For the many people eager to see them finally lose, it must have been particularly dispiriting last week to watch the Connecticut women win their 78th basketball game in a row, and with it their second straight NCAA title, and sixth in 11 seasons. The Huskies essentially took the first half off, missing 16 consecutive shots, going scoreless for almost 11 minutes and otherwise making a garish display of their vulnerability—and still Stanford, with its 36 wins on the season, couldn't take them down.
But Husky haters should take note: History almost certainly will look back fondly on this juggernaut. The passage of time has shown that dominant teams have their usefulness, first as inspiration and then for emulation that can raise a sport to heretofore unimagined heights. Consider another basketball dynasty, one with which coach Geno Auriemma's Huskies are being compared: the UCLA men of the 1960s and early '70s. Track the evolution of the NCAA men's tournament, which began in 1939, and you'll find UCLA rising up 25 years along that time line, almost precisely the same point, in the growth of a women's tournament that began in 1982, at which UConn is putting its stamp on the distaff game. UCLA's unquestioned superiority ended when North Carolina State took the 1974 title from the Bill Walton--led Bruins. (To find out who could be the Wolfpack of women's basketball next season, see page 27.) Since then the men's game has belonged to anybody—and everybody.
A dynasty can captivate, framing the beauty of a sport played at its highest level. The 1960s saw such magnetism in three pro sports. The Packers made myth as they won titles, enshrining the sayings of Vince Lombardi, as well as the image of Bart Starr sneaking past Jerry Kramer's left side in a cloud of frozen breath, at the very time the NFL met its great handmaiden, television. Meanwhile the Canadiens, with swashbuckling Quebecois carefully plucked from the territorial draft, became the Stateside hockey fan's "second favorite team," much as Brazil holds that status among soccer fans worldwide today. With his cigar-festooned smirk, Red Auerbach ensured that his Celtics wouldn't be widely loved, but once big-market rivals in Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles found their footing, battles were joined, fans chose sides and the sport boomed.
The timing of another dominant run tapped the NBA into a place where people know from dynasties: Michael Jordan's Bulls won their first title in 1991, just after Chinese premier Deng Xiaopeng opened his country to the West; by the time "the Red Oxen" had won their sixth, China could claim more NBA fans than the U.S. had people.
True, a dynasty can suffocate its sport. The American League outstripped the National League in attendance as the Yankees were winning World Series from 1949 through '52. But the Bronx Bombers' dominance continued numbingly apace, and beginning in '53, as AL pennant races had the drama sucked from them, the NL regularly outdrew its junior counterpart. Not until the late '70s did the AL again pull even at the gate.
More often, though, dynasties, or even potential ones, have helped fix their respective sports in the public imagination and, once there, fire millions of individual dreams, some of which belong to the athletes who will usher in a new order. Throwing open the Olympics to male professionals, it was said before basketball's Dream Team dominated in Barcelona in 1992, would assure American hegemony for decades. In fact, at the world championships in the Yank-friendly precincts of Indianapolis only 10 years later, the finest NBA players the U.S. could muster finished behind the teams from five other nations.
The TV ratings for last week's women's final, up almost one-third from those of 2009, suggest that the UConn run has captured fans' fancy. Now, if the past is a guide, brutal dominance will be followed by a broad flowering. Particularly in women's collegiate sports, this is a common pattern. North Carolina won 16 of the first 19 NCAA women's soccer championships, but the nine since have included four other winners. LSU won 11 straight NCAA track titles until 1997 but has claimed only three since—and the other nine have been parceled among seven schools.
Today, as they sit astride women's basketball, the Huskies should know that even if their accomplishments don't necessarily contain the seeds of UConn's destruction, they almost surely augur the program's eventual eclipse. On the eve of the title game, a fidgety Auriemma posed a question to Rebecca Lobo, one of his former stars, who was working the Final Four for ESPN. "Do they believe they can win?" the UConn coach wanted to know of the Cardinal.
"Yes, they do," Lobo replied. "And I don't think they did a year ago."
And that's the point. Time passes. The competitive imagination becomes engaged. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward parity.
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Alexander Wolff's views on the NCAA tournament's expansion at SI.com/wolff
Dominant teams have their usefulness, first as inspiration, then for emulation that CAN RAISE A SPORT TO UNIMAGINED HEIGHTS.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW