“Winning isn’t everything,” we’ve all famously heard a million times. “It’s the only thing.”
That quote, widely misattributed to Vince Lombardi, actually first came from the mouth of UCLA football coach Red Sanders. His quote circulated in several outlets, including the December 26, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated before the Bruins played Michigan State in the 1956 Rose Bowl.
That was barely a year into Sports Illustrated’s history, a time when the headlines were ruled by men like Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Rocky Marciano. But for many, that quote has never been more true.
On Friday, the Golden State Warriors swept the Cleveland Cavaliers to win their third championship in the last four years. While the Warriors’ dynasty should continue, it may mark the end of an era we’ll remember as much for their own dominance as for their four straight battles with the Cavs. The storylines are intimately familiar by now— LeBron James’s return to Cleveland, the Warriors’ meteoric rise, the 73-win season, the blown 3-1 lead, Kevin Durant’s arrival, the Hamptons Five and LeBron’s ever-impending free agency.
How you feel about the players and teams involved, and each individual chapter in this story may well depend on how you feel about that quote from Red Sanders a full year before Bill Russell even debuted in the league.
It depends how you feel about Ringz Culture. At the height of what some consider the NBA’s Superteam Era, Ringz Culture has become the lens through which we view every major modern sports debate.
Jordan vs. LeBron. KD joining the Warriors. The merits of tanking. Resting players during the regular season. Whether one Super Bowl makes a QB elite.
The arguments on both sides of every issue come down to championships, and the way we talk about them. Simply put: Whether winning the championship is the only thing that matters.
“I don’t worry too much about what other people think,” Steve Kerr told SI.com, in the midst of his Warriors’ second round series against the Pelicans. “If you do go down that path, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
But he was aware of the external pressure and the high stakes for everyone in his juggernaut of an organization riding on how they performed during this two-month stretch of basketball.
“That’s the narrative this year,” he said. “You know, ‘It’s championship or bust.’ But if we have that attitude and we lose, then it’s like, ‘Oh man, that was a waste of time.’ What does that say?”
Few characters across the current sports landscape have the credentials to discuss this outlook more than Steve Kerr, who has seven championship rings sitting in a safety deposit box in San Diego and an eighth to be fitted soon.
As a player on the Jordan-Pippen Bulls and the Duncan-Popovich Spurs, coach of the historically great Warriors and direct adversary of the LeBron Cavs, he has also crossed paths with several of the most towering figures in the game’s modern history—the players who have most seen their legacies hang in the balance of just a handful of games each June.
But is it fair how much of a focus so many people place on winning it all? “It is a big part,” said Paul Pierce, who won Finals MVP when the 2008 Celtics broke through for his lone championship in his 10th season in the league. “I know it’s not an individual sport, it’s a team sport, so sometimes you can be judged unfairly. But what do you play the game for? What do you play a team sport for? Everybody’s goal is to win the championship.”
While we endlessly debate the Hall of Fame careers of the all-time greats with multiple titles, the first ring is the most important. It’s the cover charge necessary to enter a whole new world. Once you’re in, you’re in.
“It cemented my legacy,” Pierce said of his championship. “I was known as a great player, but you can be known as a great player that never wins. So when you add that championship to your résumé it just takes you to the next level.”
He’s one of many who feel that way.
“Every great player is judged on if he can win a title,” six-time champion Scottie Pippen said. “You see what they say about [Charles] Barkley, and you see what they say about players who have won titles. It definitely sort of writes your career.”
Ah, yes. Barkley. He’s the Hall of Famer with 11 All-Star selections, 11 All-NBA teams, an MVP Award and two Olympic gold medals, but that one round mound forever missing from his résumé.
Barkley now contributes to the modern-day NBA soundbite machine as much as anyone from his nightly perch on TNT’s Inside The NBA throughout the season and playoffs. One night during the first round, he and Shaquille O’Neal—who spent much of the playoffs as Barkley’s foil, occasionally even reminding Chuck of the disparity between their own ring counts—got into a standard 2018 discussion about LeBron’s standing in the game’s history.
“As much as I like LeBron,” Barkley said, “Why do they just brush him past Kobe Bryant?” And as he began laying the groundwork to proclaim Kobe’s five greater than LeBron’s three, Shaq quickly chimed in to say he was thinking the exact same thing.
Then, in a moment of self-awareness, Barkley continued: “These guys always say, ‘Well Charles ain’t on this list because he don’t have a ring.’ That’s fair. I accept that.”
