When we learned about Rajon Rondo's season-ending injury during ABC's Heat-Celtics game on January 27, every Celtics fan had the same reaction: So long, Puncher's Chance At Making The Eastern Finals.
We zipped through the seven stages of grief in about 45 minutes, barely noticing that the Celtics were playing better without Rondo. For once, they looked like a vintage Garnett-Pierce era Celtics team again. No more mailing in quarters, no more rolling over defensively, no more 22-second possessions followed by ghastly 20-footers. They fended off LeBron and the LeBronettes in double overtime with help from a rollicking, old-school Boston crowd that learned about the severity of Rondo's injury through tweets and texts. And somewhere along the line, more than a few Celtics fans e-mailed me or tweeted me the same two words.
Could it be? We started picking apart Rondo's game in our heads, even if most of us absolutely loved the guy. And believe me — I love the guy. Had I gotten another dog between 2010 and 2012, I absolutely would have named him "Rondo." That's my dude. Other than Larry Legend, he's the most original basketball player I have ever watched on a day-to-day basis. There will never be a Rondo 2.0. Unfortunately, there will always be Basic Cable Rondo and National TV Rondo.
Basic Cable Rondo gets bored easily. He pads his assist totals just to see if he can. He goes entire games without ever driving to the hoop or drawing a foul. He shoots 3s even though he should never, ever, EVER be shooting 3s. He pounds the ball 25 feet away from the basket for no good reason, frowns a little too often, only makes teammates better on his terms. He cheats passing lanes and gambles for steals too much. He pretends to lead without really leading. He's on hyperfocused cruise control, basically. The worst thing about Basic Cable Rondo? You know when he shows up. Right away. Within three minutes of the opening tip.
But National TV Rondo? Sweet Jesus do I love that guy. He's a walking triple-double. He's a beast. He's one of the best eight or nine players alive. You could give National TV Rondo four mediocre teammates and he could hang with any contender. Shit, that's practically what happened in the Eastern finals last spring — Garnett and Pierce were worn down from the shortened season, so was Ray Allen, and nobody else on the team was worth a damn except Brandon Bass. The Celtics came within one victory of beating LeBron in his prime. That's why you put up with Basic Cable Rondo — because National TV Rondo knocks your team's ceiling up a couple floors.
After Allen's acrimonious departure last summer, Rondo made a fuss about transforming the Celtics into his team, which apparently meant scoring more, leading more, doing more and if you read between the lines, it really meant, "Hey, KG and Paul, step aside, I'm taking the wheel."
To their credit, the old farts took a backseat. Pierce even deferred to Rondo at the ends of tight games, something I never expected to see. But things turned goofy early — Rondo became obsessed with keeping a double-figures assist streak alive. And not in a good way. He wasn't making the right decision every time, just the decision most likely to produce an assist. Defenses played Rondo for the pass on every drive and fast break, turning the streak into something of an ongoing detriment. I loathed the streak. It was a bad look for Rondo — you don't want your leader chasing numbers, even something as seemingly benevolent as assists.
The streak mercifully ended when Rondo got tossed for fighting Kris Humphries in a loss to the Nets, but questions about Rondo's ultimate destiny as a franchise player lingered. You are who you are after seven years in the league. Every night you could put Rondo down for 13 points, 11 assists and five rebounds. And every two weeks or so, he'd slap together four quarters that took your breath away. But Rondo wasn't just going to start averaging 22 points a game; it would have happened by now. For a Celtics team specifically built for him, that's the biggest reason they played a half-season of .500 ball. You're only as good as your best guy.
They couldn't ever beat Miami in a playoff series without Rondo — the only Celtic who could swing two games in a series by himself. But short-term? Maybe our boys would rally without him. We knew the schedule worked in their favor: Six of eight home games post-Miami (and Toronto and Charlotte on the road). We knew Rondo's departure would inadvertently create a more stable playing rotation — now, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry would get enough minutes, and so would the perpetually frustrating Jeff Green. We knew there was a chance — repeat: a chance — that Garnett and Pierce would rally as a subtle Eff You to Rondo, their annoying little brother who drove them bonkers even if he would always be family, someone who acted like a bit of a diva behind the scenes, someone who wouldn't exactly win a popularity contest with the people around the organization. An intelligent, demanding, thoughtful guy yes. But frustrating. That's the word you always hear.
