With the Devils ready to take on the Kings on Wednesday in the Stanley Cup finals, let’s pay tribute to the area’s little-brother teams, who, once upon a time, were all a rousing success story (and New Jersey still is, of course).
The New York Yankees have won the most championships in American professional sports and dwarf their local counterpart, the New York Mets, both in popularity and success. The New York Giants have 35 more seasons of history than the New York Jets, as well as eight total NFL championships to the Jets' one. The New York Knicks may only have two titles in their lengthy history, but for the last four decades they've been in a different stratosphere popularity-wise (and even, at times, success-wise) than the New Jersey Nets. The New York Rangers may have the same number of Stanley Cups as the New York Islanders and only one more than the New Jersey Devils, but with Manhattan as their home, a rabid fan base and storied history, they are the center of the New York-area hockey universe. But the little-brother teams all have one thing in common: When they did win, their championships, players and hold on the area were unique and unlike their crosstown rivals'.
The Jets were the rebellious, counterculture hippies compared to the square, crew-cutted Giants back in the 1960s, as was the AFL when contrasted to the NFL. And when Joe Namath's guarantee came true in January of 1969, football was never again the same. The AFL had truly arrived, and was finally on even footing with the old-time NFL. The Jets didn't have a chance in the world to defeat the Colts, but when they did succeed, Namath & Co. legitimized the younger league. At the time of the merger, Broadway Joe was without a doubt the biggest star attraction in the game. He transcended football, became a pop-culture icon and turned the late-'60s Giants into a dull footnote. The Jets have only won once, but that victory changed the face of football as we know it, and they added a splash of technicolor to the old black-and-white world of the NFL.
Just eight months later, the Jets' spiritual brother, the Mets, also won their first championship, and just like Gang Green, it was an upset of epic proportions. If man can land on the moon then the Mets can win the World Series, was the saying back in 1969, and both landmark events came true three months apart. Those Mets were a true expansion team, with no free agency to help them ease their growing pains, and after seven consecutive losing seasons, and some record-setting losing seasons at that, the Amazin's (as Casey Stengel dubbed them due to the all the amazing ways they came up with to lose games) built one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, along with fielding a great defensive team and having just enough timely hitting to overcome the veteran powerhouse Cubs to win the NL East title. They then swept another powerhouse, Hank Aaron's Atlanta Braves, in the first-ever NLCS, and then, just as the Jets did, they defeated an undefeatable team from Baltimore, who won 109 games that season, for the biggest upset in baseball history. Did the Yankees ever do that? No. Even the dominating 1986 World Champions captivated New York in a way the Yankees really haven't. The swagger, the curtain calls, the brawls, the mustaches, the drugs, the drinking -- the 1986 Mets became part of popular culture and you really can't think of the 1980s without thinking of the Mets. They belong right alongside The Cosby Show, Cabbage Patch Kids, mullets and the Beastie Boys. Maybe the 1977 Bronx Zoo Yankees are comparable, but the second championship team for the Mets goes down as one of the most memorable squads in the sport's history.
The Rangers go all the way back to 1926. The Islanders were still so far away from being created that not one player who has ever played for the team was even born yet. And like their outside-of-Manhattan little-brother cousins, the Mets, the Islanders went from hapless expansion team to champion in their eighth season, though the Isles saw a lot more success leading up to their first title. And, of course, they didn't stop at one, going on to win three more Stanley Cups, to become the only team other than the Montreal Canadiens to win four in a row, and the Islanders are the only team in professional sports to win 19 consecutive playoff series. The Rangers never had a dynasty like that. And the Islanders did it with a mostly homegrown team, with a few veteran acquisitions sprinkled in. Meanwhile, after the Rangers won their first Cup in 54 years and are still waiting for another, the Devils put together a string of success, which included three Stanley Cup wins in a span of nine years, which the Blueshirts have never been able to accomplish, and, for good or bad, New Jersey was identified with a defensive system that changed the way hockey was played in the NHL. They, of course, have a new identity now, and just knocked off the Rangers as they attempt to match the Blueshirts' Cup total -- but in 56 fewer seasons.
While the Knicks won their two championships with old-fashioned teamwork, the Nets won a pair in three years with the king of showmen, Julius Erving, leading the way. Of course, the Nets won their titles in the old ABA and are still striving for their first-ever NBA championship, but they and their old league foreshadowed what the NBA slowly morphed into, with the three-point line, slam dunk contests, highlight-reel plays, playing above the rim and speeding up the game with athletic acrobatics, which all began in the ABA back in its one decade of existence. The Knicks had Bernard King and Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, but they never had Dr. J.
Just because Rex Ryan claims the Jets are no longer the Giants' little brother doesn't make it so. The Giants are the big brother because, well, they're older. The Jets, Mets, Islanders, Devils and Nets may be younger in age and not quite as popular as their counterpart teams, and some haven't been as successful, but each made its unique mark in the New York/New Jersey sports landscape. The question now, though, is can they do it again? The Yankees and Rangers began life as the little brother themselves, after all, with the Yankees/Highlanders moving from Baltimore in 1903 joining the already-entrenched-in-the-area Giants and Dodgers and the Rangers born one year after the New York Americans. And even the football Giants had company, with the Staten Island Stapletons and Brooklyn Lions and Tigers playing beside them in the NFL in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
If the Jets can go from a ragged, fly-by-night outfit in the early '60s to the most glamorous, successful team in professional football in less than a decade, and the Mets can go from laughable losers to a model organization and World Champion in the same time span, and the Islanders can go from nonexistence to a dynasty in the blink of an eye, there's at least hope that they can reach the top of the mountain once again. Will these teams ever overtake they're older siblings in popularity? Probably not, as much of the time they're just fighting for relevance in a crowded New York sports scene. But they've each carved out a niche of their own and found a place in the hearts of their fans. And what's wrong with that?