Many tortured sports fans suffer from a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, where they base their identity in losing. Many bizarre sports arguments relate to which fanbase fares the worst, with the winner, er, loser, taking a sick sort of pride in enduring the most abject misery come game time.
Whereas storied franchises popularized the idea of “winning ugly,” the less fortunate are left to define the magnitude of losing. For example, tortured fanbases often trade barbs between themselves to determine whether years of grimacing through blowout losses and draft busts actually equate to cheering on a perennial championship contender that always manages to self destruct and come up just short at the final horn.
For a bit of consolation, these four fanbases may take inspiration from the city of Boston, which suddenly emerged as the Title Town of the new millennium. In all, the Bruins, Red Sox, and Patriots have won eight championships in 14 years. This came after suffering through decades of near misses and embarrassing failures.
In 1969, the Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire. From there, the phrases “God Hates Cleveland” and “We’re not Detroit” emerged as jaded rallying cries for Northeast Ohio and the Mistake by The Lake. In terms of sports, generations of Cleveland heartbreak may be condensed as simply: The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, and The Decision.
In 1987, a young John Elway methodically picked apart the Browns defense, driving 98 yards down the field and hitting Mark Jackson at the back of the end zone to tie the game up with 37 seconds left in regulation. From there, the Denver Broncos went on the win the AFC Championship Game in overtime in front of shocked Dawg Pound fans. The following year, in 1988, Ernest Byner coughed up the football at the goal line with the Browns poised to tie the AFC Championship Game at Mile High. These old Browns, of course, ultimately packed their bags and moved to Baltimore, where they won two Super Bowls — as the Ravens.
After helping to establish the legend of John Elway, the City of Cleveland promptly served itself up as cannon fodder to Michael Jordan. In 1988, Jordan took the pass at the top of the key, before driving left, elevating, and nailing a dagger jump shot over Craig Ehlo at the buzzer, to close out the first-round playoff series in five, in Cleveland. The classic made-for-TV moment and Gatorade commercial featured an ecstatic Michael Jordan leaping over a prone Ehlo and pumping his fists into the air.
For their part, the Cleveland Indians blew two certain World Series titles, in 1995 and 1997. The 1995 Indians won 100 games in a strike-shortened year, before going down to the Atlanta Braves in six games, who then appeared to also be cursed in their own right. In 1997, the Indians took a two – one lead into the bottom of the ninth, with closer Jose Mesa taking the mound. The Florida Marlins promptly batted around a shell-shocked Mesa, for two singles and one sacrifice fly, to tie the game up and win the World Series in extra innings.
On July 8, 2010, hometown hero and global icon LeBron James hosted a nationally televised event at the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich, Connecticut, to announce his decision to “take his game to South Beach.” In Miami, James made four consecutive trips to The Finals, winning two, while his jersey burned in the streets off Lake Erie. All was forgiven last year, of course, when James simply wrote, “I’m coming home,” and led Cleveland back to the Finals. The shorthanded Cavaliers, however, went down in six games, after losing both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to season ending injuries.
While LeBron would come back a year later and finally relieve Cleveland of their torment, the Cavaliers’ singular championship since 1964 makes the rest of their failings all the more glaring.
Detroit, with its blighted buildings, abandoned lots, violent crime, and reeling automobile industry, has been synonymous with failure for decades. On July 18, 2013, the City of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which then carried the infamous distinction as the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. Detroit sports teams have also left this down and out town with very little to celebrate in recent times.
The Detroit Lions won their fourth and last NFL Championship in 1957, prior to the first Super Bowl and modern era of football. From there, Detriot went on to win one playoff game, in 1991, before being blown out 41-10 by the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship Game. Barry Sanders defined the 1990’s Lions, in feinting and shimmying his way to an electric 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns on the ground. Sanders, however, retired in his prime after running for his life with little to no help and growing tired of the losing culture in Detroit.
The sudden and shocking Barry Sanders retirement ultimately gave way to the Matt Millen era. After selecting quarterback Joey Harrington in the 2002 Draft, Millen went on to blow top draft picks on wide receivers Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, and Mike Williams through the next three drafts. Out of the three, only Roy Williams was not an outright bust, but was still dealt to Dallas in 2008 for pennies on the dollar. That year, the hapless Lions bottomed out and went 0-16 in front of beleaguered fans wearing brown paper bags over their heads.