The bigger point: With Rondo, Boston had the league's 26th most efficient offense. This seems relevant since the NBA has only 30 teams. How much would they REALLY miss him on a daily basis? How hard was it to replace 13 points and 11 assists every night? Couldn't you replace 80 percent of those stats? It was conceivable, right? Either way, they had reached a fork in the road — if the season went south, they'd certainly have to trade Pierce (Warriors?) and Garnett (Clippers?) over sentencing them to Lotteryville. That was the right thing to do. At the same time, we needed a few more games. They showed some fight against the Heat. We hadn't seen this team fight more than four times all year.
You know what happened next. They reeled off seven straight Rondo-less victories to the delight (and semi-confusion) of their just-when-I-thought-I-was-out-they-pull-me-back-innnnnnnnnn fans. Somewhere during that time, we realized two things.
1. We're not ready to say good-bye to no. 5 and no. 34 yet. Can't trade them. Can't trade them. Can't trade them. Celtics for life.
2. Even if it makes no sense whatsoever, our boys are playing better without Rondo.
Our eyes weren't deceiving us. The Celtics moved the ball dramatically better without Rondo, to the point that Steve Kerr texted me that they suddenly reminded him of Popovich's Spurs. Their playing rotation fell into place — they finally had enough minutes for everyone. Defensively, the Avery Bradley–Courtney Lee combo could be destructive; throwing in Green and Garnett, suddenly, this Celtics team could get stops. And these guys like playing with each other, which wasn't always the case. Everything crested with last Thursday's thrashing of the Lakers, then Sunday's epic triple-overtime toenail-biter-of-a-heart-attack home win over Denver (a.k.a. "The Blizzard Game"). Heading into the All-Star break, Celtics fans find themselves checking the standings and thinking, "If we can get to the no. 6 seed, we could beat Indy in Round 1, and the Knicks in Round 2, and then LeBron only needs to tweak a hammy and "
You know who explained the post-Rondo Celtics better than anyone? Kevin Garnett. I know, I know he wouldn't have been one of your top choices. Here's what he said after the Lakers game:
"Rondo does so many different great things for this team. You can kind of get lackadaisical. It's very similar to when you have someone cooking for you, and you're expecting that every day. But as soon as you start to feed yourself, all of a sudden you start making these gourmet dishes. You start having more people to the house. And you never know you really possessed that. It's kind of like that."
Perfect. That's the thing about the Ewing Theory it takes various shapes and forms. Sometimes, we just overrated a player, or mistakenly believed he was more valuable than he was. Sometimes, an injury or departure can lead to more minutes for players who fit that team's style and framework better. And sometimes, it might take a simple injury for everyone to realize, We lost our way. We relied on that guy too much. I'm not doing enough. You're not doing enough. Let's step it up. You win a game or two, you build a little momentum, and before you know it, everything falls into place and you're a team.
That's what happened here. The Celtics fell into a collective rut with Rondo, for a variety of reasons, and only when Rondo disappeared did they realize it. They made the appropriate fixes. They keep chugging along. Fair or unfair, they look like the Celtics again.
Which raises the question
Does this mean Rondo was a Ewing Theory guy?
For the answer, I thought we'd dive into my original Ewing Theory column, which ran on ESPN.com in May 2001 just a few months before the single best Ewing Theory moment of all time happened. (We'll get to it.) The original column is in bold. My 2013 remarks are in regular font. Here we go.
You're probably tired of reading those "Where did these guys come from?" stories about the Seattle Mariners, who valiantly clawed their way to baseball's best record earlier this season, despite losing Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez over the past three years.
For most baseball fans, Seattle's spring surge was more inexplicable than Colby voting off Keith over Tina on Survivor last week.
Allow me to defend putting a Survivor joke in the opening paragraph of my column — that was Season 2, back when 30 million people were watching every Survivor episode, and Colby ABSOLUTELY should have voted off Tina. So there. Anyway, the 2001 Mariners finished a startling 116-46, a modern-day record that cemented their spot in Ewing Theory lore. Things finally fell apart when they lost to the Yankees in the 2001 ALCS, hitting just .211 in the series. (Translation: They didn't take enough steroids.)
How can a franchise prosper after losing three of the biggest stars in baseball? How does this make sense? I have a three-word explanation for you: "The Ewing Theory."
It's bigger than the "SI Jinx." It makes the "Curse of the Bambino" look like child's play. It's creepier than the "Curse of the Spinal Tap Drummers" and the "Curse on the Careers of Everyone Who Leaves NYPD Blue" combined.
