It’s been a rough week for the big kids on the block. Within four days of each other reigning champions have fallen with great ignominy. The Miami Heat barely put up a fight in a five game demolition by the San Antonio Spurs culminating in Sunday’s Game 5 rout. Meanwhile the Spanish National Team somehow provided even less resistance, eliminated from the World Cup by Wednesday night after two matches, before they had even completed group play.
From where we stand in the moment, the manner of these defeats casts a pall on what came before; a “true champion” finds a way no matter the odds as the natural forces of entropy drag the great back towards the mediocre. Nothing lasts forever, certainly not in the march of sports history. Ali got old and took hits he shouldn’t have. Brett Favre couldn’t let go. Michael Jordan wouldn’t stay away. Memories and legacies were tarnished, or so was the wisdom in the moment.
However, with enough time and perspective, we can separate great achievements from later disappointments. A little more historical gloss can go a long way to remove the aftermath from the accomplishment. The Bad Boy Pistons are no longer or even primarily the team that stormed off the court as Jordan’s emphatically ended their time at the top. They are now the venerated paragons of certain toughness, lost in the modern NBA, becoming more beloved in the retelling than they ever were at the time.
As a comparison, consider the alternative to the pyrotechnic demise of a once great team. Does not showing up to defend the belt really protect legacies? Objectively, one can understand Dallas’s decisions to dismantle their championship almost before the parade confetti was swept up. However, that 2011 win will always feel a bit more random and inauthentic because it ended so abruptly. In college sports, we expect each season’s team to be it’s own discrete entity, but not in the pros. Like nations, franchises rise and fall in epochs.
Perfect hindsight suggests that from a competitive standpoint, the Heat should have shaken up the Wade/Bosh support for LeBron’s greatness, much like Spain should have moved away from the reliance on the metronomic Xavi/Iniesta axis as their tempo began to slow. But history will surely be kinder to the champion who sits on the throne until someone takes it by demonstrating their own superiority rather than abdicating when the task seems difficult. Certainly those involved recognized the increased resistance as fatigue, age and familiarity make them more and more into stationary targets as the hunted.
So as we bury these once great champions (perhaps prematurely in the case of any team featuring LeBron James, it must be said), let us find the nobility in their defeat, even as the physical skills that made icons like Wade or Iker Casillas what they were vanish, seemingly before our eyes.
More importantly, as time goes on, let us hope we can remember these transcendent groups for what they were at their very best, as pathbreakers and game-changers who affected the way every other serious competitor played the game or assembled a team. Though their reigns have ended, and other teams will wear the crown for a time, in the words of Marlo Stanfield, “at least they wore it.”