I give myself 60 minutes.
That’s it. One hour.
Thirty-six hundred seconds to think about what I just witnessed, overanalyzing every missed shot, every turnover, every bad substitution, every foul ball that should have been fair, every wide open receiver the quarterback didn’t see, every penalty that could have been called.
When you’re young, watching one of your favorite teams lose is devastating. You think they blew their only chance, that they’ll never come so close again, that your world is crumbling because you don’t know sports are nothing more than a distraction – a really, really great distraction – and you live and die a little with every big game.
Maybe it’s the same when you’re older. You think they blew their last chance, that they’ll never come so close again. Red Sox fans went through went through a Halley’s Comet-plus-10-year drought without a championship. Cubs fans are on their 27th presidential term without a World Series winner. There are now TEENAGERS born in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first year of existence who are wondering if their team will ever as much as hold a lead in a playoff game.
No one ever runs down the hard parts of being a fan when you become one. You don’t recognize sports disappointment exists until it rises up and socks you in the face like an Evgeni Malkin slap shot. Unless you were a fan of the 1960s Celtics, the UCLA basketball teams of the 60s and 70s or the Lakers in the 80s, your season is ending in disappointment far more often than not.
This all comes to mind because of last night’s fantastic, pulse-pounding Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
As a Cavs fan, but more specifically as a human being, I was rooting for San Antonio to not only close out Miami, but to do it in the most devastating way possible. So much so that it felt like the Spurs were MY team. I’m over LeBron James pulling the rip-cord on Cleveland by now, but that doesn’t make me feel any less anguish when the Heat win.
I’ve always had a thorough appreciation of San Antonio. Tim Duncan is without peer among power forwards in NBA history. Gregg Popovich is among the top 10 coaches the league has ever seen and Tony Parker belong in the same breath among point guards. The Spurs, with those guys in charge, had Game 6 in the freaking bag. They recovered from a blown 13-point lead and were up five with 28 seconds left. But Popovich’s decision to remove Duncan – a man who has appeared on the NBA’s all-defensive team FOURTEEN TIMES in his career and averages the seventh-most defensive rebounds per game EVER – cost San Antonio two critical rebounds and led to two second-chance 3-pointers for Miami. The substitution game bit Popovich again in overtime, when he failed to use his final timeout with eight seconds left to get Parker, also off the floor for defensive purposes, back in. Manu Ginobili decided to take matters into his own hands, further dropping trou on one of the worst games he’s ever played by wildly driving into the lane and losing the ball, ensuring there’d be a Game 7.
He probably got fouled, but only after he’d blatantly traveled. No complaints. This one was on Popovich, who always makes the right moves, the Argentine, who had played one of the best games of his life two days earlier, Parker, who missed 17 shots, and Duncan, who had 25 points in his brilliant first half but just five in the second half and overtime.
I’m not going to pretend that loss hurt me as much as it did an actual Spurs fan, who even if Thursday’s decisive game goes poorly can sit back and reminisce about any of their four championships in the past 15 years. But it still stung. The odds are heavily against them in Game 7 – road teams are 3-14 in decisive NBA Finals games – and this may be the last realistic shot for Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili together. It also would provide further validation to the Heat and perhaps increase the likelihood that James stays when he can become a free agent next summer.
The Spurs sounded like they couldn’t get off the mat after the game. Ginobili said he was “devastated.” But that’s the reaction that comes from the immediacy of a game that was one rebound or free throw from being over. Duncan said Wednesday the players aired their grievances during a late postgame meal, and like the veteran bunch they are, the Spurs sounded poised to recover.
It probably took them all of 60 minutes.
I can’t say for certain each of the games on the following list of difficult defeats only took me 60 minutes to get over. I’m still reeling from one of them.
This list is unique to me, and even someone who roots for the exact same set of teams might make a different one. It depends on how old you are, where you were, who you were with and what you were expecting. I’m sure a few of these games will ring a bell, even if they didn’t stick with you as long as they stuck with me. There are two Super Bowl losses, one of which I attended, that don’t even make this top 10 list, so either I’ve seen my share of sports devastation since 1990 (we’re arbitrarily starting this list from games I at least have a solid memory of) or I just really, really like to complain.
Maybe a little bit of both.
