Which North American pro sports franchise is the greatest of the great? With the NBA and NHL playoffs starting up, and baseball in its earliest stages, it seemed like a good time to assess this unique argument.
The greatest of the great from each major sports league have sustained consistent excellence over decades, not just 15-20 years. The best franchises have multiple title runs going back to their early years of their league up to recently. They contend and/or win championships on a regular basis in their sport.
Interestingly, my five top candidates all have won 56-60 percent of their regular season games, all-time. And even more intriguing, the top four have won approximately 22-24 percent of their league's titles.
Long-term, historic excellence excludes NFL teams like the Cowboys, who were born in 1960 and have not been to a Super Bowl since the mid-1990s; the Steelers, who were the league doormat up to the early 1970s but became the NFL's most consistent winner since then; and the Patriots, whose five crowns have all come this century.
Had I limited the scope to the Super Bowl era Pittsburgh, Dallas, San Francisco, New England and Green Bay would be the top five football teams. Similarly the Spurs have been in the playoffs 38 of their 41 NBA seasons and have won five titles, but all were won from 1999-2014.
All five of the finalist franchises boast incredible championship pedigrees. In each sport, they rank first or second in titles won, and by large margins.
These iconic franchises also feature the most truly transcendent, great all-time players in their pro sports. Players on these clubs not only dominated, they defined eras: Babe Ruth, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Mickey Mantle, Maurice Richard, Don Hutson, Brett Favre, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Jean Believeau, Ken Dryden, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Guy Lafleur, George Mikan, John Havlicek and too many more to name.
All of these great teams also possess an intimidation factor, an aura/mystique that helped them hang banners. All of these franchises have been able to rise above even their great talent to hold off hungry opponents and win even when they were outplayed or to standstill.
But the winning came first, then the aura.
For the old school champion Celtics the banners, ghosts and leprechauns of the Garden played a role in beating visiting, unnerved foes.
Old Yankee Stadium was extremely intimidating, huge and loud with unruly crowds. The old Montreal Forum ice dripped with tradition and titles, inducing reverence and fear.
Lambeau Field has long been a tough place to win for opponents, especially in the cold playoff winters of the upper midwest. And the fabulous Forum became a place where the Lakers got all the calls and the fans became rabid in the entertaining and highly successful Showtime era of the 1980s.
But as Robert Parish said when asked by Knicks announcer John Andariese about the leprechauns helping the Celtics win, he replied with a little irritation that "it was the players who won," who comprised Celtic pride and mystique.
Yet the trappings did not hurt.
One major thing all these franchises have in common, other than great players, are all-time great head coaches. Names like Lombardi, Auerbach, Riley, Jackson, Blake, Bowman, Stengel, McCarthy, Martin, Lambeau and Jackson, among others, guided these iconic franchises to win multiple titles despite immense pressure and expectations, as well as fierce opposition.
Another thing they share just off the field of play is their list of great announcers. Legendary Mel Allen was the long-time radio/TV voice of the Yankees when they were at their most dynastic, as well as hosting the groundbreaking TV highlight show "This Week in Baseball", while Bob Sheppard was the classic PA man for the Yanks for decades.
The smooth Chick Hearn and gravel-voiced, chain-smoking Johnny Most are the two greatest NBA announcers ever, and of course these colorful masters were the voices of the Lakers and Celtics, the league's two most dominant franchises.
Tellingly, and perhaps not unexpectedly, it seems that the lore of the greatest title-winning champions lends itself to multiple nicknames out of respect and admiration.
Before I rank the top five, it would be remiss not to recognize those top-notch honorable mention franchises who just missed my final cut: St. Louis Cardinals (11 World Series titles, second most in baseball to the Yankees), Toronto Maple Leafs (13 Stanley Cup crowns, second to Montreal - but none since 1967), the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (six titles, 15 times runners-up, but no WS titles since 1988), and Chicago Bears (.565 all time win pct., 11 NFL titles, but none since 1985).
Here are my all-time fab five, in descending order.
