Little galvanizes popular interest like a winning streak. Last week, the NBA’s Miami Heat finally surrendered the tenuous perfection it had possessed for 27 straight games, falling just six wins shy of the league record. An impressive showing, yes, but hardly basketball’s most enduring mark. College colussus UCLA–the men’s team–won 88 games in a row over four seasons under the nonpareil guidance of coach John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood. And more recently the University of Connecticut women’s hoopsters won 78 straight. Each of these examples is phenomenal, if only for the huge number of factors which exist to prevent a streak–injury, fatigue and pressure being just a few. Even a highly superior team risks losing every time it plays, obviously. And probability theory works against the streak–that’s why there are so few extraordinary ones. Yet extraordinary streaks do occur, and they fascinate for–among other things–their rarity. Rome was on one for a good long while, until that much noted “decline and fall” thing. England, upon which the sun at one point never managed to set, was undeniably hot for a time. Alexander the Great–the moniker alone there, really, tells the story.
But geopolitical dominance is another ballgame, so to speak. In easier, friendlier arenas streaks needn’t involve the moral trangressions that tend to compromise an onlooker’s enjoyment–you know, messy stuff like conquering and colonialism. Here’s a good innocuous one: in 2004 a plainclothes polymath named Ken Jennings grabbed America’s attention by excelling on the TV quiz show Jeopardy, winning an unprecedented 75 games in a row. Jeopardy‘s ratings more than doubled, as casual observers became avid watchers, a common symptom of any streak. We love–or at least love to watch–a winner. Streaks can even be examined in a handy microcosm–consider the no-hitter. It’s a beautiful little streak of finite duration, yet as rare and difficult as some of the longest in history. And its magnetizing effect on observers holds true: the casual fan becomes complicit in the drama, as a regulation baseball game becomes something more: one for the record books. What’s your favorite streak? For all of the Miami Heat’s accomplishments so far this year, what LeBron James and company really want is to win a streak of championships–five, six in a row. That’s when a streak turns into a dynasty. And a dynasty may fascinate us even more–which brings us back to geopolitics. Or maybe just back to Michael Jordan, Bjorn Borg, or Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. Today, somewhere, someone or some team will begin another streak. We’ll see how long it lasts.