10. 2013 NHL Eastern Conference finals Game 3 – Bruins 2, Penguins 1 (2OT)
This one is all of two weeks old, but it still sneaks onto the list. The Penguins were favored to get to the Stanley Cup finals heading into this series against Boston, but were outscored 9-1 at home in Games 1 and 2. This was their chance to make it a series and perhaps turn the tide, which can tend to happen for the winner and loser of a multiple overtime game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Pittsburgh was arguably the better team in regulation and had numerous chances throughout the first overtime, but Patrice Bergeron ended any hopes of this series becoming a lengthy battle with his goal 15:19 into the second OT. This makes the cut due to the high quality of play in Game 3, the nearly 100 minutes of hockey that took place and the fact that it was essentially the epitaph to a Penguins season that failed to live up to the ever-so-lofty standards they set for themselves.
Manu Ginobili Scale of Devastation Score (out of 10): 3.5
9. 1996 NHL Eastern Conference finals Game 7 – Panthers 3, Penguins 1
Pittsburgh was an offensive machine led by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, averaging 4.4 goals a game and scoring EIGHTY more than anyone in the Eastern Conference. Lemieux and Jagr combined for 310 points on what was the NHL’s last great offensive team. The Penguins score 362 times that regular season, and no one has scored more than 313 in an 82-game season since. This was just as much about who they were playing than the end result. Florida was in only its third year in the league and was in the playoffs for the first time. Pittsburgh went 32-9 at home during the regular season but was just 5-5 on its own ice in the playoffs, culminating with this Game 7 loss that remains the Panthers’ last postseason series victory 17 years later. Florida went on to get swept in the Stanley Cup finals rather than setting up what would have been a fascinating offensive showcase between the Penguins and Avalanche. Instead, this was Pittsburgh’s last great chance with Lemieux and Jagr at their peaks, but it went by the wayside to a team that threw rubber rats on the ice to celebrate goals.
8. 1999 NCAA Football Week 11 – Minnesota 24, Penn State 23
Penn State was the preseason No. 2 in the nation behind Florida State, and after starting 9-0 it seemed to be destined for a national championship showdown with the also-undefeated Seminoles. The Nittany Lions were led by an outstanding defense that would feature two of the top three picks in the 2000 NFL draft (Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington), and I just so happened to be in attendance for this one, nine months before I’d begin my freshman year in Happy Valley. So, naturally, Penn State let this mediocre Minnesota team hang around until well into the second half, though it seemed like it would survive when Travis Forney’s 44-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter put the Nittany Lions up 23-21. Penn State even got the ball back with under five minutes to go but played conservatively, choosing to ride its top-ranked defense to victory. Except it never happened. Minnesota got the ball at its own 20 with 1:50 to go and marched 65 yards, completing a 4th-down Hail Mary and eventually kicking a 32-yard field goal as time expired. That started a downward spiral that included four losing seasons in five years – three of which I was, of course, in college to witness – and Penn State has never truly been the power it once was since. Oh, and far more significantly than this game, the architect of that great Penn State defense turned out to be using his position of power to sexually abuse children. Other than that, just another loss.
7. 2001 AFC Championship game – Patriots 24, Steelers 17
The Steelers were once again the class of the AFC in the regular season, going 13-3, outscoring opponents by a conference-best 140 points and featuring what was by far the NFL’s top-ranked defense. They were at home for their fourth conference championship game in eight seasons, two of which they had lost and the third of which they came within a whisker of losing as a 12-point favorite. Pittsburgh was favored by 10 in this one, but the oddsmakers forgot to weigh a few key factors – the Steelers’ dreadful special teams and the presence of Kordell Stewart. New England got on the board late in the first quarter via a Troy Brown 80-yard punt return touchdown and Pittsburgh never recovered, with an Antwan Harris blocked field goal TD return midway through the third putting the Pats up 21-3. The Steelers got within 21-17 but Stewart threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions and Drew Bledsoe – filling in for some injured rookie named Tom Brady – helped New England hold on. Stewart started five more games the following season before mercifully earning his ticket out of town, and Brady and the Patriots went on to win three Super Bowls in four years – again beating the Steelers at home for the AFC championship after the 2004 season. You may be starting to notice a preponderance of New England-related heartbreak on this list, but don’t worry – there’s more to come.
