Culture of Hoops

The Kentucky Derby’s Guide to Winning an NBA Title

Image Courtesy of Kentucky Derby/Facebook

Image Courtesy of Kentucky Derby/Facebook

The 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby is this Saturday. This is one of the most important days each year in the NBA.

I’m positive that you’re likely thinking, “Hold up, Sonny. You must be confused. The Kentucky Derby is a horse race. Horses are animals! What in God’s name could the Kentucky Derby have to do with the National Basketball Association?”

To that I would respond that the Kentucky Derby has everything to do with the National Basketball Association. Allow me to explain.

It all started in 1976 when the American Basketball Association (ABA), the de facto younger brother of the National Basketball Association (NBA), went out of business. Six teams from the suddenly defunct league began negotiating with the more powerful, lucrative and established NBA. Those six teams that the NBA considered taking in and making their own were (presented in alphabetical order):

Denver Nuggets

Indiana Pacers

Kentucky Colonels

New York Nets

San Antonio Spurs

Spirits of St. Louis

I won’t get into the how’s and why’s all of this went down (if you were compelled to read more about the merge between the two leagues, you could check out a very simple, yet detailed explanation of how the events went down on the internet’s most trustworthy source, Wikipedia), but in the end the Kentucky Colonels and Spirits of St. Louis were the two teams left out of the merge. Could the league have taken all six teams? Perhaps it was a possibility, but again, we don’t need to get into the nitty gritty details of the merge. Just know that six teams entered negotiations, all hoping and expecting to be absorbed into the NBA, and only four walked out pleased with how things went.

The Colonels were one the ABA’s most prestigious and successful franchises; they thrice played in the ABA Finals and had a winning record in all but one season in their franchise history. They were engaged in the ABA’s most bitter rivalry along with the Indiana Pacers (the only team in ABA history with more postseason victories than the Colonels) and of all NBA and ABA teams, the Colonels had the sixth best attendance in professional basketball. Despite all of this working in their favor, they weren’t brought over to the NBA when the two leagues merged. This was Kentucky’s last true professional sports team, no matter how strongly John Calipari disagrees.

Of course, the state of Kentucky is most well-known for their Horse Racing; most notably, the Kentucky Derby, an annual extravaganza that dominates the sports scene for an entire weekend and attracts hundreds of thousands of people to Churchill Downs Racetrack every year on the first Saturday in May just to watch a horse race that has been coined “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” There’s a losing my virginity joke to make somewhere there, but I’ll skip over it because this is a very serious matter we’re dealing with. When the Colonels folded in 1976, one-hundred and two Kentucky Derby’s were already in the books. The one-hundred and third Kentucky Derby proved to be more than just a horse race; it was a predictor for NBA events to come.

In 1977, Seattle Slew won the Kentucky Derby, and then went on to become the tenth horse to win racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes). Just two years after Seattle Slew made horse racing history, the Seattle SuperSonics defeated the Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals. It was the SuperSonics first and only NBA Championship.

If you make the foolish choice to do so, you could scoff at the notion that there is any connection between those two particular events and between the Kentucky Derby and pro basketball, but I firmly believe that there is some cosmic connection between the two. Come on, just be real for a second … so we have one team left out of the NBA-ABA merger whose nickname was “Spirits” and another team left out that played in Kentucky, and then one year after those two teams were left behind, a horse named Seattle Slew wins the most prestigious horse race on earth, and that was the first horse ever with a city included in its name to win that race, and then two years later an NBA team from that particular city won the NBA Championship. Isn’t it entirely possible that those “Spirits” stayed in Kentucky and now have a permanent effect on who will win the NBA Championship depending on which horse won the Kentucky Derby? If you think I’m crazy, I have more evidence to convince you.

In 1984, a Kentucky thoroughbred named Swale won the Derby, and eventually won the Belmont Stakes as well. Sadly, Swale died only eight days after winning the Belmont Stakes. In 1986 the Boston Celtics won the NBA Title, and amazingly, they also owned the #2 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. The Celtics drafted Len Bias, a sure thing Power Forward out of the University of Maryland. Two days later, Bias tragically passed away.

In 1987, Alysheba became the first horse since 1981 to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Similarly, the Los Angeles Lakers won the 1987 and 1988 NBA Titles but failed to three-peat in 1989. This is when the “Spirits” got tired of waiting two years to be able to flex their cosmic muscles, and they started impacting the NBA Championship just one year down the road.

A Filly (a female horse under the age of five, so says Wikipedia) named Winning Colors won the Kentucky Derby in 1988. This was only the third time a Filly had won the Run for the Roses. In 1989 the Detroit Pistons won the NBA Title, the first of their three Championships they’ve won as a franchise.

The Chicago Bulls won the 1992 NBA Finals, an outcome sports fans should have seen coming after Strike The Gold won the 1991 Kentucky Derby, an indication that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were about to become the first two players to win an NBA Title and an Olympic Gold Medal in the same year. Of course, you could argue that Portland Trailblazer star Clyde Drexler was in position to win both the NBA Title and an Olympic Gold Medal too, but that was only a possibility that existed until MJ bent Drexler over his knee and spanked his ass in front of millions of people in the 1st Half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Then it was no longer a possibility.