The Ewing Theory outlasted everything except the Curse of the Spinal Tap Dummers. The SI cover jinx stopped mattering right around the same time that Sports Illustrated stopped mattering as much. The "Curse of the Bambino" died in 2004, and thank god. And the NYPD Blue Career Curse fell apart once this happened:
Quite simply, it's the most life-altering sports phenomenon of this lifetime. Here's everything you need to know about the Ewing Theory, in the form of a Q & A:
Q: What's the Ewing Theory? Where did it come from?
The theory was created in the mid-'90s by Dave Cirilli, a friend of mine1 who was convinced that Patrick Ewing's teams (both at Georgetown and with New York) inexplicably played better when Ewing was either injured or missing extended stretches because of foul trouble.
The most common misperception of the Ewing Theory is that some think it was created because we thought the Knicks had a better chance of winning a title without Ewing. Not true. Ewing was only the CATALYST for the theory, and it was as simple as Dave wondering, "Do Ewing's teams always seem to play better when he's on the bench, or am I crazy?" We should also mention that (a) the '84 Hoyas won the NCAA title, and (b) there's no way the Gold Club trial would have been better without Patrick Ewing.
Curious to see if this phenomenon applied to other stars/teams, Dave noticed people were pencilling in the '94-'95 UConn Huskies for a .500 season because "superstar" Donyell Marshall had departed for the NBA. Dave knew better; a lifelong UConn fan, he thought the Huskies relied too much on Marshall the previous season and could survive without him.
Rondo alert!!!!!!!!! Think of KG in the kitchen making those gourmet dishes he never knew he could make.
Like Ali predicting the first Liston knockout, Dave told friends the Huskies would thrive in Marshall's absence — and that's exactly what happened. By midseason, UConn was ranked no. 1 in the country for the first time in school history; the Ewing Theory had been hatched.
How has someone not added "First athlete to definitively prove Dave Cirilli's Ewing Theory" to Donyell's Wikipedia page yet?
Dave introduced me to the Ewing Theory three years ago, and we've been tinkering with it like Voltaire and Thoreau ever since.
I gotta be honest — I don't know who those two guys are.
Eventually, we decided that two crucial elements needed to be in place for any situation to qualify for "Ewing" status:
• A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
The 2008 Celts won the title with Rondo as their fourth-best player. They made the 2010 Finals with him as their third-best player, and came within one win of making the 2012 Finals with him as their best player. Rondo's case loses major steam here.
• That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) — and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
When those elements collide, you have the Ewing Theory.
My gut feeling on Rondo's 2013 case: If we're measuring it just by those two elements, then no, he's not eligible. The Celtics enjoyed too much success with Rondo. And they DID win the title with him. I don't think he qualifies. You'll understand why as we keep going.
Q: What's the best example of the Ewing Theory?
That's easy. During the '99 NBA playoffs, Ewing tore an Achilles tendon during the second game of the Eastern finals against Indiana. With Ewing finished for the playoffs and nobody else on the Knicks who could handle Rik Smits, the series seemed like a foregone conclusion. As an added bonus, since Ewing himself was involved, that made this the ultimate test of the Ewing Theory; in fact, I e-mailed Dave that week to say, "This is the greatest test yet."
That really happened. I swear. The karma for me being briefly excited that someone tore his Achilles tendon is going to come back and bite me at some point, almost definitely at USC's Lyon Center as I'm chasing after some 20-year-old around a double screen. Don't think I don't know this. (Belated: Sorry, Patrick.)
Dave's return e-mail oozed with confidence, as he told me in no uncertain terms, "Ewing's injury is the best thing that ever could have happened to the Knicks — they're definitely making the Finals now."
That e-mail exchange spawned the original version of the Ewing Theory column, which premiered on my old website in May 1999. (Two years later, I rewrote it and updated it for ESPN.com's audience.) I predicted the Knicks would outlast Indiana solely based on Dave's Ewing Theory. And that's exactly what happened. My 5,000 readers at the time couldn't have been more impressed. Related: It sucked to write Internet sports columns in 1999. Nobody was online yet.
So what happened? The Knicks won three of the next four and advanced to the NBA Finals for only the second time in 26 years. Had Jeff Van Gundy's crew shocked the Spurs in the Finals without Ewing, Dave might have his own line of "How-To" videos out right now. (A Knicks upset was simply too tall of a task against Duncan and Robinson, Ewing Theory or no Ewing Theory.)
