VOL. 133 | NO. 105 | Friday, May 25, 2018
The Press Box
Expansion Golden Knights Shine a Light on Hope
By Don Wade
Las Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley had a plan. It was an ambitious plan, but not a crazy plan. His expansion NHL team would strive to make the playoffs in three years and capture the Stanley Cup in six.
Instead, the Golden Knights will play the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals. In their first season. It’s one of the biggest stories in North American sports and yet a lot of people – especially in non-NHL markets – don’t realize the weight of the achievement.
Look, I won’ pretend I know much about the NHL. I don’t. But I do understand this: The road to competitiveness was wider for the expansion Las Vegas team than earlier expansion NHL teams because fewer players were allowed to be protected in the last expansion draft and that meant better players were available.
For sure the player without whom the Golden Knights would not be here is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury; he won three Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But I also know something else about what the Golden Knights have accomplished: If we just write it off as the NHL version of the “Miracle on Ice,” we miss an opportunity to dream.
In Memphis and every other NBA city with a high lottery pick in the June 21 NBA Draft, we are hoping against hope the franchise gets it right, knowing that to get it wrong could have consequences that span a decade or more.
Truth is, expansion teams are supposed to get a pass at being awful the first year and for several years thereafter. Sometimes, the most notable thing an expansion team in any sport can do is entertain us with their folly.
The 1962 New York Mets are the classic example. They went 40-120-1. Yes, they were so bad on one occasion they weren’t even up to losing, they had to settle for a tie. The legendary Casey Stengel managed this rag-tag collection of ballplayers and probably the best thing to come out of their first season was a catchy theme song that started like this:
Meet the Mets,
Meet the Mets,
Step right up and greet the Mets!
Bring your kiddies,
bring your wife;
Guaranteed to have the time of your life
because the Mets are really sockin’ the ball; knocking those home runs over the wall!
In reality, of course, the ball was more likely to go over the wall with a Mets pitcher on the mound; the team gave up a league-worst 192 home runs that season.
The Grizzlies’ original incarnation in 1995-96 in Vancouver was just as hapless. The team went 15-67 and endured losing streaks of 19 and 23 games. For them, as for most expansion teams, just getting one signature victory was a hill too far – never mind making the playoffs or playing for a championship.
On Nov. 30, 1995, those Vancouver Grizzlies were on the verge of beating Michael Jordan and the visiting Chicago Bulls, a team that would finish with 72 victories in the regular season and win the NBA championship.
The Grizzlies led by 75-67 at the 8:35 mark in the fourth quarter after guard Darrick Martin hit a 3-pointer at the top of the key.
Years later, Grizzlies forward Antonio Harvey would speak to author Sean Deveney for his book, “Facing Michael Jordan: Players Recall the Greatest Basketball Player Who Ever Lived.” (And yes, LeBron James has put that book title up for serious debate).
Anyway, Harvey recounted that Jordan was having a tough shooting night and had spent a good chunk of the second half on the bench. Martin had hung out some with Jordan that summer because he had been in the movie “Space Jam.” Martin believed this made them friends, gave him a certain latitude with Jordan.
Harvey says that Martin ran by the Bulls’ bench yelling at Jordan, spicing his taunts the way trash-talkers do, and telling him, “It’s just not falling tonight, Mike … I told you we were going to beat you, Mike!”
At which point Jordan came back into the game and scored 19 points in about six minutes and the Bulls won 94-88.
“Michael hit a fade-away, falling toward our bench,” Harvey recalled. “After it went in, he leaned down in front of Darrick Martin and said, `Shut up you little (expletive)!’”
Yes, that’s the way Jordan spoke to just about everyone and the way the sports world normally talks to expansion teams.
The Las Vegas Golden Knights have written a new script. Too sappy for a fictional Disney movie, beyond even Vegas odds (they were 500-1 at some sportsbooks before the season), but here they are in real life about to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Root for the expansion Golden Knights to win the championship series or not (they haven’t suffered enough, say the bitter and envious), but give them this:
They serve to remind that every pro sports franchise’s reasons for failure are just excuses passed down from one generation to the next.
Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.