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The Longest of the Sufferers: SI Writers Pick the 14 Players Most Deserving of a Title

titles_group600 Chelsey Boehnke | chelseyboehnke.com

It took 16 seasons, but Tracy McGrady, the erstwhile high school dynamo whose occasionally superlative NBA career never seemed to match his potential, has finally reached the NBA Finals. (To be more accurate and/or elegiac: he has finally advanced past the second round of the NBA playoffs.) That he's now in a support role on the Spurs does little to lessen the significance of potentially winning a ring: for someone who has had an above-average career like McGrady's, it's less about when he wins a title than it is about whether he wins a title. To commemorate what might be T-Mac's last dance, 14 SI writers each named a player that has left it all on the field during his career, but has yet to come away with the one thing he wants to show for it.


LIONEL MESSI

JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images

I know, I know. If you’re making a list of long-suffering athletes who deserve to win a title, the obvious choice might not be Lionel Messi, who has now claimed 20 club trophies in nine years at FC Barcelona. But this piece isn’t about Barcelona Messi. It’s about Argentina Messi, the same Messi who has never won an important senior title with his national team -- not the Copa América and certainly not the World Cup. After quarterfinal losses in 2006 (in which the dumb Argentine coach didn’t play Messi in the elimination game) and ’10 (in which the dumb Argentine coach was simply Diego Maradona), Messi will play in his third World Cup next year at Brazil 2014. And there are a number of soccer people who think he cannot be considered the greatest player of all time unless he wins the tournament.

I am not one of those people. The World Cup is a great event, but the most telling proving ground in modern-day soccer is the UEFA Champions League, and Messi has already done plenty in that tournament over the years (winning three trophies in addition to the last four world player of the year awards). That said, if Messi were to conquer the World Cup, who would be left to question his credentials? It’s not Messi’s fault he has had two brutal national team coaches at World Cups, nor is it his fault Argentina has been probably the most underachieving national team in the world over the last 20 years. But if he leads a resurgent Argentina to the World Cup title next year, Messi will release a torrent of emotion that shows just how taxing his national-team drought has been over the years. - Grant Wahl


tony-gonzalez300TONY GONZALEZ

In one of the last games of his college career, Tony Gonzalez outplayed a top-10 pick to lead California to a huge win. The year was 1997, and the top-10 pick was not a football player, but basketball player Tim Thomas of Villanova.

It was the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Gonzalez scored 23 points on 13 shots as a 6-foot-5 power forward. Thomas scored 11 as a ridiculously talented 6-foot-10 small forward. If you watched either of their pro careers, this will not surprise you: one muscle was the difference in their matchup. The heart.

In sports, there is a difference between winners and guys who have won. Everybody on the roster of a title team can point to his ring finger and say he won. But some of them were lazy, immature or underachieving, carried to a title by their teammates.

Tony Gonzalez is a winner. He has been so good for so long that his career seems almost flawless – except for the one obvious one: He has never even played in the Super Bowl.

He has caught 1,242 passes for 14,268 yards and 103 touchdowns, numbers that would put him in the Hall of Fame conversation if he were a receiver and are outright ridiculous coming from a tight end. Just as impressively, he tallied those stats despite spending much of his career with quarterbacks who were average at best. Until he joined Matt Ryan in Atlanta in 2009, Gonzalez had never played with an elite signal-caller. Elvis Grbac and Trent Green were solid passers, but Gonzalez put up some of his best numbers under comically trying circumstances. In 2007, he caught 99 passes for 1,172 yards from the likes of Damon Huard and Brodie Coyle. The next year he caught 96 passes for 1,058 yards, mostly from Tyler Thigpen.

He has done it with talent, but also with work ethic, toughness, diet and discipline. His practice habits are legendary; every dropped ball seems to stun him. Since whipping Tim Thomas in that NCAA tournament 16  years ago, he has missed one NFL game. One. Nobody “deserves” a title. But Tony Gonzalez has done as much as anybody in NFL history to earn one. - Michael Rosenberg


jim-thome300JIM THOME

It’s not just that Jim Thome has hit 612 home runs. Or that he’s played 22 seasons. Or even that he’s just so doggone nice. The reason I want Thome to win a World Series is for all those reasons AND that he’s come so maddeningly close.

