The notion of the super team – one built for glamour as well as competitive advantage – probably started in Milan in the late '80s.
Bunga bunga enthusiast Silvio Berlusconi bought the team on the cheap and began pumping oodles of money into it. His three key purchases were Dutch – Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. Each could argue at some point they were the world's best player. They once went nearly two years without losing a league game.
Like all legendary clubs, that iteration of Milan was renowned for its gnomic oddness. Coach Arrigo Sacchi attributed the group's fluidity to the fact that they played full games in practice without using a ball. Sacchi would stand on the sidelines and scream out where the imaginary ball had ended up, forcing the players to read to each other rather than a random bounce.
"The spirit guides the hand," Sacchi liked to say, quoting Michelangelo. It was all very Italian.
Milan changed the definition of what constituted the aspiration of a great team. It was no longer enough to win. Now you had to stockpile talent like firewood – one atop the other. You had to chase beauty as well as trophies.
It's a straight line from there to, say, Barcelona. On Wednesday, the Catalan giants announced a four-year, $315-million shirt deal with a Japanese company called Rakuten. I cannot for the life of me figure out what Rakuten does, but apparently they do a lot of it.
Intel pays Barcelona $5-million a year to put the company name on the inside of their shirts. In order to see the logo, the players have to flip their jerseys over their heads – which is prohibited.
That much celebrity concentrated in one place makes smart people do stupid things.
A couple of years ago, you'd have said Barcelona was the most glamorous team of any sort in the world, but that shine has faded just a bit. They're still every bit as good, but they haven't changed any – same stars, same results, same story lines. Anything standing still in the world of sports begins to bore awfully quickly.
Generally speaking, when one soccer team drifts away from this particular perch, it's replaced by another. But all the others currently suffer from the Barcelona comparison problem – nobody can duplicate that club's unique brand of élan. It can't be purchased. Instead, it took 30 years to build.
So, the most-obsessed-over super team cannot be European. If so, who qualifies?
Whoever it is has to be peaking. Not at the peak, but headed there in short order.
The team must be expensively – ludicrously expensively – assembled.
It must be in flux. This can't be a slow burn, but a sudden arrival.
It needs several stars of similar quality and dissimilar temperament. Each man has to be his own person. This is the reason people like the Beatles better than the Stones. One was a collection of ill-fitted geniuses. The other was Keith Richards and four guys who wished they were Keith Richards.
There must be some element of risk, a small likelihood that the whole thing could go completely sideways.
It must be a global concern (i.e. no baseball/football/hockey team, no matter how impossibly cool, need apply).
Lastly, and most importantly, it has to win in the end.
On that basis, the most interesting team in the world visited Toronto on Wednesday evening.
The Golden State Warriors aren't a team so much as a thought experiment – how perfectly can basketball be played?
When they were putting together various 'best of all time' streaks last season, they seemed to be getting to the root of it – just keep shooting. At its best, basketball is painfully elegant. What mars the balletic physicality is watching a guy pull up in the front of the hoop, assume his stance, launch a ball with geometric precision … and miss the rim by three feet. It kills the illusion.
Golden State would play entire games and never seem to miss. A whole season was spent waiting to put the laurel wreath on their heads. Then over the course of three bad nights in June it all came apart.
Counterintuitively, we are most in love with great teams who fail at first. There has to be some sense of overcoming not just others, but themselves. It's a staple of mythology – the interior battle. In losing, Golden State gave itself a chance for much bigger wins. When they signed Kevin Durant, expectations grew exponentially.
It created a four-man dynamic that had never previously existed in the NBA – Steph Curry is John; Durant is Paul; Klay Thompson is George; and below-the-belt puncher Draymond Green is Ringo. This team is so stacked, they even have a Yoko (social-media oversharer Ayesha Curry).
They managed it because of a salary quirk that saw Curry signed to what might be the most team-friendly free-agent contract in history. He's arguably the best player in the game, but he's only the fourth-best paid on his own club.
Ahead of the season, people seriously debated whether the new Warriors could win all 82 games. So of course, they've looked choppy to begin with. The seamlessness of last year's group has given way to a ragged strength. At least thus far, they're a collection of massively talented individuals, rather than a team. Maybe what they need is some invisible-ball training.
What makes the story so compelling is that there are only two possible endings – a historic success or an even more historic failure. If this team can't win, the concept of the super team (at least, the NBA version) is in jeopardy.
Everyone involved is either going to look like a genius or a fool. That's the key frisson in art, that sport so rarely reaches. It reminds you that we don't just want our athletes to be superhuman. Occasionally, when everything breaks just right, we'd like them to be godlike.