Friday, July 29, 2011

Favorite Teams

Last week had a "best team I ever covered" series, where the writers discussed teams like the 1998 New York Yankees, 1968 UCLA basketball team and the 1992 Dream Team. My favorite two pieces were on the 1992 Dream Team and the 1995 Nebraska football team, since those were two of the most memorable teams of my childhood. Anyway, that got me thinking about what would be my *eight favorite teams of all time. This isn't to say that these are the eight best teams I watched, but rather just my favorite teams over the course of a season.
*Why eight? Because I tried a list of ten and there was a big dividing line in between eight and nine. Eight ended up being the natural amount of truly memorable teams.

8. 2006-2007 Utah Jazz: : After a three year playoff drought, this young Jazz team not only made the playoffs, but advanced to the Western Conference Finals. The team's best players were point guard Deron Williams, power forward Carlos Boozer and center Memhet Okur. These players were complimented by veterans Matt Harpring and Andrei Kirilenko and rookies Paul Millsap and Ronnie Brewer. All of these players had a ton of talent on this team as evidenced by the fact that they had nine players with a WS/48 over the average NBA player mark 0.10.

I remember watching the team's epic 1st round series against the Rockets, where the team was able to come back from a 2-0 deficit and win game 7 on the road. After that game, the team got a lucky draw with the 8th seeded Warriors and won a close 5 game series. Their luck ran out in the Western Conference Finals as they lost to the Spurs in 5 games. This included the terrible Game 4, where the Spurs shot 41 free throws to the Jazz 20. In the forth quarter the Spurs scored 19 of their 28 points from the line. That was a sour end to an otherwise great season. One thing that was nice that the players on the team were young and this was supposed to serve as a preview of better things to come

7. 2008 Miami Dolphins: Has a team that never even won a playoff game been more loved by their fans? For Dolphins fans there hasn't been much to cheer about since Dan Marino left. It was a steady decline until things finally bottomed out with a 1-15 season that very easily could have been 0-16. The expectations for the 2008 season were about as low as you can get. The team lived up to those expectations by losing the first two weeks, and this looked to be a certain 0-3 start as the team heading into New England to play the Patriots. What happened that day goes down as one of the most unbelievable sports experiences in my life. You see I was in Washington DC for a wedding and the day after M and I went to go cross off a new ballpark by going to see the Padres-Nationals. I had no idea that I was missing the most incredible regular season game of the year. The Dolphins introduced the Wildcat and destroyed the Patriots. From then on it was a combination of a solid defense and the incredible leadership of QB Chad Pennington. I could go on and on about how much I loved watching Pennington play QB, but that will have to be saved for another post. The team went on to win a string of close games followed by a week 17 road win against the hated Jets. The fact that they lost in the 1st round of the playoffs to the Ravens didn't even bother me that much. It was an incredible team that improved from one win to 11 wins in only one season.

6. 1995 Nebraska football - I was 12 years old watching the 1995 Nebraska team and even without the benefit of experience, I knew I was watching something special. That team destroyed every team in their path. They were so much better than the rest of college football that they beat the 2nd best team 62-24. The crazy thing was that team (Florida) was so good that they kept the #2 ranking in the end of the year poll. Also, Florida came back the next year and won the National Title. Florida was a really good team, but Nebraska was one of the best teams of all time. My favorite player was Tommie Frazier and naturally my favorite play was the option. I don't think I will ever see a team as good as the 1995 Nebraska football team.

5. 2006 Minnesota Twins  - This is the team that solidified the Twins as my favorite team. I just sat down and in 5 minutes was able to name all the starters and 18 of the regular players. I loved the overall daily brilliance of Mauer, Morneau and Hunter, the piranhas of Bartlett, Punto, Castillo and Tyner and the two best pitchers in baseball in Santana and Liriano. The 2006 Twins had the AL MVP (Morneau even though it should have been Mauer), the 2006 Cy Young (Santana even though it would have been Liriano if he stayed healthy) and a 2nd place finish for the manager of the year (Ron Gardenhire).The team won 96 games and famously came from 12.5 games behind the Tigers to win the division on the last day of the season.

However, the Tigers rebounded much better than the Twins as they made it to the World Series, while the Twins were swept by the Athletics. This team helped make me a Twins fan and in an unexpected way helped define what the Twins would be like from the next 5+ years. In my time as a fan, the Twins have represented good, lovable teams that did well in the regular season and then imploded in the playoffs. Still, I look back fondly on the 2006 Twins in the same way I look back at the 2008 Dolphins. Sometimes with teams it as about the journey and not the end result - especially when that end result is disappointment in the playoffs.