Let's hope he’s not reading as I recount the ways he has barely missed:

*His Indians reached the World Series in 1995 but lost to the Braves in six games.

*Cleveland blew a ninth-inning lead to the Marlins in 1997’s World Series Game 7, only to lose in extra innings.

*Thome joined the White Sox in 2006 -- one year after they won a title. Chicago didn’t return to the postseason until 2008 and were eliminated quickly.

*In 2009 he joined the Dodgers for the stretch run, but they lost in the NLCS to the defending champion Phillies -- the team that had traded Thome away four years previously.

*In all, Thome played in nine postseasons, advancing to four Championship Series and two World Series.

Now he’s without a job, just one year after starting four postseason games for the Orioles, and he reportedly still wants to play. (He surely could help a few teams, especially his most recent employer, Baltimore, which has the worst offensive production from its designated hitters of any AL team.)

Thome deserves a title because he’s the game’s most earnest and genuine superstar -- at least that I’ve ever met. He’s a future Hall of Famer who, at the end of every interview, thanks me for my time, despite being my elder with, again, 612 more career home runs. Just look at how humbled he was at hitting his 600th homer, with his teammates and family greeting him at home plate:

Wouldn’t a World Series celebration be even better? - Joe Lemire


JAROME IGINLA

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I can still hear Sidney Crosby shouting “Iggy!” over the desperate roar of the crowd at Vancouver's GM Place, calling for the pass he would then bury behind Team USA goalie Ryan Miller in overtime to clinch gold for Canada at the 2010 Olympics. And if that sweet sauce ends up being the one thing Jarome Iginla is remembered for, well, he'll probably say he was grateful to be part of the moment.

That was Iginla's second Olympic gold and, to this point, the highlight of a legacy that also includes three other international championships for Canada, two Memorial Cups, a Lester Pearson Award, 530 goals and virtually every offensive record in Calgary Flames history. The only thing missing from that Hall of Fame resume: a Stanley Cup.

He came close once with the Flames, losing in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 2004 final everyone remembers for that bruising scrap he had with opposing captain Vincent Lecavalier. Maybe it was crazy for him to fight with so much on the line, but he fought because so much was on the line. That became the new standard for leadership and commitment in the playoffs. And that moment, as much as the Golden Assist, reminded everyone Iginla is the All-Canadian boy. Polite to a fault, self-effacing, engaging … until he pulls the sweater over his head and goes into beast mode.

He plays the game the right way, tough but honest. Always has. It makes him an easy guy to root for. That's why no one outside of Boston begrudged him his choice to accept a trade to Pittsburgh this spring. If he saw that as his best chance for a Cup well, who could blame him?

And maybe this time, Sid can return the dish. - Al Muir


nash300STEVE NASH

The NBA doesn’t get a lot of guys like Steve Nash: Small, white, Canadian, soccer-loving, left-leaning, openly green, occasionally outspoken, slyly goofy (do yourself a favor and browse his videos on YouTube, including “Steve Nash, the Most Ridiculous Man in the World”). Or even, so casual in his dress that when he showed up for his press conference after he signed with Phoenix in the summer of 2004, he wore golf shoes — the only hard-soled shoes he could find. But this unlikely outlier has achieved things few players from NBA central casting ever do, including two MVP awards (only two other guards, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, have won multiple MVPs) and eight NBA All-Star nods. The prize that eludes him, that would make his countrymen, his fellow Santa Clara alums and underdogs everywhere burst with pride, is an NBA title. True, Nash hasn’t been close since he led the Suns to the Western Conference finals in 2006. And the optimism sparked by his signing with the Lakers last summer was extinguished early and often this season as the team dealt with drama and injuries (including Nash’s broken left leg and sore right hip, which forced him to miss a total of 32 regular season games.)  Now on the brink of 40 and signed with the battered and baffling Lakers through 2015, Nash’s odds of ever getting a ring are undeniably long. But as he has pointed out before, his whole career has been a long shot. Why should its crowning achievement be any different? - Kelli Anderson


ferrer300DAVID FERRER

David Ferrer is the fifth best tennis player in the world, which is a bit like being the sixth of the burger-making guys. You're out of the money. You've heard of a glass ceiling? Tennis has a grass, clay and cement ceiling. Either Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray has won every Grand Slam title, save one, since June 2005. Compare that to the concentration of Major winners in golf.

