The L.A. Kings & America’s Underachievers

Last night the Los Angeles Kings completed an improbable postseason run by dispatching New Jersey 6-1 in game six to capture their first ever Stanley Cup.

After limping into the postseason as the eighth seed in the West, the Kings stunned the Canucks and then proceeded to knock off both the Blues and the Coyotes en-route to the Finals. An eighth seed no longer, the team had seemingly evolved into a powerhouse overnight, losing only two games through the first three rounds and being undefeated in all road games. Not surprisingly, they headed into the final round matchup against the Devils as touted favourites.

The Kings’ 3-0 series lead in the Finals quickly evaporated with Martin Brodeur rediscovering his form and the Devils claiming games four and five, bringing the series back from the dead. With a hyped and expectant Staples Center behind them for game six, the Kings would stamp out any hopes of New Jersey completing their comeback and they took an unassailable lead early. The Cup was theirs.

For the Kings and their fans, this day had been a long time coming. Forty-five years in fact.

Not even The Great One could bring a title to LA

The Kings franchise began in 1967, seeking to cash in on the success that had met Los Angeles’ other professional teams: the Lakers (moved from Minneapolis in 1960) and the Dodgers (moved from Brooklyn in 1958). The Lakers and Dodgers quickly became woven into the fabric of the city but a professional hockey team did not find it as easy to acclimatise. The combination of Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor (one of the highest scoring trios in league history) in the late 1970s brought immense promise but failed to yield results. Over time, the team started gaining a good fan-base in the city and their cause was made infinitely easier in 1988.

Wayne Gretzky’s arrived in the City of Angels in 1988 on the back of a nine-year stint with the Edmonton Oilers, with whom he won four championships. In addition to bringing results on the ice, Gretzky legitimized and popularized pro hockey not only in Los Angeles but state-wide, paving the way for two more expansion teams in California: the San Jose Sharks (1991) and the Anaheim Ducks (1993). With the help of the ‘Great Gretzky’, the Kings made it all the way to the Finals in 1993 but fell short to a Montreal side intent on getting their franchise’s 24th championship. This momentum did not last and the franchise constantly failed to replicate their 1993 success, only making the playoffs six times since.

No longer.

This year’s ensemble led by Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick have laid the doubts to rest.

With no NFL team in Los Angeles and both the Lakers and Clippers bowing out early in the NBA playoffs, all eyes in the city were on the Kings and they delivered. Right now, they truly are the Kings of LA.

By finally reaching the summit, the Kings removed themselves from the unenviable position of being a chronic American underachiever.

This category is crowded but there are some teams which stand out more than others. Let’s look at some of the more famous examples, from each of the other three major leagues. To qualify, teams must have been in existence for over forty years and be without a major, modern-day title.

Phoenix Suns

Basketball has not been kind to the city of Phoenix since the Suns set-up shop in 1968. The players, coaching staff and front-office have always been solid – oftentimes great – yet the city is still in pursuit of its first NBA title. In 43 years of existence, the Suns have reached the postseason 29 times (including 9 appearances in the Western Conference Finals) and have posted over 50 wins in the regular season 19 times. Indeed, the Suns’ all-time winning percentage makes them the most successful franchise to have never won a championship.

“Oh man 43 yurrs and no titles? That’s turrrble”

The 1976 outfit, fittingly described as the ‘Sunderella Suns’, snuck into the playoffs and defied the odds to eliminate both Seattle and Golden State on their way to the franchise’s first ever Finals. Awaiting the Suns – led by Paul Westphal and Alvan Adams – were the Boston Celtics, a loaded and proven team (John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, Tom Heinsohn – to name a few) hungry to raise the franchise’s twelfth championship banner (the first without Bill Russell). After the Celtics took a 2-0 lead in the series, Phoenix rallied and sent the series back to Boston tied at two games a-piece. In perhaps the most infamous and controversial Finals game to date, Boston won game five in a triple-overtime thriller in the Garden. This matchup – which involved contentious time-out calls, inaccurate shot-clock timing and fans invading the court before the game’s conclusion – is considered by many to be the greatest game of all-time. The Celts would emerge as the winner, 128-126, and they would ride this momentum into game six back in the desert, taking the victory and claiming the crown.

