Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Greatest Team Nicknames...or most of them anyway

Despite the fact that new champions are crowed every year in sports, most of them fade into distant memory within only a few seasons. The 2007 Red Sox, for example, are a team I will love forever, yet I won’t deny they lack staying power. That they were the second Sox team to win in 80-plus years doesn’t help (that’s like being the second man to walk on the moon…sorry Buzz), but they also lacked the charisma and indelible team identity needed to be immortalized. It takes the right circumstances for a team to vault themselves into legendary status. One step in this process is undoubtedly a great nickname. The best team nicknames are just as memorable as the teams they’re synonymous with. Here’s a look at the top few:

8. University of Houston Basketball 1982-1984 ('Phi Slama Jama')

Houston during this time was probably one of the most entertaining college basketball teams of all time. Of course, any team with Hakeem Olijawon and Clyde Drexler are bound to be fun to watch. Dominating teams with pure athleticism, they earned the very apt nickname Phi Slam Jama. While other college teams stressed fundamentals and blue collar basketball, Houston coach Guy Lewis encouraged dunking on a regular basis. He saw the players at his disposal (that they’re vertical leap was off the charts) and simply had no qualms unleashing that caliber talent in the best way possible: dunking (what they called ‘high percentage shots’.) They’re ability, coupled with the nickname intimidated the hell out of most opponents. In those glory days for Houston fans, each game was a highlight reel.

7. 1985 Chicago Bears (‘The Monsters of the Midway’)

Much is usually made of the ’85 Bears in the discussion of ‘best team ever.’ They are the perfect representation of football the way Mike Ditka thought it should be played: run the ball and play relentless defense. Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense was truly a spectacular combination of talent and an innovative defensive scheme (the strategy was a video game defense sprung to life). Basically the defenders were put on the field with one unerring goal: get the quarterback. Hence there have been few nicknames more fitting than the one bestowed on the ’85 Bears because, as Tony Eason can attest to, they were decidedly monstrous.

6. Real Madrid (‘Los Galaticos’ meaning superstars)

This gets extra points because it sounds cool even when you don’t know what the word means. I definitely would have thought this meant something involving the word galaxy (since I have enough trouble with the English language.) It was the perfect summary of the Real Madrid teams in the days when the nickname was coined (the early part of this decade). World greats answered the call every summer from 2000-2004 (and more recently this past summer). All of them former World Players of the Year, all of them more expensive than the next. And like so many extravagant business plans, their early promise was about as impressive as their catastrophic collapse. The phrase took on an ironic meaning, implying the ever-increasing sense that they were a bunch of prima donnas when the gushing stream of trophies dried up.

5. The Cincinnati Reds (‘The Big Red Machine’)

Without a doubt one of the better baseball teams ever (which should come as no surprise except for the fact that they’re often overlooked.) As they weren’t an east coast team, it’s reasonable to see why they’re passed over in history, though it doesn’t make it right. Still, Reds fans can look back on this team with and correctly label this period as the good old days for Cincinnati baseball. The brand of baseball they played was truly machine-like. With an impeccable combination of speed, power and hustle, Cincinnati methodically dismantled the Red Sox and Yankees in consecutive years.

The ’75 World Series was a particularly perfect microcosm of the Big Red Machine. While the media was focused on the bigger and more popular Boston Red Sox, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and some guy named Pete Rose set themselves about winning. The defining moment of that series (Carlton Fisk’s euphoric walk-off homerun in the 12th inning of game 6) was but a bump in the road for Sparky Anderson’s team, who shook off the loss and sealed off Boston momentum in game 7. The machine churned on all cylinders in that game, as they won at Fenway to break the hearts of New Englanders once again.

4. Dutch Soccer (‘Clockwork Orange’)

The nickname (a play on Holland’s national color and their style of play) is accurate on more levels than most Dutch would care to admit. That they’re nickname is taken from a psychological thriller is fitting, as no European team has sent their fans on such a roller coaster of promise, success and failure followed quickly by more promise. That said, a lot of the meaning is derived from the clockwork way in which a Dutch national team works its opponents. The constant shifting, weaving runs and perfectly weighted passing are enough to see off most opponents like clockwork. At various times in the last 30 years Holland has truly earned the nickname.

Their best moment, indeed the finest moment in the history of the Dutch national team, came at the European Championship in 1988. Coached once again by Total Football mastermind Rinus Michaels, it marked the flowering of a grand generation of Dutch stars. Ruud Guilit, apart from looking like the third member of Milli Vanilli, embodied Dutch versatility while others like Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkard ensured that, for once, Holland was as much bite as it was bark. It was Marco Van Basten though, a true artist, who painted a masterpiece in the final. Facing a similarly organized Soviet team, Holland were kept from their usual clockwork performance until they turned to the A.C. Milan man for divine intervention. Looking at a clearly impossible angle in the 88th minute, Van Basten did what any once-in-a-generation talent would do: he unleashed an unstoppable volley that nearly rolled back 20 years of failure and shortcomings on the international stage. At a stroke the Dutch were European champions, their only trophy to this day.

