Close, But No Cigar: Why Underdogs Never Win Anymore

Mike DiPietroCorrespondent IMay 3, 2009

BOSTON - MAY 02:  Rajon Rondo #9 of the Boston Celtics drives around Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at TD Banknorth Garden on May 2, 2009 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

I’m mad. I really am.

After Game Seven of the Celtics/Bulls Eastern Conference Quarterfinals was over, the final score read:

Celtics: 109, Bulls: 99

I just let out another sigh of annoyance, once again realizing that no matter how much an underdog story can make any sports fan fall in love with the event, that same idea comes crashing back down to Earth; knowing that eventually, the underdog’s magic has run out.

Time and time again the favorites have prevailed; the big, bad top seed and defending champions are going to the next round, while the scrappy and experience-less team has to say things like, “We can take something away from this, we can build from this loss” or “I’m proud of our guys today. We may have lost, but it is a moral victory in that we came this far, and we can come back again.”

That’s nice. Only one problem. They aren’t underdogs anymore. Now, people expect them to win.

The world is captivated by this “underdog” role in all forms of the media. From Rocky Balboa, to Rudy, to Joe Willie Namath, we, as sports fans, have seen unforgettable “Cinderella” runs, that have changed lives, teams, and in some cases, the way the game is played.

Most sports fans are just your average, minimum wage making Americans; living in obscurity with millions of other people around you. No one expects you, an average person, to ever overtake a well-known celebrity in popularity. Or, how about gaining more money than Bill Gates? Yeah, right.

See, those are underdogs. The ones that have to scratch and claw for everything they earn; trying to take down all impossible odds in their way. Basically, they are you, the average American.

That is why we can relate to sports teams that are given “no chance” to win a title. We mock the snobby, snooty bullies that are the “favorites”, because they have the mentality of just showing up to a game, and winning without even trying. Just like Paris Hilton, or Tom Cruise, they waltz around the world, thinking it is theirs.

We envy them, which is why we hate them. We want what is theirs. We hate, just like how we despise sports teams that are the “favorites”.

The Boston Celtics are the defending champions of the NBA, and the No. 2 seed going into the playoffs this season. They faced off against the Chicago Bulls, a No. 7 seed, and were given a slim-to-none chance of ousting the Celtics.

Kevin Garnet, the heart and force of the Boston Celtics is out of the playoffs, and many analysts believed Chicago could win maybe one game against the champs, without KG.

They not only won one game. They won three. They even won Game One in the Boston Garden.

This series was one of the greatest that I’ve ever seen, in any sport. There were several incredible and improbable plays and moments that I can’t even recall all of them. We saw Joakim Noah dunk on Paul Pierce to ice Game Six for Chicago, and Ray Allen have the game-winning three in Game Two.

Ben Gordon played like Michael Jordan, and Derrick Rose played like the next great NBA star.

Chicago, the underdog, forced a Game Seven against Boston. Everyone picked Boston to win because of “experience”, and just because they were the big, powerful Celtics. Well, they did win. It was a pretty damn shame, too.

Chicago did not play like they did in their three wins. They made mistakes, they were sloppy, they could not get timely shots from most of their players. It was an anti-climatic Game Seven for me personally. There was no comeback by Chicago. No underdog grit in the second half. They played like, well, a seven seed would.

This was another example of underdog disappointments in the past couple of years, in all of sports.

How about Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the NBA last year between the No. 1 seeded Boston Celtics, and the No. 8 seeded Atlanta Hawks? That had a huge underdog in the Hawks, with Joe Johnson leading the squad.

However, they were thoroughly embarrassed by the Celtics, putting no fight whatsoever against the “favorites”, losing in horrible fashion.

How about Super Bowl XLIII, between the favored Pittsburgh Steelers, and the former laughing stock of the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals? Sure, Arizona lead late with a ferocious comeback in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers pulled off the victory 27-23, and once-again, no championship for Cinderella.

The 2009 World Series was between the Philadelphia Phillies, a franchise who made their second consecutive trip to the playoffs, and the Tampa Bay Rays, who, for a decade, was the worse franchise in baseball.

Their underdog role captivated many, and they fought from last place, to an American League Pennant against the defending champions, the Boston Red Sox in seven games. However, yet again, the scrappy underdogs fell to the more experienced Phillies in five short games.

We can go back to the 1999 NBA Finals to the New York Knicks, who were an eight-seeded club, against the San Antonio Spurs, who were huge favorites going into the Finals. They beat the Knicks in five games.

We can go back to the NHL in 2006, and the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers. They almost completed their miracle run through the postseason, but lost in Game Seven to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Finals.                                                   

Even the George Mason Patriots had the chance to end their Cinderella run with a NCAA Basketball Championship, but got beat down hard by Florida in the Final Four.

So, now to my question. Why can’t underdogs complete their runs? Why can’t they win the biggest games when they have already won games they weren’t expected to win? Is it pressure? Experience? The wide-eyed look of what glory is, and then having that glory snatched away from you, like a thief in the night?

Now, don’t get me wrong. We have see underdogs complete their journeys, like the 2007 New York Giants. But honestly, that has basically been it.

I have not seen a team in any significant sport win a championship as an underdog in a long time. Sure, there are the 1969 Mets and 1969 Jets. Sure, there is the 1980 US Hockey Team.

And of course, we can’t forget Villanova V.S. Georgetown. But those great moments and teams are just memories now. A long time ago.

In this day and age, underdogs can produce great moments that sports fans want to follow, but now only leave disappointment and frustration, having to watch the “favorites” take in all of the glory yet again.

That is probably why I’m angry right now. Not because the Bulls could not beat the Celtics in Game Seven last night, but just realizing that the Bulls were going to lose anyways.

Just like every other underdog now.