I have to be honest: I'm not sure how to reconcile a watershed Ewing Theory moment (the theory's namesake PROVING THE THEORY) with my fervent belief that we should live our lives as if the 50-game lockout-shortened joke of a '99 NBA season never happened. I caught most of those Celtics home games in person that year I'd describe the quality of play that season, with only a few exceptions, as "doughy and stoned." Which, coincidentally, was how I took in most of those games.
Q: What are other examples of the Ewing Theory in action?
Some classics from the past three years, in no particular order 2
1. Utah Utes, 1998
Keith Van Horn's ballyhooed college career ends without Utah ever making a Final Four. Nine months later, the Utes shock everyone by making the NCAA title game.
Remember when the words "Keith Van Horn" and "ballyhooed" went together?
2. Tennessee Volunteers, 1998
Even more ballyhooed than Van Horn during his college career, Peyton Manning leaves UT without either winning a national title or beating Florida — and the Vols win the national title nine months later.
Two of the Ewing Theory's lost tragedies? A-Rod and Manning, looming as two A-list examples before they screwed everything up by winning championships (Manning for the '07 Colts, A-Rod for the '09 Yanks). I'm still bitter. And screw you to the 2004 Texas Rangers (89-73 without A-Rod) for not winning three more games, grabbing the AL West and catapulting themselves into Ewing Theory lore.
3. Miami Dolphins, 2000
Dan Marino retires and everyone prepares for a rebuilding year in Miami; the Fins end up advancing to the second round of the playoffs with Jay Fiedler. Jay Fiedler!
Marino lucked out by missing the Internet/Talking Head Sports Era: After making the Super Bowl in his second season, Miami played in one only conference championship for the last 15 years of his career (1985-1999), finishing just 6-8 in the playoffs over that stretch. Marino's career postseason stats: 18 games, 10 losses, 4,510 passing yards, 32 TDs, 24 picks, 77.1 QB rating. I'd keep going, but I don't want to provoke Bill Barnwell into writing a 6,500-word piece about how it's stupid to judge QBs by their playoff stats. He's on vacation.
4. Philadelphia Flyers, 2000
After losing superstar Eric Lindros to a serious concussion in mid-March, the Flyers hold on for first place in the conference and defeat Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the playoffs. In the conference semis, the Flyers take a 3-1 lead when rumors swirl about a Lindros return. Stunned, the Flyers drop Game 5 at home, as Dave and I send frantic e-mails back and forth. Lindros finally returns in Game 6, and the Flyers squander that one, too; now people are blaming Lindros for killing Philly's momentum. In the climactic Game 7, the Flyers get expunged as Lindros gets knocked out with another concussion midway through the game. Season over.
Remember the days when we just casually mentioned concussions in sports columns like they were pulled hamstrings or something? Poor Lindros.
5. Boston Red Sox & Seattle Mariners, 2001 (ongoing)
Written off after Nomar Garciaparra's wrist injury and Alex Rodriguez's departure, both teams cruise to the top of their respective divisions during the first five weeks of the season.
The Mariners kept it going through the first round; the Red Sox fell apart in sections, cementing their legacy as the Most Unlikable Modern Red Sox Team for a good 10 years until the Fried Chicken & Beer Boys zoomed past them. The 2001 Red Sox ended up being so unlikable that I handed out Godfather quotes as end-of-the-season awards. Make yourself a plate of bullet parmigiana and reread it if you're bored. And yes, Nomar triggered the Ewing Theory three years later, when the Red Sox traded him in July and three months later this happened:
6. St. Louis Rams, 1999
Starting QB Trent Green tears an ACL during the preseason. Given up for dead, the Rams rally behind former Arena League football star Kurt Warner and win the Super Bowl, which might be the most unbelievable thing that ever happened.
Confused by two things here: Why did I include the '98 Wildcats when the '96 Wildcats also won the title? And why didn't I play up the '99 Rams more? Now THAT was a Ewing Theory team — post-Green injury, they were fetching 300-to-1 Super Bowl odds in Vegas. Bring up the '99 Rams to anyone who runs a sports book in Vegas and they will start dropping F-bombs.
7. Detroit Lions, 1999
Stunned by Barry Sanders' retirement in August, everyone gives up on the Lions for the '99 season. The Lions respond by sneaking into the NFC playoffs.
I didn't sell this hard enough. The '99 Lions were coached by the immortal Bobby Ross; endured a QB controversy between Charlie Batch and Gus Frerotte; didn't have a running back break 550 yards for the season; were carried by 1,000-yard receiving seasons by Germane Crowell and Johnnie Morton (?????); and somehow grabbed the last NFC wild card even though they finished 8-8. How? The will of the Ewing Theory, that's how. And if you don't think Barry Sanders is a textbook Ewing Theory candidate, you're fooling yourself.
