There’s a famous saying about sports, that it’s the perfect platform to illustrate the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. That’s a very true statement, and sometimes we forget just how fine a line there really is between those two things. The thrill for one side equals agony for the other, and anyone who has played sports can tell you that losing is never easy, and the relief of not losing is often a better feeling than the thrill of winning. In some cases, the agony of defeat is especially strong, such as with 10 of our favorite meltdowns and collapses in sporting history.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Now and then we like to dig back into the TopTenz.net archives and re-share some of our best content as TopTenz Classics. With the Cleveland Cavs trying to become the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 Finals deficit, please enjoy this classic list from 2012.)
10. Edmonton Oilers v Calgary Flames (Hockey, 1986)
Some people may not remember this, because virtually nobody cares about hockey outside of Canadians and Russians, but the Edmonton Oilers were an absolutely unstoppable dynasty back in the ’80s. That’s what happens when you have guys like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier scoring goals, a guy like Paul Coffey breaking the records for most goals and points by a defenseman in a single season, and guys like Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog stopping almost every goal in their path. And it looked like they might have been well on their way to their third straight Stanley Cup victory, and only they would be able to beat themselves. Unfortunately for the Oilers, that’s exactly what happened.
The Oilers faced the Calgary Flames in the second round of the 1986 playoffs and, with the score tied at 2-2 in game seven, Edmonton had possession of the puck late in the third period, and pretty much everyone just assumed they’d either score late or win it in overtime. Because, you know, Gretzky. However, when defenseman Steve Smith tried to make a pass near the Oilers’ goal, the puck bounced off of Fuhr and into the net, giving the Flames a 3-2 lead, and an eventual win on an own goal. You probably shouldn’t feel too bad for the Oilers, though, since they just turned around and won three of the next four Stanley Cups.
9. LSU Tigers vs. Kentucky Wildcats (Basketball, 1994)
In 1994, Kentucky marched into Baton Rouge with a No. 11-ranking, and every intent on moving up in the polls and stopping a two-game losing streak, as they took on SEC rival LSU. Very promptly, they discovered that a victory might not be so easy. That’s because the Tigers raced out to a 48-32 halftime lead and, after an 18-0 run early in the second half, found themselves ahead by a whopping 31 points. To put things in perspective, the largest comeback in NCAA basketball history had been a 29-point halftime deficit overcome by Duke…in 1950.
The Wildcats decided that night would be a good time to make history, however, as Kentucky scored 24 of the next 28 points to get back into the game, and a steal and dunk by Walter McCarty closed the gap to 82-74 with 6:25 remaining. It was McCarty again who gave the Wildcats their first lead of the game, on a three-pointer with 19 seconds left, to make it 96-95, and Kentucky would go on to win 99-95 and break the record for largest comeback in NCAA history.
8. Portland Trailblazers vs Los Angeles Lakers (Basketball, 2000)
Oh, those crazy Lakers. A franchise despised by many, primarily for being insanely successful, they were on the verge of submitting one of the great collapses in NBA history. They had led the Portland Trailblazers 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals in 2000, only to allow the Blazers to battle back and square things up at three games apiece, heading into the decisive seventh game. It looked like that collapse would soon be complete, as the Blazers grabbed a 75-60 lead in the fourth quarter.
And that’s when the Lakers, with Shaq and Kobe, remembered that they were the Lakers, and, oh yeah, they had Shaq and Kobe. So they went ahead and mounted what is one of the biggest fourth-quarter comebacks in NBA history. The comeback started with a 15-0 run to knot things at 75-75, and wound up putting the Blazers away 89-84, on their way to an NBA championship. We imagine that Portland fans stewed for a bit, and then returned to creating computer software, cutting down trees, and smoking weed. That’s what people do in Oregon, right?
7. New York Giants vs. San Francisco 49ers (Football, 2002)
There have been some pretty devastating playoff losses in NFL history, including one we’re going to get to in just a little bit. But, for the fans of the New York Giants, perhaps none were as much of a gut punch as their 2002 choke job against the San Francisco 49ers. The Giants led by 24 points midway through the third quarter, and were seemingly well on their way to a victory, when that pesky little Jeff Garcia, and his soon-to-be-arch-nemesis Terrell Owens, decided to take the game over.
The Niners battled all the way back from being down 38-14, scoring 25 unanswered points to take a 39-38 lead, with Garcia passing for three touchdowns and running for another, with Owens hauling in nine catches for 177 yards over the course of the game. The Giants had a chance to earn the victory in the waning seconds, but a botched snap, and a penalty flag as time expired, wiped out any hope for last-minute heroics from Kerry Collins. Their real problem, of course, was that they were hoping for heroics from Kerry Collins.
6. California Angels vs The American League West (Baseball, 1995)
It’s never a good thing in professional sports when the late part of your season is described as a “disastrous collapse,” but that’s exactly how the final month of the California Angels’ 1995 season is remembered, and for good reason. On August 16 of that year, the Angels found themselves running away with the American League West Division, leading the next closest team, the Texas Rangers, by 10.5 games in the standings.
And then, from August 25 through September 3, the Angels dropped nine straight games. Still, they were atop the standings, now leading the Seattle Mariners by six games, and looked like they might be able to hang on. They could not. For the second time in a month, the Angels lost nine straight (from September 13 through September 23), dropping them out of first place. They managed to win five in a row to close out the regular season and force a one-game playoff, but were utterly dominated by the Mariners and missed out on what should have been a sure-thing playoff appearance.
