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Sunday, March 14, 2010
Shadow Champs

By Gary Belsky
ESPN The Magazine

Anyone who watches the premiere of "Winning Time" on Sunday night -- and everyone should, since this take on Reggie Miller's rivalry with the Knicks is fantastic -- may experience the same feeling I had when I went to an early screening of the "30 for 30" documentary. I hadn't thought about Miller for a while, but when I did, I immediately tried to remember what year he won his ring.

Because Miller has to have a ring, right?

Well, no. Miller never won an NBA title, which is obvious once you realize it -- or once you ask a few people sitting around you at the theater, who also have to take a few seconds to be sure.

That's because Miller is a "shadow champion," which is how I like to describe big-name, accomplished athletes who you sort-of-kind-of assume won a pro title when, in fact, they didn't. You might also think of their imagined-for-a-moment achievement as a "mirage ring." (Note: Different players may spark this phenomenon for different fans.) But by any name, the best way for me to explain the concept is to describe its opposite.

His name would be Dan Marino. When sports fans think of the great QB, they do not for a second wonder if he won a Super Bowl. Nor will they ever. Marino is known almost as much for his lack of a ring as he is for his prodigious talent. The same goes for the NFL's Jim Kelly and Barry Sanders, John Stockton and Patrick Ewing in the NBA, NHL Hall of Famers Pat LaFontaine and Marcel Dionne and MLB's Ernie Banks and Ted Williams (or anyone, for that matter, who played exclusively for the Red Sox from 1919 through 2003). There's no confusion with these guys, no pondering if they won a championship in their sport. They didn't, and any serious fan just knows it, and immediately at that.

But Miller is one of those guys who seems like he should have won a ring at some point because, well, how does a guy like Miller -- talented, competitive, part of several deep playoff runs, made everyone on his team better and everyone on the other team worse -- get through a long career and not win a title? We know it happens; see the guys listed above. But some athletes (generally retired but not always) are so good for so long in such a particular way that they start to morph into shadow champs, for one reason or another. Actually, four reasons, which I have broken down into helpful categories.

Category 1: Just memorable enough to confuse. Guys like Eric Dickerson fit here, and here's how the conversation with yourself might go: "Eric Dickerson, man was he good! He has to have a ring, right? Although I guess the Rams didn't win when he was with them. But wait, didn't he win one with the Colts or Raiders late in his career?" The answer is no, but the internal monologue is why Dickerson is a shadow champ.

You might have a similar self-chat about NHL star Adam Oates, who played for (among other teams) the Red Wings, Oilers and Ducks, but never managed to do so when any of them hoisted a Stanley Cup. And you may one day soon find yourself pondering the careers of current NHL greats Keith Tkachuk and Jarome Iginla in similar fashion; both stars are well on their way to getting fitted for a mirage ring.

Category 2: Close calls. Ray Bourque, as any hockey fan can tell you, avoided becoming a shadow champ when he made a late-career move to the Avs, winning a Cup with them in 2001. Gary Payton pulled off the same trick in the NBA, in a late-career team switch that ended in a title run with the Heat in 2006. Karl Malone tried it, but anyone who recalls him winning a title with the Lakers late in his career -- like a lot of buddies of mine did for a few seconds when I asked -- remembers wrong.

The Lakers were supposed to win that series against the Pistons, but they didn't, which is why some of you, when you read Stockton's name a few minutes back, thought of Malone, his longtime Jazz teammate, and wondered for a second if maybe he did finally get that ring. Randy Moss, by the way, could one day be the poster athlete for close calls, should the Pats' loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII turn out to be the closest he'll have ever come to winning it all.

Category 3: Too famous not to. Charles Barkley is the archetype shadow champ in this category. It's impossible to forget how good Sir Charles was and how well his teams played. It's also impossible to forget him, period, given his ongoing presence in sports and pop culture. And so it's nearly impossible to come to terms with the fact that the big, bad, bald dude never won a ring. Even writing that sentence doesn't feel right, any more than it does to write that Dick Butkus, Tony Gwynn and Pete Maravich never snared a ring, or that Davey Allison never won a NASCAR championship.

Sadly, such it-doesn't-make-sense dissonance will be of small comfort to Junior Seau, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ken Griffey Jr. or LeBron James should any of them finish their careers as they have so far navigated them: titleless.

Category 4: But all the pieces were in place! When I heard that LaDainian Tomlinson was released by the Chargers, I turned to an editor at The Magazine and said, "LT hasn't won a Super Bowl, right?" He paused for a second, said no, then paused again and said, "Wow, that's weird." Which it is, because Tomlinson feels like he should have a ring, and not simply because he's so good.

Psychologists who study decision theory refer to a shortcut most humans use when forming judgments and making choices, which they call "representativeness." The idea is that when we process the world, we first take the easily available data and match it with a similar situation or possible outcome. So if we're told about a man who's described by his neighbors as orderly, quiet, shy and wears glasses, we're much more likely to assume he's a librarian than a salesman -- because he fits the stereotype of librarians -- even though there are approximately 16 million salespeople in the U.S. and fewer than 200,000 librarians (and at least that many salespeople who are orderly, shy, quiet and wear glasses).

Representativeness, I think, explains my colleague's reaction to my question about LT. If someone described Tomlinson and the Chargers blindly -- the top fantasy player of his era, on a team with a Pro Bowl QB, a freakishly good tight end and a scary defense -- then asked you to guess whether that running back would end his career with at least one Super Bowl ring, you'd almost assuredly say yes. When all the pieces are in place we expect titles to follow, and when they don't we have a difficult time accepting it, at least subconsciously.

So worry not, LT -- not to mention Carl Edwards, Vlad Guerrero, Jason Giambi and Jason Kidd -- you may not win an actual title, but a shadow championship seems like a lock.

Gary Belsky is the editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine