Monday, May 29, 2017

The Main Attraction: A Triple Feature

By Jonathan Lowe

When it comes to numbers, "3" has a significant place across all of sports. In baseball, a triple can stress a defense, while a triple play can snuff out an offensive threat. In hoops, a triple-double is a show of versatility. Just ask Russell Westbrook, who just became the second player to average one over an entire season (as far as we can record). All kinds of lids accompany the triple-scoring hockey feat known as a Hat Trick. A triple threat can encapsulate a player (such as a running back) or a position (the "ready" stance of a basketball player). Heck, even horse racing gets in on the act with its annual Triple Crown.

However, while some of these phrases are littered all of the vocabulary of athletics, one "tri"-related word isn't referenced as much. The first thing that comes to mind when the word trilogy pops up is a movie or book series (or even movies made from a book series). Whether directly ("The Lord of the Rings", "The Godfather", "The Matrix", "Back to the Future") or loosely (Kevin Smith's initial "Jersey" series, Sergio Leone's "Dollars" series) connected, the films in this structure (in my opinion) are the most recognizable trifectas in all of entertainment.

In the world of sports, there are years when teams just keep running into each other during postseason play. With the growth from small leagues to conferences to divisions, rivalries have been able to develop in games that have more meaning than just another regular season win. How many times did we see Steelers vs. Raiders in the 1970s AFC Playoffs? What about the classic Bulls/Knicks series through the 1990s? The heat and hatred between the Red Wings and Avalanche in the late 1990s and early 2000s was legendary.

And when this extends to a championship level? Just ask any baseball historian about the importance of the crosstown rivalry that was the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. And, really, you can just do a rotator of the NHL's Original Six franchises from the 1940s through the mid-1960s. But it seems that basketball — more appropriately the Celtics and Lakers — holds the standard when it comes to championship rivalries.

This year, though, has taken all of that to another level. On Thursday night, the Cavaliers and Warriors will accomplish something that the NBA has failed to achieve. This Finals marks the first time in league history that the same two franchises will battle in the profession's ultimate event for three straight years. Everyone knows it. Everyone has been anticipating it. This hasn't gone under the radar. However, in a way, it has.

While most of us expected Cleveland and Golden State to achieve the previously improbable, it hasn't totally been impossible. This phenomenon has occurred in other major sports. I mean, with all of those dynasties in the history books of pro football, baseball, and hockey, this has to have taken place quite a bit. In actuality, the number isn't that high. There haven't been 15 other trilogies across the four major leagues. You'd be wrong assuming that the number is in double digits. Heck, it hasn't even happened five other times. The number? Well, what's the theme of the piece? That's correct. It's only happened three other times, or, more accurately, once in each of the other sports. So, what makes the 2017 instance so special? Let's look at the combination of factors.

The Timing Factor

It's been 50 years since this has happened. That was the culmination of the Stanley Cup trilogy between Detroit and Montreal. This drawn-out event was played from 1954-1956, in the heart of the Original Six era. The NHL wouldn't expand beyond those six franchises for another decade.

Around that same time period, another Detroit team was involved in a title trilogy of their own. The Lions and Cleveland Browns played each other for the NFL title from 1952-1954. That game we now know as the Super Bowl? Basically a pipe dream for the next 12 years. The famed NFL-AFL merger? Try 15 years into the future. Heck, the AFL itself was six years away from existence.

For baseball, you really have to take a trip back in history. The only World Series trilogy took place nearly 100 years ago. The New York Giants and New York Yankees were the ones fighting for diamond supremacy from 1921-1923. The only item I would say it wasn't "pre-" was the Black Sox Scandal. This took place before free agency, integration, or night games were sanctioned. The first year of this trilogy featured a nine-game series, the last season to do so.

With all the options afforded to players, the fact that the Cavs and Warriors have kept enough main pieces together and stayed healthy enough to reach the final series is impressive in its own right.

The Star Factor

The thing that this upcoming NBA Finals will share with the other "trilogy" series will be its expanse of star players. Now, I have to admit that there might be a player missed through my "research". However, looking at the other series in this category, you can't ignore the sheer number of players that would eventually end up immortalized in their respective sport's legacies.

Over the three World Series years, four Giants and three Yankees would end up in Cooperstown (along with both managers). During the trio of NFL championship years, seven Lions and eight Browns would eventually make their way to Canton. The most impressive, though, belongs to the Stanley Cup years. In that three-season timeframe, five Red Wings and 11 Canadiens that played in at least one Final wound up being forever recognized in Toronto. The list of names in this entire group includes Babe Ruth, Gordie Howe, Otto Graham, Bobby Layne, Marion Motley, Maurice Richard, Henri Richard, Lou Groza, Doak Walker, and Jacques Plante.

Looking up and down the rosters of the current trilogy, there are quite a few stars that could be headed for Springfield. LeBron James will be there. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant appear to be on their way. Kyrie Irving has some impressive credentials in a fairly young career. Kevin Love looks to be headed to, at least, borderline status. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green should have plenty of time to improve their already impressive stocks. Come 2030, we should be adding to that list of all-time trilogy greats.

The Upper Hand Factor

The biggest reason why this upcoming series distinguishes itself from the others ... it's a rubber match. In each of the previous examples, one team took the first two title matchups (Giants, Lions, Red Wings), while the opponent (Yankees, Browns, Canadiens) finally caught up in the second rematch. The Cavs and Warriors come into the third series at 1-1.

Both have sound reasons why this situation should have followed previous history. But neither can claim a 2-0 lead, which makes the stakes regarding legacy appear much higher than in most other championship efforts. In the other instances, you could argue that hunger and relief were two of the biggest emotions felt by the "third time's a charm" participant, leaving the third act a bit underwhelming (Montreal won the '56 Cup in five games, the Yankees won the '23 Series in six, and Detroit won the '54 NFL title game 56-10). The team that comes through this series will receive an undeniable stamp of validation and legitimacy in the annals of league history.

The hype is justified. We fans are hoping that the anticipated drama can actually play out on the court. But, no matter how it comes to fruition, this series will be historic on the merits of its existence. And isn't that all you want out of a trilogy?

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2017