Invincible? Not in this sports era

Ken Rosenthal

April 01, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Webster's defines "invincible" as incapable of being conquered, overcome or subdued. The word has no place in the sports vocabulary, but it keeps popping up, only to be stricken again.

Mike Tyson was invincible.

So were the Oakland A's.

The San Francisco 49ers were invincible.

So was Nevada-Las Vegas.

Circle the bandwagons: If the impossible can happen four times in 14 months -- starting with Buster Douglas' knockout of Tyson -- then nothing is impossible. This, we all know, is the enduring lesson of sports, but then another UNLV comes along, and we all forget.

As upsets go, Duke's victory in the NCAA semifinal Saturday was the genuine article, a stunning triumph by a team no one thought could win. Yet, the expectation of an UNLV rout ignored not only recent tournament history, but a continuing pattern in major sporting events.

That's not to say Duke's achievement should have been anticipated -- indeed, a case can be made that UNLV was a more convincing favorite than Tyson over Douglas, the A's over Cincinnati, the 49ers over the New York Giants.

Yet, the hype surrounding all four "invincibles" was so relentless, only the most skeptical observers could envision them losing. Only after the fact -- after their respective worlds crumbled -- could the average fan begin to understand.

He had not witnessed history, merely a great sporting event.

The media, of course, is much to blame for all this, for comparing UNLV to the best college basketball teams in history before the tournament even began. But at the same time, society insists on snap judgments, be it in music, politics or sports.

All that matters is who's hot. Thus, a rock group is deemed visionary after one album, a presidential candidate is deemed unbeatable after one primary and a sports team is deemed invincible after one glorious run.

Granted, UNLV's run -- 45 straight victories -- was longer than most. But most of those wins were against inferior teams from the Big West Conference. Before Saturday, UNLV trailed only once all season at the half -- against then-No. 2 Arkansas, a team it quickly annihilated.

In other words, the Rebels never played a close game. And after Georgetown finally gave them a scare in the tournament's second round, they responded with a convincing victory over Utah and a trademark second-half explosion against Seton Hall.

In other words, there wasn't much room for doubt -- especially when considering UNLV's 30-point win over Duke in last year's championship game. The Rebels were the best team in the regular season. They were the best team in the postseason. They were invincible.

But college basketball remains the least predictable of sports, and its biggest upsets routinely occur at its grandest event, the Final Four. In fact, the only unusual thing about UNLV's loss from a historical perspective is that it did not occur in the final game.

Where invincible Houston lost in '83.

Invincible Georgetown lost in '85.

And invincible Oklahoma lost in '88.

The common denominator each time was an underdog that refused to be intimidated by superior talent, an underdog that drew inspiration from a coach with enough moxie to pull the whole thing off -- Valvano at N.C. State, Massimino at Villanova, Brown at Kansas and now Krzyzewski at Duke.

The lesson, as always, is those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. The lesson isn't necessarily for the bookworms at UNLV, who play amoeba defense, but couldn't tell you what an amoeba is. The lesson is for everyone else.

Just remember these last 14 months. Tyson could be had, if only for one night. The A's could be had, if only for one series. The 49ers could be had, if only for one game.

Why should UNLV be different?

"Hey, they're just human beings, just like we are," Duke's Thomas Hill said. "It's not shocking at all to me. Maybe the media, the fans, the public think this is the ultimate upset, but not to me."

It's not the ultimate upset. It's probably not the biggest upset in tournament history. It might not even be the biggest of the last 10 years.

No, it was simply yet another example of what can happen when one team plays like never before against an opponent it might never otherwise beat.

If you just pay attention, if you ignore all the outside noise, you'd recognize it happens all the time.

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