Almost every good story needs an antagonist, someone you're always hoping fails, even if you don't necessarily root for the "good guy" to succeed. The same is probably even truer when it comes to sports. When two teams you don't particularly care for face off in a championship game, don't you generally root for the team you hate less, as opposed to the team you like more?
The team that is the measuring stick for all detested teams is, and will probably always be, the New York Yankees. Only Yankee fans want that team to win. You'll never find a time when someone from Texas, or Colorado or LA or Cincinnati or really anywhere outside of the tri-state area says "yeah, if my team can't make it, I'm pushing for the Yanks." It just doesn't happen.
Why not? There's a plethora of reasons. First and foremost, people are just sick of them always winning. Being the most storied franchise in sports' history makes people jealous, and fair or not, people don't like them for it. Other grounds include a loud, meddlesome owner, a budget that far outweighs that of most other clubs as well as the arrogance of players and fans who know that their team is better than yours.
Although no other professional sports' team in North America could ever be despised half as much as the Bombers, most other sports have their own villains. In the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys are probably the all-time favorite for this title, having had great historical success and an obnoxious owner like Jerry Jones. The best example for modern day football would probably have to be the New England Patriots, simply because of their recent dominance, even though they are also greatly admired because of their team-first attitude.
It's tough to find the most disliked team in modern-day hockey, because there is no modern day hockey. When the NHL was up and running, you could probably pin that title on the New York Rangers' wealthy but unproductive "Dream Team". Although I don't follow golf all that carefully, it's plain to see that Vijay Singh is not particularly adored based on his critical comments regarding Annika Sorenstam's participation in the men's tour. His recent run as the world's #1 only solidified his status as a baddie. (In case you're wondering, Tiger Woods couldn't possibly be considered; much as some people may dislike him, many, many more people cheer him on over everyone else.)
In the NBA, there was never a shortage of insufferable teams. The Boston Celtics, with their 16 championships and Red Auerbach's victory cigar, were always an easy target (to quote legendary humorist, Dave Barry, "I hated the Celtics. Not in the way I hate, for example, Hitler, but more often"). The Showtime Lakers of the 80's annoyed plenty of people with their flamboyant ways and their Hollywood attitude, as well as a reviled star in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And God knows no one has any affection for the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons, especially when you consider that their style of play is still affecting the league almost 20 years later.
But currently, we have a problem: For the last eight years, the most Yankee-like team in the league had been the Lakers. They had all the talent, Phil Jackson was the basketball version of Joe Torre, and Kobe Bryant was the prima-donna, care only about himself, stats are more important than winning type of guy, ala A-Rod. Free agents (Gary Payton and Karl Malone) flocked there even as the Lakers appeared disinterested in their services while other teams begged the stars in vain to try out their cities. Their high profile players fought amongst themselves and openly pined for a new contract a year removed from signing a three-year, $88 million extension. It really wasn't very hard to hate them.
So what's our predicament? As we now stand, LA is too pathetic to abhor. Shaq is in Miami, Phil Jackson is scouting out new jobs, Kobe is public enemy #1, even at home, and, most importantly, the Lakers are in the lottery. Hating the Lakers right now reminds me of the part in "Can't Hardly Wait" when William finds himself feeling bad for his nemesis, Mike Dexter when Mike falls on hard times. When your enemy is so downtrodden, you almost feel heartless piling it on. But without LA, the NBA is left without a rogue team.
The New York Knicks might seem like a prime candidate to take their place given their location and their absurdly bloated payroll (over $108 million before any free agents have been signed for next season), but Isiah Thomas has run the team too far into the ground to be considered a serious contender for the title. The San Antonio Spurs are probably the franchise in the best overall shape, but they've done it with a low budget, excellent scouting and management decisions and professionalism. The Heat have the Diesel, but Shaq and Dwyane Wade have such chemistry that they could never be compared with O'Neal's old situation in LA.
My nominee for the NBA Yankees is the Dallas Mavericks. From a money standpoint, they're a slam-dunk. Next year's payroll will start at $95 million and they're one of the only teams able to make certain deals out of their ability to absorb other team's overpriced veterans (see Keith Van Horn, Jerry Stackhouse, Alan Henderson, and Tariq Abdul-Wahad). The talent they've assembled is also reminiscent of the Bombers Row. They've got Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley, Erick Dampier, Josh Howard, Jason Terry and Marquis Daniels to go along with the aforementioned Stack and Van Horn, as well as promising rookie Devin Harris. At the end of last season, they lost Antawn Jamison, Antoine Walker and the reigning MVP in Steve Nash, yet won six more games this year than when they had those guys. That is indeed an embarrassment of riches.
And talk about overbearing owners, Mark Cuban can easily qualify. As if accompanying his team on every road trip isn't irritating enough, he's basically taken over as the club's GM. A couple months ago I stood in the Fleet Center with my tape recorder in Cuban's face, mystified that the media was picking this man's brain for hoop expertise. It's not like he's been in the game all his life; he bought a team because he was bored and has a few billion dollars to spare. After all, isn't this the same guy who had contestants on his show, the Benefactor, play Jenga to determine who was out of the running to receive some of his spare cash? Seriously, Jenga?!
Does Dallas have all the characteristics of the Evil Empire? No, because not enough people hate them. But give 'em time, I say. Last week Dirk and Dampier got into a very public dustup in the press and the basketball community ate it up. Cuban gets on so many people's nerves that it's really a question of "when", not "if."
That's what I'm hoping, anyway. Where's the fun if you don't care who wins or loses? Or at least who loses.