With the Pittsburgh Steelers having just recently captured their second Super Bowl in four years and sixth overall, it seems like a good time to tackle one of the most subjective and contested concepts in sport, “the dynasty.”
How does one define a sports dynasty? Who has rightly deserved the title of dynasty throughout sports history? What does “dynasty” actually mean?
The last question is the easiest to answer. The origin of the word is from the Greek dunasteia, meaning “lordship.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a dynasty is defined as:
1) a succession of rulers of the same line of descent.
2) a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.
Not too much help there, although it’s evident why the notion of a sports dynasty is so debated. There just isn’t a tangible or relevant definition of the term. It has been up to the professional leagues, teams, writers and fans to determine what has constituted a dynasty over the years.
When exactly the term entered the vernacular is difficult to pinpoint, but two of the original teams to garner the designation—the Boston Celtics of the late '50s and 60s and the UCLA Bruins of the 60s and early '70s—still come the closest to fulfilling the second definition of the word, “a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.”
Red Auerbach’s Celtics won 11 of 13 NBA titles from 1957 to 1969, including eight straight. John Wooden’s Bruins took down 10 of 12 NCAA championships from 1964 to 1975, highlighted by a run of seven in a row. Those teams—particularly the Celtics—were dynastic in the truest sense of the word, in that they were sports families headed by powerful patriarchs that held their standing over an extended period of time.
Mergers, expansion and free agency have drastically altered the landscape of professional sports since the old school UCLA and Celtics dynasties. Understanding that, let’s dissect the dynasties of the (semi) modern era. We’ll use the mid-1970s as a jumping off point, considering the ABA-NBA merger took place in 1976, MLB introduced mainstay franchises such as the Mariners and Blue Jays in 1977, and the Super Bowl era was well under way.
In my opinion, there are two parameters that must be met if a team wants to enter the dynasty debate.
1) The team must win back-to-back to titles.
2) The team must win or have won another title within a few years of the successive championships.
In the three major sports there are a handful of squads that have gone back-to-back over the last 40 years, but that was it. They didn’t win another one before or after the consecutive titles within a reasonable amount of time. Among these teams are the New York Yankees (’77 and ‘78), Detroit Pistons (’89 and ‘90), Toronto Blue Jays (’92 and ‘93), Houston Rockets (’94 and ‘95), and Denver Broncos (’98 and ‘99).
It’s an admirable accomplishment to go back-to-back, but there’s an aspect of sustained excellence inherent to the idea of a sports dynasty that those teams didn’t have. Two in a row without another can still fall in “flash in the pan” territory. At least in the context of this argument.
As for the teams that are in the running, let’s um, run through them…
The Pittsburgh Steelers of the '70s—the original “Steel Curtain”—set the the standard for Super Bowl dominance. Led by Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and “Mean Joe” Greene, Pittsburgh won four out of six titles between 1975 and 1980, a mark that is still yet to be met. Dynasty.
In the '80s, the San Francisco 49ers gave a solid encore performance to the Steel Curtain. Behind the innovative and groundbreaking West coast offense instituted by Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice’s 49ers snagged four Super Bowls in a nine-year span (1982-1990). Included in that run was a back-to-back in ‘89 and '90, which solidified the Niner dynasty.
No other NFL franchise has won four titles in one era, but the Dallas Cowboys (’92, '93 and '95) and New England Patriots (’01, '03 and '04) have each gone three out of four. Given the parity that started to take shape in the mid-90s and the establishment of a salary cap in 1994, it could be argued that the Cowboys and Patriots were actually the two most dominant teams in league history. We’ll keep that on the back burner for now.
Jumping to MLB—which saw 14 different champions between 1975 and 1995—the only dynasty of the last 35 years is undisputed: the New York Yankees of the late 90s. With great pitching and a young superstar named Derek Jeter, the Yankees won four out of five World Series between 1996 and 2000. That seven different teams have won titles in the eight years since New York’s run only underscores how remarkable it was.
Finally to the NBA, which has been the most conducive to dynasties throughout the time period in question. Let’s begin with the present, and a peculiar team that has heard the term thrown around in reference to it on more than one occasion. That would be the San Antonio Spurs.
Since Tim Duncan’s sophomore campaign in 1998, the Spurs have won four of the 10 NBA titles to be contested. They’ve won three of the last six, but all in odd years ('03, '05 and '07).
Duncan will probably go down as the greatest power forward of all time, but his lumbering style and passive attitude are generally cited as the chief reasons why the Spurs have yet to repeat as champs. The guy has simply never exhibited the fire and drive needed to go after it, year after year. It takes a cold-blooded leader to repeat, and Duncan—while many things—is not that. Spurs proponents would argue that a miracle three by Derek Fisher in 2004 and Dirk Nowitzki’s historic three-point play in 2006 are the only things standing between San Antonio and five straight titles. And they would have a point, except there’s no room for “coulda, woulda, shoulda” when talking dynasty.
I’ll argue that San Antonio’s three titles combined with those plays merit them the moniker of “team of the decade,” but a dynasty? No.
This is where it gets interesting, because at the beginning of the decade we saw a bona fide dynasty in the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. Three straight crowns starting with the 1999-00 season. A loss in the 2004 Finals to the chippy Detroit Pistons—with the additions of Gary Payton and Karl Malone no less—cost the Lakers their shot at being the team of the decade. That is unless they grab another one in '09…
Now let’s trek back to the 80s, a magnificent era that featured what I must deem a “co-dynasty.” Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics won eight of nine NBA titles beginning with the 1979-80 season. While LA had the upper hand (winning five rings to Boston’s three and two of the three head-to-head showdowns), there’s no doubt that Magic isn’t Magic without Bird and vice-versa. Same goes for their teams. The iconic franchises fed off one another, spawned a fervent bicoastal fan base and permanently embedded the sport in American culture. For that reason the 80s Celtics are the only team to warrant the dynasty tag despite a failure to repeat (they won three of six from ‘81 to ‘86 and appeared in five Finals during that span).
If we’re talking dynasties and iconic players, the argument begins and ends with one man. Michael Jordan. The greatest, most prolific champion of the modern era. His Bulls three-peated from ‘91 to ‘93, and again from ‘96 to ‘98.
He took a break (for reasons still not completely determined) and played baseball for a year and half in between, and his team became mortal without him. After a truncated return in ‘95 and a second straight loss in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the Bulls, MJ made it clear that the glory days were again on the horizon, and he lived up to his word. When it was over Jordan had essentially gone six-for-six in his prime, a surreal stretch of individual dominance in what was historically believed to be a team game.
The dynasty debate is one of the great ongoing discussions in sport. While it will continue to live on—in locker rooms, through the media, around the dinner table—the '90s Bulls are the greatest dynasty in recent American sports history.