5. Greg Norman vs. The Masters (Golf, 1996)
Chances are pretty good that, if you enter the final round of a golf tournament boasting a six-stroke lead, you have to like your odds of winning said tournament. Greg Norman probably woke up on Sunday of the 1996 Masters feeling pretty confident for precisely this reason, as he found himself with a score of 13 under par, while the next closest competitor, Nick Faldo, was sitting at seven under.
What unfolded in that fourth and final round of the Masters will live on in infamy, and has forever tainted Norman’s otherwise-stellar career. After shooting an astounding 63 in the opening round, followed by strong rounds of 69 and 71, Norman was on the verge of being a wire-to-wire leader and Masters champion. It looked like it would be an absolute butt-stomping, and that’s actually what it turned out to be. Except Norman was the one getting stomped. The Aussie shot a 78 in that final round, while Faldo shot a 67 as the gap between the two swung by a staggering 11 strokes, with Norman going from leading by six strokes to ultimately losing by five. But hey, at least he makes pretty good wine, right?
4. Houston Oilers vs. Buffalo Bills (Football, 1992)
For most professional football teams, if they find themselves leading by 32 points in the third quarter of an NFL playoff game, they’re probably feeling pretty confident that they’re going to move on to the next round. That’s especially true when the other team’s future Hall of Fame quarterback, in this case Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills, has been forced to the sideline with an injury. Of course, the Houston Oilers probably didn’t count on Frank Reich, who had a history of leading teams to improbable comebacks.
While a backup quarterback at Maryland, Reich took over with his Terps down 31-0 in the first half, and led the team to a 42-40 win over Miami, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that he was able to do the same for the Bills. Reich led the Bills to 35 unanswered points as Buffalo took a 38-35 lead and, after the Oilers got their fans’ hopes up by sending the game to overtime, the Bills would prevail on a Steve Christie field goal. We just hope that Houston fans took solace in the knowledge that the Bills went on to be absolutely annihilated by the Cowboys in the Super Bowl.
3. Jean van de Velde vs. The 18th Hole (Golf, 1999)
Before the 1999 Open Championship (or British Open, so as not to confuse anyone), no one had ever really heard of Jean van de Velde. He was an obscure pro golfer from France, who stormed to a commanding lead in the final round of the Open in 1999, and strode to the 18th tee needing only a double bogey six, on a par-four closing hole, to win the major, which would have made him the first Frenchman to do so since 1907.
At that point, you just play it safe and go for the par, right? There’s no need to take any chances that things might go awry. Well, that’s not what Van de Velde thought, and he chose to hit his driver, as he had birdied the hole twice already over the course of the tournament. Naturally, it was the first of many errors he made on the hole, as he drove the ball wildly off of the tee and, rather than playing it safe with his second shot, tried to go for the green. You can probably guess how well that worked out for him. Five strokes later, he had triple-bogeyed the hole, and ultimately lost the Open in a three-way playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie. But hey, on the bright side, he’s no longer an obscure golfer. Now he’s the classic case of boneheaded decision-making at the worst possible time.
2. Boston Red Sox vs New York Mets (Baseball, 1986)
Even though they’ve had some great success over the last decade, it’s no secret that the Boston Red Sox toiled as one of the most cursed franchises, with one of the most tortured fan bases, in all of professional sports for nearly a century. Perhaps nothing illustrated the torment that Sox fans felt quite like Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, better known as the Bill Buckner game or, if you’re Bill Simmons, simply “THAT GAME.”
Of course, blaming Buckner only tells part of the story about what happened in that colossal meltdown of a final inning for the Sox. Sure, the only thing anyone remembers is Buckner’s egregious error, but what far fewer recall is that closer Bob Stanley threw a wild pitch that allowed the tying run to score from third. That was also the second run of the inning, as the Sox had entered the bottom of the 10th with a 5-3 lead. Ultimately, Mookie Wilson’s slow grounder got past Buckner, and allowed the winning run to score, and the Mets went on to win Game 7 and the series. Buckner’s error was just one of many things that went terribly wrong in that fateful 10th inning but hey, at least he got to redeem himself in a pantheon episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm last year.
1. New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox (Baseball, 2004)
Most Red Sox fans were of the belief that they’d never see a World Series title, particularly after the gut punch of the 1986 World Series. When the New York Yankees took a 3-0 lead in the 2004 American League Championship Series, Boston fans just chalked it up as yet another disappointment, and Yankee fans were planning on raising yet another banner. And then came Game 4, and Dave Roberts made his mark in baseball lore, sparking what would become the most epic meltdown in baseball history.
The steal by Roberts started the rally that would not only give the Sox a victory in Game Four, but would begin a snowball effect that resulted in four straight wins, including a decimation at Yankee Stadium in which Boston jumped out to a 6-0 lead after two innings and never looked back, on their way to an eventual World Series championship. So, while the Sox have had some historic meltdowns of their own over the years, at least Boston fans can take solace in the fact that they helped their arch rivals achieve arguably the greatest choke job in sports history. Before 2004, no baseball team that led a series 3-0 had ever lost a seven-game series. The Yankees remain the only ones to do so.