4. 2010 Duke Blue Devils basketball - The team that brought back balance to Tobacco Road. It had been a pretty poor run for Duke compared to their rivals from Chapel Hill. In 2009, Duke watched UNC win the title, while they were getting blown out in the Sweet 16 by Villanova. Also, they lost their recruiting battle for Harrison Barnes. It wasn't looking good for Duke or the rivalry. Then the 2010 team happened. Nolan Smith transformed himself from an average player to someone who should have his jersey retired at Cameron. On the team Jon Scheyer was the heart, Kyle Singler was the soul and yet neither was as important at times as Brian Zoubek. Zoubek was the best offensive rebounder in the nation that year with an offensive rebounding rate of 21.4%. After all the years of injuries and frustration, his redemption was an even more amazing for Duke fans. This team might not have been the most talented team, but they won the title because combined they were more valuable then the sum of their parts.

3. 1997-1998 Utah Jazz - Just thinking about this team makes me equal parts happy and sad. This is the defining team for me as a fan because it best represents my relationship with my favorite pro sports teams. I've been a fan of the Jazz, Dolphins and Dodgers/Twins and have never followed a team that has won the title. The best of those teams would have to be the 1998 Utah Jazz team. Let me go through their dominance.
  • The team finished with the best record in the league (62-20)
  • They had two Hall of Famers in John Stockton and Karl Malone.
  • They had made the NBA Finals the previous year, so the experience level was there.
  • They got progressively better in the Western Conference playoffs as they beat the Rockets 3-2, Spurs 4-1 and Lakers 4-0.
  • They won 88% of their home games at the Delta Center.
  • They won 86% of their games after the All-Star game.
  • They beat the Chicago Bulls both times in the regular season.
  • They had the best offensive in the league.
They entered the NBA Finals with homecourt advantage and a better shot of beating the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen led Bulls team than any other team. They had the chance to end the "last dance" with an NBA Finals defeat. They lost the series in a way that I still find hard to believe. The most frustrating thing was Game 6 because of a few unquestionable missed calls (the two shot clock violations) and one big subjective missed call (Jordan's push off). If they would have won that game, then I have little doubt that they would have won Game 7 at the Delta Center. I wish I could say that it doesn't matter and that I still love thinking about this team, but writing about this team without the disappointment wouldn't be telling the whole story.

2. 2001 Duke Blue Devils basketball - This was the perfect team at the perfect time. I was 18 years old, which meant I was old enough to fully appreciate and follow the team, but young enough to not be so jaded or defensive. While the 2010 Duke team might have been a better story there are two things that separate the 2001 team from the 2010 team. The first reason was that I was able to watch the 2001 team without having to deal with all the anti-Duke people I ran across during the 2010 season. The second is that the 2001 team was better and had more talent. Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Chris Duhon all became NBA players. This was a well-balanced team that was I was able to watch with my Mom as she appreciated Religion major Shane Battier. I will always look back fondly on the 2001 Duke's team.

1. 2003 Miami University football team: With the exception of the 2006 Twins, I followed all of the above teams on TV. That wasn't the case for the Twins and it also wasn't the case for the Miami Redhawks. Not only was I able to go to most of the games (all the homes games plus two others), but there was a more personal relationship since I was a Miami University student. I lived a short walk from the stadium and would eat my meals a few feat away from the players. These weren't just random players, but fellow students and in a couple cases friends. That made the difference in picking the 2003 team as my favorite team of all time.

Now, as far as what the team accomplished I can run down the list. They went 13-1 with the longest winning streak in the nation, won the MAC and beat a pretty good Louisville team in the GMAC bowl. One of the most remarkable numbers (that I am 85% sure is accurate) is that the team beat the Vegas spread in the final 13 games of the year. That means if you bet $1 on the first game of the year and let it ride every single week then you would have $4096 by the end of season.

During this season I remember the incredible day before the nationally televised ESPN game against Bowling Green. It was one of those perfect days that you wish you could save. Also, there was the next week's  blowout victory over hated Marshall. Besides a few plays I remember, I also have the memory of a security guard having to tell me that I need to put out my victory cigar as I celebrated in the stands.

The team finished as the 10th ranked team in the nation, but by the end of the year I would have enjoyed seeing them play anyone in the country. That team was so good, that I really believe they could have competed with the best teams around. They were Boise State before Boise State.

The 2003 Miami Redhawks might be my favorite, but all of the teams above have a rightful place in my pantheon of favorite teams.

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