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Friday, July 1, 2011
Mystery of winning? Solved in Boston

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

James Posey, Dave Roberts, Zdeno Chara
Familiar scenes in Boston in recent years: the ceremonial hoisting of championship trophies.

I was born in Boston, grew up on Ashton Street one block off Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester. Until the mid-to-late 1970s, before my family moved to the South Shore, a few miles from the bridges that begin Cape Cod, the sports we played in our neighborhood were, in order: hockey (with a tennis ball on the pavement and in a friend's house on Floyd Street with a chalked replica of the Boston Garden ice on the basement floor; despite the new MDC skating rink on Talbot Ave, none of us could ice-skate), then baseball (also with a tennis ball on a vacant lot on Callender Street), then basketball and football as an interchangeable third and fourth.

In the early to mid-1980s, now living in Plymouth as a teenager, I would go back to Dorchester to visit family. The neighborhood had changed, and so had the sports hierarchy: Basketball was now king; baseball (graduating from the vacant lot to Franklin Field, and using a hardball, too) still resonated, followed by football. Surprisingly, to me at least, hockey had disappeared.

In retrospect, maybe it shouldn't have surprised me. The cycle of interest among the kids I knew mimicked the championship fortunes of our pro teams, and anyone living in New England in the 1970s can easily recall that the power of the region's sports imagination lay with the Bruins; more specifically, with Bobby Orr. My first memories of sports were of our triple-decker on Ashton. My aunt lived upstairs, and we watched the Bruins on Channel 38, on a grainy black-and-white television, Fred Cusick and Johnny Peirson on the call.

Boston Bruins fans
After the Stanley Cup win this year, Bruins fans partied like it was … (see next photo!)

The Celtics won the titles. The Red Sox made the headlines and created the indigestion. The Patriots were the family screwup; they had all the talent in the world, and everyone hoped they'd get it right one day. But hockey, the Bruins, was the game.

If there was a team the city truly wanted to see win another championship, it was the Bruins. Then something weird happened: They actually won the Stanley Cup in 1970. It was an amazing championship run, in many ways as electric as the Red Sox's sudden graduation romp in 2004. Nothing was missing, yet something was: me. I got robbed of the joy by some incredibly poor timing. It was too late for me. I'd grown up. I watched every game, felt the tension of the playoff hockey, but also knew that the lawn needed mowing, the gutters cleaning.

Today, the kids of Boston, the ones young enough to feel the weight of every goal, must assume they were born into royalty. All of the old disasters and despair have disappeared, banished by the Bruins' thrilling seven-game Cup win in Vancouver. In less than a decade, all four major sports teams in town have won a title, the Red Sox two. No other American sports city has ever enjoyed an elite balance like this. Philadelphia saw the Flyers, Sixers, Eagles and Phillies play for titles seven times in the four years from 1980 to 1983, but none of them won a championship. In the nine years between 1977 and 1985, Los Angeles enjoyed 10 combined championship appearances from the Lakers (five), the Dodgers (three), the Rams (one) and the Raiders (one), but the hockey Kings came nowhere near the Stanley Cup.

Since 2004, each major pro team in Boston has won the whole thing at least once.

For Boston fans, this has been, hopefully, a time to savor rather than gloat, for winning -- despite its obvious premium -- is a mystery, the most inexplicable concept in sports. Having the final score in the final game fall in one's favor is, in the big picture, most abnormal. There can be only one champion, which makes winning it all an unlikely occurrence. Whether we're talking about the lottery or the World Series, losing is the natural condition of competition.

Celtics Fan
… 2008, when Celtics fans celebrated an NBA championship like it was … (next photo, please)

That is the condition, the losing condition, in which Bruins fans had lived since the power of Orr in his prime. The passion of Bruins fans went unfulfilled thanks to the team's frugality (namely, owner Jeremy Jacobs) and intractability (namely, stubborn Harry Sinden and his disciples). Each year, the Bruins, even when they made it to the playoffs, entered the postseason underpowered. Only once, in 1971, were they the undisputed best team in hockey  that team won the Cup again in the spring of '72. After Orr, Boston was stuck in its own muddy philosophy.

