Today’s task is complicated, even if it’s simple.
Pick the best post-season in team sports. Any shape ball, any size field. It seems timely, since we’ve just gotten a full dose of the trials and tribulations of the NBA playoffs, via the wanderings of the Pacers.
What makes it the best: The room-temperature intensity of the regular season is a memory. Now they go at it like two lions fighting over a zebra dinner. It’s invariably interesting to see two teams grow steadily annoyed with each other. By about Game 5, they’re getting along like North and South Korea. Blowing in someone’s ear is optional.
There is also less predictability than many think; the road teams went 34-38 in the first two rounds.
What doesn’t: It lasts longer than the Spanish-American War. You get the first results around Easter, but not a champion until nearly Father’s Day. Way too many off days to appease television. Plus, you can grow old in the last minute of a game, between all the timeouts.
What makes it the best: If you like close games, just follow the puck. Twenty-three playoff games needed overtime through the first three rounds. Plus, the Stanley Cup is the coolest trophy in sports, and not just because it gets awarded to someone standing on a sheet of ice.
What doesn’t: A lot of you don’t know what icing is—and don’t care. You’re supposed to get excited about Ottawa’s chances? Also, no sport loses more between being there in person and watching it on television than hockey.
What makes it the best: First, just look where they’re trying to get to. The Super Bowl. The destination makes the journey special. And there is no margin for error. One bad game, and you can start planning for the next draft, so the heat is on. The fascinating part is when that heat blows directly into the face mask and through the ear holes of the men with the single hardest job in sport—the quarterbacks. Do they thrive, or crumble?
What doesn’t: Underdog tales are rare. Joe Namath made his upset guarantee nearly 46 years ago. Plus, blowouts are not uncommon, and since one game is all you get against an opponent, a lopsided score is a real buzz kill. As magical as the Indianapolis Colts rally was against Kansas City, the New England game was a gray blur.
Major League Baseball
What makes it the best: Maybe it’s not the national pastime anymore—shoved aside by the NFL—but there still is no more compelling competition in team sport than good pitcher against good hitter. And that is what the post-season is all about. Plus, baseball is more democratic than any other sport. In the past 35 years, 19 different franchises have won the World Series. The NBA has had only 10. You know the Super Bowl MVP will almost always be the quarterback, and the NBA Finals MVP almost always someone named Kobe or LeBron or Michael. Some recent World Series MVPs include Pablo Sandoval, David Freese and Hideki Matsui.
What doesn’t: The games take too long and last too late. The World Series is now more regional than world. The two cities involved are as frenzied as ever, but many other places click right past a bases-loaded situation to watch “Dancing With the Stars.”
Ratings do not lie.
What makes it the best: Cinderella stories, upsets, buzzer-beaters, players’ tears and the ultimate one-and-done atmosphere. The NBA boasts the aura of Game 7. In the NCAA Tournament, every game is Game 7. And it’s just the right length. Three weeks of madness, then confetti.
What doesn’t: The players come, the players go. Following college basketball sometimes reminds you of watching a migratory flock of birds. And it shares one ill with the NBA: Games in the final minutes move like a glacier.
What makes it the best: We don’t know yet, since it’s just starting this coming season. But the SEC community will try to officially proclaim it the Eighth Wonder of the World.
What doesn’t: It’s bound to get tiring, listening for weeks to all the speculation—most of which will never happen—then the shrieks of the teams not invited.
What makes it the best: Majestic color, chaos and noise. A wonderful event, if they stop flopping and don’t riot. This would be the landslide winner in most countries.
What doesn’t: It’s hard to make it No. 1 in the United States, as long as the Americans are getting eliminated by Ghana.
And the winner is ...
For the trophy, give me the Stanley Cup. For the hype, give me the NFL. For the ferocity, Game 7 in the NBA. For the dramatic moment, bottom of the ninth in the World Series. For global fervor, the World Cup.
But for the whole package, I’d take the NCAA tournament, where there is doom and magic around every corner. No other post-season will ever give us Butler.•
Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.