It's been great to watch. But it's left little but crumbs for the rest of the field, not least a Spanish grinder who is long on work ethic, speed and hustle, but short on weapons. David Ferrer has been a top-five player for most of the last five years. He had never even been to a Grand Slam final. He's destined to come up short and if you doubt that, well, just ask David Ferrer. "The top four are better than the other players." But you're closing the gap at least, right? "No, the other four are too good." Add "realist" to the list of his virtues.

The shame of it is Ferrer represents everything we like in an athlete. He's 5-foot-8 and maybe 160 pounds and was once so frustrated by his results that he quit tennis and joined a Madrid construction crew. Fortunately, he thought better of it and decided he would wring everything he could out of his tennis. No one would outwork him. No one would have more taste for battle. No one would do more to max out his abilities. He has won almost $20 million in prize money and 20 (non slam) titles. That's a lot of cement. But he is 31 now and odds are good he won't outlast the players ahead of him. So long as they're around, Ferrer will retire without a Major. Which is a pity. Jon Wertheim


WES WELKER

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You’ve got to admire the tenacity of Wes Welker. Though he was Mr. Everything at Heritage Hall High in Oklahoma City — he scored 80 career touchdowns as a running back, made 22 interceptions as a defensive back and kicked 35 field goals — he wasn’t offered a scholarship by National Signing Day. At 5-foot-9 and just more than 170 pounds, he was considered too small to play major college football. Then a recruit backed out of his scholarship at Texas Tech and the Red Raiders lured Welker to Lubbock. All he did for Tech was snag 259 career receptions for 3,019 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also returned eight punts and kickoffs for touchdowns, which remains tied for an NCAA record.

He would continue to be under-appreciated as a pro. Undrafted, he signed as a free agent with the Chargers, who cut him after the first game of the 2004 season. He cleared waivers and eventually landed with the Dolphins. After three solid seasons in Miami, he was traded to New England, where he emerged as one of top slot receivers in the NFL. He went on to lead the league in receptions three years (2007, ’09 and ’11) and become one of the greatest long-shot stories in NFL history. Still, he has never won a ring.

Making it worse is that he came oh so close. With four minutes left in Super Bowl XLVI in 2012 against the Giants, the Patriots held a 17-15 lead. On second-and-11 from New York’s 44-yard-line, Welker dashed down the field on a route, splitting between two defenders in the Giants’ Cover 2. Quarterback Tom Brady unleashed a pass that had it been completed would have extended New England’s drive and, perhaps, clinched the victory. Welker leaped for the ball, but it bounced off his fingertips and fell to the ground. The Patriots wound up losing 21-17.

After the game, with his chin up, Welker blamed himself for the loss. “That’s a play I make a thousand times,” he said. “I just didn’t make it.” If you didn’t appreciate Welker before that moment, you at least had to applaud him for his integrity. Now he's with the Broncos, where he should be an ideal fit for the Peyton Manning-led offense — and I, for one, would like to see him get one more chance on the NFL’s biggest stage, one more chance to make the difficult catch to win the game. It would be a fitting way for this ultimate underdog to finish his career. - Lars Anderson


miller300RYAN MILLER

Ryan Miller turns 33 July 17, which makes him Bieberesque compared to Martin Brodeur, but on the old side among NHL goaltenders. He has spent his entire 10-year career in the sports-mad city of Buffalo and holds franchise records for wins (269) and games played (500) by a netminder. As one of the few sports stars in a city desperate for a major championship, Miller has endured more praise and scorn than his play merited. The Sabres have not won a playoff series since 2007 and this year’s ugly culmination of a hockey season saw Miller jeered too often in Buffalo, the on-ice face of the team getting tagged for the collective failing to reach preseason expectations.

