Last night’s devastating comeback in the Triple A by Dirk’s Mavs, in which the Heat snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, brings some other notable comebacks (or collapses/choke-jobs) in recent sports history to mind. Sure, last night’s final 6 minutes of one-sided ball, on Miami’s home floor, in the friggin’ NBA Finals, showcased a monumental failure by one side and a glorious, defying-the-odds flurry of previously unseen offensive prowess by the other. And so, the series-tying effort by Cuban’s true passion is the impetus for wracking my brain this morning, and coming up with a list of sorts…
This is not THE list, ranking all comebacks in the history of sports, nor even the top ten of all time. No, this list involves only games or tournaments or matches in which I witnessed the comeback in its entirety, live, whether on television or at the event itself. Emphasis will be given to those events that had greater meaning, such as a playoff or championship or major event versus a regular season game.
So here you go, a trip down my own personal memory lane of incredible (or incredibly depressing, I suppose, depending on perspective) sports finishes:
Football – Eagles vs. Giants, December, 2010. The Stakes: a playoff berth on the line, though not 100% win-and-you’re- in…there were a couple games left after this one for both teams.
I was watching this game in a sports bar. A Philly sports bar. Down 24-3 at the half, and 31-10 well into the 4th quarter and the Giants weren’t just winning…they were manhandling a bewildered and seemingly over-matched Eagles team. People left the bar in disgust as the fourth quarter began. A friend of mine, a big Eagle fan, said goodbye and told my father and I he had better things to do. The game was over.
But a long touchdown pass to Brent Celek and a recovered onside kick at around the 6 minute mark changed the momentum of the game. Mike Vick finally started to make some plays with his legs, which opened up the passing game as well, and the Eagles very dangerous offense, which had not yet reared its head, began to take flight. A Vick walk-in, a defensive stop and a long drive which culminated in a pretty 5-yard Vick to Maclin TD finished the comeback, and tied the score at 31.
Still, the Gints had the ball with 1:15 left in the game. Unable to get a first down against a now rejuvenated Eagles D, New York was forced to punt with 12 seconds left on the clock. Awaiting the punt…DeSean Jackson. Under strict instructions to keep the ball away from the Eagles’ game-breaker, punter Matt Dodge kicked a line drive directly to Jackson. A few jukes and a blur later, the Birds pulled off another Miracle at the Meadowlands, would go on to make the playoffs and the Giants would narrowly miss the post-season. Awesome movie-script ending for us Philly fans…pure misery, disbelief and heartbreak for the New Yawk set.
Golf – Jean Van de Velde – 1999 British Open at Carnoustie – The Stakes: a major championship, and the first open championship for a Frenchman since 1907 … One of the most amazing train wrecks I can remember watching, it literally was painful to witness this Frenchman butcher a hole he had birdied twice in the previous 3 rounds. Taking the tee at 18 on the final day, Van de Velde held a 3 stroke lead, misfired his drive and forced the viewers to endure awful shot after awful shot en route to a triple bogey, a plummet into an improbably 3-way tie for the lead, and a loss to Paul Lawrie in the play-off.
Football – Monday Night October 16, 2006 – The Stakes: a big, early season upset to potentially turn the season around for a struggling Cardinals team, a perfect season for the Bears, and a Coach’s legacy and reputation. What I will forever remember as the Dennis Green game pitted a lowly and uninspired 1-4 Arizona Cardinals team against an undefeated and prohibitive favorite in the Chicago Bears, who were a defensive minded team with a scintillating special teams unit, led by the seemingly unstoppable Devin Hester. The Cards played smart football, held the non-existent Bears offense to a lone field goal and kept the ball away from Chicago’s only scoring threats, the Defense and Devin Hester, to take a shocking 23-3 lead into the 4th quarter. And then it happened. Momentum shifted as the Bears D finally wore down the Cards’ weary offensive line, which had been playing out of their minds. One mistake led to another, compounding on each other to lead to 21 unanswered Bears points, which featured two defensive fumble recoveries and a beautiful 82-yard punt return by “Kick It Out of Bounds” incarnate. As amazing as the comeback/collapse was, the best part of this game was the post-game presser by Cardinal’s Head Coach Dennis Green, whose now infamous “The Bears are who we thought they were! That’s why we took the damn field! Now, if you want to crown them, then crown their ass! But they are who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook!” Hours and days of laughter following what truly was an amazing football comeback.
