My condolences, Cleveland. Another one of your teams blew it again. Choked. Spit the bit, gripped and gagged.
And, thus, your professional franchises clinch the Jean Van de Buckner Award, a dubious trophy that no doubt will slip through their fingers, much like this season's Eastern Conference playoff series against the Celtics. And The Fumble. And The Drive, The Shot, the '97 Series, the '07 ALCS and most likely LeBron James' Cleveland career.
That's not to say the professional sports teams in Cleveland are alone. The most chokingest sports cities in America have teams tripping over themselves trying to catch Cleveland's. It was a close contest, of course, because all the contenders have notoriously buckled at the knees with parched throats and quivering hands.
Here are my Top Ten Chokingest Sports Cities in America -- or bottom 10, depending on how you look at it.
First, a few guidelines. Foremost, remember that choking is an art, not a science. In other words, if a city's teams are just bad, that's not exactly choking in my mind. You have to have hopes before you can lose them all. In other words, Kansas City is not on my list. The Royals and Chiefs have been more flat-out awful than teasingly good. Conversely, just because a city has won a championship or five doesn't mean it hasn't mastered the art of the choke and creating heartache for its fans... are you listening Dallas?
And so I begin:
10. Dallas. Yup, the gleaming home of America's Team bursts into the hall of follies -- and would rank much higher if not for the Super Bowl titles. Sure, Dallas hangs its Stetson on those five championships and most cities would love to have just one. But five Super Bowls hardly erases this city's penchant for spending money and building up expectations, only to see them ripped to shreds.
Tony Romo has yet to find a playoff run he cannot end abruptly, whether with a trip to Cabo, a bobbled snap on a go-ahead field goal attempt against Seattle in 2007, a dud of a passing game or no-showing in last season's 34-3 divisional round loss to the Vikings. Even those storied Cowboys teams of yore redefined choke ... or don't you remember Jackie Smith?
And then there's the litany of Mavericks chokes: The Finals collapse against the Heat in 2006 after leading 2-0 in the series, the first-round flop against the Warriors in 2007 (the first time ever in a seven-game series that a No. 8 seed beat a No. 1), and having it all capped with a meek first-round exit against the Spurs this year.
9. Philadelphia. Philly sports fans learned to expect disappointment long before Donovan McNabb came around. Nevertheless, he is Philly's version of Jim Kelly, only without all the Super Bowl appearances. And that is NOT a compliment. McNabb always produced big numbers and gave fans confidence and hope. But ultimately he always fell flat, forgot overtime rules, fell just short and fueled a choke-artist groundswell.
All that said, McNabb is not the face of choking in this one-time choke capitol of the free world. That would be Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams. Or maybe Eric Lindros. Among all the heartbreaking flops in Philly's sports history, Williams' meltdown in the 1993 World Series was epic, surrendering a three-run, walk-off homer to Joe Carter in Game 6 that gave Toronto the title. Lindros was at the center of the Flyers' flop in 2000, when they blew a 3-1 Eastern Conference Finals lead to the New Jersey Devils, a lead no conference finals team had ever choked away before. Welcome to the club, Philly.
8. Phoenix. Oh, the heartbreak. The Phoenix Suns could well be called the Boston Red Sox of the NBA -- they were a part of one of the defining moments in their game's history, and yet they still ultimately lost. The 1976 Suns-Celtics series was tied 2-2, in Boston. There was JohnHavlicek and Paul Westphal and all the stars. Game 5 went three overtimes and the Suns lost 128-126. They didn't recover back home in Game 6.
Suns fans would get used to it. Charles Barkley had an MVP season in 1992-93 and told Michael Jordan it was his destiny to win a title. Jordan won, of course. In 1995, the Suns were up on the Rockets and heading home, only to wind up on the business end of Mario Elie's "kiss of death," game-winning 3-pointer. And then there were the NFL's Cardinals, finally making it to the Super Bowl in 2009 and spitting it back up, thanks to a game-changing, record-setting James Harrison interception return for a touchdown right before intermission and a defensive breakdown on the six-yard, game-winning TD pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes.
7. San Diego. The Chargers perennially have been Super Bowl contenders. We're talking, since the '70s. Yet only the names change in the Chargers' meltdowns. From losing a 1979 playoff game 17-14 to a backfield of no-name Houston Oilers backups, to Norv Turner's flops, to Nate Kaeding's notorious kicking blunders, the Chargers never manage to live up to potential. Even the greatest Chargers moment -- the epic 1981 overtime playoff win at Miami -- was capped by a bad ending, with a 27-7 loss at Cincinnati in the AFC Championship game the following week. Dan Fouts is arguably the greatest passer in NFL history, but never sniffed a Super Bowl.