6. 1993 NHL Eastern Conference semifinals Game 7 – Islanders 4, Penguins 3 (OT)
The third and final entry involving the Penguins on this list, it’s debatable whether to put this higher or lower. On one hand, Pittsburgh had won the past two Stanley Cups, so bowing out of the playoffs and failing to three-peat (trademark: Pat Riley!) is hardly something to be ashamed of. On the other hand, this was EASILY the best of those three early 90s Penguins clubs. They’d set an NHL record with 17 straight wins, Lemieux had 160 points despite missing 22 games while being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the team had THREE 48-goal scorers. One of those, Kevin Stevens, went down with a nasty injury following a collision with the Islanders’ Rich Pilon early in Game 7, and New York built a 3-1 lead midway through the third period. The Penguins scored twice in the final four minutes to force overtime, though, and seemed to have all the momentum in the world heading into the locker room. But little-known winger David Volek scored his second goal of the game 5:16 into OT, ending Pittsburgh’s pseudo-dynasty and breaking the heart of 10-year-old me. Volek, in his fifth year in the NHL, scored twice more in the Islanders’ conference finals loss and had five more goals the following season before never playing again. The remainder of the Penguins’ Lemieux-Jagr years ended in playoff disappointment – one of which we covered earlier.
5. 2009 NBA Eastern Conference finals Game 4 – Magic 116, Cavaliers 114 (OT)
I probably could have gone with Game 1 as well in a series that seemed like a mere formality for James and the 66-win Cavs before they went head-to-head with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the finals. That matchup never came to fruition, though, as Dwight Howard thoroughly dominated Cleveland’s empty interior, the Magic shot lights-out from 3-point range and the lack of a second offensive option weighed heavily in the Cavaliers’ collapse. Cleveland built a 16-point first-quarter lead in Game 1 before falling 107-106 and almost went down 2-0 before James’ miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer saved it in Game 2. Orlando won Game 3 by 10, but this was the one the Cavs had to have to make it a series. Cleveland led by eight at the half but faltered down the stretch, losing in overtime despite 44 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists from James. The Cavs won Game 5 in Cleveland but never led in a 13-point loss in Game 6, ending the franchise’s best season in history as the writing on the wall began to appear that James’ next season in Cleveland could be his last. We’ll get to that, though.
4. 2005 NCAA Football Week 7 – Michigan 27, Penn State 25
This seems a bit early in the season for a college football loss to register as devastating, but just a week earlier, the Nittany Lions seemed to announce their return to college football prominence. They’d beaten sixth-ranked Ohio State in a raucous 17-10 home victory under the lights that literally left the stadium shaking, and next week had to make a trip to Ann Arbor to face a Michigan team they’d lost to six straight times. The Wolverines kept Penn State’s powerful offense off the board entirely until the final 10 seconds of the third quarter, and led 10-3 heading into what became a surreal final 15 minutes. Three touchdowns were traded in a 2:24 span early in the fourth before Garrett Rivas’ 47-yard field goal put Michigan ahead 21-18 with 3:45 left. Like he seemed to do so many times that year, quarterback Michael Robinson led Penn State back, taking his team 81 yards in 13 plays and scoring on a 3-yard run with 53 seconds left to grab a 25-21 lead. Unranked but hardly untalented, Michigan fought back, getting an outstanding kick return from Steve Breaston and going 53 yards from there, scoring with no time remaining on a strike from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham. Penn State finished third in the BCS standings, behind USC and Texas. Had it held on at Michigan, it’s unclear whether the Nittany Lions would have spoiled the Trojans and Longhorns’ classic of a national title game. What they would have most certainly done was jump-start the conversation for a playoff, as that would have marked two years in a row with three major conference teams unbeaten in the regular season.
3. 1994 AFC Championship game – Chargers 17, Steelers 13
The Steelers’ days of Super Bowl glory all happened prior to my arrival on this Earth, so one could understand my excitement as they tore through the AFC with a 12-4 record, the conference’s top seed and bounced the hated Browns for a third time with a 29-9 divisional round victory. It was time to sit back, relax and watch Pittsburgh pound the heavy underdog Chargers in the Steel City’s first AFC title game in 15 years. You, of course, know where this is headed. Up 13-3 in the third quarter, the Steelers allowed someone named Alfred Pupunu to break lose for a 43-yard touchdown catch on their vaunted defense, the same magical distance covered by Tony Martin on a TD reception with 5:13 to go in the fourth. Down 17-13, Neil O’Donnell led the Steelers down the field with time running short, but his fourth-down pass to Barry Foster fell incomplete in the end zone and 12-year-old me got my first serious lesson in taking a game for granted. The Chargers went on to get absolutely annihilated by San Francisco in the Super Bowl, while the Steelers made it to the big game next year. But this is the loss that set the tone that defined Bill Cowher’s career on the Pittsburgh sidelines. Five conference championships were played on the shores of the Allegheny in Cowher’s tenure and the Steelers won but one of those.