In 1995, Thunder Gulch won the Kentucky Derby. Though there was no way to understand this at the time, Thunder Gulch’s victory foreshadowed that the Seattle SuperSonics would make the 1996 NBA Finals, lose there to the Chicago Bulls, and also eventually lose their franchise when the Sonics moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City and changed their name to the Thunder. This is an example of the “Spirits” showing off in a major way. Who else but the supernatural could have seen something like this coming?

Real Quiet won the 1998 Kentucky Derby, and that couldn’t be more perfect because the San Antonio Spurs won the 1999 NBA Title on the back of Tim Duncan, the quietest superstar since the NBA-ABA merger twenty-plus years before. Also, this was the strike season and first post-Jordan NBA Finals. Due to both of these events, the 1999 NBA Finals saw the steepest drop in viewers from one year to the next in league history. You could say that it was, ahem, Real Quiet.

Fast forwarding eleven years, Mine That Bird won a sloppy Kentucky Derby in 2009, foreshadowing the sloppy Game 7 the Los Angeles Lakers would win to clinch the 2010 NBA Championship over the Boston Celtics, whose best player throughout their run in the 1980’s was Larry Bird.

In 2010, Super Saver won the Derby, and Dirk Nowitzki saved his legacy by going on a Playoff run for the ages that concluded in June when he and the Mavericks defeated the favored Miami Heat.

Animal Kingdom and I’ll Have Another won the 2011 and 2012 Kentucky Derby’s respectively, two crystal clear signs that the Miami Heat would be champions in 2012 and 2013. Animal Kingdom is a theme park in Florida, the state where Miami exists, and I’ll Have Another couldn’t be a more obvious allusion to that a repeat champion the following summer.

California Chrome traveled all the way from the Golden State to Churchill Downs to win the 2014 Kentucky Derby. One year later, the Golden State Warriors won their first NBA Championship in 40 years.

American Pharaoh made racing history in 2015 by becoming the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown. As you know (or maybe you don’t know … how should I know what you remember from middle school history), Pharaoh is the Egyptian word for “King.” Do y’all remember what player won his third NBA Title last year after winning three consecutive NBA Finals games while staring a 3-1 series deficit and a 73-win juggernaut right in the face? Oh, you don’t? Don’t worry, I’ll remind you:

There are two questions that remain: First, when a horse is named after an NHL player, as was last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, what does that indicate about what is to come in the 2017 NBA Playoffs? And second, who will win the 2017 Kentucky Derby, and what will that tell us about the eventual 2018 NBA Champion?

Instead of digging deep for some sort of information on this surely toothless Swede hockey star, I investigated more about the horse itself. I found that the only Kentucky Derby winner in the first four generations of Nyquist’s pedigree is Pleasant Colony, the 1981 Derby champ. It’s going to look odd in print, but I’m almost certain this means we’re just weeks away from a Boston Celtics/Houston Rockets NBA Finals, just like in 1981. Get ready guys … Isaiah Thomas and James Harden are about to shoot 1,000 three’s and free throws combined in seven games.

So who should basketball fans be rooting for during Saturday’s race?

Girvin – San Antonio Spurs (This is an indirect tip of the cap, or a direct tip of the cap by a very poor speller, to Spurs legend George Gervin)

Classic Empire – Golden State Warriors (Aren’t we like super-duper close to considering the Warriors an NBA empire, a dominant force ruling over a number of other parties)

Irish War Cry – Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers (Boston and Philadelphia are the 2nd and 3rd most Irish towns in the United States)

Thunder Snow (IRE) – Oklahoma City Thunder (If anybody needs this one explained, I’m amazed that you made it this far)

Irap – Portland Trailblazers (Blazers Point Guard Damian Lillard is the most skilled rapper of all NBA players)

Gormley – Toronto Raptors (Gormley is the name of a city in Ontario, the Canadian province where Toronto also exists)

Practical Joke – New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic (It would feel like an elaborate practical joke if any of these four teams won the NBA Title next year)

Battle of the Midway – Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks (Midway International Airport in Chicago is Southwest Airlines largest focus city. Southwest Airlines is a Dallas-based company)

J Boys Echo – Houston Rockets (Nobody makes more three-point jump-shots, or J’s, than the Houston Rockets)

Gunnevera – Washington Wizards (The first three letters of this horse’s name spell the word “Gun,” which is a weapon that needs bullets to perform its desired action. The Washington Wizards were formerly the Washington Bullets)

McCraken – Milwaukee Bucks (McCraken was named for a little town of 190 people in Kansas. Unofficially, only 1 of every 190 media members can correctly pronounce “Giannis Antetokounmpo”)

Tapwrit – Utah Jazz (Jose Ortiz is the name of the jockey who will be riding Tapwrit, and also the name of basketball player who four-time Olympic basketball player from Puerto Rico who played 64 NBA games with the Utah Jazz)

Always Dreaming – Cleveland Cavaliers (The night the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA Championship is one of the three best nights of my life. I will always be dreaming of another night like that)

You may have noticed that there twelve NBA Teams and seven Kentucky Derby horses not mentioned … that’s because the spirits in Kentucky won’t allow them to win. Place all future bets accordingly.

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