It is a familiar part of the lexicon now, one used to distinguish the greatest of our sports champions.
A term coined by Byron Scott in 1988 and trade-marked by Pat Riley, it slides across the tongue as smooth as a scoop of ice cream and defines a dynasty as readily as a crown atop a monarch’s head.
But there is nothing at all easy about the three-peat.
When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Heat take the court Thursday night, they’ll be attempting to become only the sixth team in NBA history to go back-to-back-to-back as champs.
Here’s a look at Fab Five:
Minneapolis Lakers (1952-54)
“Geo Mikan vs. Knicks.” That was the message on the marquee outside Madison Square Garden on Dec. 14, 1949. It succinctly said everything that you needed to know about George Mikan, the man who was the NBA’s first superstar. In an Associated Press poll, the 6-foot-10 center was voted the greatest basketball player of the first half of the 20th century and he was later named as one of the 50 Greatest Players in league history. Mikan was such a dominant individual force that the goaltending rule was introduced to limit his defensive effectiveness and the lane was widened from six to 12 feet to keep him farther from the basket on offense.
However, Mikan still flourished and when he was teamed up with Vern Mikkelsen, Jim Pollard and Slater Martin, his Lakers rolled to three consecutive championships. The Lakers beat the Knicks for their first title in a series that was notable for neither team being able to play on its home court. Minneapolis’ Municipal Auditorium was already booked and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was at the Garden. With Mikan double-teamed, Mikkelsen carried the Lakers offense to a 3-3 split of the first six games and then in the only true home game of the series, the Lakers won 82-65 to claim the crown. The Lakers came back to beat the Knicks again the following year 4-1 and the made it three in a row with a 4-3 defeat of the Syracuse Nationals in 1954.
Boston Celtics (1959-66)
An Octo-peat? The only word that anybody had for it back then was this: Domination.
The Celtics certainly were powerful enough as Bill Russell roamed the middle at center, point guard/showman Bob Cousy dazzled crowds (and infuriated opponents) and Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn and Jim Loscutoff rounded out the starting lineup. Toss in Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Gene Conley off the bench along with iconic coach Red Auerbach and Boston was set up for a solid decade of reaching the NBA Finals.
The Celtics run, fittingly, began with the first meeting in the Finals with the Lakers franchise that would become a historical nemesis. It was the Lakers’ final season in Minneapolis and they had Rookie of the Year Elgin Baylor, but they were no match for Boston and were swept 4-0 in The Finals. The next season saw the arrival of another young foe, Wilt Chamberlain, who was named Rookie of the Year and MVP for the Philadelphia Warriors. But Russell-Chamberlain began with Boston on top in the playoffs and then the Celtics beating the St. Louis Hawks 4-3 in 1960 to win the title. The Celtics took down the Hawks, led by perennial All-NBA First Teamer Bob Pettit again in 1961 to make it three in a row. By the time the Celtics reached eight straight championships, they had beaten the Lakers — since relocated to Los Angeles — four more times (1962, ’63, ’65, ’66) and defeated the San Francisco Warriors in 1964. The Celtics’ run is unquestionably the greatest dynasty in the history of American pro sports.
Chicago Bulls (1991-93)
It took seven seasons for Michael Jordan to climb the mountain and reach the NBA Finals, but when he eventually arrived in 1991, it was fitting that the Lakers and Magic Johnson awaited. The old Lakers championship gang of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper that won five titles in the 1980s was gone. But Magic was one of the icons — along with Larry Bird — that Jordan had been chasing.
With Scottie Pippen as his wingman and Phil Jackson as his coach, Jordan was virtually unstoppable, winning the first of what would become six NBA Finals MVP awards. There would be so many more historic achievements for Jordan, but the night when he made the pass that set up the late bucket clincher by John Paxson, was the one that started it all for M.J. The Bulls were ready to take on any challengers of their era and the next up were the Portland Trail Blazers and a would-be contender to his throne, Clyde Drexler. But Jordan made sure nobody confused who was in charge as the Bulls won the 1992 Finals 4-2. Jordan’s good buddy (and the 1993 MVP) Charles Barkley was next with his Suns. They played a triple-overtime game. Barkley showed his stuff and extended the series to a Game 6. But once he got within sniffing distance, there was no getting Jordan off the championship scent and the three-peat was complete.
Chicago Bulls (1996-98)
Who knows what might have happened if Jordan hadn’t decided to step away from the game for 1 1/2 years and chase a dream of playing professional baseball. While Air Jordan was shagging fly balls and trying to catch up with the curve ball as a member of the minor league Birmingham Barons, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets claimed back-to-back titles. Then Jordan came back and set the record straight.
Dennis Rodman took over Horace Grant‘s power forward role in this dynasty and the Bulls were off and running in 1995-96. First came a Jordan, Pippen and Rodman-led dumping of the so-called rising dynasty in the Eastern Conference — the Shaquille O’Neal/Penny Hardaway-led Orlando Magic. That set up the Bulls’ Finals return against the Seattle SuperSonics. Chicago quickly left no doubt about the outcome, building a 3-0 lead on the way to the title. The long-time duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton of the Utah Jazz at long last completed their trek to The Finals, but lost to the Bulls in both ’97 and ’98. The 1997 series featured the “flu game,” when a visibly weakened Jordan had a stomach ailment for Game 5 at Salt Lake City, but didn’t let it stop him from scoring 38 points and dominating the fourth quarter. He wasn’t fully recovered for Game 6, but Jordan scored 39 in the clincher.
The following year was the swan song for the Bulls dynasty and Jordan, of course, went out in style. Trailing 86-83 with 41.9 seconds left in Game 6, Jordan scored on a layup, then stole a pass from Stockton to Malone and went to the other end and nailed his walkaway 20-footer over Bryon Russell to an 87-86 win and the completion of the second Bulls’ three-peat.
L.A. Lakers (2000-2002)
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant had been teammates since the 1996-97 season, but it took the arrival coach Phil Jackson with his pedigree of six Chicago titles to forge a championship mentality.
In the first season of the O’Neal-Bryant-Jackson era, the Lakers finished the regular season with a record of 67-15 — second-best in franchise history.
O’Neal was named the league MVP and the Lakers would go on to win their first championship since 1988. The road didn’t come without it’s bumps though. After beating Sacramento and Phoenix in the first two rounds of the playoffs it would all come down to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. Down 15 points with just over 10 minutes to play, L.A. would mount the greatest Game 7 comeback in NBA history to defeat Portland 89-84. The Lakers went on to win the NBA Finals in six games over the Indiana Pacers.
The next season the Lakers rolled through the first three rounds of the playoffs undefeated and then took down Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers 4-1 in The Finals. Their postseason record of 15-1 stands as the best in NBA history.
By the third year of the run, Shaq and Kobe were bickering constantly, but kept right on winning. Their biggest challenge came in the Western Conference finals against the Sacramento Kings. It took one of the many heroic last-second shots by Robert Horry to win Game 4 of that series. Finally, L.A. ousted Sacramento in a Game 7 classic that had 16 ties and 19 lead changes. Once the test by the Kings was complete, the Lakers breezed to a 4-0 sweep of the New Jersey Nets in The Finals.