by Nick Dumont
Four American cities haven’t won a sports championship in over 40 years. Two more cities have been anxiously waiting for over 30, and seven tortured others are 20 years deep into their drought.
Meanwhile, Boston’s four sports teams have stockpiled championships like poker chips. From 2002 to 2011, they carried home an unprecedented seven championships. This has been the most improbable, and greatest, title run in modern sports history.
In a single decade, Bostonians witnessed more success than most fans see in a lifetime, and the city’s duck boats accumulated more mileage in title parades than some teams’ travel buses have in a season. Fans rode the red, green, blue and black wave, switching colors like chameleons with each new season. It was a phenomenon that the sports world has never seen before, and probably never will again.
As for the franchises, the tormented Red Sox overcame their “curse,” and the Patriots put years of failure behind them. The Celtics and Bruins weren’t as desperate for a title — they already had 21 combined — but they were experiencing droughts of their own. They both added banners to the TD Garden’s rafters.
All four teams reigned atop their respective hills, battling and knocking down frustrated challengers. The Bostonians took their blows and stood their ground, becoming heroes at home and bullies to the rest of the country.
Then, over the span of nine months, something shocking happened: all four sports teams were toppled, falling from their perches in the worst ways imaginable.
Eight years ago, the Sox pulled off one of the most incredible comebacks in sports history. Then, on Sept 29 2011, they made the record books again for the opposite reason. They went from first place to losing 20 of their last 27 games, and were knocked out of the playoffs in the final game of the season. It was the worst collapse in baseball history.
The Patriots, who also know a thing or two about improbable upsets, finished the 2011-12 regular season with the best record in their conference. They stormed through the playoffs into the Super Bowl, where they were matched up against the New York Giants. Just four years before, the Giants ended the Patriots’ perfect season and beat them in the big game. This time around, the favored Patriots choked away a lead late in the game and lost on a last-minute score.
Last year, the Bruins entered the playoffs as a three seed, and weren’t given much of a chance to win it all. The scrappy team fought their way to the Finals to meet the heavily favored Vancouver Canucks, who had the best record in the league. The Bruins showed determination and hunger in a thrilling seven-game
victory, adding their own historic upset to Boston’s lore. This year, however, their hunger was seemingly sated. In a familiar storyline, a scrappy underdog — the seventh seeded Washington Capitals — beat the Bruins at the Garden in a tragic Game 7 overtime, knocking Boston out in the first round.
This year’s Celtics team was a battle-tested veteran squad that was riddled with injuries. You could have fielded a team at a nursing home and they would have been healthier. Two guys were knocked out for the season with heart complications, and another player needed surgery on both of his shoulders. The team gritted their teeth, meshed together their remaining parts, and limped to the Conference Finals. No one outside of New England believed they had a shot against LeBron James’s Miami Heat, but the Celtics took a 3-2 series lead and were one game away from the NBA Finals. The Heat won the next game, forcing a deciding Game 7. There, the Celtics had a lead heading into the final quarter, but they quietly succumbed to the Heat and lost the game.
Four teams, four games, and four defeats in clinching games. Bostonians were catatonic — no one could remember the last time any city had suffered such dramatic losses in every one of its four sports. It was especially jarring considering the recent success that the teams, or at least the fans, had taken for granted.
In the past, if one Boston sports franchise lost its footing on the hill they reigned upon, another team would reach out and steady them. When the Sox lost to the Yankees in 2003, the Patriots won the Super Bowl months later. Then, when the Patriots lost in 2007 to the Colts, the Sox returned the favor and won the World Series later that year. In 2008, the Patriots lost in the aforementioned Super Bowl, and the Celtics picked them up just four months later with a championship.
After the fans watched all four teams fall like dominoes in less than a year, they looked up to see who was still standing. Who would be the team that would rescue the city this time? But then they saw that no one was left, and reality set in.
Boston’s sports dynasty has to end at some point, but how do you know when it’s over? The answer is that there’s no definitive way to tell, but if there was ever a symbolic representation of any sort, what transpired over the last year would be it.
Just look at the city’s heroic figures: David Ortiz hid in the shadows and showed none of his characteristic leadership as the Red Sox’s clubhouse descended into chaos and controversy. Tom Brady barely overthrew a pass that would have clinched the Super Bowl, and walked off the field with his head slumped down towards the turf. Tim Thomas gained more attention for his obstinate political views than his goal-tending. And Paul Pierce, one of the city’s longest-tenured athletes, showed his age as he hobbled through the series with the Heat.
Those images aren’t exactly the embodiment of a dominant dynasty. It can be argued that Boston teams still have more success than other cities because they reached the late playoff rounds. This is true to an extent, but an empire who wages epic wars with powerful rivals isn’t considered successful unless they win them.
And winning isn’t as common as it used to be in Beantown. Upsets are now turning the other way, where Boston is the team that collapses instead of vice versa. Perhaps the widespread success has created a feeling of contentment, and winning doesn’t seem as important or urgent to the teams. Or maybe the pressure is affecting the athletes. After all, the city has unnaturally high expectations — any team that doesn’t win a championship is considered a failure and is heavily scrutinized by the city’s vicious sports media.
Or maybe, as any rational person outside of New England would suggest, the city’s teams just weren’t good enough. Any Bostonian would scoff at the simplicity of this answer, then immediately start panicking internally as they realize that it’s true.
The city’s future is still bright. The Patriots have Tom Brady for at least a few more years, and a promising young defense. The Bruins have a rising star that they can build around in Tyler Seguin. The Celtics still have key players, like Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, who can seize the reins when the veterans retire. And the Red Sox, well, they still have a payroll that can buy the league’s best talent.
But, realistically, this future is still uncertain, and isn’t very consoling to Bostonians who are wondering if they should officially mark the end of an era. Whether that would be premature or warranted is debatable, but one thing is for certain: anyone who has followed New England sports over the past decade will one day tell their grandchildren that they witnessed the greatest title run in the history of modern sports.