Q: What are some famous examples from the last few decades?3
In no particular order
1. The L.A. Lakers, 1972:
NBA legend Elgin Baylor retires nine games into the 1971-72 season without ever winning a title. The '71-72 Lakers end up running off a record 33-game winning streak en route to their first-ever NBA title in L.A.4
I didn't play this up enough: The Lakers were 6-3 with the creaky Baylor, whose knees were made out of macaroni salad at that point. Of the many reasons why Elgin goes down as the most underappreciated superstar in NBA history, here's a stealth reason — I don't think many ringless guys would have walked away from that loaded Lakers team, no matter how much their knees were aching. But Elgin did. Now here's the part I undersold — Elgin retired after Game 9. The Lakers won Game 10, Game 42, and EVERY GAME IN BETWEEN. Thirty-three straight! The Ewing Theory has never moved faster or been more potent. Patrick Ewing has to be furious that we're not calling it the Elgin Theory.
2. Virginia Cavaliers, 1984: Three-time Naismith Award winner Ralph Sampson graduates without ever leading Virginia to a national championship. Amazingly, the Cavs regroup the following season behind Othell Wilson and Rick Carlisle, going just as far as Sampson ever took them by sneaking into the Final Four. A Hall of Fame Ewing Theory example.
Don't sleep on how crazy this was. Sampson was the three-time College Player of the Year and the most publicized college center since Bill Walton. And Virginia was playing during a loaded era for college hoops — remember, everyone stayed three or four years back then, so that '84 college season included every superior player from the '84 and '85 NBA drafts (MJ, Hakeem, Barkley, Ewing, Mullin, etc.). In the Final Four, Virginia lost to Hakeem's Houston team (Phi Slama Jama, The Sequel) by two points. Repeat: Hakeem Olajuwon was the starting center of the other team. You should not have been coming within two points of the 1984 championship game with Othell Wilson and Rick Carlisle well, unless you had the Ewing Theory on your side.
3. N.Y. Yankees, 1996: Yankees icon Don Mattingly retires without ever playing in a World Series game. The Yanks replace him with Tino Martinez and immediately roll off four of the next five World Series titles, as Mattingly joins a weekly support group with Buck Showalter.
4. Cleveland Indians, 1997: Superstar slugger Albert Belle signs with the White Sox as a free agent. Eschewed as a threat to win the World Series without Belle, the Indians respond by making it all the way to the seventh game of the '97 World Series.
On paper, Mattingly should have been a monster Ewing Theory example, but three things overshadowed it: (a) everyone loved the Hit Man (even Red Sox fans respected him, for God's sake), (b) the transcendence of this poster, and (c) it was the Yankees. They got to spend gobs of money, everyone wants to play for them, and they've been ripping off World Series titles since the 1920s. Meanwhile, the '97 Indians were a couple of outs away from proving that God didn't hate Cleveland AND making Albert Belle one of the faces of the Ewing Theory. Alas.
5. World Wrestling Federation, 1997: Then-WWF champ Bret "Hitman" Hart signs a contract with Ted Turner's WCW federation (no. 1 in the TV ratings battle at the time). Aided by publicity from a real-life, backstage fight between Hart and WWF owner Vince McMahon after Hart's final match, the WWF rebounds in the Post-Hart Era and regains its no. 1 status within a year. Ironically, Hart's departure is considered the crucial turning point, because it gave birth to McMahon's new "bad guy" status and paved the way for the WWF to promote fresh stars like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels. Even in fake sports, the Ewing Theory is indomitable.
We didn't know this in 2001, but we know it now — this is our single best Ewing Theory example. Eventually, the WCW federation folded. You know who purchased it and obtained control of its wrestlers and entire catalog of matches? That's right the WWE. Really, we should call this the Hitman Hart Theory.
Q: Currently, who are some possible Ewing Theory candidates?
All right, I'll bite. Remember, we're targeting stars on teams that haven't won anything, as well as teams that would probably be written off without the stars we're about to mention:
Hold onto your seats, this is about to get fun.
• Drew Bledsoe: Every Patriots fan is nodding right now.