3. The L.A. Lakers in the 1980’s (‘Showtime’)

Long before the on-demand TV network bearing the same name, the aptly named offense run by the Lakers during Magic Johnson’s prime embodied their city to a tee. It was glamorous, modern and fun to watch with a trendsetting point guard (Magic) running with a slew of other Hall of Famers. They could wow even the most jaded basketball fans with an entire arsenal of no-look passes, half court alley-oops and knifing passes capable of unlocking any triple team. Of course the reason ‘Showtime’ worked so well was that there was an equally important part that remained relatively unseen: the defensive work of players like Michael Cooper and the hustle of guys like Kurt Rambis. The balance was the key to ‘Showtime.’

A footnote to this is the fact that L.A. was able to put together a roster of superstars thanks to the NBA’s front office equivalent to the Wild West era. The years of the mid to late 70’s spanning right into the mid 80’s represented an era where the rich got much, much richer and the poor squandered their draft picks to the rich in a series of shockingly bad trades. The only reason L.A. (then equipped with a Kareem Abdul Jabbar in his prime) were able to draft Magic in 1979 was that they got three draft picks from New Orleans after Gail Goodrich left the Lakers in 1976. And swingman James Worthy was attained only after the reckless Cleveland front office gift wrapped the first overall pick in the draft to L.A. yet again in 1982. Think about how ridiculous it is that the team with the NBA’s all-time leading scorer getting the first pick in the draft twice in a four year stretch (each time in a trade). It will never, EVER happen again. Too bad, considering the result was ‘Showtime’.

2. The 1927 New York Yankees (‘Murderers Row’)

Ok, so this proves I’m being non-bias. I hate the Yankees and pretty much everything they stand for, but even I have to admit that nickname is pretty badass. This also proves that sportswriters and fans were much more original back in the day (there were no ‘Arods’ or ‘Dwades’ then because people actually thought about nicknames for more than 30 seconds consecutively). Anyway, the Yankees in 1927 were a pinstriped explosion of offense, ‘hammering any and all comers.’ Certainly Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were the powerhouse, as Ruth set the record for homeruns (60) while Gehrig drew no fault by clubbing 47 on his own. They also had ridiculous batting averages (Ruth .356, Gehrig .373) and had insane RBI totals (Ruth 164, Gehrig 175). I mean…that’s just mind boggling (especially considering steroids were still decades away).

Yet the thing that gave Murderers Row its teeth was the lineup’s depth. Leadoff hitter Earle Combs stamped out a .356 average while Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri also added more than 100 RBI each. In one mid-season game they smoked the Washington Senators 21-1, causing Senators first baseman Joe Judge to dejectedly say after the game: “I wish the season was over.” Not surprisingly, the Yankees did end many seasons in the course of that year, as their pitching also lead the league. They breezed to the World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates acting as the sacrificial lamb for New York’s Championship onslaught…but that doesn’t stop me from still think they’re scumbags.

1. The 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers (‘The Steel Curtain’)

The Steel Curtain is certainly one of the most iconic nicknames in American sports. The 1970’s Steelers of Chuck Knoll were, in the words of NFL films, ‘married to the Lombardi trophy’ (and this was no Charlie Sheen marriage). Representing the blue collar steel town of Pittsburgh, they showed the rest of the NFL that shrewd drafting, coaching stability and patience was the formula to weld together a winner.

The actual reference ‘the Steel Curtain’ was about Pittsburgh’s legendary defense. In particular, it referred to their defensive line. Composed of ‘Mean’ Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White, it was arguably the most menacing unit of its kind in NFL history. And just in case the opposition happened to pierce the forward ring of the Curtain, NFL All-Pros Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Mel Blount and Mike Wagner waited in the secondary for a chance to pounce.

1976 was their finest season. With a rash of early season injuries taking their toll (they started the year just 1-4), the Steel Curtain descended on the NFL to salvage the year. Over the next nine games, eight of them ended with the opponent having not scored a touchdown. In that stretch there were five shutouts, three of them coming consecutively. Though that particular season did not actually end with a Lombardi Trophy, no one could blame the defense.

Perhaps the best part of the nickname is that it originated out of a local radio contest in 1971. 17 people forwarded the name the Steel Curtain, so when it won the contest a name was drawn from a hat to determine the real winner (kind of a weak system in all fairness). Ninth grader Gregory Kronz won the drawing, winning whatever the hell local Pittsburgh radio stations give out for these kinds of things (probably something semi-worthless…maybe some Billy-beer?)

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