Having once lived in Buffalo, I have admired from afar how Miller always forged ahead no matter the circumstance, from a porous defense in front of him to ownership changes to media criticism. He’s a bright, emotional guy whose heart has been in the right place for both his adopted city and his country (He nearly led the U.S. to victory over Canada in the gold medal game at the 2010 Winter Games.) If Miller is dealt this offseason – I imagine this is likely best for both parties -- I hope he lands with a Cup contender needing a goaltender as the final piece of the puzzle. I’d like to see Miller get one last chance with a decent roster. He’s a gamer, and I wouldn’t bet against him. - Richard Deitsch


tommy-haas300TOMMY HAAS

Earlier this week, the man with one of the prettiest one-handed backhands in the game -- and let's face it, one of the prettiest faces -- reached the quarterfinals of the French Open for the first time in his career. He was the oldest man, at 35, to make the quarterfinals of a Slam since the great Andre Agassi did it at the U.S. Open in 2005. It's impossible not to think that on some level, Haas's late-career surge -- a year ago he was ranked outside the Top 100 -- is some kind of restitutional effort from the tennis gods for a career full of talent and promise repeatedly derailed by injuries. After a career year in 2002 that saw him reach the No. 2 ranking, he was forced to undergo shoulder surgery and missed the entire 2003 season. He missed most of the 2010 and 2011 seasons with hip and shoulder issues as well. Those are just the major injuries. There were a bunch of fluke niggles that kept him from playing his best for a prolonged stretch of time.

Admittedly, it's pretty hard to feel sorry for Haas. The German was blessed with Hollywood looks, is married to the gorgeous model/actress Sara Foster (D.E.B.S. anyone?), has a beautiful daughter named Valentina and has earned more than $11.5 million in prize money. Over the course of his 17-year career he has reached a career-high of No. 2, won 14 career titles, made the semifinals at a Slam four times and has beaten pretty much everyone, including two big wins over Federer at the Sydney Olympics and 2002 Australian Open. When his career is over no one will be able to peg him with that dismissive "journeyman" label. The guy was a primetime player and legitimate threat whenever he was healthy. But even as his body kept letting him down, Tommy just kept getting back at it and worked his butt off for another chance. He's always had talent and work ethic. All he needed was a little bit of luck. - Courtney Nguyen


champ300CHAMP BAILEY

You’re probably saying, “Wait, Champ Bailey never won a cham -- no, come to think of it, he never has, has he?” We tend to think first of the superstars, the household names, who have gone without titles. But Bailey, the Broncos’ 14-year veteran cornerback, represents that class of player whose ringless career may be even a little more poignant. He’s one of those guys who has been good -- very good -- for a long time and come close -- very close -- to the ultimate prize on occasion, but somehow has never been able to get all the way to the top.

Remember how the Broncos had the Ravens beaten in the playoffs last season until the Joe Flacco-Jacoby Jones Hail Mary sent the game into overtime and set up Denver’s loss? If safety Rahim Moore had been just a little deeper in coverage, maybe Bailey would have his title by now. That’s the kind of bad luck that keeps a man ringless.

Don’t shed a tear for the big names who have never won – they have tons of endorsements to help ease their pain. Guys like Bailey, one of the handful of top corners in the league for years, deserve your sympathy far more. When a man does his job this well for this long, he ought to be rewarded with a title. Here’s hoping before he takes his helmet off for the last time, Champ will be more than Bailey’s nickname. - Phil Taylor


TYSON GAY

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In 2008, there was a sprinter poised to take over the world, and it wasn’t Usain Bolt. Sure, Bolt ran a world-record 9.72 in the 100 in New York City in May, finishing ahead of Tyson Gay. But prior to that point, the two men had raced only in the 200, and Gay was 6-2. Gay followed up his loss with a wind-aided 9.68 at the U.S. Olympic Trials, the fastest time ever run. A world-class rivalry was taking form just in time for the Beijing Games.

Days later, it began to unravel.

In a 200 heat at Trials, Gay took a step that looked like he’d stuck his foot in a pothole. He tumbled to the track, clutching his left hamstring. He was out of 200 qualifying, and the injury rendered him a nonfactor in the 100 in Beijing, where he didn’t qualify for the final. Gay also missed the 4x100 final when he was part of a bungled baton handoff.

Since then, Gay’s career has seen brilliant flashes — he beat Bolt in the 100 in 2010 — alternating with injuries. Gay made a courageous return from hip surgery in time for London, only to finish 0.01 of a second out of the 100 medals. Afterward, the staid sprinter burst into tears. Gay rebounded as part of the U.S. 4x100 team that took silver. That medal “stopped me from jumping off a cliff,” Gay said last month, with cold seriousness in his eyes.

