August 12, 2022

Assuming the Nets can ever agree on a dignified destination and a more dignified return for Kevin Durant, that will put an end to the Nets’ recent banter with one of the most charged words in the sport: competitor.

There’s a moment in every sports timeline when being a competitor is a good thing: it portends something better. Muhammad Ali was a competitor before he was a champion. The 1969 Knicks were contenders before cashing in 1970; just like the 1984/1985 Mets and the 1984/1985 Giants. When argument leads to glory, it’s a splendid word.

When is it a bookend and not a bridge?

Right now, that’s what the Nets seem destined for — assuming Durant is an ex-Net by the start of next season, assuming Kyrie Irving can also be rerouted elsewhere. For a fan, there is nothing more melancholy than that. Islanders fans are surely wondering if they face the same fate, if back-to-back losses to the Lightning in the 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup Conference Finals could have cauterized their case as contenders who never kept the promise.

We’ve had a few here over the years, teams that were good enough to win championships and for some reason never did. They were great teams that, in this case, deserved to be remembered fondly, but not in the way that championship teams are remembered. There’s no crime in missing a ring. But there are regrets. Like these great teams – but not forever -:

Kevin Durant, right, and Kyrie Irving failed to turn the Nets from contenders to champions.
Kevin Durant, right, and Kyrie Irving failed to turn the Nets from contenders to champions.

The Pat Riley/Jeff Van Gundy/Patrick Ewing Knicks

In modern times, it’s hard to remember that the baseball season, even in a baseball-loving city, didn’t start until the day after the Knicks were eliminated in the 1990s. And those Knicks, though imperfect, mesmerized the city year after year until their ultimate, inevitable stumble. They finished a shy game in 1994, three games less in 1999, and yet their best moves were probably in 1997 (until the Miami brawl) and 1993 (until Charles Smith).

The Buck Showalter/Don Mattingly Yankees

The sting of 1994 was dulled for fans by everything that happened soon after. Still, it was the first Bombers team in 13 years to hint they were championship-caliber. They flourished in Buck Showalter’s third year and were running away with the AL East at 70-43 when the strike hit. The Yankees-Expos World Series that never was was perhaps one of the most intriguing of all the fall classics. If only.

The Jets by Bill Parcells/Vinny Testaverde

A tantalizing and torturous disappointment in two acts. Act I: Down 10-0 in the AFC title game in Denver, with a badly beaten Falcons team awaiting them in the Super Bowl, the Jets completely crumbled in the second half, looking different from 180 degrees of the team that entered the game on an 11-1 pitch. Act II: Everyone’s favorite to clean up the following year, while looking even better, the whole ship capsized once Testaverde blew his Achilles in the first half of the opener against Nova -England.

Vinny Testaverde in the 1999 AFC title game against the Broncos.
Vinny Testaverde in the 1999 AFC title game against the Broncos.
Getty Images

Nets by Jason Kidd/Kenyon Martin/Byron Scott

Yes, they were beaten in the NBA Finals by two quality champions, the Lakers and the Spurs. But the Lakers had an incredible chance of surviving Sacramento in 2002, and the Nets adapted perfectly to the Kings; the Nets should have been able to beat the Spurs as well, but lost two of three at home and that was it.

The Mets by David Wright/Jose Reyes/Willie Randolph

Forget the era-defining slumps of 2007 and 2008, the 2006 Mets were the best team in baseball and almost certainly would have upset the Tigers as much as the Cardinals. But they lost El Duque Hernandez on the eve of the playoffs and then could never recover from blowing out the late NLCS Game 2 against St. Louis. And, well… that curveball.

David Wright, left, and Jose Reyes
David Wright, left, and Jose Reyes
Jason Szenes

The Giants YA Tittle / Sam Huff / Allie Sherman

A distinction from the Charley Conerly/Sam Huff/Jim Lee Howell Giants, who were heartbroken by the Colts in 1958 and 1959, but beat the Bears in the NFL title game in 1956. The partnership Tittle/Sherman was an electric partnership that yielded three straight NFL championship appearances, and while the first two losses, to the Lombardi Packers, are understandable, the 63 loss to the Bears at Wrigley Field remains infuriating, all these years later. .

Vacuum strokes

I was overwhelmed by the reaction to last week’s ode to beer jingles. The runaway winner of the write-in votes goes to Ballantine’s various endeavors over the years. I must admit that Ballantine was a bit ahead of me, hence the omission. But I still recommend a trip to YouTube (“Make a ringtone, then another ringtone…”). It’s worth it.

Whenever you can, wherever you can, watch “It Ain’t Over,” the Yogi Berra documentary that caused a stir at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival. I was very fortunate to know Yogi, but even if you only knew him, this film, directed by Sean Mullin, is an absolute treasure.

Four members of the 1969 Mets – Art Shamsky, Ron Swoboda, Ed Kranepool and Cleon Jones – will venture to Cooperstown later this month to see their former boss, Gil Hodges, inducted into the Hall of Fame. “He was a man ahead of his time,” says Swoboda. “There would have been no miracle in 1969 without Gil Hodges.”

Gil Hodges, left, and Ron Swoboda
Gil Hodges, left, and Ron Swoboda
Getty Images

I can’t be the only one shaking my head realizing that Jeff Bridges in FX’s “The Old Man” – if you haven’t started watching, you really should – is five years older than his pop, Lloyd, was in “Airplane.”

Return to Vac

Mark Aronin: The Mets retiring 17 raises a question: Which numbers of New York teams remain behind for retirement? Mine is 34 from the Knicks, but I know the odds are about the same as paying $2 for a gallon of gas this summer.

VAC: The absence of Bernard King’s No. 30 from the garden rafters has been a travesty for years and will remain so until rectified.

Keith Hernandez is introduced to the crowd at the pre-game ceremony to retire his number.
Keith Hernandez is introduced to the crowd at the pre-game ceremony to retire his number.

George Corchia: One positive consequence of the Baker Mayfield trade is that we will never see those incessant commercials again with Mayfield living inside Cleveland Stadium.

VAC: Does this mean we’re getting more ads with Patrick Mahomes and Jake the State Farm Guy? Because that might negate the positives…

Vito Vaccaro: A quick comment on the Mets: Unless they get another big bat and improve the pen, they won’t get past the Braves.

VAC: And you thought I was the most cynical Vaccaro you knew! (By the way, Vito is right.)

@fomoco6: Bad things always seem to come in threes: Sonny Corleone, Paulie Walnuts, Corporal Agarn. Wicked bad a few days.

@MikeVacc: Godspeed to James Caan (an all-time favorite; he could have read the phone book and I would have plunged a saw in to see), Tony Sirico (who stole every scene he was in) and Larry Storch (the “F-Troop’s theme song was the greatest of all TV theme songs, who’s with me?) Tough week indeed.