The Nash-era Suns just never could catch a BREAK…. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week!!

The Suns experienced moderate success over the next decade but it was in 1988 when the team would become one of the most feared in the league. In addition to Westphal’s return to the team as coach in the offseason, standout point-guard Kevin Johnson was picked up from the Cavaliers. Over the next five years the team would fill the roster around Johnson with the likes of Danny Ainge, Jeff Hornacek, Dan Majerle and, of course, Charles Barkley. However, as great as this team was, it unfortunately peaked in arguably the most talented era in league history. The West alone was incredibly crowded as Phoenix had to jostle with Olajuwon’s Rockets, Drexler’s Trail Blazers, Stockton’s Jazz, Kemp’s SuperSonics and Magic’s Lakers. When the Suns finally did win the West in 1993 (Barkley’s MVP season) they were matched-up with none other than Jordan’s Bulls. En-route to their third-straight title, Jordan and company dispatched the promising Suns in six games and the team has not been back to The Finals since.

Another great-era in Suns basketball was born with the return of Steve Nash in 2004. Nash, accompanied by All-Stars Amar’e Stoudamire and Shawn Marion, drove the team into contention right from the start. However, this unit suffered a similar fate to that of the early 90s teams: a ruthlessly competitive league. Since Nash’s return the team has made it to the Conference Finals three times, only to be thwarted by excellent Spurs, Mavericks and Lakers teams. The Suns have now been absent from the postseason two straight years and with Nash’s career winding down, the team is in a rebuilding mode and is unlikely to make the final leap any time soon.

The Phoenix Suns are an excellent organization, top-to-bottom. They have seemingly ticked all the boxes required to bring home an NBA championship but still the trophy cabinet remains bare. Call it unfortunate; call it bad timing. Nonetheless, the Phoenix Suns are the NBA’s poster-franchise of underachievement.

Texas Rangers

Football is, of course, king in Texas. Basketball is in great shape also, with the Spurs and Mavericks combining for five NBA championships in the last thirteen seasons.

But where does that leave baseball?

There was not a tremendous deal of fanfare when the Washington Senators moved to Arlington in 1972 to become the Texas Rangers. Inconsistent play and sweltering Texas heat did little to help the ballclub garner good attendances in the early days and the future did not like exceeding bright.

The Rangers would not comment on speculation that they had a “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner in the locker room after Game 5 of the 2011 World Series

To fix poor attendance, the front office turned to a large number of night games in the summer months and to fix poor baseball, the front office turned to Bobby Valentine. Valentine, in his first managerial position, was hired in 1985 and became the club’s longest tenured manager as he was in the clubhouse through the 1992 season. Despite having no shortage of talent during the Valentine years (studs like Juan Gonzalez, Nolan Ryan and Ruben Sierra), the club could not find a way to make it out of the AL West and Valentine departed with the Rangers still seeking their first postseason berth, twenty-one years since the franchise’s move.

Now; you may or may not know this, but before George W. Bush was running the country and treading on the United Nations, he was running a baseball team and treading on landowners.

You heard correctly. In 1989, while his father was in office, George W was the managing director of the investment group which purchased the ballclub. One of the first moves of the ownership was to replace a terribly outdated ballpark and work began in 1991 on a public-funded stadium. However, the project soon become clouded in controversy as landowners filed suit, claiming that some of the land had been acquired unlawfully. The landowners won but the settlement – in excess of $20 million – was never paid.

In any case, Bush’s ownership group must be given credit for revitalizing the team and the Rangers gained momentum, finally cracking the postseason two years after Bush left to become Governor of Texas. This first appearance, coming in 1996, was the start of a successful run of three divisional titles in four years.

Over the last decade the Texas Rangers have had some immense talent in the clubhouse. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez, Alfonso Soriano and Sammy Sosa – to name a few – all came and went, failing to help their team reach the World Series.