Gay currently has the fastest 100 time in the world this year and it would be great for the sport to have an American wrest a world sprint title back from Jamaica. If it’s to happen, Gay is the man, and this is the year. - David Epstein


daniel-alfredsson300DANIEL ALFREDSSON

Over the last 17 years, Daniel Alfredsson has won many things: the 1996 Calder Trophy, a King Clancy Trophy for his leadership and contribution to the community, and an Olympic gold medal with Sweden in 2006. He’s achieved more than any other Ottawa Senator ever has, holding franchise records in goals, assists, points and games played. And as the longest-serving active captain in the NHL, he has led the Sens to the playoffs in 11 of the last 13 seasons, including a Cup final appearance in 2007. But Alfredsson has yet to touch the Stanley Cup, and at age 40, with a couple concussions on his chart and a wonky back, there’s a decent chance he never will.

What a disappointment that would be for a player who has done everything he could possibly do to deserve it. When it comes to all-around players, Alfie's long been one of the best. In 2005-06 he scored 43 goals and 103 points while also coming in third place for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the best defensive forward in the league. He ranks fourth among active players with 1,108 career points and he scored them all with one team. Whereas Iginla, another Cup-starved icon and excellent human being, cashed in his chips in Calgary and joined Eastern Conference favorites Pittsburgh at the trade deadline this year, Alfredsson has stayed put in Ottawa. Perhaps it’s the least he can do for a city that named a day after him (April 10, 2010) in honor of his 1,000th game.

A free agent in July, Alfie’s been evasive about next season (he’s said to be considering retirement) but I, for one, hope he comes back to Ottawa and gets to lift the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, just as he's dreamed of doing for the last 13 years. - Sarak Kwak


carter300VINCE CARTER

Few players in NBA history have been both as maligned by the media and as loved by fans as Carter has. In his prime, he was the most exciting player in the league. But as his career progressed, he became known as a prima donna. The one play that encapsulates his career is when he leapfrogged Frederic Weis’s head in the 2000 Olympics. It may be the greatest dunk of all time — yet some viewed it as unsportsmanlike and critics said Carter should concentrate on the fundamentals instead of the spectacular. Now he’s 36 and a late-career title with the Mavs -- if they bring him back -- or another team would help erase some of the criticism and make it easier to appreciate the highlights.

Some of the flak stems from the timing of Carter’s career. He came into the NBA in 1998, right after Michael Jordan’s final season with the Bulls. Like Jordan, he came out of North Carolina and shocked everyone by how much more athletic he was than everyone else. Carter was born to win the Slam Dunk contest, which he did in 2000. The problem is everyone wanted Carter to be Jordan and that was never going to happen. That’s not a good reason to trash a guy’s career. What are the huge gaffes in Carter’s career? That he went to his University of North Carolina graduation the morning of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals back in 2000? What’s wrong with taking pride in your education? That he didn’t win a title? It’s not like the teams he played with were loaded with talent. They were usually pretty bad. The Nets fell to 12-70 the season after Carter left.

If you still don’t like Carter, watch him in Dallas. He pulled a Grant Hill and put aside his ego to be a defense-first, team guy. Owner Mark Cuban said Carter busts his ass on every play for the Mavs. Sure, that’s not who he was for most of his life. But just one ring would make it easier to appreciate the half-amazing aspect of his career and forget the half-disappointing part. - Andrew Perloff


STEVE STRICKER

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Steve Stricker might be the nicest guy in sports. A polite, soft-spoken Wisconsinite, he bawls like a schoolgirl every time he wins a tournament, which has happened 14 times on the PGA Tour, one less than Fred Couples, who was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame. He is kind and decent and always conducts himself with class and dignity. Everybody loves Stricker — fellow competitors, caddies, scribes, little old ladies who volunteer at tournaments. And yet his inability to win The Big One seems to validate one of sport’s most vicious stereotypes. It’s time for Stricker, 46, to win a major. With his precise iron game and silky putting stroke he certainly has the game the do it. And even though he’s curtailed his schedule this year, Stricker is still plenty competitive — he already has three top-5 finishes this season and he was on the first page of the leaderboard heading into the final round of the Masters. A major would give Stricker a legitimate chance to get into the Hall of Fame. More than that, it would prove that every once in a while, nice guys do finish first when it really matters. - Alan Shipnuck

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