#5) Green Bay Packers (Founded 1921)
Number of championships/years played: 13/97
Number of conference titles/championship game appearances:
Championship game record: 13-3 (81.3%) (4-1 Super Bowl era, 9-2 in NFL championship games)
Pct. of champs won (out of total seasons): 13.4%
All-time record: 730-553-37 (56.7%)
Playoff qualifications/record: 32 of 97 seasons/34-22 (60.7%)
Number of separate dynasties (multiple title runs): 3. 1929-31 (3 in a row); 1936-44 (3 out of 8); 1961-67 (5 out of 8 and 3 in a row)
First championship: 1929
Last championship: 2010
Championships: 1929-31, 1936, 1939, 1944, 1961-62, 1965-67, 1996, 2010
Alternate nicknames: The Pack, The Green and Gold, Titletown
Hall of Famers: 24
Most iconic players: Don Hutson, Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, Willie Wood, Herb Adderley, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers
Greatest coaches: Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi
The case for: The NFL, of the four major pro leagues, has been the most balanced in terms of dispersing championships. This suggests that perhaps football is the toughest sport to maintain a long-term dynasty in due to the more violent nature of the game, and injuries which shorten playing careers.
Baseball and hockey careers have been known to go well over 20 years regularly, and occasionally even past 25 years. Many modern cagers have played into their 40s and late 30s. George Blanda aside, only kickers and the occasional quarterback are able to play effectively beyond 40 in the brutal world of the NFL.
Also it may mean that there are more good organizations vying for NFL titles. The NBA, MLB and NHL each have had at least one organization that almost totally dominated for long stretches.
No NFL team has ever won four titles in a row, while MLB (1949-53 Yankees), the NHL (1956-60 canadiens) and NBA (1959-66 Celtics) have had teams win five to eight straight. Only one team has even won three straight in pro football, and none since the mid 1960s, when Green Bay accomplished the feat.
Thus the Packer titles-winning percentage compared to years played is far lower than their rivals in this competition.
The Packer power sweep play of the 1960s-era champions symbolized Green Bay (and team sports along with the Celtics) at the time - skilled players executing basic plays to perfection even though the opponent knew it was coming.
Defenses just could not stop it, much like the Celtic fast break of the 1960s or the brilliant Boston halfcourt offensive execution of the Bird/McHale era.
Green Bay has a great title-round record, second only to the Celtics’ 85 percent championship series success. They are the only team to author two separate three-year title runs in league annals (1929-31 and 1965-67).
Green Bay won the first two Super Bowls, and the Lombardi Trophy is now awarded annually to the NFL champion. The trophy was named after iconic Packer five-time champion coach Vince Lombardi in 1970 after he died tragically from cancer.
The case against: The Pack went long stretches without a title between their championship years. GB suffered through almost 30 years from their Super Bowl II win to 1997, when Brett Favre led them to the crown over the Patriots.
The Pack went through a bad stretch from 1945 through 1959, when they missed the playoffs every year. After winning the title over the Giants in 1944, their next playoff foray resulted in a loss to the Eagles in the 1960 championship game.
Even though the green and gold have been consistent contenders over the past 20 years, they have added just one championship to their Title-town tapestry.
The Pack only won one title from 1939-61, before expansion and merger bloated the number of teams in the NFL.
In the end, Green Bay simply does not have enough titles to compete with the other four title franchises. Their long dry spell in the 1970s and 1980s, where they won just one playoff game between 1967 and 1993, dooms them to number five.
Over those 25 seasons, they only qualified for the post-season twice - in 1972, a loss to Washington - and in 1982, a strike-shortened season with an enlarged playoff field. And with that expanded playoff field came their lone post-season victory in a quarter century.
GB has missed the playoffs only once in the past decade, and has been a consistent Super Bowl threat in the Aaron Rodgers era - as well as for most of the preceding Favre era.
But as great as Rodgers has been so far, he has only been able to lead the Pack to one crown, the same as Favre and one less than Bart Starr - the two Packer QBs whose names are ironically very similar sounding phonetically.
#4) Los Angeles/Minneapolis Lakers (1947 1st NBA season)
Number of championships/years played: 16/70 (5 titles in 1950s as Minneapolis Lakers)
Number of conference titles/Finals appearances: 31
Finals series record: 16-15
Pct. of champs won (out of total seasons): 22.5
All time record: 5,448-3,261 (59.8%)
Playoff qualifications/record: 60 out of 70/503-335 (60.0%)
Number of separate dynasties (multiple title runs): 4: 1949-54 (5 out of 6); 1980-88 (5 out of 9); 2000-02 (3 in row); 2009-10
First championship: 1950
Last championship: 2010
Championships: 1950-51, 1952-54, 1972, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88, 2000-02, 2009-10.
