Ranking the 10 Greatest California Sports Teams of All Time — College and Pro
In a society where there is just too much consensus, this list is crafted to make you argue, California. Express your differences, for once.
California is home to scores of professional and college teams that have risen to their respective pinnacles since USC beat Loyola Marymount, 40-0, in the first college football game in the state in 1889. Some of those pro teams were birthed alongside the Pacific Ocean, but many rambled west like Joads with sporting goods equipment. The Rams, who’ve done two stints in Los Angeles, have a big expensive house now and would seemingly be around for good. The Raiders ran away, and for the purposes of this list, they won’t count, because they live in Las Vegas now. And no amount of scary people in face paint can change our minds.
In making this list we considered the overall body of work, the oeuvre of athletics, as it were, not the greatest season by any one of them. Statistics absolutely matter, but so does historical weight. And being adored helped.
Most of you will leave this with some degree of agitation unless one of your many choices for California sports allegiances run through the old Forum or Pauley Pavilion.
Presenting the California Casinos List of Greatest California Teams
1. Los Angeles Lakers
There are compelling reasons for the Lakers to top this list. Thirteen championships — five in a nine-year span in the 1980s — is key among them. So is 27 Hall of Famers. So is crafting dynasties in multiple decades. Magic, Kareem, Shaq, Kobe, Jerry West. Showtime, damn it. Look at all those celebs at courtside. The Lakers are as much a vibe as a sports franchise and their ranking needs few words.
2. UCLA Men’s Basketball
The Bruins won 10 of their 11 NCAA championships in a 12-year span, a feat of utter sport-ruination that can never be replicated in a college age of one-and-done and the transfer portal. An accomplishment orchestrated by coach John Wooden and perpetrated by an unending procession of legends included a record 88 consecutive wins. No team, college or pro, will ever touch these feats. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard. No wonder.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The 1980s 49ers featured some of the greatest collections of talent in NFL history and they exploited them by winning Super Bowls in 1982, 1985, and 1989. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott. The Catch. Montana started the 90s by winning the Super Bowl again, before ceding to Steve Young, who won the team’s most recent Lombardi Trophy in 1995. This group somehow made East Coast kids think those loud gold jackets were cool. The Bill Walsh coaching tree sprouted nationwide and offense was forever changed by the Bay.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
There’s so many iconic moments inexorably connected with this team that it’s almost unbelievable the Dodgers have won only seven World Series titles. Whether it’s Kirk Gibson’s game-winning Game 1 homer off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series, Fernando Mania, or a Sandy Koufax perfect game, there’s been something for every generation to latch onto since the team opened up shop in LA Coliseum in 1959.
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5. Golden State Warriors
Five of the franchise’s seven NBA championships occurred in the Bay Area, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson — considered one of the backcourts of all time — setting the foundation for a dynasty that claimed championships in 2015, 2017, 2018 (after Kevin Durant came aboard), and 2022. While the old days were not necessarily good or even passable at times, there was a championship in 1975, and players the ilk of Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Tim Hardaway, and Chris Mullin once pulled on the blue and gold. Hardaway and Mullin earn extra points for always being the only team you ever needed to pick in NBA Jam.
6. Oakland Athletics
More prototype California vagabonds, the Athletics pulled up roots in Philadelphia and Kansas City before settling in the East Bay. Like the Lakers, they had multiple dynastic eras — in the 1970s behind the likes of Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, and Reggie Jackson — and in the 1980s — Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco – before ownership tore them apart. That green and gold set against the whitest white uniforms ever sewn made for a near-perfect aesthetic tainted only by an ashtray of a ballpark that often had a football field scrawled on it and dugouts that run with sewage. Two of the four A’s World Series titles in Oakland came against California teams: 1974 (Dodgers) and 1989 (Giants, earthquake).
7. USC Football
Nine national championships is certainly an impressive feat. And then there’s the whole Trojan aura, the fantastic colors, the fight song, Traveler, Song Girls, etc. Oh and football players: Marcus Allen, Charles White, Mike Garrett, six Heisman Trophy winners. Points off for the whole Reggie Bush thing, though. The program is reclaiming its place as one of the most hated in college football through its unapologetic harvesting of other teams’ head coaches and recruits, which may mean it’s ready for some fresh greatness. USC claims a few more titles from back in the early times, so feel free to argue about that, too.
8. San Francisco Giants
After all those years of wind-swept summer misery at Candlestick Park, the Giants got a new direction with new owners in 1992 and one of the best venues — Oracle Park — in 2000. Led by Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco won three World Series (2010, 2012, 2014) in five years. The Giants can blame themselves for not being higher, though. Two of their three World Series losses came to California teams: Anaheim (2002), Oakland (1989).
9. Los Angeles Kings
Those were some heady times when owner Bruce McNall sent a package of players, cash, and draft picks to the Edmonton Oilers for arguably the greatest hockey player of all-time, a 27-year-old Wayne Gretzky. It was the frozen version of Showtime at the Forum, with The Great One surrounded by a cast of talents sufficient to reach the 1993 Stanley Cup final, where the Kings fell to Montreal. Having shed their old purple-and-gold, the silver-and-black Kings became sports-fashionable coast-to-coast and sparked a love of hockey in California. There was eventually some McNall bank fraud and a bankruptcy before Gretzky was shipped off to St. Louis (like the Rams!) but the legacy was set. The Kings finally won two Cups in three years (2012 and 2014), but that era hardly seems as interesting in retrospect.
10. Los Angeles Rams
Perhaps a little harsh coming off that first Super Bowl win in Southern California, but even with a couple of the best players in the NFL — that’s you Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp — the Rams always feel like they’re playing a neutral-site game in that blandness that is SoFi Stadium. Maybe this current iteration of the Rams can be better than the golden (or whatever color that was) era team that won and lost a Super Bowl during its residency in St. Louis. But don’t forget the pre-Super-Bowl-era 1951 title-winning Rams. Those offensive visionaries led by Norm Van Brocklin reached the NFL finals — thank goodness someone thought up “Super Bowl” — four times between 1949-1955.
BONUS: Stanford Women’s Basketball
The Cardinal has won three national championships, made 15 trips to the Final Four, and won 25 Pac-10/12 championships. And on April 4, 1896, a nine-women team from Palo Alto beat the tar out of Cal, 2-1, to win the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game.