The Biggest Superstar Chokes in Sports

Zack Pumerantz@z_pumerantzAnalyst IIINovember 5, 2012

The Biggest Superstar Chokes in Sports

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    Each season breeds new heroes. The athletes who rise above and thrive in the biggest games of the year are worshiped for their control under pressure. But for every last-second magician is a multitude of others tossed into the scorching dungeon of defeat.

    On the other end of the spectrum are athletes who crumble so jaggedly in crucial moments that they become prime cuts for criticism. Even the most talented stars aren't impervious to such monumental collapses. Some, however, bleed only failure during these moments, over and over again. As a result, they're fittingly dubbed "chokers," a title that sends chills down the spines of heartbroken fans.

    Here are the biggest superstar chokes in sports.

20. Leon Durham, 1984 NLCS

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    During ten professional seasons at first base, Leon "Bull" Durham made two all-star appearances and even won a Silver Slugger award in '82. But his career will forever be defined by one five-hole mistake in the bottom of the seventh inning in a decisive fifth game of the 1984 NLCS against the Padres. 

    With a man on second and the Cubs holding a 3-2 lead, Tim Flannery hit a sharp grounder to first. Durham, who interestingly had Gatorade spilled on his glove moments earlier in the dugout (cursed much?), confidently approached the ball and epically let it slip between his legs for a single. The Padres would go on to make their first world series ever.

    Interestingly enough, Durham had moved from the outfield to first base during the '84 season, to replace a recently-traded Bill Buckner (note: Buckner endured a similar finish two years later).

19. Chris Webber, 1993 NCAA Championship Game

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    Mental lapses happen to the best of us. Just ask Peter Griffin, who charmingly locked himself inside his car. Unfortunately for athletes, they have to live theirs in front of millions of critical eyes.

    Thus is the story of All-Star forward Chris Webber when he was still ringleader of Michigan's talented Fab Five. With his Wolverines down 73-71 in their second consecutive championship game, 11 seconds left on the clock, Webber sensibly called a timeout so his team could talk it over. The only problem was that there were none left. 

    The impending technical foul sealed a 77-71 win for the UNC Tar Heels.

18. Dan Jansen, 1992 Winter Olympics

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    Having set a world record in the 500-meter event one year earlier, speed skater Dan Jansen was naturally deemed the gold medal favorite entering the 1992 Olympics. 

    However, in '92 he finished fourth in the 500-meter and 26th in the 1,000-meter, and left the Games with no medals. He would get his redemption in '94, with a gold medal win in the 1,000-meter.

17. Mitch Williams, 1993 World Series

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    The "Wild Thing" saved 192 games in 11 colorful Major League seasons. But in the 1993 postseason, following a 43-save year, the curtains were closed on Mitch Williams' eccentric, long-hair-don't-care act.

    Game 4 started the spiral, as Williams was the losing pitcher in what remains the the highest-scoring game in World Series history (Blue Jays scored six runs in the eighth inning to earn a 15–14 victory and take a 3–1 series lead). In Game 6, with a 6-5 lead, Williams tossed a hanging, ankle-deep slider to Joe Carter, who fondly plucked it over the left field wall for an 8-6 win. 

16. John Carney, 2003 NFL Season

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    While currently fourth on the all-time NFL scoring list (2,062), former All-Pro kicker John Carney owns a permanent residence in choke city after his disastrous miss toward the end of the 2003 season.

    With the Saints on their own 25-yard line, trailing by seven with seven seconds left in regulation against the Jaguars, they completed the miraculous River City Relay, featuring several laterals and plenty of prayers, that led to six points. With an extra point the only thing needed to push the game into overtime, and keep New Orleans' playoff hopes alive, Carney missed wide right.

15. Roberto Duran, November 25, 1980

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    Sugar Ray Leonard got the best of his welterweight rival during their 1980 title fight, dubbed Leonard-Duran II, until the eighth round, when the Panamanian pugilist pleaded with the referee for an exit.