For their part, the Detroit Tigers last won a World Series in 1984, before losing the most games (119) in American League History, in 2003. The Pistons, of course, took titles in 1989, 1990, and 2004, largely through selfless teamwork and a physical style of play that has endeared the franchise to hardscrabble Detroit. While the beloved Red Wings laying claim to 11 Stanley Cup trophies.
The Minnesota Vikings lost all four of their trips to the Super Bowl, in 1970, 1974, 1975, and 1976. In Super Bowl IX, Scramblin’ Fran Tarkenton ran slam into the Steel Curtain defense, throwing a miserable 11 for 26, for 102 passing yards and three interceptions. The Vikings have also lost their last five trips to the NFC Championship Game, in 1977, 1987, 1998, 2000, and 2009, averaging out to one stomach churning collapse every decade.
In 1987, running back Darrin Nelson dropped a swing pass at the goal line late in the fourth quarter, with the Vikings losing 17-10 to the Redskins. In 1998, Gary Anderson shanked a 38-yard fourth quarter field goal. From there, the Falcons marched down the field to tie the game up with 49 seconds remaining, before prevailing in overtime. In 2009, former arch nemesis Brett Favre suited up for the Vikings, but tossed two picks, in a 31-28 overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game.
While the Vikings have broken hearts as talented and perennial contenders, the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves have mostly just been bad since their inception in 1989. If anything, the Wolves have served as an incubator for prime power forward talent, with both franchise players Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love bolting for greener pastures when the opportunity arose. Prior to that, Minnesota lost the North Stars and Randy Moss, only to watch their formerly star-crossed athletes and institutions suddenly behave as model citizens through deep postseason runs, with new changes in scenery.
In something of a consolation prize, the Minnesota Twins did win the World Series in 1924, 1987, and 1991. The Miracle Twins won both 1987 and 1991 World Series in seven games, with the 1991 series featuring three games that went into extra innings. Frank Viola, Jack Morris, Kent Hrbek, and Kirby Puckett will forever be immortalized in Minnesota.
In Super Bowl XXV, Scott Norwood sailed a 47-yard kick wide right, as time expired, and the Buffalo Bills lost to the New York Giants 20-19. From there, the Bills made three straight trips to the Super Bowl, before losing to the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys back-to-back, by a combined 119 to 54 score. Thurman Thomas, prior to Super Bowl XXVI lost his helmet on the sideline and sat out the first series of the game. The Bills returned to the Big Game next season, only to stare down a 52-17 blowout at the hands of the 90’s Cowboy Dynasty – with their lone highlight and moral victory coming when Don Beebe chased down a showboating Leon Lett and knocked the ball out of bounds – reversing a surefire return touchdown into a touchback.
In 1994, the NBA Finals were interrupted, as camera crews cut away to shocking images of O.J. Simpson, former Bills legend, leading Police on a bizarre chase down The 405 Freeway in Southern California. Shortly thereafter, perceptions of the once popular Juice, who once gashed defenses for 2000 yards while wearing the classic Bills uniform, degenerated into one of a madman pariah.
In 1999, the Bills just kicked a field goal to take a 16-15 lead over the Tennessee Titans in the Wild Card Round in Nashville. On the ensuing kickoff, up-back Lorenzo Neal picked the football off the grass, before handing the ball off to Frank Wycheck. From there, Wychek pivoted and threw what then looked like a forward pass across the field to return-man Kevin Dyson. Dyson then promptly sprinted into the clear for a 75-yard touchdown, with the befuddled Bills special teams unit inexplicably shifting towards to Wycheck, while head coach Wade Phillips stared blankly into space.
After review, the controversial play stood with no flags, off the legal lateral. The Buffalo Bills have never returned to the playoffs after the Music City Miracle. If anything, the Bills have been closer to skipping town for Toronto than they have to making a return trip to the Super Bowl.
For their part, the Buffalo Sabres have never won a title, despite making two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, in 1975 and 1999, the same year as the Music City Miracle. From there, the Sabres lost two back-to-back trips to the Conference Finals, in 2006 and 2007. Sabres infamy included the accidental death of Tim Horton, dense fog, and a dead bat at the decrepit Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.
Statistics courtesy of ESPN.