Alternate nicknames: Showtime, The Lake Show
Hall of Famers: 23
Most iconic players: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin Johnson, Kobe Bryant, George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, James Worthy, Shaquille O'Neal, Gail Goodrich
Greatest coaches: John Kundla, Bill Sharman, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson
The case for: The consistent Lakers have made at least one Finals in every full decade of the league's existence. And in the 1960s they made six Finals (losing every time to Boston, three times in seven-game epics). Those game seven losses were by three in overtime, and by a mere two points the other two times.
The Lakers have been in 31 championship series, or 44 percent of the league's Finals, a higher percentage than any team in any sport by a comfortable margin (Yanks 36%, Habs 34%, Celts 29%). Unfortunately, they lost almost half of those. At one point, they lost eight in a row in a frustrating 12-year era from 1959 through 1970.
LA finally broke through to win its first championship based in Los Angeles during their epic 1971-72 campaign. That season saw the Lakers win 33 in a row, a remarkable streak that still stands as the longest in American team pro sports history.
Ironically, the streak started the night all-time Laker great Elgin Baylor retired, and ended about two months later at defending champion Milwaukee - who had held the previous record of 20 wins in a row.
Led by Jerry West, an aging Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich, the 1971-72 Lakers also set a record for most wins in a regular seasn with 69, a mark that stood for 24 seasons and has been exceeded only twice. West led the NBA in assists while he and Goodrich set a record that still stands for highest scoring backcourt at a combined 51.7 ppg.
Goodrich led the team at 25.9 ppg, with West right behind at 25.8 pph.
The Lakers have rebounded to win 10 out of their last 16 Finals appearances since 1980.
The case against: The Lakers are currently in their worst stretch in franchise annals, missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season and sitting at the bottom of the league again. And they don't appear to be near title contention anytime soon.
LA also has a sizable disadvantage against their chief rival Boston in all-time head to head games and Finals series outcomes (3-9).
Ultimately, the Laker quest for number one is stopped because in their own sport they still rank behind the Celtics. One can argue that the Lakers have been consistently as good as or even slightly better than even Boston over the NBA's seven-plus decades of operation.
But clear dominance by Boston over LA in championship series meetings and overall head-to-head matchups tilts the scales (43-31 in playoff Finals games, 158-128 regular season) in favor of the C's.
Had the Lakers won roughly half of the regular season meetings and more importantly, two or three more of their championship bouts - as they well might have since four of their series losses to Boston came in close seven-game series - they might have an argument.
On the other hand, one could easily argue that all three Laker wins over Boston in the Finals were a direct result of serious Celtic injuries - particularly in 1987 and 2010 - as well as 1985, to a lesser extent.
Moreover, in the 1960s and especially the 1980s, when LA made it to 14 Finals out of 20, the West was much weaker than the East. In the 1980s, the Lakers cruised to the Finals eight times, losing only to Houston in 1981 and 1986, and were rarely even challenged.
But from 1981 on, the East was far deeper with top teams (Boston, the 76ers, Bucks, Hawks and later the Pistons) than the West, which was severely weakened by the post-1980 move of Milwaukee to the East, as well as the decline of Phoenix and Seattle.
The weak West of the 1980s was embodied by the 1987 Laker run to the NBA Finals. They played two sub-.500 teams, including a 39-43 Seattle team in the WESTERN FINALS, and a 42-40 Golden State team, en route to the title round.
Meanwhile back East, beat-up Boston had to get by Jordan and Chicago in round one, then beat two 50-plus win teams in Milwaukee and Detroit in grueling seven-game thrillers just to reach the Finals.
As for Montreal, the Candiens have dominated the NHL at a slightly higher rate than the Lakers. Eight more championships and three more Finals appearances, albeit over a longer term, give the Habs the edge over the Lakers.
#3) Montreal Canadiens (founded 1909)
Number of championships/years played: 24/106 (2 years had no playoffs due to lockout in 2005 and Spanish flu in 1919)
Number of Stanley Cup Finals appearances: 34
Cup Finals series record: 24-9-1 (70.6% - in 1919 the Finals were suspended at 2-2-1 between Montreal and Seattle due to flu epidemic)
Pct. of champs won (out of total seasons): 22.6%
All time record: 3,346-2,180-837 (60.5%)
Playoff qualifications/record: 83 out of 99 SC era/420-303 record (58.1%, pre 2017)
Number of separate dynasties (multiple title runs): 5: 1930-31; 1956-60 (5 in a row); 1965-69 (4 out of 5); 1971-73 (2 out of 3); 1976-79 (4 in a row).
