The Footnote Title
Bill Simmons [ARCHIVE]
May 3, 2012
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When Derrick Rose's knee injury ruined the spring of every Chicago fan, I tweeted that 2012 was suddenly an "asterisk title." The more I'm thinking about it, "footnote title" makes more sense. A basketball season always features collateral damage, whether it's injuries, lucky breaks or someone stupidly assaulting a fire extinguisher. Asterisks should be saved for fishier achievements like Bonds's 73 homers, Roger Clemens's last few Cy Youngs and Pia Zadora winning a Golden Globe. A "footnote title" respects the champion while also acknowledging that, "Look, SOMETHING funky happened and you can't discuss that postseason in detail without mentioning that one funky thing."
Of course, the ones usually applying that footnote are disgruntled fans of the team that "should have won." That's just the way sports work. For instance, my father still refuses to recognize the actual winner of the 1973 NBA title. It's been almost 40 years. He doesn't care.
"We had the best team that year," Dad says. "We won 68 games. Havlicek hurt his shoulder halfway through the Knicks series — he played left-handed in the fifth game and the sixth game. In the seventh game, Frazier killed us. The Knicks beat the Lakers in the Finals. The wrong team won. We won two of the next three titles, but '73 was our best team."
I actually watched a DVD of Game 7 while researching my NBA book. Even though it was the climactic game of the Eastern Finals, the game wasn't televised nationally; a soundless tape from a center court camera is the league's only copy. With Havlicek playing one-handed (he finished with just four points) and the Knicks smelling victory, Frazier started methodically backing down Boston's guards and draining 20-footers. He didn't just quiet the Boston Garden crowd; I think he actually silenced that one camera and fried its audio. The Knicks won by 16. It's hard to believe anyone would have beaten Frazier that day.
Just don't tell my father this. That's what makes us fans. We make excuses when we lose; we overlook those same excuses when we win. The '74 Celtics won a hard-fought Finals over Kareem's Milwaukee Bucks partially because Lucius Allen (Milwaukee's fastest guard) ripped up his knee stepping on a discarded warm-up jacket. A creaky '76 Celtics team cranked out one last championship mainly because that season's best team imploded the previous round (we'll get to that). My father raised me to forget both of these things. But Havlicek's bum shoulder? That year, we should have won.
"He's not wrong," says Bob Ryan, the unofficial commissioner of the NBA, as well as someone who covered the '73 Celtics for the Boston Globe. "They were 4-0 against the Lakers that year. Cowens killed Wilt, he was too fast for him. Wilt was too old at that point. You can look it up, I think Cowens averaged 31 and 19 against him that year. But Havlicek got hurt and … [thinking] … yeah, I'd put a footnote next to that one."
Over the next few minutes, Ryan and I started debating the biggest footnote titles in NBA history. That's when I realized something … COLUMN! Where will 2012's eventual winner of a Rose-less playoffs rank among the 20 biggest footnote titles in NBA history? We're ranking them from "tiny footnote" to "large and undeniably pulsating footnote."
HONORABLE MENTION
1993 Chicago Bulls
What Happened: They won their third straight title thanks to the best player ever (at the peak of his powers, no less).
The Footnote: One of my anonymous Knick fan buddies explains, "CHARLES SMITH GOT FOULED THREE FUCKING TIMES! OK? Not one, not two … THREE FUCKING TIMES! Don't put my name in the column. But THREE FUCKING TIMES"
The Verdict: You could talk me into the '93 Knicks and '93 Suns being the two best teams who didn't win the title from the past 25 years. But the Knicks-Bulls series was only tied 2-2 when the Charles Smith Game happened. They would have had to beat Jordan one more time … again, when he was at his apex. Come on. This gets a one-point generic-font footnote only because Game 7 would have been in New York. Which, by the way, would have been awesome. That's the real tragedy of the Chaz Smith Game — we missed an unbelievable Game 7. (That Jordan would have won. But still.)
1983 Philadelphia 76ers
What Happened: They won 65 games during the famous "Fo Fo Fo" season with Moses, Doc, Bobby Jones, Mo Cheeks and the insanely underrated Andrew Toney, then ripped through the playoffs (12-1) and swept the Lakers.
The Footnote: Superb Lakers rookie James Worthy missed the playoffs with a broken leg.
The Verdict: Philly would have ripped through the Lakers, anyway. Moses owned Kareem, and everything about '83 screams "That was Philly's year" (in my NBA book, I ranked them as the eighth-best team ever). And by the way, Worthy missed the 1983 playoffs, but Lenny Bias missed the playoffs from 1987 through 2004. So there's that.
(Whoops, I just violated the self-imposed "no homerism" rules for this column. It won't happen again. Promise.)
1989 Detroit Pistons
What Happened: After coming oh-so-close in '87 and '88, everything finally came together for the Bad Boys (63 wins, 15-2 in the '89 playoffs).
The Footnote: The Lakers won their first 11 playoff games, but Byron Scott missed the Finals with a pulled hammy, then Magic pulled a hammy in the third quarter of Game 2. That led to an aging Michael Cooper playing 94 of a possible 96 minutes the last two games, along with Jeff Lamp, Tony Campbell and David Rivers getting some run. David Rivers???? Sweeeeeeeeeeep.
The Verdict: The Lakers barely got past the '88 Pistons; beating the '89 Pistons was an even harder task with Kareem (playoffs: 11.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 43% FG) firmly entrenched in his shaved head/semi-decomposing phase. I hated the '89 Pistons with every fiber of my body, but they're probably our no. 1 most underrated great team. Because they followed Bird's Celtics and Magic's Lakers, they ended up being the Larry Holmes of NBA champs: unliked, resented and ultimately dismissed. It's too bad.
(Just kidding — it's not too bad at all. Those Pistons teams intentionally stepped on McHale's broken foot and intentionally tried to cripple Larry Bird. Screw you, Bad Boy Pistons! BURN IN HELL! Whoops, I'm violating the homer rules again. Sorry about that.)
1987 Lakers
What Happened: This was Magic's breakout, "I'll take it from here, Kareem" MVP season. They finished 80-20 (including playoffs); Magic believes it was his best Lakers team. I have them ranked second all-time. It's hard to stick a footnote next to "second all-time."
The Footnote: You could argue the Pistons would have given the Lakers a tougher Finals if Vinnie Johnson and Adrian Dantley hadn't banged heads in the second half of Game 7 in Boston. The Celtics couldn't have been more banged up: McHale was playing on a broken foot; Parish, DJ and Ainge were all...
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