NCAA Basketball – Duke- Maryland, 2001 – The Stakes: Bragging rights in the ACC, a trip to the National Title game. In the National Semifinals, Duke erased a 22 point first half deficit against conference rival Terps to win going away, 95-84 in the Metrodome. This was a monumental comeback/collapse by any standards, particularly in a game with so much at stake. But it wasn’t even the most amazing Duke comeback against Maryland that season. Just a few months earlier, in hostile College Park no less, Duke overcame a 10 point deficit with less than a minute remaining in the game, sent the game to overtime and prevailed 98-96. I am sure the confidence the Blue Devils gained in completing the comeback on the Terps’ home floor allowed them to regroup and rally in the Final Four game a few months later. I was reminded of Duke’s sudden offensive barrage and Maryland’s futility that narrowed and erased the gap in the final 54 seconds in January 2001 when watching Dallas defeat Miami last night. In those moments, it is like momentum actually increases the size of the trailing team’s basket ten-fold while shrinking the leading team’s basket to a size smaller than the ball.
Football – 1993 Wildcard Playoff Game. The Stakes: Advancing in the AFC playoffs. The second Frank Reich Game. Yep. Frank Reich led two historic comebacks in his day, one in college as the Maryland Terps upended the heavily favored Miami Hurricanes after falling behind big in the second half, and this one: Things couldn’t have been bleaker. The Oilers led 35-3 early in the second half. Bills QB Jim Kelly was injured. Linebacker Cornelius Bennett was injured. Thurman Thomas played sparingly. The only thing that could have made things more depressing would have been a plague of locusts descending from the sky. The blowout was that biblical. Then Reich drove the team for one touchdown. 35-10. Steve Christie recovered his own on-side kick and Reich hit Don Beebe for a TD. 35-17. The Bills D forced the Oilers to punt. Reich hit another TD pass, this one to Andre Reed. 35-24. And it was still the third quarter. No. Freaking. Way. Henry Jones picked off Warren Moon, setting up Reich at the Houston 23 yard line. Another TD pass to Reed. 35-31. The Oilers missed a FG and the Bills got another TD (again from Reich to Reed). The Bills were ahead for the first time. 38-35. The Oilers tied the game to send it to OT and won the coin toss. It looked like they might avert disaster, but Moon threw an errant pass setting up the Bills in FG range and Christie completed the most ridiculous, unlikely, unbelievable comeback in NFL history.
Basketball – Indiana Pacers vs. the New York Knicks, Game 1, 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Stakes: Advancing deep into the playoffs, potentially winning an NBA title, and for Miller and Ewing, possibly solidifying their position as one of the all time greats. Knicks fans hate Reggie Miller with the heat of a 1,000 suns. They hate him so much that ESPN made it the subject of one of their 30 for 30 documentaries. The bad blood wouldn’t be enough to warrant mention on this list, but Miller’s performance in Game 1 of the E.C. Semifinals does. Single-handedly, Miller led his team to a stunning 107-105 last second victory over the Knicks in the Garden. With 18.7 seconds left, the Knicks lead by six points. Miller kicked into action, hit a three point shot, stole the ensuing inbounds pass, dribbled back behind the three point line, and hit that three-pointer. Miller then hit both free-throws to put the Pacers ahead for the win and up 1-0 in the series.
Golf – 1996 Masters – The Stakes: Winning the Augusta Major and its Green Jacket is perhaps the most coveted golf achievement among anyone who has ever swung a club. For Greg Norman, who seemingly had a master’s in how to lose the Masters — from ahead to Tom Watson in ‘81, from behind to Jack Nicklaus in ‘86, from nowhere to Larry Mize in ‘87, from everywhere to Ben Crenshaw in ‘95 — this was a chance at redemption. There was even an idea by some media members, after Greg’s seemingly insurmountable 54-hole lead, to hold an 18-hole parade in his honor to “make up for all the broken hearts and second-place crystal he had lugged home over the years.” It would be his payback for having had to wait longer than any champion for his green jacket (16 years).
Greg Norman let a 6 stroke final round lead slip away to the hard charging South African, Nick Faldo. “If he blows this,” ESPN’s Dan Patrick said on Sunday, “it will be the biggest collapse in modern golf history.” But from the beginning on Sunday something in Norman’s swing made you squirm. He hooked his drive at 1 into the trees and made a bogey. There was a nasty par save on 3, a bogey on 4 and a god-awful pull on 8.
