I love dynasties.
I love the reverence they demand, no matter how stingy you are with praise. I love the fact that in sports the level of performance required transcends winning and causes you to judge them as art. I love the challengers who can’t beat them and the sportswriters who can’t explain them and the fans who can’t tolerate them.
So the debate about the Connecticut women’s basketball team is amusing. It has everyone twisted up over the true meaning of competition, all because Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy tweeted the obvious, with some opinionated bite, about a ridiculous Sweet 16 score.
Wrote Shaughnessy: “UConn Women beat Miss St. 98-38 in NCAA tourney. Hate to punish them for being great, but they are killing women’s game. Watch? No thanks.”
It was just enough to make an important topic controversial and send the masses — women’s basketball fans and detractors, equality activists, sporting purists and anyone who needed an excuse to throw a temper tantrum — sprinting to express their finest hot takes. But this issue is far bigger and more nuanced than the tired, persistent analysis of the state of women’s basketball.
A fundamental part of the sports experience is coming to terms with how to feel about dominance. The challenge is universal for every era, every sport. Dominance helps develop your passion for these games. You’ll always have deep feelings about the time your team owned the division or conference or entire league. And you’ll always remember the hatred you felt about the team that seemingly nobody could beat. A dynasty will push those feelings to extreme levels.
Then comes the unavoidable question: Is it bad for the game to have one unstoppable team? And once that unstoppable team is toppled, it often becomes clear that the game was better for having seen a new level of excellence.
Coach Geno Auriemma may have unleashed, even for him, an unprecedented version of dominance with Breanna Stewart and the rest of these Huskies, who have won 73 straight games, 120 of their past 121 and enter the Final Four two victories shy of a fourth straight national title. They’re unlike any machine in recent sports memory, especially because their greatness comes when their sport is otherwise making tremendous strides in parity. The other three semifinalists this year are first-timers: Oregon State, Syracuse and Washington. That only raises concern that Connecticut might win a game by 50 on the sport’s biggest stage.
No one really likes blowouts. Even when your team is doling out the punishment, there’s a part of you that craves the tension, the nervous energy about losing that makes victory so satisfying. But when talking about competition, it’s important to understand the multiplicity of that word.
Sociologists could talk for hours on this subject, but let’s highlight two concepts to relate competition to sports. Because you usually watch games between two participants while staring at a scoreboard, the most common sports experience is one of interpersonal competition, of one team trying to beat the other. But there’s also impersonal competition, in which you’re not striving to beat someone but striving to achieve something.
And then it’s critical to remember that competition is never-ending. When Auriemma is gone and the top recruits don’t flock to Connecticut, women’s college basketball will still have an NCAA tournament and will still hand out a trophy at the end. The Huskies can’t master the game because the game is the master. These four years, and Auriemma’s 10 titles in 30 completed seasons, are just a mark in history. They’re an exclamation mark, but a mark nonetheless. Eventually, the game will absorb them, disperse all the lessons, and there will be a new standard for the teams to reach. It’s no different than the standard Auriemma had to surpass when he took over the Huskies in 1985 and saw a losing program looking up at the likes of Louisiana Tech, Texas, Old Dominion, Southern Cal and Tennessee.
In terms of interpersonal competition, no, Connecticut doesn’t typically play compelling games. If you’re looking for a “Rocky” movie to break out when the Huskies take the court, forget it — unless you’re talking about Rocky Marciano instead of Balboa. You know the ending. This champ is going to retire undefeated. The only thing you can measure is immeasurable: How great is unchallenged greatness?
But in terms of the nature of competition, absolutely, Connecticut is compelling. The Huskies play an artistic, free-flowing style with great shooting and toughness underneath the basket. Stewart, at 6 feet 4, is a multi-positional marvel.
Aside from the Huskies, the most iconic teams in women’s basketball are having a harder time than they’ve ever had. Pat Summitt isn’t coaching Tennessee anymore, and the Volunteers are no longer a safe bet to win at least one title every four years. Stanford is great, but human. U-Conn. is the only No. 1 seed in this year’s Final Four. More and more major universities are making the commitment to build women’s basketball powerhouses. But there’s Connecticut, still strengthening its powers.
When John Wooden won seven straight national titles and 10 in 12 years at the end of his run at UCLA, people called the NCAA tourney the UCLA Invitational Tournament, just like they’re calling this the U-Conn. Invitational. The same was true when the Dream Team graced the 1992 Olympics, their games more a photo opportunity for admiring “competitors” than actual sporting events.
Ultimately, though, these past great teams and so many more made their respective sports better. They upped the standard. The Dream Team helped complete the globalization of basketball.
Dynasties aren’t eternal. When they end, the sport tends to advance.
Everyone appreciates parity. The NFL makes billions off an anyone-can-win notion. But parity is often mediocrity coated in drama. Dominance is essential to recognizing greatness.
This could be the end of U-Conn.’s possession of women’s college basketball. Stewart is graduating. The Huskies haven’t had the top-ranked recruiting class since Stewart’s mega-class in 2012; Maryland earned this year’s. The championship streak is bound to end soon.
When that happens, many will delight in the newfound competitiveness. Maybe I will, too.
But mostly I’ll delight in knowing that until the sport was ready to showcase its parity, Connecticut provided a dynastic interlude.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.