Then there are the Padres. They have won division titles and made two World Series, but never gave themselves a chance in either one, losing in five games to the Detroit Tigers in 1984 and being swept by the Yankees in 1998.
6. Minnesota. So, you're up 14-10 on the Cowboys with a bit over a minute left in the 1975 NFC Divisional playoff game and Roger Staubach is saying Hail Marys as he gets clubbed to the ground. His game-winning touchdown pass to Drew Pearson is where the choking starts.
Then there is the next-greatest era of Vikings history, ending with the perfect accuracy of Gary Anderson (39 of 39 on field goal attempts, 67 of 67 on PATs) failing the 15-1 Vikes in the 1999 NFC title game -- at home against Atlanta. His 38-yard miss opened the door for the Falcons to force overtime and earn a 30-27 victory. And who can forget Brett Favre throwing against his body like a high-schooler against New Orleans in last season's NFC Championship game, leading to an interception that sparked the Saints 31-28 overtime win. Cursed, you are, Minneapolis.
5. Buffalo. The good news is you go to the Super Bowl four times (1991, '92, '93 and '94). The bad news is Scott Norwood misses a 47-yard field goal attempt wide right in the waning seconds of a 20-19 loss to the Giants in the first trip and that's the best chance you had of all. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed deserved a lot better. But inevitably it wasn't just that they lost, but how they did it. They did it to themselves.
They were monumental in defeat, doing all the things that nervous, choking teams do. Thomas forgot his helmet. The team failed to show up in Pasadena and got waxed 52-17 by the Cowboys. On and on it went.
4. Orlando. Just because a city has only one major professional sports franchise doesn't mean it doesn't rank among the biggest gaggers of all in my book.
Young Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway were on to something big early-on against the Houston Rockets in the 1995 NBA Finals. But then Nick Anderson missed four free throws in the final 10 seconds of regulation in Game 1. It was painful to watch. Had he made just one, the Magic would have avoided overtime. Instead, they lost that game 120-118, and ultimately the series.
A few years later, young Tracy McGrady was talking about how nice it was to reach the second-round of the NBA playoffs. There was one problem. The Magic were up only 3-1 over the Pistons in the series and, you guessed it, lost three straight. T-Mac is still waiting to advance to the second round. And now there are the Magic of young Dwight Howard. Will they make a return trip to the NBA Finals? And if they do, will they prevail or fall short like they did against the Lakers last season? For now, they remain fourth on my list thanks to those earlier pratfalls.
3. Atlanta. What's the bigger accomplishment: Winning 14 consecutive division championships with players like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones and Javy Lopez? Or managing to win only ONE World Series over that span?
This may well be the definition of Choke City. Sure, Atlanta has had its share of heartbreak in football and basketball, from Danny White ripping apart legitimate Super Bowl aspirations in 1978, to the Dirty Bird getting grounded, to Dominique Wilkins being arguably a Tracy McGrady all-show, no-go type of player before McGrady came around. But nothing says choke like thinking you have a chance every year, but always finding a way to fall just short.
2. Houston. Somehow, someway, this city finds a way to muster up enough energy to believe it actually has a chance. But every year there is failure. And usually it's in magnificent fashion.
Detailed explanations are not necessary. All you need to know about the heartbreak and choking ways of this city are snippets: Bills-Oilers, 1993. Luv Ya Blue and Mike Renfro at Pittsburgh in 1979. Phi Slama Jama-N.C. State, 1983. Brad Lidge-Albert Pujols in the 2005 NLCS, when two batters earlier the Astros had been within one strike of going to the World Series. They ultimately got there and were swept, and on and on it goes. The Oilers and Texans always have put forth talented products, to no avail. Until recent years, the Astros perennially contended. The Rockets spare no expense. But almost always, they fall short.
1. Cleveland. It may well go down as, LeChoke. For all the creative and jaw-dropping ways that Cleveland teams have managed to rip out their fans hearts over the years, nothing compares to this season's NBA playoffs. How often does the most talented player on the planet grow up in your backyard and dream of playing for the hometown team? And how often does that hometown team blow it so magnificently?
Say what you will about Bernie Kosar, Craig Ehlo, the Indians, Ernest Byner or any of the bone-headed moments in Cleveland sports history. Three, four, five or more NBA championships were staring the Cavs in the face. And they failed to get the most out of LeBron James and/or surround him with the right complementary pieces and coaching. Say goodbye, LeBron. And say hello to the most dubious honor in sports, Cleveland franchises. Nobody chokes quite like you do.