Great starts are an often cruel phenomenon in life, in sports and certainly when it comes to movies. Great starts without an equally great ending build us up and then knock us down with failed expectations and crushed hopes.
Few, if any, would choose a great start over a great ending. Great starts with bad endings gave us the "Second Half-Collapse," Bo Jackson's hip, Lou Gehrig's disease and the Great Depression.
Yet, great starts seem to be far too prolific, while great endings are a very rare commodity. And the two paired together in perfect harmony? Such a thing comes around about as often as Halley's Comet.
One would think the sports movie genre has essentially been handed great endings, gift-wrapped and ready because any screenwriter or director can pull from the rich sports' canon of buzzer beaters, underdogs and stories of redemption.
As most of us know, however, not every sports flick is created equal, and some classics—both old and new—nailed it...while others...not so much. For those that did get the closing chapter right, not only was a great sports movie born, but great cinema was, too.
These are the best sports movie endings ever.
High school nobody Daniel LaRusso earns the ire of Cobra Kai karate masters after he befriends classmate Ali Mills, a cheerleader. Chief among his surprisingly violent new enemies is Johnny Lawrence, Mills' ex-boyfriend and the meanest martial arts mother in California.
Mr. Miyagi is sympathetic to LaRusso's plight and takes him on as a student. The two form a father-son bond during training. LaRusso surprises everyone, particularly himself, with the progress he makes in such a short time.
At the penultimate tournament, LaRusso advances beyond the semi-finals into the championship match against Lawrence. Despite being injured, LaRusso is able to defeat Lawrence with a dramatic series of scissor kicks, earning the respect of his enemy in the process.
It's every nerd's dream come true.
During a game of pick-up basketball, Sidney Deane meets Billy Hoyle, a tragically '90s dude who makes a living hustling guys who assume he can't play ball because he's white. He and his girlfriend also happen to be on the run because of a gambling debt.
The two men start off as adversaries, but after they each are willing and able to help the other in their respective times of need, it's clear their relationship has grown into a true friendship. Deane is even there for Hoyle when his girlfriend leaves him for the last time.
The movie ends much the way it begins—with Deane and Hoyle arguing about basketball.
A baseball movie that really isn't all that much about baseball, Bull Durham is more of an unlikely love story that uses the sport as a backdrop.
Crash Davis has been playing in the minor leagues for more than a decade when he's sent down to single-A to mentor Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, a rookie pitcher with an attitude problem.
Annie, who sees herself as a sexual mentor of some sort, has her sights set on either Crash or Ebby to be her "student" for the season, before the former takes himself out of consideration. They each do their part to help Nuke mature as a player and a person, but it's their relationship that really grows into something.
Ultimately Crash decides to call it a career, inspired to go into coaching after his experience with Nuke. Annie decides to give up her mentoring program. The film ends with the two of them dancing together in her living room.
High school football is a religion in Odessa, Texas, and Permian High School coach Gary Gaines is under incredible pressure to win every season. When a series of notable injuries to starters puts the season in doubt, everyone in town seems to be calling for the coach's head.
The team's struggles on the field are intense, but they're nothing compared to what some of the players are dealing with off the field. Fullback Don Billingsley's fractured relationship with his abusive, alcoholic father is particularly poignant.
In the end, Permian makes the playoffs, ultimately losing a squeaker to Dallas W. Carter High School. Billingsley and his father find some resolution, but despite the unbearable turmoil of the season, it seems in the end that absolutely nothing has changed.
For Gaines, the focus is already on next season.
The little league Bears are the ultimate underdogs, composed of the worst players from the entire league. Their coach is Morris Buttermaker, a former minor league ball player who is now a foul-mouthed alcoholic who cleans pools for a living.
The Bears have absolutely no business being good and, for awhile, they aren't. Eventually, though, Buttermaker starts to recognize the untapped talent in some of his players and they become a force to be reckoned with after a couple of last-minute additions.
In the end, the Bears don't win the championship, but they get pretty darn close. The kids still recognize the season as the success it was and celebrate as if they won it all. It's a heart-warming ending and a lesson every kid should learn.
Micky Ward is a middling welterweight boxer from Lowell, Mass., being (mis)managed by his mother and living in the shadow of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund, who once had some success in the sport before succumbing to a crack addiction.
After a lifetime of making excuses for Dicky, Micky finally washes his hands of his troubled big brother after he's thrown in jail for impersonating a police officer. The whole family is embarrassed when a documentary supposedly chronicling Dicky's comeback airs and is called Crack in America.