However, change would soon come and the hires of Ron Washington as manager in 2007 and Nolan Ryan as team president in early 2008 have ushered in a wave of unprecedented success for the franchise. After two consecutive second place finishes in the AL West in 2008 and 2009, 2010 was a breakout year for the club as they progressed all the way through to the World Series, led by ace Cliff Lee and renowned slugger Josh Hamilton. Despite a San Francisco win in the 2010 Series, the Rangers – ever resilient – made it all the way back again last season. After taking a 3-2 series lead it seemed that the state of Texas would finally be getting a championship (we can’t forget those Astros — no titles). But David Freese and the Cardinals had other ideas, pulling out a comeback – not once, but twice – in a game six for the ages. With all the momentum in the world and home field advantage, St. Louis took the decider and broke Texas’ hearts once more.

But all in all, take heart Rangers fans – things are better than they once were.

Indeed, baseball is alive and well in Texas. A championship or two wouldn’t hurt though.

Philadelphia Eagles

The franchise, birthed in 1933, won three titles before the Superbowl era (1948, 1949, 1960) but over a half-century has now passed with the team still chasing that elusive fourth championship and their first Superbowl crown.

Jaws, matriculating the football

After their triumph in 1960, the franchise went into a tailspin as a staggering eighteen-year postseason drought fell upon the city. This finally ended in 1978 when the organization found a winning combination in former UCLA coach Dick Vermeil and quarterback Ron Jaworski (who you may know as ‘Jaws’ from Monday Night Football). The Jaworski-led Eagles peaked in 1980, reaching their first Superbowl but ultimately falling short to the Raiders. Vermeil departed in 1983 and Jaworski followed suit in 1986 after a string of disappointing showings; the window, as it seemed, had closed on the Eagles.

However, in Jaworski’s final season with the team he shared duties with Randall Cunningham: an enthralling young prospect out of UNLV. Cunningham would take the reins after Jaworski left and, with Buddy Ryan (Rex Ryan’s father) as head coach, the franchise would soon become a contender again. The offense had a dynamic leader in Cunningham whose evasive and unpredictable play inspired the style of play we see from the likes of Michael Vick today. On the other side of the ball, the Eagles had Reggie White – also known as ‘The Minister of Defense’ – who NFL.com fittingly ranked as the seventh greatest player of all time. All this promise was never fulfilled and after three straight first-round playoff exits from 1988-1990, Buddy Ryan was relieved of his duties. In the opening game of the 1991 campaign, Randall Cunningham injured his knee and was ruled out for the entire year. The following season, Reggie White would depart for Green Bay. Once again it appeared that the Eagles had missed the boat.

That brings us to the Andy Reid era. Beginning in 1999, Reid, along with the team’s No. 2 overall pick Donovan McNabb, breathed new life into the team instantaneously. Their teams were always competitive in an always-tough NFC East, best exemplified by their four straight NFC Championship game appearances from 2001 to 2004 (the team made it to Superbowl XXXIX following the 2004 season but fell short to Brady and the Patriots). As was the case in bygone eras, postseason shortcomings plagued the Eagles and they could never quite translate their talent into an NFL title. After a spirited postseason run following the 2008 regular season, the Eagles found themselves once again on the cusp of a Superbowl appearance. Unfortunately for them, Kurt Warner’s Cardinals – a team on an even more spirited run – pulled out a tough victory to make Philadelphia 1-4 in NFC Championship games during the Reid-McNabb era. Much like how Phoenix Suns are the best NBA franchise without a championship, the Philadelphia Eagles were by far the best team in the 2000s that did not win it all.

Even though McNabb was sent to Washington in a highly-publicised trade, the Andy Reid era continues. Since 2010 we have witnessed some promising signs in the rebirth of Michael Vick, the maturing of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin into one of the best receiver tandems in football, and the continual growth of LeSean McCoy, who is perhaps the most underappreciated tailback in all of football. There have been no irreplaceable losses during this offseason thus far for the Eagles and with some crafty draft-picks and additions (DeMeco Ryans) expect them to contend strongly this year.

Perhaps this will be the year that Philadelphia can finally be erased from the underachieving column. They best be winning it soon though; after fifty-two years of heartbreak, you wonder if the City of Brotherly Love is running out of love to give.

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One thought on “The L.A. Kings & America’s Underachievers

  1. Evan S says:

    Well written

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