices struggle to deal with the salary cap, constantly ask veterans to restructure contracts and sometimes pay dearly for the backloaded deals they ultimately strike (Dallas and San Francisco come to mind).

Back in baseball, meanwhile, the earth tilts on its axis and people scream bloody murder over the grotesque inequity of it all -- and the Yankees keep on winning, keep on piling up quality seasons, remain in the hunt for World Series title after title. It is, to be sure, a lousy system. Ask anyone in a market who feels his team out of the race by May.

And here's the dynastic catch: It makes for some great conversation, all that winning. Sports at their most elite levels are about people and teams who find ways to win and win and win again . They are celebrated for that and villified for it. And it pretty much works no matter which way you spin it.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com