Eventually Dicky is released and he and his mother try to approach Micky as if nothing ever happened. Micky finally lays down the law with the warring factions in his life, and for the first time ever, they actually seem to hear him.
They're all together for the title fight in London, and the film ends a few years in the future…with Dicky doing all the talking.
Rudy Ruettiger is the ultimate underdog. He comes from a working class Catholic family and grew up worshipping Notre Dame football. He decides to pursue his dream of playing for the Irish, despite being woefully undersized.
The only thing that isn't undersized is Ruettiger's heart. He enrolls at Holy Cross Junior College and eventually is able to transfer to Notre Dame, where he earns a place as a tackling dummy on the team's practice squad for two full years.
When it seems Ruettiger's dream of starting just one game for his beloved Irish is in jeopardy, the entire team turns in their starting jerseys to the coach, saying, "This is for Rudy, Coach."
Eventually the coach relents and Ruettiger gets to realize his dream.
Fledgling farmer Ray Kinsella lives in Iowa with his wife Annie and younger daughter Karin. Walking through a cornfield one day, Ray hears a mysterious voice whisper, "If you build it, he will come." Drawing on his late father's love of the White Sox and Shoeless Joe Jackson, he's inspired to build a baseball field.
Despite skepticism from his wife and mocking from his neighbors, Ray continues to hear the voice and refuses to be deterred—even when his family is on the verge of financial ruin. Just when it looks like he's going to be forced to give up his farm, the ghostly players arrive to save the Kinsella family from sure ruin.
As the movie fades to black, a long line of cars—all of which will pay admission to bring back cherished memories of the game—approach the baseball field.
Paul Aufiero represents the best and worst of all sports fans. He's the worst in that he's a middle-aged man living with his mother, working a dead-end job, spending every waking minute of his day obsessing about the Giants. Then during a chance meeting with a star player at a strip club, he's physically assaulted.
Aufiero is seriously injured but chooses not to file charges against the player because he's worried about the impact that losing him would have on the team. A dramatic showdown with an equally fanatical Eagles fan in the bathroom of a sports bar even lands him in jail for a little while, but that doesn't get him too down.
Aufiero is visited in the slammer by his best friend, and they talk about the upcoming season. A big game happens to be scheduled for the week of his release, and he's back to his old self, saying, "It's gonna be a great year."
The 1919 White Sox are the the cream of the crop…the cock of the walk…pretty much the best thing ever to happen to Major League Baseball to that point. Unfortunately the team's unholy pig of an owner cares nothing for paying it forward, leaving many of the players looking for extra income.
Shockingly unscrupulous gamblers sway many of the players into fixing the World Series, but the gamblers fail to pay up the money they promised. Shoeless Joe Jackson becomes an accidental accomplice and—despite being acquitted—a judge decides to ultimately ban him from the game with the rest of the players.
The movie ends at a minor league ballpark in New Jersey. An unknown superstar is dominating league action and at least one of the spectators suspects: "It's him!"
Small-time Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa is given the chance of a lifetime when an injury forces Mac Lee Green to drop out of the World Heavyweight Championship bout against Apollo Creed. With just five weeks before the fight, "The Italian Stallion" is the only one willing to replace him.
Rocky manages to prepare for the fight while successfully courting Adrian, the painfully shy sister of his good friend, Paulie. Their relationship is as pivotal to the film as anything that happens in the ring, as it becomes obvious that neither of them would be who they are—or who they have become—without the other.
In the final act, Rocky and Apollo Creed face off and, as Rocky predicted, he comes up just short. But he goes the distance, taking the match a full 15 rounds, which was his goal entering the ring.
After the fight, Rocky and Adrian desperately seek each other out and declare their love for each other as the split decision is announced.
After a lifetime of living in the sizable shadow of her older sister Dottie, Kit finally gets a win that's all her own—though it's left up for debate whether or not she won it herself or Dottie finally decided to step back and let her little sister shine.
After the Racine Belles defeat the Rockford Peaches, Dottie leaves the league to return home to her husband and has an emotional goodbye with a grateful Kit. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League lasts a full decade beyond its inaugural season.
Randy "The Ram" Robinson is an aging wrestler who is still plugging away in his 50s, despite the physical and emotional toll his dream has taken on his life. Suddenly he meets Cassidy, an aging stripper with a heart of gold who encourages him to rekindle a relationship with his estranged daughter, Stephanie.
Randy and Cassidy form a strong bond and he is able to make progress with Stephanie as well, both of which seem to give him something else to live for. In the end, though, Robinson chooses wrestling, despite having a heart condition that would most likely kill him should he enter the ring again.
We learn that Robinson would rather die as The Ram than live as Randy.
