In a pre-show video for Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the announcer asked “wasn’t this series supposed to be done by now?” With a 3 -to-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers and having set the record for 73 victories in the regular season, the idea the Golden State Warriors would be victorious was only natural. Instead, the Cavs came back to win two games decisively and then Game 7 to finally bring a title to Cleveland. Naturally, many have cited the Warriors as choking, the best single-season record ever but failing to close it out with a title. The same accusation was thrown at the Carolina Panthers who entered the Super Bowl 15-1, with the expectations of Cam Newton shining but instead lost badly.
It happens so many times in sports, the surprise upset no one saw coming. Most of the time, you can point to the team managing to figure out a way to pull off the win against all odds. But so many times, it’s really the fault of the other team choking. They blow big leads, they come apart at the worst time and make mistakes that would be out of the realm of Little Leaguers. It’s not just teams as singles competitors can also collapse just when they seem to have it all wrapped up. There have been many such cases but some stand out bigger than the rest. Here are 15 times in sports where defeat was grasped from sure victory and how even professionals can falter at the finish line.
15. Chicago Cubs, 2003 NLCS
Contrary to popular belief, not everyone in Chicago hates Steve Bartman. He was just a fan doing what everyone else around him was trying to do. So while it’s easy to use Bartman as the scapegoat, he’s not the sole reason the Cubs lost the NLCS. Leading the Florida Marlins 3-0 in the eighth inning, the Cubs were just five outs away from going to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Luis Castillo hit a foul ball to the stands as Moises Alou raced to get it, an easy catch. Instead, in his moment of infamy, Bartman grabbed the ball first. As if seeing it as an easy excuse, the Cubs began to come apart. Castillo was walked, a wild pitch followed and suddenly, the Marlins were on fire. Time and again, the Cubs missed easy plays and mistakes that boosted the Marlins up more. By the time the inning was finally done, Florida had scored eight runs to pull ahead.
Bartman had to escorted out by security as fans were blaming him, ignoring how he wasn’t on the field for all this. The Cubs still had another game to go and jumped to a 5-3 lead. But Florida responded with three runs in the fifth inning and never looked back, winning 9-6. The heat on Bartman has died down (helped by how the man never cashed in on the attention and has been a hermit since) as even Cubs faithful realize it was the team’s own fault. In the end, only the Cubs could create such crushing heartbreak just as victory seemed assured.
14. Dan O’Brien
It’s rare you can not only screw up your own career but an entire multi-million dollar marketing campaign but Dan O’Brien pulled that feat off in 1992. A rising dechalate star, O’Brien was cited as a favorite for the 1992 Olympics. Reebok came up with what they thought was the perfect ad campaign. Called “Dan & Dave,” the commercials showed O’Brien and fellow athlete Dave Johnson in a friendly rivalry for who would win the most medals at the Barcelona games. The company paid big money for a Super Bowl ad spot and flooding the airwaves with commercials of the two, from childhood videos to today. Each ad ended with the line “to be settled in Barcelona” and the plan was to shoot new ads after the Olympics to see who had won the most medals.
Then in the Olympic qualifiers, what should have been a formality instead became O’Brien’s worst performance. He failed to clear the pole vault bar in three attempts, falling from first to third place. As a result, O’Brien failed to make the Olympic team and the entire campaign was a disaster. They tried to shift it to Dan cheering Dave on but it didn’t take anywhere as it should have. O’Brien would end up getting gold in 1996 but is still best remembered for ruining not only his first Olympic dream but the hopes of a major shoe company.
