Everyone loves a good underdog story. One team, heavily favoured, perhaps a bit arrogant, is expected by observers to prevail. The other, plucky, unexpected, but strategically superior, harder-working, or just plain lucky.
TV analysts are paid big money to make predictions on who will win and why. Most of the time, they are right. But sometimes, teams can come out of nowhere to throw the statistics out the window and surprise and shock everyone.
We see them in movies all the time; Hardball is based on a true story of an underprivileged youth baseball team that makes a run to the city tournament. Hoosiers, also based on a true story, is about a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that wins the state championship in the 1950s.
The latter film even references the original underdog story; David vs. Goliath. In that Biblical tale, the puny King David defeats the giant Goliath with a slingshot and a single rock. A Malcolm Gladwell book of the same name describes several lesser-known case studies, such as a middle-school girls’ basketball team that played the full-court press defense for an entire tournament.
Another term for this type of team is “Cinderella”, based of course on the fairy tale in which a lowly servant manages to beat the odds stacked against her and win the heart of the prince.
Whatever you call it, it’s exciting in books and movies, but when it happens in real life, it can be downright thrilling.
Here are ten of the most historic, surprising, and shocking teams that pulled off massive upsets in the sports world.
10. Golden State Warriors, NBA, 2007
It may seem strange to think about the Warriors as underdogs, given their incredible 67-win season in 2014-15. But only 8 years ago, the Warriors were a .500 team that had snuck into the playoffs. Their starting lineup featured veterans Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson, as well as second-year guard Monta Ellis. In the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, they were matched up against Dirk Nowitzki‘s Dallas Mavericks. The Warriors’ backcourt of Davis and Ellis proved too much for Dallas’ Jason Terry and Devin Harris, and the Warriors shot the lights out. They became the first NBA 8-seed to beat a 1-seed in a seven-game series, but sadly would fall to the Utah Jazz in round 2, ending their Cinderella run.
True story; I was working at a major running shoe and athletic apparel retail outlet back in 2007, and we received an emergency shipment of 20 Baron Davis Warriors jerseys the day after the Warriors beat the Mavs. Sure enough, we quickly sold out, allowing enamoured fans to wear that navy blue, yellow, and orange concoction proudly for all of 10 days until they crashed out of the playoffs.
9. Edmonton Oilers, NHL, 2005-06
The Oilers were the 8th seed in the NHL’s Western Conference in the spring of 2006. They had veteran defensive leader Chris Pronger, and little else of note. Their first-round matchup was against the Presidents’ Trophy winner Detroit Red Wings, and you would have had a hard time finding anyone who picked them to win. But they did just that, and knocked off San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, both of which were heavily favoured, in subsequent rounds. They had followed through on their underdog potential all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In those finals, they were matched up against the Carolina Hurricanes, who were the second-seed in the East. Again, the Oilers were dismissed by most pundits, although some were starting to believe that they were a team of destiny. They lost goaltender Dwayne Roloson to injury in the first game, and got behind Jussi Markkanen. After falling behind 3 games to 1, the Oilers bounced back to win the next 2 and take it to a deciding game seven. In that game, the Hurricanes took the lead and held it, winning the Stanley Cup. The Oilers have not been able to capture that magic since.
8. Denver Nuggets, NBA, 1993-94
Back in the 90s, the first round of the NBA playoffs were best-of-five series. A team only had to win 3 games, instead of the current 4, to advance. In theory, this would allow for more upsets, as lesser teams had to win fewer games. In practice, this rarely happened.
The 1993-94 Denver Nuggets featured a young Dikembe Mutombo, who was proving to be a dominant force. Matched up against the far superior Seattle SuperSonics with Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, and Gary Payton, the Nuggets seemed to be due for a quick exit. After losing the first two games of the series, that was nearly confirmed. But, the Nuggets stormed back to win the next three in a row, including the final two games in overtime, to become the first NBA 8-seed to knock off a 1-seed. Sadly, their run was ended by the John Stockton-Jeff Hornacek-Karl Malone Utah Jazz in the second round.
7. Los Angeles Kings, NHL, 2011-12
The 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings were not expected to achieve much of anything. In the middle of the season, they fired their head coach, Terry Murray, and named John Stevens interim coach. Then, nine days later, Stevens was replaced by Darryl Sutter. Two coaching changes in two weeks could have been disastrous, but for the Kings, it was the right move. The team played their best hockey in March 2012, and in their last regular season game, won to reach the 8th-seed and gain entry into the playoffs.
Their first round opponents were the Vancouver Canucks, the first seed, but the Kings kept their momentum going and only needed five games to win the series. The second round brought the 2-seed, and perennial playoff disappointments, St. Louis Blues, and the Kings responded even more fiercely by sweeping the Blues in four.
Their third round opponents were the 3-seed Phoenix Coyotes, but by now Jonathan Quick and the Kings were no longer considered underdogs by most. Rightfully so, as they again needed just five games to topple the Coyotes and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals against the New Jersey Devils.
The Kings jumped out to a 3-0 series lead before the Devils stormed back to take 2 games in a row. In game 6 of that series, the Kings shut the door to become the first 8-seed to defeat their own conference’s 1, 2, and 3-seeds and win the Stanley Cup. All together, their playoff record was an incredible 16-4, one of the most unbelievable runs in recent memory.
6. Colorado Rockies, MLB, 2007
The Rockies entered September 2007 with a 69-66 record, good for fourth-place in the National League West. They proceeded to go on an incredible 20-7 run through the month of September, and found themselves tied with the San Diego Padres for the NL Wild Card. In a one-game playoff, they defeated the Padres 9-8 in 13 innings, to earn what seemed like an impossible place in the playoffs. They weren’t done there, however.
