Some teams win championships after a long, slow, steady build. Others come out of nowhere and ascend to the ladder’s highest rung in the blink of an eye; as often as not, those same teams fall back into nowhere just as quickly as they rose.
Some are meteors–bright stars that shoot across the sky and briefly dazzle us. And then there are the glaciers–structures that are built up over time and grind forward inexorably; they’re always there, always a threat, always leaning on their leagues with all their impressive weight.
Which would you rather be? Or, more precisely, which would you prefer your team be? The meteor, or the glacier?
It’s a simple question, or seemingly so. If both options mean a championship, you can hardly go wrong either way. Winning is always the ultimate goal, and however you get there, if you get there, you’re good.
But sometimes neither path bears fruit. Last year’s Royals may turn out to be another meteor–but without the ring. Or at least many observers think so. (Perhaps that’s why Kansas City has been so chippy this season.) Just down Interstate 35, if the Billy Donovan hiring doesn’t work out, the good people of Oklahoma City may look back on their 2012 team as a disappointing meteor–despite perennial contention for nearly half a decade, and at least one more year with the Durant and Westbrook combination.
That’s the tricky thing about meteors: they’re inherently unpredictable, and when that great season comes–and comes up short–fans may be tricked into thinking that more great times are just around the corner. Those 49er fans who were predicting multiple Super Bowl wins for Jim Harbaugh’s team, in the wake of falling five yards short against Baltimore, know what I’m talking about. Indeed, meteors that fall short often leave the heights and plunge into some very deep depths; ask Astros fans how it’s gone since they finally made it to the World Series, only to be swept away, in ’05.
Do you want the perennial hope that comes with the glacier? … Or would you be willing to endure years of substandard teams if you had the promise of that one magical season that ends in gold and ecstasy?
Given those and other cautionary tales, the glacier seems like the safer play. Chicago fans endured the long slow climb with Jordan and the Bulls until they finally broke through and beat their nemeses (Detroit, Boston, and the Lakers ) in ’91–and those fans were most richly rewarded for their patience. But as with the real life version, the metaphorical glacier often gets to the end of its run–and falls apart. The A’s have gotten to the playoffs in half of the last 15 years–twice in tight clusters of consecutive years; classic glacier performance–only to spectacularly flame out again and again without advancing past the first round. The Texas Rangers, Utah Jazz, and Minnesota Vikings have all put on impressive glacial displays at one time or another–though no team has ever outdone that ultimate calving glacier, the Buffalo Bills.
Indeed, the Bills stand as the ultimate example of how taking the glacier route–building a team in stages, getting better and better, until a championship seems inevitable–can ultimately lead to bitter disappointment. Buffalo fans had the very satisfying experience–in the moment, that is–of see their team play in four straight Super Bowls. But they never got that Lombardi trophy, and in the aftermath…well, let’s just say all has not gone well in Western New York since then.
Would a Bills fan trade those four losses for one win? Undoubtedly. If the meteor makes it all the way to the goal, you take that, even if it means decades of losing thereafter. The Reds and Dodgers have done next to squat in the postseason since ’90 and ’88, respectively, but both of those seasons ended with World Series wins. Calgary’s Flames are still in the running for their first cup since ’89, though last night’s drubbing by the Ducks does not bode well for future advancement. That victory some twenty-six years ago has surely warmed many a cold Alberta night since, despite the long recent history of winning absolutely nothing. Having that banner, that trophy, those memories–it can make long years of losing bearable. Just look at Cleveland; Browns and Indians fans remain rabid for their teams, probably because of their memories of those championships of yore. (Frankly, I don’t know what to make of Cavaliers fans. Maybe this year will be kind to them.)
So the meteor brings with it not just momentary joy, but a safeguard for the future; you can always look up to that championship banner and think, “There was a time once…” Not to mention, “There may be a time yet again…”
That, then, is why fans should be more forgiving when their team’s GM makes some trades, wheels and deals, tries to find that right combination of talent, even trades away that popular player–even if it doesn’t work out. Because if it does…well, the Warriors may be in line to claim this year’s NBA title, but even back in the hopeless days, say ten years ago, they could still fill the arena with folks who fondly remember Rick Barry and Al Attles.
Still, there’s a lot to be said for year in, year out good times–even if that trophy remains elusive.
So which is it? Do you want the perennial hope that comes with the glacier? The games are always a little more enjoyable when you feel your team has a chance. Or would you like the meteor? Would you be willing to endure years of substandard teams if you had the promise of that one magical season that ends in gold and ecstasy? Perhaps there is no right answer here–it’s just one of those many things that makes sport the fascinating endeavor it is.