2. 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals Games 5/6 – Celtics 4, Cavaliers 2
The only spot on this list I felt had to be occupied by two games instead of one to tell the complete story. The Cavaliers bounced back from their ouster to Orlando to win 61 games even with James’ free agency the only story the media was interested in talking about for seven straight months. Cleveland was up 2-1 in the series when Boston won Game 4 at home, but that wasn’t unexpected. The series was shifting back to Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs were 39-7. Sure, they’d lost Game 2 at home by 18 points in a complete and utter no-show, but that certainly wouldn’t happen again. Or would it? Cleveland led 29-21 early in the second quarter before the wheels began to fall off and the RV it was driving careened into the side of a mountain, spritzing gasoline on the city below before igniting in flames. The Celtics outscored the Cavs 99-59 over the final 34 minutes, James finished with 14 points on 3 of 14 shooting in arguably the worst performance of his life and seemed disinterested at the boos rained down in the arena he’d turned into a sold-out, opened-ended Broadway show. The series wasn’t over, but it might as well have been. Cleveland played better back in Boston for Game 6, but James’ triple-double nearly became a quadruple-double due to his nine turnovers. His headband came off – hi there, Game 6 of the 2013 Finals! – and as he walked down the tunnel of the TD Garden and ripped off his wine and gold uniform, there was an overwhelming sense that jersey was never going back on. He was off into the night, beginning a two-month process of toying with the entire league’s emotions, and on that sticky July evening when the decision came down, the Cavaliers entered an abyss from which they’ve yet to emerge. There have been worse losses, but this one wasn’t about the end of a singular season. It was the end of an era, the end of a dynasty that never got going and the beginning of James being branded a traitor. James has come up short in playoff games before and since, but never has a player of his caliber delivered the absolute shit sandwich that he submitted in Game 5.
1. 1992 National League Championship series Game 7 – Braves 3, Pirates 2
A moment that, quite frankly, the Pirates have yet to recover from, and I think one that any Pittsburgh fan still feels whenever he or she watches any team, anywhere, suffer a particularly gut-wrenching loss. It was the playful impetus for my Twitter handle, but there was nothing funny about what happened in the 9th inning at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium during the hour 9-year-old me spent sobbing, disconsolate, on the couch as my parents wandered by and wondered when I’d get over it. For those unfamiliar, the Pirates were in their third straight NLCS, having fallen short in the previous two. They lost to these same Braves a year earlier in seven games, scoring a grand total of zero runs in the final two. This was the last hurrah as the team had been constructed, with Bobby Bonilla already gone to the New York Mets via free agency and Barry Bonds – then a skinny, speedy, twig of a man – and former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek headed out of town as well. This time it was the Pirates rallying to force a Game 7, scoring 20 total runs in winning the fifth and sixth games after falling down 3-1. Drabek pitched eight spotless innings in Game 7 and manager Jim Leyland decided to let him start the ninth rather than go to a bullpen that was shaky during the regular season and downright bad in the series against the Braves. Drabek ran into trouble, loading the bases with no outs via a double, an error and a walk, and Leyland brought in closer Stan Belinda. Atlanta cut the lead in half with Ron Gant’s sacrifice fly, Damon Berryhill walked to again load the bases but Brian Hunter popped out. Needing only one out to make it to their first World Series in 13 years, the Pirates saw Atlanta send pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera to the plate. Cabrera had 10 at-bats during the regular season and was a non-prospect approaching journeyman status, but he cemented his legacy in Braves history and Pirates nightmares by lacing a single into shallow left field. David Justice scored the tying run and former Pirate Sid Bream – carrying not a piano but an entire orchestra on his balky back – stumbled around third and slid into home, just under Mike LaValliere’s tag. The throw from Bonds in left wasn’t great, and that was his last act in Pittsburgh before ballooning up via illegal means and becoming baseball’s all-time home run king. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since. If ever a singular moment became the defining fork in the road for a franchise, it was Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Pittsburgh’s baseball club has been a laughingstock since, underspending, overdrafting and failing to properly evaluate talent from the top down. There are losses, and then there’s THIS loss.
Give me 60 years and I won’t forget it.
MGSODS: 11 out of 10