The Rockies swept past the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks to reach the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, the Red Sox were on a tear of their own, and absolutely demolished the plucky upstart Rockies in a four-game sweep. Still, they are one of modern baseball’s most incredible underdog stories.
5. Denmark, 1992 UEFA Euro Cup
The Danes did not even qualify for the 1992 European Cup. Yes, you read that right. So how are they on this list? They finished second in their qualifying group, behind Yugoslavia. Then, civil war broke out and Yugoslavia was disqualified. Ten days before the tournament started, the Danish team was informed that they would, in fact, be participating in the tournament after all.
They went on to draw with England and defeat France to advance out of the group stage, and even defeated the powerful Netherlands in the semi-final. To top it all off, Denmark defeated the powerhouse Germans 2-0 in the finals, and won their first ever international soccer championship.
4. Wimbledon FC, F.A. Cup, 1988
The F.A. Cup, like other domestic cups in Europe, offers the chance that a semi-professional team might travel and play against their big-time professional heroes. In 1988, Wimbledon FC earned that chance, and took full advantage.
Dubbed “The Crazy Gang” by the British Press, Wimbledon was known to be vicious pranksters, as well as vicious tacklers. Their roster included Vinnie Jones, who would go on to gain fame in Hollywood as a notorious tough guy.
They beat the odds just to reach the final game of the tournament, where they met Liverpool, England’s premier team at the time. Wimbledon, on the other hand, were seen by many as having been lucky to reach the final. Few expected Wimbledon to prevail.
But, despite the vast difference in quality between the teams, Wimbledon pulled off the massive upset with a 1-0 win. Their goalkeeper saved a penalty shot to keep them ahead, the first such save in FA Cup final history.While there have been unheralded teams to capture the FA Cup since then, Wimbledon is such a unique case that they warrant inclusion as a world shocker.
3. New York Knicks, NBA, 1999
The 1999 NBA season was shortened due to a lockout by the owners. In a shortened season, variances in team talent that would show in a full season have less opportunity to develop. At the same time, a prolonged slump can turn into half a season’s worth of results, and teams rated low in the standings are just victims to a bad run of play. Most critics agree that the 1998-99 New York Knicks should really have finished the regular season with a higher seed than eighth. They had Patrick Ewing, Latrell Sprewell, and Larry Johnson, some of the best players in the Eastern Conference in the late 90s. However, injuries during the regular season led to them dropping to the bottom of the playoff picture.
Nevertheless, the Knicks showed their true capabilities once the playoffs started. Their first opponent were the top-seeded Miami Heat, featuring Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. Despite the tough matchup, the Knicks dispatched the Heat, three games to two.
Round 2 brought the mediocre Atlanta Hawks, with Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Smith. The Knicks swept them handily, and met up with Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers in the Eastern finals. It was a hotly contested series, but the Knicks prevailed four games to two.
Finally, the 8-seed Knicks had reached the NBA Finals. There, they met the San Antonio Spurs, with young Tim Duncan and almost-retired David Robinson. The twin towers proved too much, especially after a Patrick Ewing achilles injury, for the Knicks to handle, and they fell in five games to the champion Spurs.
2. Villanova Wildcats, NCAA March Madness, 1985
The Villanova Wildcats have one of the most incredible underdog stories in sports history. They finished their regular season with an 18-9 record, and lost their Big East conference tournament in the semi-finals to St. John’s. Nevertheless, they qualified as an 8-seed for the NCAA tournament, in the first year of the 64-team format. From that lowly position, they were only the mathematical favourite in their first round matchup, against Dayton. They advanced past the Flyers, only to come up against 1-seed Michigan Wolverines. They squeezed past the Wolverines, 59-55, and the world started to take notice.
Next up for the Wildcats were the Maryland Terrapins, and in a tough defensive struggle, Villanova again prevailed. Their regional final matched them up with number 2-seed North Carolina, coached by the legendary Dean Smith. The Wildcats were on a roll, and dropped the Tar Heels by a significant margin.
That brought them to the Final Four and a date with the Memphis Tigers (then known as Memphis State). The number-2 seed from the Midwest Region, Memphis featured All-American center Keith Lee. Villanova was undaunted, and defeated the favoured Tigers to reach the finals.
Their opponents were the defending champion Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas had an imposing center of their own in Patrick Ewing, as well as future NBA lottery pick Reggie Williams. The Hoyas had rolled through their bracket largely untroubled, but in a tight battle, fell 66-64 to the Villanova Wildcats, who had defeated two 1-seeds and two 2-seeds in their march to an unlikely championship.
1. Greece, 2004 UEFA Euro Cup
Greece had never won a tournament match when they arrived in Portugal in 2004. Most fans and analysts predicted a short tournament run for them. They were grouped with the host Portugal, as well as Spain and Russia, both talented, capable teams.
A shocking long-range goal by midfielder Giorgos Karagounis against Portugal was just the beginning of a long list of surprises. They went on to beat the hosts, and draw with Spain, before losing 2-1 to Russia. Those results were enough to see them advance to the second round, where they met France, fresh off their 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euro Cup. This was a team that featured Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry. In their defensive style, the Greeks squeaked out a 1-0 victory.
Their semi-final match was against the heavily-favoured Czech Republic, which had entered the tournament as many analysts’ dark-horse pick. Again, focusing on defense and counter-attacking, the Greeks found an extra-time goal to advance 1-0, and meet the host Portuguese in the final.
Greece withstood early pressure, and scored a corner-kick header goal in the 57th minute to take a 1-0 lead. Once again, it was enough, and Greece won the 2004 European Cup on the strength of defense and headers.
No matter the differences in talent, coaching, or even payroll, the sports universe provides plenty of opportunities for underdog teams to beat the odds and win it all.
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