The pointless debate over whether the dynasty label should now be affixed to this New England Patriots team cannot obscure the fact that the one-time Patsies now occupy elite territory as back-to-back champions. For more debate fodder, here’s my ranking of the Top 10 repeat champions since 1990 (roughly the span of our collective sports consciousness) based on dominance, drama, cultural significance and other more arbitrary and totally subjective criteria.
For the sake of expedience and the sake of a better argument, I had to make some judgment calls. That eliminated sports that don’t inspire enough collective passion and sports that don’t have a real system for determining champions. So sorry to the 1991-92 Penguins, the 1997-98 Red Wings, all sorts of UConn women’s basketball teams and the 1994-95 Nebraska and 2003-04 USC football programs. The 2004-05 Red Sox nearly cracked the list, but those outside the City of Champions demurred. With teams that won three straight, I chose the better of the two back-to-back runs. With basketball teams, the years given are those in which the team won it all. Talk amongst yourselves.
10) 1994-95 Houston Rockets. Both have an asterisk for occurring while a certain Minor League baseball player was floundering under the steady hand of Birmingham Barons manager Terry Francona. First championship series was pre-empted by the O.J. chase. Second championship team went 47-35 in the regular season. Added points for exposure of Sam Cassell, a winner in each of his first two professional seasons who developed a reputation for being a big-game player and who gave Jadakiss the fodder for the hottest line he’s ever dropped. Automatic deduction for realization that Otis Thorpe was Hakeem Olajuwon’s secondary option in ’94 and that al-Qaeda is apparently Olajuwon’s secondary option in ’04.
9) 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays. Immediate significance: Major League Baseball was so distraught by consecutive championship teams from above the border, followed by a juggernaut 1994 Montreal team, that it decided to close shop rather than risk a Canadian World Series trifecta. Long-term significance: Joe Carter’s Game 6 walk-off in 1993 is still better remembered for the inevitable Mitch Williams implosion than the Carter heroics.
8) 1997-98 Denver Broncos. The ’97 squad, not nearly as good as its successor, reached the Super Bowl as a Wild Card entry but had the good fortune of playing the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh, the annual site of the coronation ceremony for AFC Super Bowl entrants. Props to that team for stopping the NFC Super Bowl run at 13 and for the lasting image of Elway helicoptering himself for a first down against Green Bay. The ’98 team started 13-0 and was for real. Elway in his last hurrah and TD were the stars, but Romo, Sharpe and Atwater gave that team an attitude and a mean streak that made it difficult to beat.
7) 1991-92 Duke Blue Devils. The ’91 team knocked off previously-unbeaten UNLV — the same team that had bested them by 30 in the final game the previous year — in a stunner in the Final Four, while Hill-to-Laettner in the ’92 Elite Eight against Kentucky still holds as one of the great sports finishes of all time.
6) 1991-92 Chicago Bulls. Significant as a defiant pronouncement of a new era in the NBA. In ’91, they swept the two-time defending NBA champion Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals and then ran off the team of the ’80s as Michael Jordan symbolically accepted the torch from Magic in the Finals. The ’92 squad went 67-15 but was weakened in the middle of its playoff run by a physical Knicks team that took it to seven in the second round. Why not ’92-’93? Had John Paxson not drained a three to win Game 6 of the ’93 Finals by a point, the Bulls would have had to play a Game 7 on the road with no momentum against a superior Phoenix team and could have gone down.
5) 1992-93 Dallas Cowboys. Incredible stockpile of talent that went 13-3 the first year, won the NFC Championship game in San Francisco and then rolled to a repeat in ’93 with 11 regulars being named to the Pro Bowl. Bonus for providing a memorable Leon Lett moment each season (Don Beebe in the Super Bowl and a blocked Thanksgiving field goal against Miami). Deduction for, a decade later, being less relevant for excellence than the team it pasted in both Super Bowls is for futility.
4) 2003-04 New England Patriots. Higher than Dallas because they had to overcome more injuries, stiffer competition and the salary cap. And because they’re my people.
3) 2000-2001 Los Angeles Lakers. Have to be slotted here. Triangle offense. Three consecutive rings. Three-way Hollywood drama with Kobe, Shaq and Phil. Their performance in the 2001 playoffs was straight ridiculous as they swept, in succession, their opponents from each of the three Western Conference Finals they appeared in during this run (Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio). Why not 2001-02? While more impressive in the 2002 post-season, the Lakers had nine more regular season wins in 2000 and that year had to overcome the demons of their recent playoff past to reach the top of the mountain, making the comeback against the Blazers — culminating with the Kobe-to-Shaq alley-oop — the most indelible moment of this entire run. Plus the Kings flat choked in Game 7 at home in 2002.
2) 1998-99 New York Yankees. I’m a big enough guy to throw some credit where it’s due. The 125-50 (including playoffs) record compiled by the ’98 Yanks is all the more impressive when you realize that they finished 22 games in front of the Red Sox, and the Sox actually made the playoffs that year as the Wild Card. The ’99 team replaced an 18-4 pitcher (David Wells) with one coming off consecutive Cy Youngs (Roger Clemens) and still could only get worse. Why not 1999-2000? The 2000 team won 87 games. That’s usually good for third in the AL East.
1) 1996-97 Chicago Bulls. With Jordan back for his first full season and now teamed with another scorer (Toni Kukoc) and the league’s best rebounder (Dennis Rodman), the ’96 Bulls started 41-3 and cruised to a 72-win campaign before humiliating a Shaq/Penny Magic team that had reached the NBA Finals the previous year and had gotten better in the Eastern Conference Final. They won 69 games the next year before beating Utah in the first of two classic Finals matchups; six of the Bulls’ eight wins against Utah would come by five or fewer points. This run, including the 1998 championship team that gets left out simply because of the historic ’96 squad, provides the most appealing package of sheer greatness, freak sideshows (a new Rodman story each day) and lingering images (Jordan’s performance with the flu and Steve Kerr’s winner in ’97, Jordan’s steal and walk-off jumper in ’98) and thus claims the top spot.