13. Washington Senators, 1901
A classic Peanuts strip has Peppermint Patty running her baseball team to a 50-0 lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. She decides to let Charlie Brown pitch the rest of the game…and he loses it 51-50. Naturally, you think this is just a laugh, no way can a team blow a huge lead with two outs, right? Wrong. Way back in 1901, the Senators were visiting Cleveland and with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, owned a 13-5 lead. The bat boy was putting the gear away, the stadium was emptying out and the Senators were already looking forward to what to do after the last out. But they never got it. Three straight singles led to an Indians score and a hit batter loaded the bases. A double and a single cut the game down to 13-9 and a double cut it to 13-12. A wild pitch led to a single and the Indians pulling off a 14-13 victory. 115 years later, it remains the biggest blown loss with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in MLB history. The Dodgers came close with a similar choke in 1990 at least it happened with no outs. No wonder the common joke for years on Washington was “first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”
12. 1978 Boston Red Sox
Many Red Sox fans will remember 2011, when the team blew a nine game lead in the wild card race. But 1978 just seems so much worse. This was a team with Carlton Fisk, Carl Yastrzemski, Mike Torrez, Dwight Evans and more. A team that had come within one game of winning the World Series just three years prior. At one point in mid-July, the Red Sox held a dominating 14 game lead in the AL East over the New York Yankees. This was clearly a team that had major staying power. Until they didn’t. The Sox suddenly started losing easy games while the Yankees took off to their championship form. By mid-September, the Yankees had taken the lead and it took an eight game winning streak for Boston to tie it up, forcing a playoff game. The Red Sox had a good lead going until (in the move that’s made his name a curse word in Boston for four decades) Bucky Dent smashed a three run homer to put New York ahead. The Yankees won the division and eventually the World Series. Even after four decades and three World Championships, this remains one of the biggest heartbreaks for a fandom more than used to them.
11. Greg Norman, 1996 Masters
It’s not just the circumstances but the man behind it. Unlike some golfers who seem to make a career out of choking (Phil Mickelson comes to mind), Greg Norman was considered one of the best around, a man feared for his great skill on the course. The Great White Shark made no secret he wanted to win the Masters, a prize that had long eluded him. In 1996, he seemed to be on his way, leading through three days of play, trying the course record with 63. Up by six strokes going into the final day, it looked to everyone like Norman was going to finally slip on that famed green jacket. But after a good start, Norman ended up birding nine of his next twelve holes. He double-bogeyed off the water and shot over par on five holes and one tee shot landed right in the water. With Norman in decline, Nick Faldo was able to take the lead to win the tournament. It was Norman’s final Masters as his career declined due to injuries and his implosion is sadly what is better known for than his great victories.
10. St Louis Cardinals, 1985 World Series
As Game 6 of the World Series went on, the Cardinals could already taste the champagne. They had taken a three games to one lead over the Kansas City Royals, a major advantage. Despite batting a pitiful team average of .185 and only 13 runs total, St. Louis was still on top. Going into the bottom of the ninth inning, St. Louis (who hadn’t blown a ninth-inning lead all season) was up 1-0 and set for victory. Royal Jorge Orta hit a grounder that was easily made for an out. However, in one of the biggest blown calls of all time, umpire Don Denkinger called Orta safe despite the fact he was clearly a step away from the bag when the play was made. Despite howls from the Cardinals, the call stood. St. Louis could have overcome it but instead self-destructed.
What should have been an easy grounder turned into a passed ball and then a walk to load the bases. One single and the Royals won the game, the Cardinals returning to their dressing room to find it ready for their supposed celebration. This led to the idea the Cardinals would roar out in Game 7 to get the title back. Instead, they were slaughtered 11-0 with the entire team grousing over the blown call. St. Louis put the blame totally on Denkinger but the Cardinals were the real reason their supposed sure fire championship created a 21 year title drought.
9. Portland Trail Blazers, 2000 NBA Western Conference Finals
For a few glorious moments, it looked like the Trail Blazers were about to pull off the comeback of the franchise. Down three games to one to the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland won Games 5 and 6 in convincing fashion to force a Game 7. Portland was clearly in control of the game from the start, at one point up 71-55. With only ten minutes left in the game, Portland was leading 75-60 and ready to advance to the Finals. At which point, after two and three-fourths games so strong, Portland came apart. They missed easy lay-ups and passes as the Lakers finally got into the game, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal coming alive. A final buzzer-beating shot sealed the deal as the Lakers won 89-84. Los Angeles would then go on to win the first of three straight NBA Championships. Next to passing on Michael Jordan, this remains the biggest disaster Portland fans have had to endure.