    "No Mas, no mas," he said. Roberto Duran was done.

14. Lindsey Jacobellis, 2006 Winter Olympics

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    Countless slopes ahead of the competition during the 2006 Winter Olympics, Lindsey Jacobellis continued to calmly flatten untouched snow as she cruised to a victory. Moments later, a snow-covered Jacobellis was searching for an answer.

    With only feet separating her from victory in the snowboard cross debut, Jacobellis pulled an unnecessary method grab before snowballing to a second place finish. Her failure became a cautionary tale permanently ingrained in the snowy sports world.

13. John Terry, 2008 Champions League Final

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    "I walked forward to take it knowing that it was there to be won and it was all down to me. What happened next will haunt me for the rest of my life."

    It was in 2008 when controversial England captain John Terry had the opportunity to anoint his team European champs. With the penalty scores tied at four, a rain-drenched Terry calmly approached the fifth penalty shot. But under the excruciating spotlight, Terry slipped and, in Scott Norwood fashion, pushed the ball wide right.

12. Bill Buckner, 1986 World Series

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    Despite his gaffe coming after three straight singles and a game-tying wild pitch when the Red Sox were one strike from the world series, Bill Buckner has endured the heat from angry Bostonians since the opposing Mets were crowned champs in '86.

    Mookie Wilson's slow dribbler to first and Buckner's impending error have become iconic imagery and, for years, defined a curse that lasted 86 years.

11. Jackie Smith, Super Bowl XIII

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    While he was a stellar tight end during the '60s and '70s whose mug is painted masterfully in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Jackie Smith is still remembered partly for his wide-open, certain-touchdown drop in Super Bowl XIII against the Steelers.

    Trailing 21-14 in the third quarter, the Cowboys viciously followed Roger Staubach's toss with their eyes as it sailed near his target's chest area. And just like that, Smith was lying on the floor in bewilderment. The Cowboys lost 35-31, and Smith retired before the following season.

10. Karl Malone, 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals

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    With the Jazz star barely edging out Michael Jordan for the 1997 MVP, that season's Jazz-Bulls Final was almost too fitting. Karl Malone, however, essentially forced a recount as he single-handedly crumbled when Utah needed him most.

    With nine seconds left during Game 1 of the '97 Finals, and the chance to steal home-field advantage hovering, Scottie Pippen whispered to Malone, "Just remember, the mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays, Karl." Malone missed both free throws and the Bulls eventually won the title.

    In a '98 Finals rematch, Malone received the ball in the paint in a deciding Game 6, with the Jazz leading 86–85, before a crafty Jordan came from behind, stole the ball and hit his historic game-winner over Bryon Russell to secure a three-peat.

9. Mike Tyson, February 11, 1990

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    Coming off a 93-second knockout against Carl "The Truth" Williams and sitting comfortably at 37-0, Mike Tyson was already being dubbed a legend. And then James "Buster" Douglas came rolling through to battle Iron Mike for the undisputed heavyweight title. 

    A 10th-round knockout would cement Douglas as an underdog hero, and cause Tyson to rethink his approach.

8. Greg Norman, 1996 Masters

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    When he entered the 1996 Masters, Aussie golfing legend Greg Norman had seemingly gotten over Larry Mize's 47-yard chip at the 1987 Masters and Bob Tway's hole-out from the greenside bunker at the 1986 PGA Championship, two heartbreaking, semi-self-inflicted collapses that tainted an otherwise star-spangled reputation. Turned out, he was moments away from a finish far worse.

    With a six-shot lead over rival Nick Faldo entering the final round of the '96 Masters, after three days of superb play, Norman looked ready to claim his first green jacket. But three straight bogeys on holes nine through 11, and a Bogey 5 on hole 12, would help extinguish a short-lived lead. A tearful Norman would lose by five strokes, and walk away from his last chance at a Masters empty handed.