::Fade to black::
After losing his job as a college coach for hitting a student, Normal Dale is hired by an old friend to coach the Hickory High School basketball team in rural Indiana. His attempts to instill discipline and a work ethic in his players are initially met with serious resistance because of a standoffish personality.
By midseason Dale's job is in jeopardy and he receives a last-minute reprieve after star player Jimmy Chitwood comes to his defense at an emergency Town Hall meeting. Hickory becomes an unstoppable force at this point, with Coach Dale leading his seven-man team to a unlikely state championship.
Their victory is in question until the last second, when Chitwood scores at the last second.
Super sports agent Jerry Maguire has a sudden attack of conscience about the unforgivably blatant dishonesty in his business and impulsively sends out a mission statement to everyone at his company. While his coworkers applaud him to his face, he's swiftly terminated.
The only employee to join him in his departure is mild-mannered single mother Dorothy Boyd, who's smitten. Maguire uses and abuses Boyd and his only real client, wide receiver Rod Tidwell until prospective client Frank "Cush" Cushman teaches him a lesson about loyalty, though it's Boyd who ultimately teaches him a lesson about love. "You had me at hello…You had me at hello."
Diner waitress Maggie hasn't got much going for her when she convinces boxing gym owner Frankie—who isn't super-enthused about female fighters—to train her as a title fighter. Ultimately it's Scrap, one of his former fighters, who helps convince Frankie to give in to Maggie's wishes.
Maggie's father died when she was young, and Frankie is estranged from his daughter, Kate. They fill a void in each other's lives, and ultimately, he brings her along to a championship fight, during which Maggie's neck is broken and the drama begins.
After the injury, the only thing Maggie wants to do is die, but she's thwarted at every turn by a mindful medical staff. Frankie does a lot of soul searching before he's able to help her, though he does carry out her wishes. The movie ends with Frankie retired, having potentially bought the diner where he first met Maggie.
Nineteen-year-old Roy Hobbs is on his way to try out for the Cubs when he's given the opportunity to strike out the best hitter in the major leagues at a carnival. He does it and in so attracts the attention of a very crazy woman who later shoots him and commits suicide.
Hobbs finally finds his way back 16 years later, being signed by the New York Knights at age 35. His romantic life continues to be a mess, and he suffers from residual health problems stemming from the shooting. Against all odds he leads the Knights to a one-game playoff for the pennant against the Pirates.
Inspired by the love of his childhood sweetheart, with whom he reconnects and who turns out to be his 16-year-old son, Hobbs wins the game by crushing a home run into the overhead lights. He crams a whole career into a single season and is seen playing catch with his son in the final scene of the film.
Hoop Dreams is a documentary that tracks high school basketball players Arthur Agee and William Gates for five years, beginning at age 14. Born in Chicago and raised in the city's notoriously tough housing projects, sometimes it seems the only thing these kids have is basketball.
Though they both land scholarships to the prestigious St. Joseph High School, having to commute 90 minutes to school and adapt to a predominately white environment is more than a little difficult. Even basketball becomes increasingly more stressful, as they face more difficult opposition and deal with a nightmare of a coach.
Both Agee and Gates seem beaten down by the end, exhausted from carrying the weight of their own dreams and those of everyone around them. It's the end of the film, but theoretically just the beginning for both boys in life—their real-life futures serve as a cliffhanger. It should be hopeful, but it feels uncertain at best.
Aging comedian Jake LaMotta remembers his life as a title-contending boxer being overcome by personal demons like insecurity and jealously, neither of which he can separate from his boxing career that ends prematurely because his brother is a terrible person.
LaMotta's marriage predictably deteriorates and ends in divorce, then he ends up in jail, bemoaning his many misfortunes in life. The movie cuts back to present day as he recites Marlon Brando's famous "I could have been a contender" monologue from On The Waterfront.
The film closes with the quote: "All I know is this: Once I was blind, and now I can see."
It's perhaps the greatest underdog story of all time, and it really happened. This is the story of the 1980 U.S. men's Olympic hockey team, which had the seemingly impossible task of defeating the heavily favored Russians just to have a chance to play for the gold.
Prior to the Lake Placid Olympics, the experienced Soviets had defeated the young Americans 10-3 at Madison Square Garden. As the Olympic tournament heats up, though, inspirational coach Herb Brooks has his team thinking and playing like a team of destiny.
When it comes time to play the Soviets again, Brooks delivers the single greatest speech in sports history, and the Americans deliver with a 4-3 victory. They go on to defeat Finland in the gold-medal game, which has become almost an afterthought in history.
It was nothing short of a…Miracle.