Charles Barkley is one of the most famous basketball celebrities in the world. The sport has given him fame, wealth and influence. And yet even from the desk of his Emmy-winning studio show, his empty ring finger is waved like a scarlet letter for all to see. He serves as a reminder that even for a man who seemingly has everything, a title could still forever alter the way a career is perceived. Consider the impact that has on his audience of millions, which includes everyone from casual fans to NBA players themselves, and the way it shapes our discussions about basketball.
On the night of Game 2 during the 2017 Finals, as the Warriors clobbered the Cavs to take a commanding 2-0 lead, ESPN’s professional smart-thinker Pablo Torre pontificated on Twitter about LeBron joining Miami, Durant joining the 73-win Warriors and the state of Superteam Era. “LeBron didn't start this,” Torre tweeted. “#RINGZ culture did. And now we have to deal with all these guys wanting titles b/c you made fun of Charles Barkley.”
Scottie Pippen is not afraid to answer the MJ vs. LeBron question. He’s been asked enough times over the years that he knows to expect it. Unsurprisingly, he sides with his former teammate. SI.com asked him the only logical follow-up: Could LeBron ever catch Jordan? You know, if he upped his ring total to six, seven or eight.
“No,” Pippen said. “Because I think there’s a window to Michael Jordan’s career of about 11 years, maybe 12 or 13, where we sort of marked his greatness.”
Pippen said if you look at LeBron’s first 11 or 12 years, even if you bump the start date back a bit to account for him entering the league out of high school, it doesn’t add up to what Jordan did during his run. So James, who acknowledged to SI’s Lee Jenkins after winning the title in 2016 that he’s chasing Jordan’s ghost, wouldn’t be able to catch up simply by outlasting him. At least in Pippen’s mind.
Here we come to a key point in the mythicization of MJ: The Bulls’ sparkling 6-0 record in the Finals. It’s a frequent rebuttal from the pro-MJ crowd, an immutable bullet point on the legacy of the ‘90s Bulls.
“It’s very important,” Pippen said of his team’s spotless record on the sport’s biggest stage. “It’s great to say that we were prepared when we got there.”
In all the discussions sports fans have about winning, it’s possible that none are as perplexing as the way we talk about losers in the biggest games.
With Jordan’s 6-0 held up as the gold standard, James has spent a career derided [by some, but not all] for being 3-6 in his nine Finals trips with the Cavs and Heat. As if it would have been better to fall short of the NBA Finals completely than to get there and lose. In that way Jordan is a beneficiary of the window Pippen spoke about. Because he played three seasons in college and retired twice—at junctures where similar LeBron-led teams suffered from what ESPN’s Brian Windhorst smartly describes as organizational fatigue—Jordan never arrived at the Finals too early in his career, or let any situation drag on for too long.
Still, with the rubble of another Finals loss to the Warriors still warm, it seems downright insane to consider LeBron’s 2018 season a failure. In a year when every story was about his lackluster supporting cast, LeBron dragged his team to the Finals and averaged 34 points, 8.5 rebounds and 10 assists in more than 44 minutes per game once he got there.
His team has been an underdog against his opponent in seven of his nine Finals trips, which says a lot more about his opponents than it does about him. How can you place his extraordinary breakthrough against the 2007 Pistons on the ledger next to MJ’s multiple losses to the Bad Boys Pistons in the Eastern Conference playoffs and somehow mark down a positive checkmark for Jordan?
But our culture is so quick to label a team or a player a loser, paradoxically when they come so close to winning. Think about how many NFL fans still mock the Falcons for blowing a 28-3 lead, the Seahawks for throwing it on the 1-yard-line or Cam Newton for failing to jump on the football, but wouldn’t be able to recall who those Super Bowl losers beat in their conference title games on a multiple choice test.
So the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead, never mind that so have the Thunder and Clippers in recent seasons.
The Cavs got swept, never mind that Shaq's Magic were swept by the Rockets in 1995, Kobe's Lakers were swept by the Mavericks in 2011, and Kobe and Shaq as teammates were swept by the Jazz in 1998 and then the Spurs in 1999. Or that the Pistons swept the Lakers in '89, the Bulls swept the Pistons in '91 and that sometimes these sorts of things just happen.
And yet as easy as it is to complain, this is also such a big part of what makes sports so intoxicatingly fun—a Hunger Games-ian incentive structure. There will be one winner, you will want to be that winner, and we shouldn’t have to explain why.
Of all the great sports moments in this recent era, one of the most dramatic was the 2017 Masters, when Sergio Garcia finally won his first major. It wouldn’t have been anywhere near as memorable or satisfying if his four previous runner-ups had been universally hailed as successes.
“That’s how you’re judged as players,” Pierce said. “Whatever your legacy is gonna be, it’s gonna be judged on how you play in the playoffs.”
And often times only on the biggest of big stages.
