As sports fans, we all like to celebrate great teams in history, but I’ve found that in most cases, it’s the individual athletes who get celebrated and praised even more so. From childhood, we declare our favorite players, and most of us gravitate towards the superstars and guys who seem to come through in the clutch, time and time again. But what about the guys that came up just short? They were paid the big money, they were faces of their respective franchises, and yet, they could never quite claim the championship. Or maybe they were given unfair expectations from the very start, or were the victims of bizarre circumstance or injury. Any athletes coming to mind? To be on my list, you have to meet a few qualifications, so let’s go over those quickly.
1. If you won a championship you’re out. (there might be an exception or two if a guy won one as a washed up vet or a rookie at the end of the bench and didn’t contribute)
2. You have to be seen as somewhat endearing or likable to most fans, and absolutely adored by your team’s fans. (Despite how much I love him, I can’t put Randy Moss on here, because so many people hate him, and he acts like a doofus sometimes, even if that is why I love him)
3. If you don’t fit the mold of a superstar who never won the big one, you have to be someone who was given those expectations, but other circumstances out of your control kept you from being who everyone thought you would be.
Alright, I think those are enough rules. You’ll get it more as I start naming athletes here. Although I should mention that tragedies that strike athletes outside of sports aren’t eligible either. (Think Lou Gehrig, Drazen Petrovic, Len Bias, etc.) That’s another category altogether and could use it’s own post (maybe someday). Let’s start with some “happy-endings” in honor of guys who almost ended up on this list.
The Almost Tragic
Kevin Garnett – The Big Ticket was arguably the best player in the world for the first 46 minutes of a game, but he routinely shrunk in big situations and only had the talent around him to contend for a title for one year in Minnesota. He finally found his way and proper role in Boston.
Phil Mickelson – One of the fan favorites on the PGA tour, it took this guy way too long to win that first major, but the monkey is finally off of his back and now he’s won 4.
John Elway – 0-3 in Super Bowls was all anyone could say for the longest time despite how great he was. Winning the Super Bowl back to back to end your career cured all of that, and now some claim him as their best QB in NFL history.
Ray Bourque – I know nothing about hockey, but I remember when the long time Boston Bruin brought the Stanley Cup he won in Colorado back to Boston to share with his old fans.
Peyton Manning – It didn’t take him as long as Elway, but Peyton did wait a while to win it all. He looked like Dan Marino 2.0 for a long time there.
Bill Walton – Walton got his first title early in his career, and it’s a good thing, because his body broke down on him rather quickly afterward. If it hadn’t been for that early title, his career would have been a giant disappointment since his only other title came as a bench player in Boston.
So there’s a short list of guys who we can’t consider “tragic” despite the way things went for them for so long. Before I get to the list of actual tragic figures, I have a couple predictions of active players who I’m afraid might end up on that list someday.
The Potentially Tragic
Chris Paul – I feel bad saying this about him. Almost like I’m predicting a disappointing career. But despite how great I know he is, I just have a bad feeling that he’s not going to find the right team to be a part of to win a title with the Bulls, Heat, and Thunder all going to be juggernauts for the next 10 years.
Steve Nash – Jason Kidd would be in the same boat if it weren’t for his legit chance at a title this year, but if it doesn’t happen for him, then add them both to the “tragic” list.
Dwight Howard – This guy’s lack of offensive skills and free throw shooting could keep him from a title.
Adrian Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald – A couple of amazingly talented skill position players stuck on seemingly snake-bitten franchises.
Alex Ovechkin – This may be a preposterous way to put it, but I think he may be the Wilt to Sidney Crosby’s Russell, only without the 2 titles.
Okay, enough beating around the bush. Here’s my list of the most tragic sports figures in history.
The Prolific Passers
Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Fran Tarkenton, Jim Kelly
Quarterbacks, more than any other football position, get measured for their success or lack there of in the big games. These guys all amassed huge numbers, and some (Tarkenton and Kelly) even got to the big game multiple times, but it’s amazing to me that these 4 guys have 0 rings combined. Marino may have been the best pure passer the game has ever seen but he and the Dolphins couldn’t get it done. Moon, due possibly to racial stereotypes, didn’t get a full NFL career, but still amassed huge numbers and still no Lombardi. Tarkenton changed the way the game was played, but played some his worst games in the Super Bowl, and Kelly may be the most tragic as he was the face of the Bills as they went four straight times to the big game and were denied in all four.
The Ringless Runners
Barry Sanders and Gale Sayers – There are a lot of other running backs that could be mentioned here, but these 2 strike me as the most tragic. Sanders may have been the best running back of all time, but it’s hard to measure when you play on a team as horrendous as the Lions your entire career. Sayers not only didn’t win the title, but his career was ended prematurely due to his injuries, so he didn’t even amass the statistics everyone knew he was capable of achieving. There couldn’t be a pair of more electrifying runners, and yet they still go down as “tragic”.
The Gimpy Giants (You tired of these contrived alliterative group names yet?)
Greg Oden and Sam Bowie – Sure, there’s still hope that Oden could get healthy and have a successful career, but I’m at an all time high level of skepticism at this point. And talk about history repeating itself, how is it possible that this happened to the poor Portland Trail Blazers again? Sam Bowie was the logical #2 pick back in 1984 when guards rarely were chosen so high in the draft. With hindsight, it’s easy to see that there were red flags, but yesterday’s NBA was dominated by big men, not shooting guards. It’s not Bowie’s fault that Jordan went on to be the greatest basketball player of all time. If it hadn’t been for Jordan, Bowie would have just been another bust, which isn’t necessarily tragic. Now, Oden has the stigma of being the guy taken ahead of Durant, who looks like a once-in-a-generation scorer. These poor guys were victims of injuries and the guys drafted immediately behind them. Not their fault, and horribly, horribly tragic.
