Thursday, April 20, 2006

Detroit Hopes To Overcome NBA, NHL Collusion In Dual Title Quest

The NBA concluded its regular season on Wednesday – one night after the NHL had done likewise. The Motor City reigned supreme in both leagues, with the Red Wings capturing the Presidents’ Trophy and the Pistons finishing with an NBA-best 64-18 record. Detroit residents are eagerly anticipating two championship parades in June. However, a huge obstacle stands in the way: a long-standing agreement between the NBA and NHL that no city can win both titles in the same year.

Largely unknown to the public, the agreement dates back to 1946. Maurice Podoloff was named president of the newly-formed Basketball Association of America – rechristened the National Basketball Association three years later. Also in 1946, Clarence Campbell started a 31-year reign as the NHL president. Both men noticed how World War II victory celebrations had lifted the spirits of numerous cities the previous year. Interested in spreading the wealth, they agreed that victory parades should not be limited to one location each spring. With the chilling memory of Adolf Hitler still fresh, Podoloff and Campbell were fearful of having too much power concentrated in one place.

The gentlemen’s agreement between the two presidents has been honored by their successors. To this day, no city has won the Stanley Cup and NBA championship in the same year. The most recent close call came in 2003, when the New Jersey Devils captured the Stanley Cup. However, the Nets inevitably fell to San Antonio in the NBA finals. The Spurs’ victory prevented a preposterous phrase from entering the sports lexicon: “East Rutherford: City of Champions.”

The Montreal Canadiens have been a huge factor in maintaining order. The team has been by far the most successful NHL franchise since the agreement went into effect, capturing 18 Stanley Cup titles in that time. With no NBA franchise in Montreal, the Canadiens often made the threat of dual championships a non-issue. On the other hand, Boston has been home to a record 16 NBA champions and does have a longtime NHL member. However, in the midst of the Celtics dynasty, the NHL did not allow the Bruins to advance to the finals during the 1960s. After Bill Russell retired in 1969, a drop was inevitable for the Celtics. As a result, the NHL loosened its restrictions on the Bruins, who won the Stanley Cup the following season. As Bobby Orr skated around with the Cup, he surely wanted to pass it to Russell in gratitude.

The most severe threat to the agreement came in 1994, when the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup title in 54 years. The Knicks also advanced to the finals, even taking a 3-2 lead over the Houston Rockets. Under normal conditions, the NBA would not have allowed New York to get so close to the title. However, like millions of Americans, league officials had been captivated by the O.J. Simpson Ford Bronco chase and forgot that the finals were taking place. They regained their bearings during game 6, arranging for the potential John Starks game-winner to be blocked by Hakeem Olajuwon. Prior to game 7, a group of men reportedly visited Starks’s hotel room and told him, “If Houston doesn’t get a victory parade, David Stern will make your life REALLY unpleasant.” Starks went on to shoot 2-for-18 in a 90-84 Rockets victory.

As this year’s playoffs begin, the Pistons and Red Wings remain defiant in their quests for championships. Both teams have recent championship experience and must be considered the favorites this spring. While not as flashy as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton have had sterling seasons for the Pistons. The Motor City hoopsters are also emboldened by the old adage, “The team with the most Wallaces wins.”

Similarly, no one on the Red Wings gets the same headlines as Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. However, defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom will likely collect his fourth Norris Trophy, and other veteran stars like Brendan Shanahan have meshed well with young stalwarts such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick feels that this combination will trump any 60-year-old agreement. “These players are focused on a title – not something from 1946,” commented the mayor. “None of these guys were playing back then. Well, except for Chelios. And maybe Yzerman.”

Earlier in 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers won a title in Detroit. Even though history is against them, the Pistons and Red Wings plan to do the same. They’re even looking to the Steelers for an extra edge. As a good luck charm, both teams will add native son Jerome Bettis to the playoff roster.