J.R. Smith will forever be the guy who forgot the score during Game 1 this year in Golden State. It’s not the only thing that cost them the game or the series, but the stain of that moment will follow him around.
Still, he’ll also forever be the guy who hit 12 threes in Cleveland’s four wins back in 2016 and then paraded shirtless from Vegas to Cleveland. His cult following grew in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without the presence of LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but you could also make the case that their title together couldn’t have happened without him.
One of the amazing things about Ringz Culture is not just the way James and Irving can affect the forever status of guys like Smith, but the way he can affect them. Who knows in 30 years if we’ll remember that Nick Young drained a three when the Warriors trailed the Rockets by 8 during the second half of Game 7? But each year, little contributions from role players forever affect the legacies of their superstar teammates.
At the Bulls’ 1997 parade, following Jordan and Pippen’s fifth of six championships, it was Kerr who brought down the house with his speech. He took a few creative liberties with the truth as he recalled the huddle before his game-winning shot to clinch the title in Game 6:
“Phil [Jackson] told Michael, he said, ‘Michael, I want you to take the last shot.’ And Michael said, ‘You know, Phil, I don’t feel real comfortable in these situations, so maybe we ought to go in a different direction. Why don’t we go to Steve?’ So I thought to myself, ‘Well, I guess I gotta bail Michael out again.’”
And then Kerr flashed a Jim Halpert grin to the throngs of adoring Bulls fans.
Twenty-one years and five more championships later, SI.com asked Kerr about that speech, and whether or not it’s fair we might consider Jordan or Pippen or Jackson’s careers differently if he had missed a single mid-range jumper with the clock winding down. What if Steve Kerr had a missed a jump shot, the Jazz had rallied and MJ was 5-1?
“My feeling on that,” Kerr said, “is we all earn our money in this league, one way or the other. And stars make a lot more money, and they’re criticized more harshly. So I always try to remind our guys that the judgment is the tax you pay for this wonderful life you live as an NBA player. If you’re Steph Curry or Kevin Durant, you make all that money… guess why you’re making that money. Because people care intensely about this sport.”
Essentially, it just comes with the territory. That a guy like Kerr can impact the legend of Jordan.
“Don’t worry too much when people are criticizing you because that’s why you get paid and that’s where you earn your money. And everybody on earth would change shoes with you if they could.”
Your favorite championship team has a secret: They got lucky. Somewhere, at some point along the way.
One issue with placing such an emphasis on championships, is the razor-thin margins that can decide individual games. Sometimes what’s foolhardy about drawing too much of a conclusion about the star player from his team’s outcome is not just that it’s a role player stepping up to swing a series, sometimes it’s simply that the game turned on one crazy play.
Tom Brady provides the ultimate example, as his eight Super Bowl appearances are littered with fluky plays that could have easily swung outcomes the other way. There’s just no avoiding the fact that his legacy is so inextricably linked to David Tyree’s helmet catch, Malcolm Butler’s interception and Julian Edelman’s ridiculous juggling catch against the Falcons, which Edelman himself told Jimmy Fallon was about 70 percent luck.
Nearly every NBA champion in the last 10 years could probably point to a single play or a lucky break that swung the season—yes, including a Chris Paul injury here or a J.R. Smith forgetting the score there.
Let’s think back to Ray Allen’s three-pointer late in Game 6 in 2013. It may not have been lucky that one of the best long-distance shooters ever did what he’d spent his life training to do, but it certainly depended on circumstance—with Chris Bosh wrestling away an offense rebound as Tim Duncan watched from the bench, and then Allen drilling a tough shot while moving backward into the corner. That one shot likely swung championship ring counts for nine Hall of Famers—Allen, Bosh, Duncan, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Gregg Popovic and even Tracy McGrady, who signed on as a reserve for the Spurs’ playoff run. Not to mention all the role players and fan favorites (Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and Boris Diaw among them) who would surely have a lot invested in being champions.
The Lakers and Celtics split a pair of Finals match-ups in 2008 and 2010, and as a result Bryant has five titles, and Pierce and Kevin Garnett have one. But their fortunes swung on a three not by a Hall of Fame sniper like Ray Allen… but on one by Ron Artest, whose three ball with a minute left in Game 7 turned a tenuous three point lead into a near-certain win for the 2010 Lakers.
“You think about it,” Pierce said about the Artest shot that could have resulted in his second championship if it had only clanged off the iron. “You always have that ‘What if?’ in the back of your mind.”
But Pierce seems resigned to his fate. “It is what it is,” Pierce said. “That was a great series. It’s gonna be a series people remember for a very long time. One shot can change history, and it did.”
Because who knows how many countless plays from role players aided Pierce to the title he did win.