A couple of relatively remarkable things here. First, I suggested Bledsoe as my first candidate. Not fifth, not 10th first. Second, Mo Lewis knocked him out of the lineup just four months later. Third, I started touting New England's Ewing Theory chances with Tom Brady on ESPN.com pretty much right away. Fourth, they improbably won eight of their last nine to make the 2001 playoffs. Fifth, they won the single craziest game in Patriots history (the Snow Game, a.k.a. the Tuck Rule Game), then beat Pittsburgh as double-digit underdogs, then shocked St. Louis as 14-point underdogs in the Super Bowl. Sixth, THE PATRIOTS HAD NEVER WON THE SUPER BOWL BEFORE. Again, Drew Bledsoe was the first Ewing Theory candidate I mentioned. Deep down, we (and by "we," I mean, "Patriots fans") all knew.
• Michael Vick: Textbook case. Everybody's already writing off Virginia Tech for next season, despite the fact that they never won anything with Vick. They might post a 12-0 next season.
Without Vick, Virginia Tech taunted Ewing Theory believers by winning their first eight games before crashing back to earth (they lost four of their last six). So that didn't fly. Vick's Ewing Theory powers also proved futile with the 2007 Falcons, 2012 Eagles and pit bull fighting.
• Chris Webber: Don't laugh. What happens if C-Webb leaves the Kings this summer, and they use the extra cap space to sign two second-tier free agents?
(Cut to every Kings fan nodding wistfully and saying, "Man, I wish it had played out that way.")
• Vince Carter: Watch the Raptors in two years, after Vince joins MJ in D.C. (and you know it's happening).
Didn't happen. Vince pulled down his pants and dropped a massive deuce on the Raptors franchise, forcing a damaging trade to New Jersey and mortally wounding the Raptors until oh, wait, they've never recovered! My bad. And no, he never played with MJ in D.C. I think I might have been drunk during this part of the column.
• Griffey: The baseball version of Ewing.
Nope. In Cincinnati, Griffey stopped being Griffey. I'm one for five.
• Kobe Bryant: After they split him up from Shaq and he gets his own team.
Even if this didn't happen, I'm giving myself bonus points for predicting the Shaq-Kobe split even if it was relatively easy to predict.
• Pete Sampras: This one makes sense, if you think about it. Taking Sampras out of the men's tennis equation could make Wimbledon more interesting and allow younger, more charismatic players to rise to the forefront.
Bammo! Federer and Nadal! BOOM! I'm 2-for-7. If I can go four for my next 17, I can be the MVP of this column.
• Barry Bonds: It's unfair, but he fits the formula.
And that formula was made up of a variety of chemicals that ended with "-rone." Whoops.
• Manning: You can feel the "Manning goes down and the Colts rally behind James & Harrison" moment coming in the next few years, can't you?
My single biggest Ewing Theory disappointment — not having Manning and the Colts fall into the Ewing Theory's web. I'm still bitter. Final prediction numbers: 2-for-9.
While we're here, some Ewing Theory predictions that I wish I had thought to make back in 2001 include
Jason Giambi — Left the A's for big bucks in New York, only the Moneyball A's rallied to keep making the playoffs without him — culminating in Michael Lewis's fantastic book, then Brad Pitt's overrated movie that gets worse every time I stumble across it on cable.
Brett Favre — Even though he won Super Bowl XXXI, that was Young Brett Favre, not "Possibly Holding On Too Long And Blocking Aaron Rodgers" Brett Favre. When Green Bay finally pushed Favre out, Rodgers won a Super Bowl three years later. Favre bounced from the Jets to the Vikings, briefly enjoyed a career resurgence, then got pounded like a piece of veal by the bounty-driven Saints before eventually leaving the NFL in disgrace after a dong photo scandal. That reminds me
ESPN — We beat Favre's retirement yes-or-no dance into the ground for two solid years, then Favre retired, leaving us without a relentlessly annoying talking-head topic that would generate high ratings while deliberately infuriating sports blogs and bringing Richard Deitsch to angry tears and then, TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-bow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Donovan McNabb — How did I leave him off the list? What was I thinking?
Tracy McGrady — This would have been a reach (he was just breaking through for Orlando in 2001), but seven years later, the Rockets ripped off 22 straight wins without the services of Yao or T-Mac for a good chunk of them, then took the eventual Western champion Lakers to Game 7 of the conference semifinals. We have a picture of that team in the Ewing Theory Hall of Fame.
(And three more that I never could have predicted, but still )
Tiki Barber — Was there any way to guess that Tiki would retire in 2006, followed by the Giants ripping off a Super Bowl title the following season? Of course not. But we should mention that Dave Cirilli gave his official Ewing Theory blessing to the Giants two weeks before Super Bowl XLII (via e-mail). I should have seen the worst Patriots loss of all time coming.
