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What makes a great year? One: titles. Two: making it to the finals. Three: elimination of the phrase "long-suffering" as an adjective for fans of the city's teams. Great playoff runs that fall short of a title matchup? They don't cut it.
1. New York in 1969
There's some hometown bias here, but, still, it can't be beat. The '60s were just starting to end when the Jets, of the upstart AFL, 18-point underdogs against the Colts, won the Super Bowl.
During the summer, men walked on the moon, but that's nothing compared to what the Mets did, which was: Win 100 games and the NL East. Defeat the Braves for the NL pennant. And beat the mighty Orioles in the World Series.
You put a George Washington down with your book in April on the Mets to win it all, and he still would have been laughing when he handed you back a Ben Franklin in October. Coupla things added to this city-year's greatness -- youth (think Joe Namath and Tom Seaver) and the throwback factor (think ex-Brooklyn Dodger Gil Hodges).
2. Los Angeles in 1972
The year of the streak. The Lakers won an amazing 33 straight and shed their bridesmaid image, finally winning the NBA title in their eighth finals since moving to L.A. That the win came over the Knicks, who denied them in 1970, made it all the sweeter.
Streak 2: the UCLA Bruins, led by fresh face Bill Walton, went 30-0 on the way to another NCAA hoops title. That the title win over Florida State came in L.A., with four new starters, at the L.A. Sports Arena, made it all the sweeter.
And then there was USC football. The Trojans, one of the greatest teams in college football history (Keith Jackson says the greatest of all time), went 12-0, finishing its season ranked first in the nation after clobbering Ohio State 42-17 in the Rose Bowl.
3. Pittsburgh in 1979
Time was, according to legend, that you could tell how good Pittsburgh was doing as a city by how much soot hung from the city's skyline. But in the 1970s, the Steel City was shedding its old image and becoming something sleeker, more modern -- and winning.
The Steelers combined the work-a-day backfield heroics of Terry Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris with the slick pass-catching of Lynn Swann to beat the Cowboys, 35-31, to win their third Super Bowl (they would win again in 1980). And the Pirates, led by Willie Stargell, stressed "We Are Family" values as they came back from a 3 games to 1 deficit to beat the Orioles in the World Series.
(Bonus point: the Penguins made it past Round 1 of the NHL playoffs, a feat they wouldn't duplicate for another decade.)
4. Baltimore in 1970-71
On Oct. 15, 1970, all the pieces finally came together for the Orioles, as they finished their season with a 4 games to 1 World Series victory over the Reds. What a year for the O's -- they went 108-54, and boasted one of the best starting staffs in history. Meanwhile, the Colts were marching through an 11-2-1 season that would culminate, on Jan. 17, 1971, in a last-second, 16-13 win over the Cowboys in the Super Bowl. Three months. Two world championships.
And the Bullets. In 1970-71 they had Wes Unseld, the NBA's second-leading rebounder, and Earl The Pearl, and they also had the great good fortune to play in the weakest division in the NBA. With a regular season record of 42-40, Baltimore managed to win the Central Division by six games. In the first round of the playoffs, they squeaked by the Sixers in seven games, thenupset the heavily-favored Knicks in another down-to-the-wire 4 games to 3 series.
The Bullets were no match for Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robertson, and the Milwaukee Bucks, who swept them in the finals. But hey -- Baltimore -shouldn't have been there anyway. And during an eight month run, Baltimore fans had some sweet times.
5. Philadelphia in 1980-81
What a year to be a Philadelphia sports fan. In May, Phans were either in the Spectrum or glued to the tube, as the Sixers made it to the NBA finals (losing to the Lakers in six games) and the Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup finals (losing to the Islanders in six games). Double ouch.
Looked like it was going to be a long summer -- and it was. The Phillies looked pretty good on paper -- Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Tug McGraw, etc. -- but struggled to stay above .500 throughout the dog days, and didn't clinch the NL East flag until the next-to-last game of the season. The NLCS against the Astros was a nail-biter, as the last four games of the five-game series went into extra innings, but the Phils pulled out Game 5 to take their first NL pennant since 1950.
And on Oct. 21, it finally happened -- the Phillies won their first World Series ever, and the city of Philadelphia won its first championship of 1980.
