J.R. Smith is just the latest athlete to have a massive brain fart with the game on the line.
So many of the most iconic moments in sports are defined by mistakes, like Bill Buckner letting a ball go between his legs in the 1986 World Series. But we’ve come to expect that an athlete’s body may betray him, like Bucker or when Rory McIlroy shot a final-round 80 to blow a four-shot lead at the 2011 Masters. Mental errors—the kind that leave fans screaming “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” at their televisions—are much more agonizing.
That’s why J.R. Smith’s all-time blunder in Game 1 of the NBA Finals makes you want to pull your hair out. Sure, it doesn’t happen if George Hill doesn’t miss that second free throw but it’s easier to forgive a guy for missing a clutch foul shot. A guy having to turn to the greatest player ever and admit “I thought we were ahead” is enough to make any fan want to scream in an empty room.
J.R.’s peak J.R. moment will go down in sports history as perhaps the worst mental error of all time, and that got us thinking about other times athletes’ brains just stopped working. Here are 10 of the worst.
10. Matt Dodge lets DeSean Jackson field it
The Giants and Eagles finished with identical 10–6 records in 2010 but Philadelphia won the division thanks to this Week 15 game. (New York missed the playoffs.)
The Giants led 24–3 at the half but allowed the Eagles to come all the way back to tie it at 31 with 1:16 to play. After the Giants’ ensuing drive went nowhere, Tom Coughlin sent Matt Dodge on to punt it away with 14 seconds left. All Dodge had to do was punt the ball out of bounds, leaving the Eagles to decide between a Hail Mary and taking an knee to go to overtime. Instead, he kicked it right to the league’s most dangerous return man, who brought it back for a walk-off touchdown.
The Giants cut Dodge before the next season.
9. Oregon capitalizes on Kaelin Clay’s early celebration
Dropping the ball before you cross into the end zone is not as rare as you’d hope (DeSean Jackson famously did it against the Cowboys). What is rare is the opposing team scooping the ball up and running it back 99 yards for a touchdown the other way. At least it was just a regular-season game.
8. Leon Lett’s Thanksgiving turkey
The Thanksgiving game in Dallas is one of football’s biggest stages and Cowboys defensive lineman Leon Lett’s 1993 miscue is among the most memorable plays in the game’s long history. Had he just let the ball go, Dallas would have won.
7. Jeremy Giambi forgets to slide
This is the perfect play to show the importance of having your head in the game.
There are two ways this run scores:
1.) Derek Jeter doesn’t realize that the throw is about to miss the cutoff man and doesn’t flip it Jorge Posada.
2.) Jeremy Giambi remembers to slide and slips either a foot or a hand onto the plate before Posada’s tag.
6. Jim Marshall goes the wrong way
Jim Marshall’s 20-year NFL career will most be remembered for this iconic lapse of judgement.
5. Merkle’s Boner
The Cubs’ final World Series win before their 108-year drought might never have happened if not for this infamous play by New York Giants first baseman Fred Merkle.
With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth of a key late-season game against the Cubs, the Giants had runners on first and third and two outs. Al Bridwell hit a single allowing Moose McCormick to score from third, seemingly ending the game. But Merkle, the man on first, never tried to touch second base and Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers stepped on the bag to force Merkle out. The umpires ruled that McCormick’s run didn’t count and called the game a tie due to darkness after failing to clear the field of the fans who stormed the diamond.
The decision was highly controversial, as many believed the out shouldn’t have counted since the Cubs had to retrieve the ball from a fan. Others believed the rule nullifying a run on a force-out should only be applied on plays in the infield.
The Cubs and Giants finished the season with the same record, forcing a rematch at the Polo Grounds after the season to see who would advance to the World Series, which Chicago won.
4. The Miracle at the Meadowlands
This infamous 1978 fumble by Joe Pisarcik isn’t as egregious as it may seem to a modern NFL fan, but it’s still pretty terrible. The play actually predates the rule allowing quarterbacks to take a knee to run out the clock, although that doesn’t explain why Pisarcik tried to hand the ball off. It was common in those days to run a QB sneak, or for the quarterback to take the snap and roll on the ground. Pisarcik instead tried to hand off to Larry Csonka and Herman Edwards returned the fumble for the game-winning score.
3. Lindsey Jacobellis hot dogs it
Lindsey Jacobellis is one of the most decorated snowboarders ever but the only reason she doesn’t have an Olympic gold medal to her name is this fateful bit of flair in her first Olympics. Had Jacobellis simply landed cleanly on this jump, she would have won the race. Instead, she settled for silver.
In 2018, she missed winning a medal by just .003 seconds.
2. Chris Webber calls for time
Everyone knows the story of Chris Webber in the 1993 national championship game against North Carolina, when he called for a timeout that Michigan did not have. But to me, it’s easier to forgive a 20-year-old Webber for panicking in the biggest game of his life.
1. J.R. Smith finally sees a shot he doesn’t want to take
J.R. Smith didn’t singlehandedly lose Game 1 of the NBA Finals but he came pretty damn close. If George Hill had hit the second free throw, or if that slouch LeBron James had scored more than 49 points in regulation, the Cavs probably win the game. Even still, Smith’s headscratching decision to dribble out the remaining time on the clock only sent the game to overtime, where Cleveland had at least a theoretical chance to win the game.
Maybe it’s just recency bias, but I feel right now like this is a worse gaffe than Webber’s, if only because Smith is a 13-year NBA veteran playing in his fourth straight Finals. He should know better. But then again, he’s J.R. Smith.