8. Northwestern Wildcats, 2006
It’s not that Northwestern has been known for great stuff with one of the worst overall records in college football. But even the most dubious fan could never expect the disaster that occurred on October 21, 2006. The Wildcats (2-5) were taking on Michigan State (3-4), a game without much meaning but some pride. For a while, it looked like Northwestern were getting a win in their column, dominating in the first half easily. With less than ten minutes left in the third quarter, Northwestern was up 38-3 and several fans were already leaving at what looked a blowout victory. Then the Spartans scored back to back touchdowns and intercepted a pass on the goal line. After a blocked punt was run back, the Wildcats saw the slaughter begin. Their defense appeared to fall apart as the Spartans would score 24 points in the final quarter to pull off a 41-38 victory. The fans who were left just stared in disbelief at the biggest blown lead in NCAA history, a feat only Northwestern could pull off.
7. 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers
If Chuck Dressen had just kept his mouth shut, the greatest moment in baseball history would never have happened. On August 10th, 1951, the Dodgers beat their arch-rivals, the New York Giants to stretch their lead in the National League to 13 and a half games. Dressen joked to reporters on how the Giants were done and “we don’t have to worry about them anymore.” Hearing this, New York struck back. The Giants went on a spectacular tear, winning 37 of their last 44 games to tie the pennant up with the Dodgers. This forced a three-game playoff, the two teams splitting the first two games. For the third, the Dodgers held a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning. Even with two men on base, the Giants’ chances were so bad that the Dodgers office was already announcing where the press could pick up World Series credentials.
Bobby Thomson came up to bat for the Giants in what was expected to be the final out. One pitch later and Thomson hit “the Shot Heard Round the World,” a three-run homer that won the Giants the pennant. As New York celebrated, Brooklyn collapsed into despair at seeing their pennant dreams die as hard as any team possibly could.
6. Houston Oilers, 1992 AFC Wild Card
If you’re a Buffalo Bills fan, it’s known as “the Comeback.” If you’re a Houston fan, it’s a collapse unlike anything seen in pro football. The Bills were going for their third straight Super Bowl spot as the Oilers visited. Houston was soon taking off, scoring 21 points in the second quarter and then another touchdown in the third to finally be up by 35-3 with a quarter and a half to play. Just as the Oilers were ready to celebrate the win, the Bills suddenly began coming back as the wind twisted an onside kick. The Bills scored a touchdown and then recovered their own onside kick to score again. The Oilers offense that had shut the Bills down in the first half was suddenly ineffective as the score at the end of the third quarter was now 35-31 and hope was alive in Rich Stadium. Buffalo took the lead in the 4th, 38-35 but Houston managed to kick a field goal to tie it up and give the Oilers one last shot. Winning the coin toss should have given the Oilers that chance in overtime but were doomed by an interception combined with a face mask penalty. That allowed Buffalo to hit a field goal and a stunning 41-38 victory. The Bills would go on to the Super Bowl flush off this win. Just three years later, the Oilers moved to Nashville to become the Titans with many saying that blowing this game was the death knell of the team.
5. Jean Van de Velde, 1999 British Open
A rookie sensation, de Velde looked like a future champion in the making. At the 1999 British Open, he was on his way to scoring the biggest upset imaginable by beating a more experienced field. He was up by a dominant lead, playing an error-free game over the tournament and kept on top as his played the final course. He had a three-stroke lead as he headed to the 18th hole, a victory so certain that they were literally engraving his name into the Claret Jug. At which point, de Velde began playing a round that would have been laughed off a miniature golf course.
Starting off with a driver, he sent the ball against the grandstand and into the rough. He then sent it into the thick grass by a pond and so took off his shoes and socks to try and make the shot. He instead took a fourth stroke, then hit a fifth shot against the bunker. By the time he finally got the ball into the hole, he had triple-bogeyed and his lead evaporated. This led to a playoff that ended with de Velde’s name scratched off the Cup and Paul Lawrie’s name put in instead. His career never recovered and to this day, any collapse in golf is referred to as “pulling a de Velde” to showcase how historic a choke this was.
