A friend of mine who leads the league in cynicism likes to argue that the popularity of professional sports is only sustainable because of the massive interest-boosting crutches of gambling and fantasy sports.
He is right to a very limited degree. Yes, those things may be why you find yourself riveted to a west coast Padres game at 1:03 a.m., or still watching a 31-3 NFL game on TV in the fourth quarter.
Those things are not the foundation of our love of competition, though. They are not why we fell in love with sports, or why the love is beyond-question enduring. Rare is the marriage, the romantic love, that lasts as long as the lifelong love and commitment we have for our favorite home team.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals.
This is not about hockey. It is bigger. But this astonishing NHL championship series that begins on Monday represents well the love of underdog and stubborn hope that drives us as fans.
Vegas, ultimate Cinderella-on-skates, would be the first-ever first-year expansion team to win a championship in one of America's Big Four team sports. Washington aims to win the first Stanley Cup in its 43-year existence.
It is the matchup perfectly conveying the delightfully unscripted, anything-is-possible magic of sports. It makes us think, "Why not us?" And, "This could be our year!" (Right, Dolfans?)
That's because we see that the magic constantly reboots itself. It is everywhere. Sometimes when we need it most, it arises to renew our faith in possibility.
No way! But it happened. It really did!
"Hoosiers" is based on a true story and "Rocky" felt like it was, both movies ingrained in Americana for the very phenomena we're talking about.
So much about sports can seem so surreal it feels like a movie, like we are watching something not happening live, in real-time, but on a big screen in a theater.
Al Michaels shouting, "Do you believe in miracles!?" as Team USA hockey completes a stunning, epic upset of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.
Joe Namath, poolside at a Miami Beach hotel in 1969, guaranteeing a Super Bowl win by his heavy-underdog Jets. And then delivering.
Is it possible that, in 1919, the unbeatable thoroughbred Man 'O War lost to a 100-to-1 longshot? And that the horse's name was Upset?
Lightly regarded Buster Douglas didn't really knock out undefeated Mike Tyson in 1990? Did he?
Ten years ago the Patriots were headed to a perfect 19-0 season. But the Giants and ridiculous catch by little-known David Tyree intervened.
The 1999 St. Louis Rams busted out of a decade's irrelevance and won the Super Bowl led by a quarterback who a year earlier had been stocking shelves for $5.50 an hour at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Iowa. That happened. Nobody made it up.
Leicester City, a 5,000-to-1 preseason underdog, won the 2016 English Premier League soccer title and forever changed the way sportsbooks do odds.
Anybody remember U.S. wrestler Rulon Gardner from the 2000 Olympics?
The "Miracle Mets" happened in 1969. North Carolina State beat Houston (and Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler) to win the 1983 NCAA championship. Appalachian State beat Michigan State in football in 2007.
This happened, too. It wasn't a movie. In the 1950 World Cup the U.S. men's soccer team entered the game having lost its previous nine international matches by a combined score of 45-2. England was called the "Kings of Football" at that time. Final: U.S. 1, England 0.
Now, in 2018, the team in the Stanley Cup Finals that has never won a championship in all its 43 seasons doesn't even get to be the lovable underdog because of the team that didn't exist a year ago, a Vegas team whose players call themselves the "Golden Misfits."
Vegas is led by three former Florida Panthers in coach Gerard Gallant and important scorers Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. (I wish the current Panthers were as good as the guys they let get away).
Eighteen months ago Florida abruptly (and prematurely, and stupidly) fired Gallant after a game in Raleigh. As the Panthers team bus idled outside the arena before heading to the airport, the newly fired ex-coach was left at a curb to wait for a taxi, bags in hand like a hockey Willy Loman — the photo of the forlorn tableau going viral.
That was the low point of the coach's professional career. He is living the pinnacle right now — the latest in the long line of the faces of sports' miracle factory.
Who's next? Your team, maybe?
It could happen. And that's the heck of it.
It actually could.