Sports Nut

The Best Team in Sports

No major pro sports team has won four consecutive championships in this decade. Not the Chicago Bulls, not the Dallas Cowboys, not the New York Yankees, not Major League Soccer’s D.C. United. A four-peat hasn’t been accomplished in hockey since 1983, in basketball since 1966, in baseball since 1954, or in football ever. Tiger Woods is being celebrated today as history’s greatest golfer because he just became the first player in 47 years to win three major tournaments in a year. But no current male athlete has won four straight titles in any of these sports. That honor is about to be earned instead by a team of women: the Houston Comets.

The triumph of the Comets, who upset the Los Angeles Sparks this Sunday to gain a berth in the Women’s National Basketball Association finals, once again demonstrates that women have to work twice as hard as men for the same recognition. The Comets have surmounted obstacles none of the decade’s male dynasties faced. If the Yankees needed an extra star to win the World Series, they went out and bought him. The WNBA’s rigid control of salaries and player allocation makes this impossible. Not only have the Comets been unable to buy significant new talent; they’ve repeatedly lost their best role players to the league’s merciless expansion drafts, which allow each squad to protect only a few of its top performers. In a league bent on parity, the Comets have reconstituted and reorganized their lineup every year. And still the league knows no other champion.

If the Bulls or Yankees lost a game or two early in the playoffs, they had another three to six games to pull out the series. But in the WNBA, there’s no room for error. In 1997, the WNBA championship consisted of a single game. Until this year, the first round of the playoffs was single-elimination. If the Comets played one bad game in any of those contests in any of those years, they were gone. They never did. Now all WNBA playoffs are two-out-of-three. The Comets can’t afford to lose two straight games. And they don’t.

When the Cowboys faced a difficult playoff opponent, they could rely on home-field advantage. The Comets can’t. The WNBA’s upside-down scheduling system gives the team with the worse record the home court in Game 1, thereby forcing the team with the better record into a single-elimination situation at home in Games 2 and 3. This system has often put the Comets in a hole. In the 1998 finals, the Phoenix Mercury beat them narrowly in Game 1 in Phoenix and had them down 12 points—a huge lead in WNBA terms—in Game 2 at Houston. The Comets had seven minutes to save their season. They did it.

Meanwhile, the girls have succeeded where the ‘Boys failed. After winning their second straight Super Bowl in 1994, the Cowboys, like other male dynasties, dissolved in an orgy of drugs, car crashes, sexual violence, and feuding. They blamed it on the heat of the spotlight. But pressure and media sniping haven’t torn apart the Comets. Since their inception, the press has hyped and fanned rivalries among their “Big Three”—Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson. But the big three have stayed together and kept their egos in check. Without their alpha male, Michael Jordan, the Bulls couldn’t get back to the NBA finals. The Comets, on the other hand, have shared the ball and the trophy. Cooper led them to their first championship while Swoopes was pregnant. This year, Cooper has taken fewer shots and passed more to Swoopes, the league’s MVP. In many big playoff games, Thompson carries the team. Imagine the Bulls riding Horace Grant to a title.

The Comets live by all the virtues their male counterparts neglect. They use their heads, help each other, and do what their coach asks them to do. In their last two playoff series, Thompson sacrificed her scoring to focus on guarding two of the league’s most unstoppable players: Yolanda Griffith of the Sacramento Monarchs and Lisa Leslie of the Sparks. Result: four straight victories. Cooper, unable to blow past younger defenders at age 37, eviscerated the Sparks Sunday with subtle changes of pace and direction on drives to the basket. Coquese Washington, a 5-foot-6 reserve guard, grabbed four rebounds in 14 minutes. Tammy Jackson, a hobbled 37-year-old who was cut by another franchise two years ago, blocked a crucial shot attempt in the game’s final seconds, and Janeth Arcain, a defensive specialist, sank the winning basket and free throws. Minutes earlier, Arcain had been flagrantly whacked in the face by Leslie, and no foul was called. In the NBA, fists would have been thrown and players would have been ejected. Instead, Arcain walked away, stayed on the court, and sealed the game.

The Comets’ greatest triumph, however, may lie in teaching their sisters virtues more familiar to men. Four years ago, the rest of the WNBA played like girls. They guarded their opponents courteously, looked for unchallenged spaces to catch the ball, and settled for long-range heaves. The Comets shattered that civility. They played aggressive, relentless defense. Cooper crumpled opponents psychologically with a Jordanesque will to dominate. Swoopes wore a poker face to deprive the enemy of emotional feedback. Both of them drove straight at defenders to force fouls and earn free throws. Meanwhile, Thompson battled under the boards like Dennis Rodman. The Comets achieved what has always defined history’s greatest teams: They changed the way the game is played.

In terms of mental toughness, they have put the NBA to shame. When Jordan took a vacation to play baseball, the Bulls collapsed. A year ago Saturday, the Comets lost Kim Perrot, their original point guard and Cooper’s best friend, to cancer. A week later, they walked onto the court and fought their way to another championship. This year, the league thought it had finally put together a better team. The Sparks, who had lost only four games all season, were supposed to bring the WNBA title to Los Angeles to join the Lakers’ NBA trophy. But the Lakers never ran into a squad like this one. Once again, the Comets are teaching the world a lesson: Never send a girl to do a woman’s job.