First championship: 1916
Last championship: 2010
Championships: 1916, 1924, 1930-31, 1944, 1946, 1953, 1956-60, 1965-66, 1968-69, 1971, 1973, 1976-79, 1986, 1993.
Alternate nicknames: The Habs, or Les habitantes, Les Grand Club, Les Tricolor or Les Blanc/Bleu/Rouge, Les Glorieux
Hall of Famers: 50
Most iconic players: Maurice Richard, Jean Believeau, Ken Dryden, Jacque Plante, Guy Lafleur, Yvon Cournoyer, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Doug Harvey, Frank Mahovlich, Steve Shutt, Dickie Moore, Larry Robinson, Patrick Roy
Greatest coaches: Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake, Dick Irvin
The case for: Had this list been compiled in 1979, the Canadiens might have been number one, or at least second. They were riding high after a fourth Cup in a row, while the Celtisc were struggling in the pre-Bird era and the Yankees were starting on an 18-year title drought.
But in the 37 seasons since their last dynasty captured four Cups in a row from 1976-79, Montreal has added a mere two championship banners to its resume.
Partly because they are older than their NBA rivals, les Habs have more Hall of Famers than anyone on this list. However, their number is so much greater that it bears witness to the club's sustained greatness up through the early 1990s.
Of course, their list of Hall members includes some players who did not spend much of their careers with the Canadiens. The Celtics (Bill Walton), Lakers (Gary Payton, Karl Malone), Yankees (Enos Slaughter) all have players who also spent most of their careers elsewhere.
However, the Habs list of 40 HoF players is vastly comprised of players who spent most or large portions of their careers in Montreal, even more so than the others on this list.
Like the Celtics, is it a coincidence that once their old intimidating arenas (The Forum/the old Boston Garden) were each knocked down in the mid-1990s, that these fabled clubs have struggled to win it all or regain their dominance?
Ultimately, it is much harder to dominate the 30-team leagues of the 21st century replete with better GMs and organizations, better scouting/research opportunities, than the ones Red Auerbach and the Canadien hierarchy had to compete against/fleece.
The case against: Sixteen of their 24 Cups came before the league expanded from a mere six teams starting in 1942 to 12 in 1967-68.
In addition, when they won the 1968 and 1969 titles, they played against an expansion St. Louis team in the Cup finals both times due to the silly playoff format the MHL adopted from 1968-70. sweeping them 4-0 each series.
The 1970s, which Montreal dominated to the tune of six Cups behind the great goaltending of Ken Dryden and scoring of Guy Lafleur, turned out to be the last gasp of the dying Canadien dynasty.
The Habs have not won a title since 1993, and have captured just one of Lord Stanley's Cups in the past 31 seasons.
Montreal has a solid chance to add banner number 25 this spring if things break right, but the Cup playoffs are notoriously unpredictable. Due to the inordinate influence of hot goaltenders, it is much more common to see number one and two seeds lose early in the playoffs compared to the NBA and NFL.
#2) Boston Celtics (1946-47 1st NBA season)
Number of championships/years played (pre 2017 playoffs): 17/70
Number of conference titles/Finals appearances: 20
Finals series record: 17-3
Pct. of championships won (out of total seasons): 24.3% or 23.9% if no title in 2017
All time record regular season: 3,224-2,286 (58.9%)
Playoff qualifications/record (pre-2017 playoffs): 55 out of 71/346-261 (57.0%)
Number of separate dynasties (multiple title runs): 4: 1957-66 (9 out of 10, 8 in a row 1959-66); 1968-69; 1974-76 (2 out of 3); 1981-86 (3 out of 6)
First championship: 1957
Last championship: 2008
Championships: 1957, 1959-66, 1968-69, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1984, 1986, 2008.
Alternate nicknames: Celts, the C's, Gang Green or the Green, The Green Machine
Hall of Famers: 28 (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are others who will be enshrined soon)
Most iconic players: Larry Bird, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Dave Cowens, Kevin McHale, Sam Jones, Bill Sharman, JoJo White, Paul Pierce, Tom Heinsohn
Greatest coaches: Red Auerbach, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones
The case for: The Celtics have put together multiple different sustained eras of championship success, with another one coming very close in their 2007-2010 run.
