Walsh: Ignoring greatness

When it comes to sports, we don’t often appreciate greatness in its time. Basketball in particular has a funny way of both celebrating and despising its dynasties. I remember fervently rooting against the Boston Celtics back in the 80s because I was sick of seeing them win. As an adult, however, I watch replays of their games against the thugs of the Detroit Pistons and hope Larry Bird will somehow make that last shot that keeps the Pistons from marching on. I am forever disappointed and horrified at the fickle allegiances of my youth.

I can only imagine what people were thinking when John Wooden and the UCLA men won 10 NCAA titles in a 12-year span, or when Red Auerbach and the Celtics won 11 of 13 NBA titles in the 50s and 60s. Everyone likes to watch great teams rise until the underdogs start building the Death Star. Suddenly, everyone’s rooting for Luke and that ancient Muppet to take them down.

Only with the passage of time comes the inevitable re-evaluation of a dynasty’s standing in history. Growing up, I was never a fan of Tennessee Lady Vols head coach Pat Summitt because her teams always destroyed the competition. However, she earned my respect over the years in the way she handled her program’s gentle nudge out of the top position at the hands of a young Jedi named Geno Auriemma. Auriemma and his UConn Huskies even referred to her program as the Evil Empire at the height of their rivalry.

It wasn’t long before Auriemma’s success became the focal point for all that was wrong with women’s college basketball: They were too good. UConn won too much, too often, and they rarely played close games. Casual fans complained the Huskies took the fun out of the sport with their dominance. And yet what were they really unhappy with? If sports is the impossible pursuit of perfection on the field of play, Auriemma’s teams have come closer than most teams ever have.

Right now we’re witnessing this UConn team accomplish something more impressive than those previous dynasties combined. They’re currently on a remarkable run of 84 (and counting) consecutive victories with a team dominated by underclassmen and inexperience. They’re doing it while scheduling a Murderer’s Row of opponents in these first two months featuring matchups against seven of the top 17 teams in the country. Never before in the modern history of collegiate basketball has a program challenged itself like this and yet continued to succeed at this absurd level.

So where’s the love?

Just last week, top-ranked UConn visited No. 2 Notre Dame in what was easily the most anticipated matchup of the season and the biggest rivalry game in the sport. ESPN gave it little respect, pushing the game off to ESPN2. ESPN.com barely covered it, burying the results amid the “Other Sports” category in favor of the latest piece on fantasy football. If local and national newspapers covered it at all, it was below the fold and off the main pages.

I would argue it’s never been more important to appreciate this particular brand of greatness while it lasts. Basketball is the most visible, most popular American sport in which women have access to the casual sports fan. It offers the only legitimate professional opportunity for women in a team sport, a platform to capture the public imagination in a way soccer or tennis never could. If our only opportunities to watch women’s sports come every four years with the Olympics, we all lose.

I hope more people tune out the negativity and tune in for the next big game against No. 12 Ohio State on Monday night. It’s probably the closest we’ll ever come to seeing perfection on a ball court.

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