Wayne Rooney — Who remembers when Everton sold the then-teenage hotshot to Manchester United in 2004, then improbably finished fourth in the 2004-05 EPL season to qualify for the Champions League? Anyone? Hello? Where's Brian Phillips?
Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck — Let the record show that the 2012 Stanford Cardinal shocked an undefeated Oregon team (giving Alabama a second life and leading to an Alabama–Notre Dame title game), then won the Pac-12 title and the Rose Bowl and neither Harbaugh nor Luck have won anything yet.
Q: Can the Ewing Theory apply to romance?
You betcha. Everyone has one friend who got dumped by their girlfriend/boyfriend, sending them into a tailspin. You worried about them and their well-being, you logged major phone time with them, you wondered if they would ever bounce back and then, boom! Your friend started working out, dropping 15 pounds and suddenly looking better than ever. They also started going out three times a week, rekindling all their old friendships; within time, they had completely regained their mojo. And inevitably, when they finally started dating again, their new flame put the old one to shame. That's the Ewing Theory in a nutshell.
Or as it's also known, What Roger Clemens Did To Red Sox Fans. I should have thrown in PEDs.
(Semi-related: What's the best celebrity Ewing Theory romance? With apologies to Mila Kunis post–Macaulay Culkin, I'm going with Ben Affleck. Remember when he hit rock bottom after J.Lo dumped him and Gigli bombed? Well, he found Jennifer Garner, got his act together, rebuilt his career and eventually became an award-winning A-list director. That's right, J.Lo — you and your bubble butt are headed for the Ewing Theory Hall of Fame.)
Q: Can the Ewing Theory be applied to the entertainment world?
That's a little bit tougher, because people don't write off bands, TV shows and movies the same way we write off sports teams. With that said, there have been a number of Ewing Theory moments when an impending loss seemed devastating and ended up becoming a blessing in disguise. For instance:
1. Beverly Hills 90210, 1994: After petulant star Shannen Doherty leaves the show, the producers import Tiffani-Amber Thiessen as the resident vixen during the watershed "Dylan's drinking again" season — maybe the greatest upgrade in TV history.
I never should have written the word "maybe." Our Mount Rushmore Ewing Theory examples: Bret Hart, Drew Bledsoe, Shannen Doherty and Elgin Baylor. Even if it's totally clichéd to see those four names together.
2. Van Halen, 1986: After David Lee Roth's sudden departure, everyone writes off the band when cheesy '80s singer Sammy Hagar is brought aboard. They end up releasing two successful albums ("5150" and "OU812") and not totally embarrassing themselves.
I've had another 12 years to think about it I think they embarrassed themselves. Even if this happens to be one of the most secretly enjoyable six minutes and 16 seconds on YouTube:
3. Cheers, 1986: Shelley Long leaves the series to pursue a film career, the producers replace her with Kirstie Alley and the show eventually reaches no. 1.
This was a slight reach — Cheers during the first three Shelley Long years was superior to any other Cheers season. But you can't deny the "no. 1 overall" thing.
4. NYPD Blue, 1995: David Caruso leaves the show in the second season, presumably to star in movies with Shelley Long. The producers replace him with Jimmy Smits, revolve the show around Smits and Dennis Franz, and ratings actually improve.
We had Long in the 1980s and Caruso in the 1990s, but nobody in the 2000s well, unless you want to make the case for Katherine Heigl. (And by the way, I won't stop you.) It's disappointing because I always loved when actors/actresses stupidly left TV shows thinking that they had some monster movie career waiting for them. Nowadays, there's too much money and prestige in television — someone like Jon Hamm is smart enough to milk Mad Men for as long as possible while also pursuing movies. Still, it's depressing that there wasn't a hardcore Long-Caruso case for the 2000s. Couldn't David Schwimmer have left Friends three years early so we could have made fun of him for the rest of eternity?
5. The Corleones, late '40s: After Sonny's tragic death and the near-assassination of Don Vito, the family's youngest son (Michael) emerges from exile in Italy and turns the Corleone family around, defying heavy odds and the skepticism of just about everyone (even his brother, Fredo).
Like what happened with the Buss family, only the opposite.