7. Isiah Thomas, 1987 Eastern Conference Finals

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    The 1987 Eastern Conference Finals matched up two looming legends. Swift Larry Bird vs. gritty Isiah Thomas. Thomas, a six-time all-star at the time, had already proven himself as a clutch player, considering he drained 16 points in the last 94 seconds to force overtime against the Knicks in the 1984 playoffs.

    But in '87, with a 107-106 lead and five seconds remaining, the star floor general made a career-defining mistake. In hopes of reaching wide-open Pistons bad-boy Bill Laimbeer, Thomas sent a soft pass into the paint, which was swiftly stolen by Bird, who passed it to Dennis Johnson for the easy score and the win.

6. Alex Rodriguez, 2012 MLB Postseason

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    With nearly $30 million in yearly revenue clogging his wallet, Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez can't afford the type of performance he had during this year's horrendous postseason.

    He finished 3-25 overall, including 0-18 with 12 strikeouts against right-handed pitchers, with his most memorable swing coming against two blonds sitting near the dugout. Prioritizing was always one of A-Rod's best qualities (just ask Peter Gammons). But hitting a baseball has become his worst.

5. Magic Johnson, 1984 NBA Finals

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    In 1984, Magic Johnson had two Finals MVP awards under his belt and was entering his third consecutive championship challenge. A matchup with fellow great Larry Bird was expected to present Johnson's best. It didn't.

    He dribbled out the clock with Game 2 tied, before the Lakers lost in overtime. He turned over the ball in the final minute of Game 4, before missing two free throws in overtime that could have won the game. Then, in a somehow-still-occuring Game 7, with the Lakers trailing by three points in the final minute, Johnson turned the ball over to lose the series. And earn the nickname "Tragic Johnson."

4. Peyton Manning, Super Bowl XLIV

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    Flawless signal caller Peyton Manning always had problems with the New England Patriots in the postseason, until 2007 when he surpassed Bill Belichick's disciplined crew in the AFC Championship and won his first Super Bowl.

    But in 2010, it was the Saints who caused trouble for the mechanical passer. Down 24-17 in the waning moments of Super Bowl XLIV, Manning, hoping to drive his team down the field and tie the game, tossed a spiral directly into the arms of cornerback Tracy Porter, who took it 74 yards for a game-clinching score.

3. Mariano Rivera, 2001 World Series

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    The first World Series ever played in the state of Arizona, the 2001 classic was certainly a scorcher, if only for sweaty and emotionally exhausted Yankee fans.

    With the Pinstripes holding a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 and Mariano Rivera on the mound, victory was thought to be a certainty. But the cut-fastball extraordinaire loaded the bases, before giving up a looping, game-and-series-winning single to Luis Gonzalez. Even legends aren't immune.

2. Dan O'Brien, 1992 Summer Olympics

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    Reebok's marketing buildup to the 1992 Olympics was monstrous, as Dan and Dave ads flooded television screens everywhere.

    But Dan, deemed the dominant favorite for a gold medal in decathlon, somehow failed to clear any height in the pole vault at the trials and missed a chance to attend the Barcelona Games. As Dan frustratingly watched from his couch, Dave secured a bronze. Four years later, at the '96 Games in Atlanta, Dan would finally get that gold.

1. Brett Favre, Most NFL Postseasons

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    For all his records, retirements and reckless texts, gunslinging Brett Favre has truly driven his reputation into the ground with mind-numbing chucks that remain locked in the confines of gridiron mediocrity.

    The rocket-armed cheesehead-turned-Jet-turned-Viking always saved his drama for the most crucial moments, excluding his one Super Bowl-winning season in 1996. Six interceptions against the Rams in the '02 divisional game. A crushing, fourth-quarter interception against the Eagles in the 2004 divisional game led to a game-winning field goal. Again, in 2008, he nailed Corey Webster right in the chest pads during the waning moments of an icy championship game. And then, to cap a brilliant career, Favre tossed a pick once again to the New Orleans Saints in the 2009 championship game when a slight fall forward could have allowed a field goal try.


    For more swagger.