Red Auerbach was able to weave together title runs from the Russell era to the Havlicek/Cowens teams of the 1970s on into the 1980s behind the Big Three of Bird, McHale and Parish.
Only age, injuries and deaths brought the Celtic dynasty down shortly before the Boston Garden was replaced in 1995. Maybe all the good luck the Celtics enjoyed for three decades caught up with them as they experienced almost exclusive bad luck in the post-Bird era until the acquisitions of KG and Ray Allen resuscitated the reeling franchise in 2007.
None of the other contenders on this list were rocked by injury and death to the extent of the Celtics with Bird, Bias and Lewis, although the plane crash death of backbone catcher Thurman Munson also seemed to bring the Yankee dynasty of the late 1970s to a close.
From 1957-86, Boston won an incredible 16 titles, just over half of the championships in that span. Their eight in a row from 1959 through 1966 is a record in pro sports likely never to be approached, let alone broken.
Uniquely - beyond all the great Russell defensive stops, which are too many to mention - three of the greatest Celtic playoff moments were epic end-of-game steals - "Havlicek steals the ball" in 1965 Game 7 vs. the 76ers; Gerald Henderson's steal and score to force OT in game 2 of the thrilling 1984 Finals vs. the Lakers; and Bird's incredible steal of victory from the jaws of defeat against the bruising, hated Pistons in game 5 of the rancorous 1987 East finals.
The case against: Eleven of their crowns came in a glorious, unmatched 13-year run with defender extraordinaire Bill Russell at the core.
When Russell and company were winning 11 out of 13 crowns, the league consisted of only eight teams, then 10.
The Celts have also only won one title since 1986, However, they were one win away from banner number 18 in 2010, and are on the rise as a dark-horse contender this spring.
Boston is poised to contend for a while with the game's finest young coach in Brad Stevens and a young team with numerous draft picks stashed away.
I rank the Celtics narrowly ahead of the Canadiens primarily because they have won a slightly higher percentage of championships per seasons played. Plus, Montreal dominated the 1942-67 era of the NHL with 10 titles, when the Original Six meant the Habs had just five teams to beat to hoist Lord Stanley's famous trophy.
Then in 1967 the league doubled in size due to expansion to 12 teams, but in an unusual decision the six established teams were all placed in one conference with the six expansion teams in the other. This strange set-up ensured that an expansion team would make the Cup finals.
The Canadiens won the first two expansion era Cups in 1968-69 over league newcomer St. Louis in four straight each time. The Bruins made it three sweeps in a row in 1970 when they whipped the outmanned Blues 4-0.
Thus, those 1968-69 finals were pretty much easy walkovers. It would be like the Celtics getting to play the expansion Heat, Timberwolves or Magic in the late 1980s Finals, provided they got through a small pool of opponents to reach the title series.
Finally the NHL revamped its format in 1971 due to the lopsided Cup Finals. To their credit, the amazing Canadiens won two of the next three Cups against tougher competition, although 1971 was a major surprise.
Behind rookie goalie Ken Dryden as the Habs first upset the Bruins (possibly the greatest team in Boston history) 4-3 in round one, and then took out the Blackhawks 4-3 behind an improbable comeback in the Cup Finals.
Montreal then went on to win it again in 1973 and from 1976-79, but that was their last great run. The Celtics went through a similar drought from 1987-2007, but revived their championship legacy in 2008 and have been contenders for much of the last decade.
#1) New York Yankees (1903 World series era began, previously nicknamed the Highlanders)
Number of championships/years played: 27/112 (no WS in 1904 or 1994)
Number of pennants won/World Series appearances: 40
World Series record: 27-13
All-time record (pre-2017): 10,085-7,650 (56.9%)
Playoff qualifications/record: 52 out of 112/ (46.4%)
Pct. of championships won (out of total seasons): 24.1%
Number of separate dynasties (multiple title runs): 4: 1923-28 (3 titles of 6); 1936-39 (4 in a row); 1941-43 (2 of 3); 1949-55 (5 in a row and 6 of 7); 1961-62; 1977-78; 1996-2000 (4 out of 5).
First championship: 1923
Last championship: 2009
Championships: 1923, 1927-28, 1932, 1936-39, 1941, 1943, 1947, 1949-53, 1956, 1961-62, 1977-78, 1996, 1998-2000, 2009.
Alternate nicknames: Yanks, Pinstripers, Bombers/Bronx Bombers, Evil Empire, Damn Yankees.