“I think one thing that you might be surprised at,” Kerr said, “is I would say sometimes fans take a loss harder than players and coaches. Because we know how hard it is. And we know that a lot of things have to go right.”
As much attention has been paid in recent years to LeBron James, Tom Brady and the teams at the top, an increasing amount of ink has been spilled on the teams at the bottom too.
At a time when it seems we’ve never put such an emphasis on the importance of winning it all, more teams have never been trying to lose on purpose.
In a world where the Cubs and Astros tanked on their way to the last two World Series titles, the most famous and polarizing example remains the Sixers, who showed no regard for the short term as their former GM Sam Hinkie initiated The Process and espoused the longest view in the room. Just as MLB has been overrun with copycats, the NBA has now seen the Great Tank-Off in full force.
The timing is no accident that this proliferation of tanking comes along just when the incentive structure is skewed so heavily toward trying to win the title. If the goal is to win a championship at all costs, then the costs are free to go higher.
In addition to tanking from the teams hopeful to reach the bottom, we’ve also seen actual contenders deploy new tactics as a result of devaluing the regular season. One of the more surprising news cycles of the playoffs came from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reporting his findings that LeBron has spent the season “resting” while on the court.
Former Cavs GM David Griffin lent credence to the claim on Bill Simmons’s podcast in May, and expanded even further on the way LeBron saves himself for the playoffs: “He recognizes to a huge degree, he might be giving away MVP awards in the regular season in the interest of playoff success.”
This is not quite a new concept. The Spurs drew a fine from the NBA for resting their star players en masse in 2012, and other teams around the league quickly copied the practice.
In April 2017, SB Nation’s Matt Ufford expertly explained how scratching healthy players is a problem created by the NBA, and a result of “media and fans that dismiss any accomplishment short of winning the championship in June.”
But it’s still interesting to hear Griffin speak so casually about how LeBron is costing himself MVPs, and potentially scoring titles and other things we think of as traditional metrics to judge elite players.
We know LeBron only cares about rings. And why should he care about anything else? Nobody is going viral by screaming on debate shows about Jordan having five MVPs and LeBron having only four. If they did, maybe he’d treat the regular season differently.
At the end of the day, all of the complaints sports fans have about regular seasons—from resting to tanking—are a direct result of the way we put so much more weight on the postseason.
“It’s no way to live,” Kerr said, when asked if he ever dwells on the Warriors’ 73-win season that ended in defeat. “In the past, and thinking about failure and thinking about loss. You’ve got to move forward.”
Granted, that might be easier when you’ve already won seven times and you’re the favorite to win again.
“When we lost Game 7 against Cleveland, it was devastating. But life went on, and I don’t think about it that much now. And I don’t think that much about the two that we won either. I just keep going. Keep moving on in your life.”
But for as long as fans follow sports, there will always be an intense focus on first place.
Because even the greats themselves talk that way, as we’ve seen when Michael Jordan went to the rings to take Kobe over LeBron. Or when Kobe, moments after winning his fifth ring, memorably said it meant, "one more than Shaq." And then, more recently, implored us to enjoy his five. Or how Brady, having surpassed all other NFL quarterbacks, then spoke in an interview about equaling inter-sport contemporaries like Kobe, Duncan, Magic Johnson, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
Because LeBron stood on a stage in Miami and said, “Not five, not six, not seven…”
Because Canadian hockey player Jocelyne Larocque removed her Olympic silver medal the moment it was placed around her neck, and met armies of both detractors and defenders.
Because Josh Rosen created a news cycle by saying his goal was to win more Super Bowls than Brady.
Because MJ cried the first time he held the Larry O’Brien trophy, Kobe leapt into Shaq’s arms when they won their first and Kevin Garnett screamed into the heavens like a maniac when he won his.
Because look at Alex Ovechkin’s face.
We’ll never stop talking about winners and losers, and the way we ought to consider their achievements. And maybe the fact that we’re so hard on the losers makes it all the sweeter for the winners.
“That championship lives forever,” Pierce said. “You’re forever remembered. Guys who take second place? You know, who knows who Magic [and the Lakers] beat in the 1987 or ’88 Finals. Nobody can remember that.”
So we watch and we debate. We reckon with the fact that Joe Flacco won a Super Bowl but Dan Marino didn’t. We question where the 73-win Warriors and the 18-1 Patriots can rank among the best teams ever, given the fact that they fell short at the very end. We ask if it’s noble for superstars to team up in pursuit of a title instead of going at it alone, or for teams to punt on a few years at a time if it leads to the ultimate payoff down the line.
We let Ringz Culture shape the way we talk about sports.
Because for some people winning is everything, and for others it’s the only thing, but we can’t quite come to a consensus about whether it’s all that truly matters.