(One TV classic that was immune to the powers of the Ewing Theory: Three's Company. They never adequately replaced the Ropers or Chrissy Snow. But that's a story for another time )
It's really not. Nobody younger than 35 cares about Three's Company. While we're here, a few more pop culture–related Ewing Theory thoughts for you
• Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are Ewing Theory–proof. Don't you even dare. We need both. They can never leave the Fast & Furious franchise. I don't have to elaborate. Same goes for Jeff Probst and Survivor. But Chris Harrison? You can leave anytime.
• I was hoping for Ewing Theory action with Charlie Sheen and Two and a Half Men, but it never really happened. Kudos to Sheen for fighting it off.
• The most depressing Ewing Theory example ever? Joy Division's Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980, causing the band to morph into New Order (a better and more successful band). The second-most depressing example? Courtney Love's music career post-Cobain (for the first few years, anyway). Let's just move on.
• The second-best TV example ever (trailing only Doherty-T.A.T.): The Daily Show after Craig Kilborn left in 1998 and someone named Jon Stewart took over.
• The third-best TV example ever: Kathie Lee Gifford giving way to Kelly Ripa. Actually, that might be higher.
• The fourth-best TV example ever: Season 8 of Curb Your Enthusiasm after Larry and Cheryl broke up and Cheryl Hines disappeared from the show, leading to two Pantheon episodes ("Palestinian Chicken" and the "Mister Softee" episode featuring Buckner), three hilarious everyday terms for us to steal ("the social assassin," "Koufaxing" and "chat-and-cut") and Larry embracing his newfound single status and a self-proclaimed social assassin.
Q: Who were the prime "Shoulda-Been" candidates who somehow escaped the Ewing Theory's wrath over the years?
We'll make this list as cryptic as possible; you figure it out: Mike Schmidt; Walter Payton; Roy Hobbs; Wilt Chamberlain; Robin Quivers; Phil Esposito; Roger Clemens; Henry Kissinger; Bob Cousy; Julius Erving (with the Sixers); George Clooney; Dick Butkus; Cosmo Kramer; Ted Williams; Bo and Luke Duke; Dirk Diggler; Ernie Banks; John F. Kennedy; Andre the Giant; Greg Maddux; Warren Coolidge; Ray Bourque; Frank Deford; Paul Shaffer.
Look, I made that list and still can't figure out why half the names made it.
Finally, what would be the greatest triumph for the Ewing Theory?
The Mariners somehow winning the 2001 World Series — nothing would top that one on the Ewing Scale.
I was wrong. Three words: Tom F-ing Brady.
One last note: If you believe in omens, remember that A-Rod, Junior and the Big Unit might have all departed from Seattle over the past three years, but another marquee athlete was traded to Seattle last fall. His name? Patrick Ewing.
This was like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters — seven years later, the Sonics fled Seattle for Oklahoma City. It's almost like the Ewing Theory imploded on itself.
And now, without further ado, the Ewing Theory Power Rankings — a.k.a., our best bets to become Ewing Theory candidates at some point during the rest of this decade. Even if there's no way to predict this stuff, I'm still predicting it. In no particular order
George Lucas — You know, if J.J. Abrams invigorates the Star Wars franchise.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick Four Years From Now — I hate myself for typing this.
Matt Ryan, Adrian Peterson — Think about it.
Matt Lauer — My sneaky-favorite example although I'm president of the Willie Geist Fan Club.
David Price — After he signs with the Dodgers for $300 million in two years. Says Grantland's Jonah Keri, "One of these years, the Rays are going to catch some luck on these playoff or near-playoff runs and fluke their way to a World Series win so why not without the best left-handed starting pitcher in the American League?" I like it.
Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire — I don't watch this show, but Grantland editor Dan Fierman swears that it's a dead-on example.
Brody in Homeland — Had they killed him off after Season 1, there would have been major Ewing Theory possibilities. FYI: There's still time.
Alex Ovechkin — This pick was approved by Katie Bakes.
Billy Beane — How great would that be?
Mark Zuckerberg — Ditto.
Carmelo Anthony — Fits all the criteria.
Pope Benedict XVI — Come on, I had to.
David Stern — Kudos to the Commish because he sniffed out his own Ewing Theory potential, then decided to hang on through February 2014 until the league was in good enough shape that nobody could say, "Things turned around because Stern left!" Yet another reason why he's one of the smartest dudes in sports history.
Rajon Rondo — Only if the Celtics make the 2013 Finals. And only then.
Bill Simmons — Here's how I could get foiled by my own favorite theory in two steps:
1. I get fired for saying something totally inappropriate/offensive on live TV during NBA Countdown.
2. Grantland takes off with new editor-in-chief Rembert Browne.