Over the years since then, hockey changed but the Bruins didn't; they rejected speed and skill in a game that was growing increasingly faster. While offensive players became difference-makers against Boston, the team for 40 years attempted to reincarnate Phil Esposito, hoping to land that rarest of qualities: the rugged, high-scoring two-way player in the mold of Espo and Cam Neely and now Milan Lucic. Every year when the season ended because the Bruins weren't quite fast enough or couldn't score goals often enough or didn't have the hot goalie, we fans wondered what life would be like if management would just let the skaters skate. (Tyler Seguin,first line … )

The Bruins once played on the smallest ice surface in the league, which explained in part why they insisted on dumping and chasing and fighting and forechecking. Then they moved to a bigger building, watched the NHL change its rules to open up the game and responded by playing the same plodding, unsuccessful style, and trading away their skill players. Meanwhile, more gifted, more explosive offensive teams raced right past them in the playoffs, year after year -- until now.

The city once seemed immune to change, but the Boston sports scene now is an old forest replaced by new growth.

The Red Sox, until 2004, were the Red Sox, lamenting their losses yet unwilling to truly put winning first. The Patriots, playing in the socialist league of salary caps and 60-40 revenue sharing splits, needed only to be smart; the game's economics took care of the rest. And the Celtics took decades to recover both from the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis and the shift of power from team to player during the free-agent era. The Celtics, ironically, were the city's most successful team, but also the most truly handicapped in that they have never been able to attract the top players. (To this day, they still have yet to sign an A-list free agent in his prime.)

Sox Fans
… 2007, when Red Sox fans kicked up their heels over a World Series title like it was … (you guessed it: next photo)

Today's Boston teenagers enjoy an entirely new sports landscape, one built not only on the old journey of imagined success -- What will it look like when the home team wins a championship? -- but also now on the previously un-Boston-like expectation that the comeback will be victorious. And it is the mystery of the successful comeback, the victory, that gives the young Boston fan his special power right now, for none of it makes sense.

The Red Sox lost Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees by a score of 19-8, and didn't lose again for the rest of the year. The Celtics, dormant and unattractive for years, benefited from two former teammates -- Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale -- collaborating on a blockbuster trade that brought the team in from the cold. The Tuck Rule need not be discussed here, but it should also not be forgotten that for years before Charles Woodson broke free off the edge, the Patriots were finished, frustrated by their inability to secure a new stadium. They (supposedly) were heading to Connecticut.

The Bruins' victory this year happened on the strength of just being better than everyone else. They won the tests the club had historically lost. Claude Julien was nearing the coaching guillotine when they were down 0-2 to Montreal in the first round, but he emerged with a title by -- surprise! -- letting his skaters attack and employing the hot goalie instead of being beaten by one.

The Bruins have been playing hockey in Boston since 1924 and had never beaten the Canadiens in a playoff series after losing the first two games. But this year, they won four of five (including a memorable Game 7) and embarked on a championship run of toughness and heart that rivaled the 2004 Red Sox.

Devastating losses have devastating consequences for a franchise, or so we thought in Boston. The 2003 Red Sox lost the Aaron Boone game and won a title the next year. The 2010 Bruins lost a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 against Philadelphia, only to sweep the Flyers the next year and go on to win the Stanley Cup.

Patriots Fans
… 2004, when these Patriots fans sealed a Super Bowl victory with a kiss.

Hockey has been a separate affair for me as a Boston fan. During these playoffs -- especially after last postseason -- I felt more like a parent than a rabid fan. I was energized and busy, but not too busy to realize that Vancouver represented the Bruins' best chance to win the Cup since '72. The Canucks were formidable, but nothing compared to the five teams that beat Boston for the Cup over the previous 39 years: the '74 Flyers, the Lafleur/Dryden Canadiens twice, and the Gretzky and then Messier Oilers, once each.

In the end, after the confetti flew and disbelief gave way to reality, this truth was clear: Despite their speed and talent and the fact that the only time they trailed in the series was when it was over, there was not a single game of the seven that the Canucks won convincingly. The better team owns the Cup.

Of course, like a forested landscape, what appears to be permanent now will someday look temporary. New experiences will cover and replace the old, always. A kid born in Boston in 1890 knew nothing but Red Sox championships until 1918, while his children and grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) would experience quite a different reality. Hockey in Montreal, for example, will likely never be what it was during the Canadiens' glory decades, when the NHL rules helped to create a dynasty.

Perhaps the money in the city's franchises now will ensure that Boston will always be a power, and the days of resignation and curses will never be re-lived. Or maybe the cycle will continue to evolve, and winning will again become as rare for Boston as it once was.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42

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