4. 1942 Detroit Red Wings
It’s still a feat no team in NHL history has ever accomplished. The Red Wings have seen slews of success over the years as one of the “Original Six” of the league. They’ve won eleven Stanley Cups over the years and have had some of the best records in the league. But they also hold the greatest choke job in the NHL. In the 1942 Cup Finals, the Red Wings dominated the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the first three games and were expected to close it out in Detroit. Instead, a disputed call led to Red Wings coach Jack Adams punching a ref and starting a small riot as Detroit lost. Riding this momentum, Toronto crushed Detroit in game 5 and then shut them out in Game 6. Game 7 began tightly but then Toronto pulled ahead to outshoot Detroit over two to one and finally winning in front of an overjoyed home crowd. No other hockey team has blown a three games to none Finals and despite all their success since, Detroit has to feel red about this collapse.
3. 1964 Philadelphia Phillies
At least the Red Sox and the Dodgers can say they had a few weeks or months to blow a big pennant lead. The ’64 Phillies can’t even say that. With only twelve games left to play, the Phillies owned a six and a half game lead and most believed the season was over. The Philly front office was already printing up World Series tickets and programs and the city was planning a parade route. This was a team who had dominated from Opening Day led by the sharp Gene Mauch, there was no way they could blow this. So no one was too worried when they lost a game. And then another. And another. And…
At the worst possible time, Philadelphia dropped ten straight games, the entire team seeming to come apart at once. Mauch was criticized for pushing pitchers with only a day of rest but that didn’t explain the fielding errors and lack of hitting. Smelling blood in the water, the Reds and the Cardinals stepped up their efforts to turn this into a serious race. In a homestand, the Phillies lost to the Cardinals who then clinched the pennant. Heartbroken Phillies fans had to watch as the Cardinals then won the World Series over the Yankees. Over 50 years later, the “Phillie Phold” remains a year fans of the City of Brotherly Love would rather forget.
2. Jana Novotna, 1993 Wimbledon Finals
Part of the wave of fresh young tennis players exploding onto the scene in the early 1990s, the Swedish-born Novotna had a great style. With her powerful play and wonderful style, Novotna was on the rise majorly. In 1993, she appeared ready to achieve the glory of Wimbledon. She led Steffi Graff in the finals 4 games to one and 40-30. All it would take was a couple more shots and Novotna would be hoisting the trophy over her head. Instead, she cracked, double-faulted and never came back. Suddenly, Novotna was making rookie mistakes that Graff capitalized on to win the next four games and the title. The sight of Novotna breaking into tears as she leaned on the Duchess of Kent was heart-breaking to watch. Five years later, Novotna would end up winning the tournament to end this pain yet is still remembered for her spectacular choke more than any of her victories.
1. 2004 New York Yankees
If you’re going to end an 86-year old curse, you might as well do it in style. As Game 4 of the American League Championship began, it looked like the Yankees were going to pull off the sweep. Boston Red Sox fans were sadly resolving themselves to yet another crushing disappointment. The Red Sox winning was a great moment but just seemed a futile last gasp. Then in an incredibly long Game 5, the Red Sox won again and the Yankee fandom was suddenly worried. Game 6 became legend as Curt Schilling threw the game of his life with television cameras focusing on his bloody sock that became a city icon. Even though Schilling couldn’t finish the game, Boston won and the anger of the Yankees fans was so huge that riot police were stationed to make sure it didn’t get out of hand. Both sides eagerly awaited the final game which was expected to be a tight affair. Instead, Boston squashed New York 10-3 in Yankees Stadium to get to the World Series. It was almost an anticlimax when the Red Sox swept the Cardinals a week later to finally end their decades of agony. It’s still a moment of pain for New York as the unstoppable Yankees suffered a collapse that finally put the Curse of the Bambino to rest once and for all.
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