Things were looking good. Thomas Boswell, in the Dec. 20, 1980 Washington Post, held Philly up as an exemplar: "One of the strangest phenomena, or perhaps coincidences, in sports is the way entire cities seem to go through cycles. As typically weird evidence, look at Philadelphia, long a home of wretched teams. The Phillies won the Series and right now the Eagles, 76ers and Flyers lead the NFL, NBA and NHL, respectively." Things didn't work out so well for the Sixers and Flyers in 1981, but in January the Eagles, led by QB Ron Jaworski, beat the Vikings and Cowboys in the playoffs to make it to the Super Bowl -- but Jim Plunkett's fairytale Raiders dominated 27-10 to take home Vince Lombardi.
6. Boston in 1986
Let's face it -- when we think of Boston in 1986, we think of Bill Buckner, we think of decades of agony wrapped up in that awful Game 6 moment. (Light years away, in the distant future, some intelligent aliens will be trying to figure out the significance of the "Buckner Signal" that ESPN Classic seems to beam out on an endless loop.)
But besides the Red Sox bittersweet World Series season, Boston was also blessed with the Pats playing in the Super Bowl. And then cursed as the Bears trounced New England's best, 46-10, in what SI called a "vision of hell."
So what was so good about 1986 in Boston? Beantown had Bird, and the Celtics. If you had season tickets at the Boston Garden, you only saw one regular-season loss -- the Celts went 40-1 in Boston (and 3-0 in their home games played in Hartford). And you didn't see a single post-season defeat. The Celts played 100 games that counted in 1986, and won 82 -- setting an NBA record for most victories in a season.
7. Detroit in 1952
Okay, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were nothing to brag about, finishing in fourth place in the NBA's Western conference, 12 games behind the Rochester Royals. And the Tigers were horrible, finishing 50-104, 14 games behind the seventh-place St. Louis Browns in the AL. But the Red Wings and Lions made it all better.
The Lions, with Bobby Layne at QB and All-Pros Pat Harder and Bob Hoernschemeyer joining him the backfield, had a great season, beating the Rams to win the National Division crown and winning the NFL championship on Dec. 28 in Cleveland, 17-7, over the Browns.
Months earlier, the Red Wings, featuring The Production Line of Sid Abel, Ted Lindsey and Gordie Howe, swept Toronto in the semifinals and then the Canadiens in the finals, going 8-0 in the post-season and inspiring the first flying octopus.
8. Los Angeles in 1988
After the Lakers beat the Celtics for the 1987 NBA title, their coach, Pat Riley, said, "I guarantee you we will repeat as champions next year." He was right. Kareem and Magic and the Lakers did it again in 1979, beating the Pistons in a tough seven-game finals. It was June 21 when L.A.'s NBA season finally ended, and Riley quipped, "I guarantee you one thing -- we will enjoy this all summer long."
About a month earlier -- on May 25, to be precise -- the Dodgers had moved into first place in the NL West, and didn't let go, winning the division with a 94-67 record. They beat the hated Mets, 4-3, in the NLCS. Then &
Kirk Gibson. "I don't believe & what I just saw!" Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Dodgers vs. A's, went to L.A. in the most stunning fashion. Destiny. Sans Fernando, but riding the arm of the unhittable Orel Hersheiser, the Dodgers, in the rare role of heavy underdog, put away Oakland and the Bash Boys in five games.
9. New York in 1986-87
New York celebrated two long-awaited titles within a three-month period. The first came on Oct. 27 at Shea Stadium, as the Mets --108-54 during the regular season -- put away the Red Sox in Game 7 of the World Series. Mets fans thought the dynasty was just beginning.
And the Giants started reeling off W's just about the time the Mets were doing postseason battle. Led by Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms, and Joe Morris, they took nine straight to close out the regular season 14-2. Then the Giants dominated in the playoffs, trouncing San Francisco 49-3, shutting out Washington 17-0, and winning the Super Bowl over the Broncos, 39-20.
10. Cleveland in 1954
The Indians, led by a rotation of Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia and Bob Feller, broke the Yankees' stranglehold of five straight pennants by winning a then-American League record 111 games (OK, so they lost the World Series to the Giants in four games).