The Sorrowful Sluggers (they’re getting worse, aren’t they?)
Ernie Banks and Ken Griffey Jr. – Sorrowful is a reach for these two, because I picture them both with smiles on their faces, but that’s what the thesaurus came up for me for a tragic word that started with “s”.
Banks was an awesome talent and will forever be known as “Mr. Cub” due to his merits as a slugging shortstop. But that was his problem, he was on the most “cursed” franchise in sports, and his efforts brought nothing more than joy to fans in the “friendly confines”, not even a pennant.
Ken Griffey Jr. also never played in the World Series, but he was supposed to be the guy to break Aaron’s homerun record, not Bonds. He was beloved by young fans all over the country despite playing in Seattle, and he has always seemed like the one guy who remained “clean” throughout the steroid era in baseball. Ask anyone from my generation who they would be most mortified if they found out the guy had juiced and I can almost guarantee you that they would say Griffey. Despite all of that love, his career was constantly being interrupted by nasty injuries. He fell short in the numbers game, and playing in small markets like Seattle and Cincinnati kept him from winning it all.
Man, writing about this is starting to make me sad.
The Beleaguered Ballers (I crack myself up)
Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Elgin Baylor, Patrick Ewing – I’m sure I’m leaving people out (but don’t say Stockton and Malone; I left them out because Stockton had the “dirty” player reputation, and Malone for this), but these 4 seem like the most tragic to me.
Barkley is practically universally loved at this point, but it’s easy to forget just how good he was, and yet, when he finally had a championship-caliber team around him, Jordan and the Bulls stood in his way. He didn’t really come close besides that one time.
Iverson is a very polarizing character, and many old-school type fans hate him. But despite his shortcomings as a human being, he still was a very admirable competitor, and how can you not love a guy of his stature scoring all those points and playing so hard despite the injuries he endured? This press conference sums up his passion and love for the game, and it makes me wish he could have gotten a ring.
Elgin Baylor was an amazing player in his day, and is often a forgotten superstar of the past due to the lack of highlights from his playing days. Bill Simmons wrote a wonderful column about him a few years ago that is a must read for basketball fans. Did you know that he was actively serving in the military while playing for the Lakers on the weekends? And then the most heartbreaking part of it all was that after going 0-7 in the NBA Finals, he retired in the middle of the 1971-72 season because he felt he was too old and holding the team back, and you’ll never guess what happened: the Lakers won the title that year.
Patrick Ewing was actually my inspiration for this entire post. The man was built to be an NBA center. He was dominant at the college level, and so much so, that I think that fans took much more joy out of cheering against those predominantly black Georgetown teams than rooting for their own teams. He was a man child, and thus people saw him as a big bully. He was then drafted #1 overall by the Knicks, and was supposed to be the savior of a franchise that longed for the past success it had seen with the greats like Frazier and Reed leading them. Were the expectations too high? Possibly. Was he just not as good as everyone thought he was? Also possible. To make matters worse, he played for Pat Riley with a group of guys who acted more like thugs than athletes on the court. I hated them, as they attempted to intimidate my beloved Bulls. But even when Jordan was out of the way, it was the unlikely Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets that were there to claim the prize. Even David Robinson got his reward after waiting so long. But no, not Patrick. I really do wish the Knicks could have won a title when Jordan was retired, or somewhere else in there. Because Patrick really was a great ballplayer, but he gets lost in the shuffle of things when you talk about great NBA centers because he couldn’t win the big one.
The ‘That Play’ Guys
Bill Buckner and Jackie Smith – I’m not old enough to know who these guys were from memory, and despite successful careers, neither was good enough to be mentioned with greats for me to know of them otherwise. However, I still know both of their names thanks entirely to one play in each of their respective careers. My dad has always told me that Buckner was a pretty good player, and then everyone also loves to forget that there was still a game 7 to be played after the Red Sox lost that game, but he still is burdened with being known for one play and one play only. Jackie Smith is the exact same way. Even more successful at tight end than Buckner was at 1st Base, Jackie was getting his only shot at a Super Bowl late in his career, and when his chance to make a huge play came, he “dropped the ball” (pun intended). Now those are some tragic stories.
Since writing this post originally, I’ve realize that I inexcusably overlooked Chris Webber. Not only did he have a tragic career in which he never won a title and failed to meet insane expectations placed on him since he was a boy, but totally fits into this “That Play” category thanks to his horrific time-out call when his team had none remaining in the closing seconds of the 1993 National Championship Game. He was charged with a technical foul, and Michigan no longer had a chance to win the game after his mental mistake. He’s now forever linked to this mistake when it’s made by other basketball players, which is unfortunate since it really overshadows an unbelievable 2-year run at Michigan. Oh, by the way, none of that stuff counts anymore according to the NCAA, which perhaps makes him even more tragic, even if it probably was his own fault. Ewing was my inspiration for this post, but Webber may have him beat as the most tragic figure in all of sports.
Who did I overlook? Am I giving anyone too much credit? Please comment, and it doesn’t have to be nice.