Hall of Famers: 39 (recent retirees Jeter and Rivera certainly will end up in Cooperstown as well)
Most iconic players: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter
Greatest managers: Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Billy Martin, Joe Torre
The case for:
From 1921-64, the Yankee dynasty won an astounding 20 World Series crowns and 29 pennants, an amazing 44-year run. That incredible span of success went from Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio to Berra and Mantle, as many of major league baseball's greatest ever passed the baton and tradition on for well over four decades.
So dominant were the big-city Yanks that they crossed over into mainstream culture. The pinstripers spawned a famous play/song "Damn Yankees" because they won so darn much.
New York has had six different runs of two or more titles in a row. They hold the major league record for most championships in a row with five from 1949-53.
They won two in a row (and four overall) with Ruth and Gehrig in the roaring 1920s, four straight behind Gehrig and DiMaggio in the late 1930s Depression era; an incredible five straight with Berra and Joe D/Mantle in the post-WWII era; two in a row with the final American "age of innocence" M&M boys in 1961-62; back-to-back with the infamous Bronx Zoo crew in 1977-78 led by Jackson and Munson; and four out of five with the core four of Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams at the turn of the century from 1996-2000.
New York's relatively low playoff qualification percentage is due to the fact that it has always been much harder to make the post-season in baseball than hockey or basketball, in particular. Up to 1969, only the league champions made it to the playoffs/World Series.
From 1969-93 the four division winners only made it to the playoffs. For the next 16 years eight teams got in, and it was expended to 10 around 2011. Today the NHL and NBA both let 16of 30 teams in the playoffs, while the NFL qualifies 12 out of 32 to the playoffs.
Throughout their histories, the NHL and NBA have almost always allowed over half of their teams to make the playoffs, except for a time in the early 1970s when only eight of 17 NBA teams could qualify.
Only the Canadiens have had as many different dysnastic runs as the Yanks, but they have not had one since the late 1970s. The Celtics had three clear separate dynasties, although the Russell dynasty lasted much longer than the other and could be split into two different runs (1957-63 with Cousy) and 1964-69 (after Cousy).
The tireless John Havlicek bridged the era from Russell to Cowens and almost to Bird by starring for the Celtics from 1962-78.
But the Yankees have won big more, and for longer than anyone else.
The case against: The American League for decades was notoriously imbalanced compared to the National League, giving the Yanks an easier road to the title round - especially in the pre-divisional era before 1969 when the league champion advanced to the World Series automatically.
Later on in the dynasty, weak sisters like the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Athletics became almost like farm teams to the Yankees, sending their best players to New York after they had been seasoned for money or prospects from the rich Yankee system.
Nobody helps the Celtics with deals like those, and free agency helped the Pinstripers win buig int he Steinbrenner era (1973-2009).
Like the Celtics, the Bombers were able to win many close championship series over a major foil which moved to Los Angeles(Lakers/Dodgers). The Yankees have beaten the Dodgers in eight of 11 World Series, including the first five meetings, many of which could have gone either way with different bounce here or there.
Bombastic owner George Steinbrenner bought and fought his way to the last seven Yankee titles. In their last dynastic run spanning the late 1990s/early 2000s, it seemed that the Bombers routinely received preferential umpiring on close calls, presumably for better TV ratings and also due to Yankee Stadium intimidation.
New York also benefitted from NL playoff upsets and injuries to the Braves and Cardinals during that 1996-2000 run, especially in 1999 and 2000.
In the end, it came down to the ancient rivalry of Boston vs. New York - but this time instead of Red Sox/Yanks, Bruins/Rangers, Celtics/Knicks or Patriots/Jets, the quest for number one features the inter-sport matchup of all-time iconic franchises - Celtics vs. Yankees.
Both clubs have more great players in their history than any team in their leagues. Each transcendent superstar seems to have a similar counterpart with the other franchise - the Babe and Russ, the Mick and the Hick from French Lick/Larry Legend, The Iron Horse (Gehrig) and Hondo, Joe D and the Cooz, Red and the ole perfessor Casey, Thurman Munson and Big Red (Cowens), Yogi and Big Mac (McHale), on up to Jeter and the Truth.
Each club has had many fine players who would have been big stars elsewhere if not overshadowed by the greatness on their own rosters: players like Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, JoJo White, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge on the Celtics and Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Ron Guidry, Allie Reynolds, Sparky Lyle, Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Roy White, Bobby Murcer of the Yankees, and so on.