Faldo, meanwhile, was as steady as rent, making two-putt par after two-putt par. (He three-putted once all week.) He drilled a four-footer on the 6th for a birdie and a 20-footer on 8 to cut the lead to three. Then came the most catastrophic four golf holes in Norman’s life.
It was difficult to watch as Norman slowly and painfully unraveled in the middle of golf’s sanctuary. The Shark’s meltdown in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and certainly the most hallowed in the golfing world showcased the fragility of the human mind for all the world to see. His body language was the very portrait of a man struggling with some unknown inner demons. He slumped as he walked the final few holes, and his descent from landslide victory to agonizing defeat provided one of the most horrifying sports images ever captured on television.
Hockey – 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Stakes: A trip to the Conference Finals and perhaps a shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup; and for both teams, a shot at a first title in more than 3 decades. Though the Flyers and the B’s no longer play in the same division, the bad blood between the two goes back generations, at least to the Broad Street Bullies era. But the hard-luck losses the Flyers handed the Bruins throughout the 1970s couldn’t hurt Boston fans like this series probably did. This will haunt them for the rest of their lives and possibly well into the afterlife. It took a miracle OT win in Game 4 to get the Flyers comeback rolling. Then the Flyers lost netminder Brian Boucher in the Game 5 victory and back-up Michael Leighton stepped up in the Game 6 nail-biter. In a fit of melodrama, the Flyers came back from a score of 3-0 in Game 7, getting the game winner from Simon Gagne, who had come back early from injury (and also scored the OT winner in Game 4.) It is the stuff movies are made of. Bad movies. Unbelievable movies. The kind of movies that are so bad they go straight to video. Philly fans should never whine or complain about their hard luck ever again. And I’m a Philly fan.
And I watched the amazing game 7 comeback win to seal the stunning meltdown by the Bruins in a pub at 4am in Paris France. The crowd there began the night scoffing at me between sips of wine and beer, preferring to watch soccer, if anything at all as I requested that management turn the hockey game on, even if just on one of their many flat screen televisions. But as the game wore on, and the Flyers mounted their incredible comeback in this game 7, let alone in the series, the tenor of the crown eerily reminded me of the extras in a cheesy 1980s/1990s Sports movie (like Rocky 4, Happy Gilmore or The Longest Yard remake) where everyone once rooting for one side suddenly shifts, mid-game, match or bout and roots for the longshot/misfit/foreigner.
Baseball – 2004 American League Championship.
The Stakes: Flying pigs, hell freezing over, the continuation of an 80+ year old curse, and of course, a trip to the World Series
Speaking of the Boston sports fans, they also have a big victory on this list, and frankly, knowing Boston fans and the American sports fan in general, they care a hell of lot more about this one than they do the loss to the Fly Boys. I am sure, since 2004, everybody is beyond their saturation point with the Sox stuff, Sweet Caroline, the Cask & Flagon, the Green Monster, Dan Shaunessy and the Dennis Leary truck ads. But these were New York Yankees we were talking about, a team that had tormented Boston fans for generations and generations, the team that always won in the end, no matter how heroic or beloved the Boston players. The inevitability of the Yankees victory was certain. The history of the match-up, and the fact that the 2004 Sox actually won the World Series, may just rank this comeback among the all-time greats – and for me, as a hater of all sports teams New York – it was a gem.
Don’t think I haven’t forgotten these, which I also saw:
The San Diego Padres collapse in 2010, overtaken by the San Francisco Giants on the final day of the season despite having had the best record in the entire National League at the end of August.
The Jets-Jets-Jets stormed back to stun the Dolphins in 2000, erasing a 23 point second half deficit to win in OT.
And one of my personal favorites, in 2007 as the New York Mets faded and the Phillies rose to win the NL East, avenging their futility in 1964 to make the Mets the biggest chokers in the sport’s history.
The Phillies rallied from seven games down on Sept. 12, matching the biggest September comeback in major league history. Philadelphia and the Mets went into the last day tied for the division lead.
No major league team failed to finish first after having at least a seven-game lead with 17 to play. The Phillies joined the 1934 Cardinals and 1938 Cubs as the only teams to overcome a seven-game deficit in the final month.