Billy Beane, Oakland Athletics General Manager, once said, “no one [cares] unless you win the last game of the season.” It served as the thesis of the film Moneyball, which was largely based on his time as General Manager at the Athletics. It’s a bitter sentiment, but one I struggle to argue against.
Let’s start with a story:
In 1993, a highly skilled player joined what was, for all intents and purposes, a super team. That year, he won the NBA MVP award and led the team to a franchise-best regular season. The team makes it through the first three rounds in dominating fashions. They reach the finals, and play the hardest six games of their season and ultimately lose.
That was the story of Charles Barkley, widely considered one of the greatest power forwards to ever play in the NBA. Except it comes with a disclaimer: Barkley never won a championship. He was a great player that could never win when it mattered the most. He is now a well-respected panellist commenting on the game and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
As of writing, the Edmonton Oilers are on a 12-game winning streak—the second win streak since the firing of Coach Jay Woodcroft earlier in the season. I have no doubt this team can make the playoffs. It is an understatement to say they have two of the best hockey players in the world. The better question is not if, but how far can they go? Even better, how many years can Oilers fans keep saying, “Well … we gave the cup champions their hardest series,” or blame the refs or the league? Who can fans blame for the Oilers not having a cup under McDavid’s tenure? But unless you’re an Oilers fan, these questions are met with an apathetic, “Who cares? They didn’t win the last game of the season,” which highlights a much larger problem in sports culture.
Sports fans don’t remember the runner-up. Most fans could tell you who won the trophy but would be hard-pressed to remember second place. Cinderella stories only matter to fans of Cinderella. You remember Shaq and Kobe and the absolute dominance they had over the NBA during the late 90s and early 2000s, I doubt you actively remember Shaq and Hardaway. Are Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl destined to be added to the conversation of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, or are they going to be the next Henrik and Daniel Sedin?
I genuinely want to see the Oilers succeed. I want to see everyone on the team lift the cup above their heads. But I don’t want Connor McDavid’s legacy to have an asterisk attached to it. In 20 years, when commentators are talking about players who were great but never won a championship, I don’t want to hear Draisaitl mentioned.
To further my point, let’s revisit that 1993 NBA finals story from the other side:
Michael Jordan leads his dominant Chicago Bulls team to a third straight championship. Michael Jordan would later go on to win another three championships. He is widely considered the greatest player of all time, with no caveats to add to the conversation. I’d argue this is what people know about the NBA finals from that year. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to Google who the runner-up was that year.
I’m not saying that people should only support the champions and that the story of the second place should be forgotten. Rather, sports are exciting because of these underdog stories. I love the teams that barely make it into the playoffs, go on to the finals and are one goal away from glory. It’s these stories that humanize sports. Movies are made about Cinderella stories because they make you truly believe that anything can happen. An underdog team is always more interesting than an allstar team. But outside of a shrinking sect of sports fans, it seems people don’t believe this. Michael Jordan was celebrated with The Last Dance documentary on Netflix, and Charles Barkley is still a commentator on TNT Sports.
I want the Oilers to win, and I’ll still be their fan if they don’t. It will be heartbreaking, but as a sports fan, that’s what I signed up for. With all the passion in my heart, and all the cries to care about the underdog, that talent, this city, these fans… they deserve our praise, regardless of how it turns out at the end. But deep down, I know most people will simply say, “no one gives a shit unless you win the last game of the season.”