Both teams had a history of acquiring experienced, crafty veterans that helped put them over the top to win more titles: the Yanks with aging ex-Cardinal Hall of Famers like Johnny Mize and Enos Slaughter, and later with Paul Blair, Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs; the Celtics with shrewd pick-ups like Don Nelson, Emmette Bryant, Bailey Howell, Charlie Scott, Chris Ford, Nate Archibald, Bill Walton, and the deep bench of the 2008 champs.
These big-market, establishment east coast titans both boast more lore, mystique, tradition, dramatic moments, great coaches and iconic stadia than the others, too.
Along with the Canadiens, they came to embody championship pedigree - yet because baseball and basketball are far more popular than hockey in America (except for pockets in the northeast and upper midwest), the Celtics and Yankees were much more loved - and hated.
They were must-watch fare, to root for or against, like Notre Dame football and the Dallas Cowboys have been in the past.
Their instantly recognizable uniforms and logos are both simple yet classic, and symbolize tradition. Green and white, and navy blue with white.
They were, in sports, bigger than life teams that epitomized winning, and winning big almost all the time. They were the clubs that everyone wanted to beat, and who used that target on their backs to their advantage with a combination of great skill and talent, cunning psychology and confidence.
Instead of shrinking under the ever-increasing pressure to win, these clubs thrived on it.
So why does one of these two most blue-blooded franchises ultimately rate as number one, the best of the very best?
Had this been written in 1987, the Celtics probably win out because they were still atop the mountain and coming off an amazing 16 titles in the previous three decades. With a few breaks and less costly playoff injuries, Boston could have won two more crowns in the 1970s and three more in the 1980s.
Meanwhile at that time, the Yankees were in the middle of their second-longest title drought (since their early years), going without a championship from 1978-96. Steinbrenner was even suspended form baseball in the early 1990s, further besmirching the Yankee legacy. But then the Boss and the Yankees came back with a vengeance in the second half of the 1990s.
With the most recent Yankee run of titles in the late 1990s and their sustained excellence up to the early part of this current decade, New York regained its dynastic foothold. Even without winning a title over the last five years, the Yanks and Cardinals have the best composite record in that time.
On the other hand bad luck, serious injuries and death brought down the third - and potential fourth Celtic dynasty. The back and foot maladies of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale reduced their effectiveness and shortened their careers, and the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis burned the bridge that was going to carry Boston past the Bird era into the mid-1990s, and beyond.
Instead with their Big Three and the next two stars prematurely deceased, the Celtics plunged into the only prolonged bad spell in franchise history from 1994-2007. The C's enjoyed just a couple good years in the early 2000s (highlighted by a trip to the East finals in 2002) after the abysmal Pitino experiment.
That drought, combined with the 22-year gap between titles from 1986-2008 and New York's five crowns from 1996-2009, relegates the Celts to a close second behind the Yanks.
Even though their title percentage to years played is almost even, the Yankees just have too many championships, 27-17. They simply have been similarly great but for longer.
Their franchise is basically a half century older than the Celtics, and in the second 25 years of that span they dominated baseball with 15 pennants and 11 World Series titles - before the Celtics were even born in the NBA.
Another thing in the Yankees' favor is that they have been in 40 World Series, clearly more title round appearances than any other franchise (34 for Montreal, 31 for the Lakers and 20 for the Celtics.)
When Boston has gotten to the Finals, it has been the most successful championship round franchise ever, winning 85 percent of their series. But they have only reached half as many finals as the Yankees in 63 percent as many seasons (112 to 70).
It is one thing to be very good, consistently good, a contender, but another thing to WIN those championships. There is a small yet inescapable gap between very good and great, much of it intangible beyond great talent and skill. Both th Celtics and Yankees have done this.
Clutch play, sports intelligence, supreme confidence, competitiveness/drive, health, luck, great poise under pressure and a killer instinct are among the key differences, and both teams have boasted those necessary ingredients in abundance.
If the Celts run off three or more crowns in the next several years while the Yanks remain crown-less, this ranking could change. The revamped, young Bronx Bombers appear poised to contend again shortly, much like the Celtics are right now.
However, Boston also owns a plethora of key draft picks and a great young coach, and with a well-stocked nucleus of young talent, appears potentially poised (with a few key moves/additions such as free agent star Gordon Hayward and a good big shooting guard) for another possible dynastic run that would put them number one on this most exclusive list.
But for now, it is Yankees by a nose.
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