Sports Soul-Crusher Hall of Fame

Laura Depta@lauradeptaFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2016

Sports Soul-Crusher Hall of Fame

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    Stephen Curry seems like a nice guy, but don't be fooled. If you are a fan of any NBA team other than the Golden State Warriors, that man will pick up your very soul and crush it, obliterate it into a million tiny smithereens.

    His ability to come through in the clutch, much to the devastation of opposing fans everywhere, is unique but not quite unprecedented. In fact, Curry might just be on his way to a Michael Jordan-esque level of soul-crushing ability (key word: might).

    While many athletes throughout history hit clutch shots and won a lot of games, the following are the first-ballot Hall of Famers. They made their sports livings smashing hopes and dreams. They did it with supreme skills and ice-cold competitive drive. Opposing fans suffered, children (probably) cried and the optimism of entire cities was figuratively obliterated—all in the name of Tom Brady winning yet another Super Bowl.

    Oh and they won. These were not lovable underdogs. These athletes were not just clutch, but maliciously clutch. They performed in pressure situations with regularity, and they didn't just win—they won a lot. 

    Keep in mind, this is by no means a comprehensive list of soul-crushers (but boy, that would be fun). Instead, it is just meant to indicate who would probably get picked first for the "Michael Jordan Soul-Crusher All-Stars."

    Also, unlike actual sports Hall of Fames, an athlete doesn't necessarily have to be retired to be in this one.  

    Enjoy.

Honorable Mentions

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    Many athletes broke hearts with their clutch performances, and many were part of irritatingly good teams. The following came up just shy of the main list here, but that should not diminish their greatness.

    Reggie Miller: He absolutely owned the New York Knicks (was in fact nicknamed the "Knick Killer") but never won a title.

    Robert Horry: Big Shot Rob was the architect of countless back-breaking buzzer-beaters but never quite hit superstar status.

    Pedro Martinez: He once returned from a back injury to pitch five innings of no-hit relief in the playoffs but won just one World Series.

    John Elway: Elway was notable for game-winning drives, one in particular, but came up short of Joe Montana's four Super Bowl rings.

    Derek Jeter: Nicknamed "Captain Clutch" for a plethora of timely plays and hits, Jeter falls short of his teammate Mariano Rivera in the back-breaking department.

    Magic Johnson: Magic edged rival Larry Bird in championships, but Bird (barely) edged him in ruthless clutchness.

    Wayne Gretzky: The Great One holds an absurd amount of individual records but never managed to win a Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings.

    Reggie Jackson: Although he was nicknamed "Mr. October" for hitting three home runs in one game during the 1977 World Series, Jackson also struck out entirely too much.

Early Entrant: Stephen Curry

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    It's a little early to be putting Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry on any type of "all-time" list, but he is certainly the most current and timely example of an athlete crushing souls with regularity.

    The NBA MVP has made impossible shots look routine. He has made skilled defenders look amateur. He broke his own single-season record for made threes before the end of February. 

    Look no further than the Golden State Warriors' Feb. 27 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder for the quintessential example. The Thunder led at the half and had every opportunity to win, until the very end. 

    With the game tied and just seconds remaining in overtime, Curry dribbled up the court, and with 30-plus feet between him and the basket, launched an impossibly casual looking buzzer-beater. Game, set, match.

    The funny thing (well, not funny for opponents) is, it wasn't even that surprising. Sports personality Bill Simmons tweeted, "How can you leave Steph that open from 35??????? (Just kidding. Kind of.)"

    Deadspin had to update a list of "35 Times Stephen Curry Hit A Shot From 28+ Feet This Season" immediately after the game because the man just can't stop, won't stop. 

David Ortiz

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    Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz was a key figure in the team's 2004 World Series title, the one that finally ended the famous 86-year drought. From there, Ortiz racked up clutch hit after clutch hit en route to nine All-Star selections and two more World Series titles. 

    His extra-inning, walk-off home run in Game 4 of the '04 American League Championship Series staved off elimination and got the ball rolling on Boston's historic comeback against the New York Yankees. He smashed another walk-off in Game 5. 

    Ortiz batted .333 in the 2007 World Series sweep of the Colorado Rockies. In Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS, down four to the Detroit Tigers in the eighth inning, he knocked the first pitch he saw out of the park in what Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post called, "a game-tying, series-altering grand slam."

    Ortiz has sunk the hearts of countless pitchers throughout his career. Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander said, "You look at what he's done for this organization. In big spots, he's the guy that you want up at the plate," per Svrluga. 

    Not only can Ortiz end seasons with his bat, he's not afraid to gloat a little while he's at it.

Diego Maradona

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    Diego Maradona is an Argentinian football legend.

    Per Adam Bate of Sky Sports, former UEFA president (and recently disgraced) Michel Platini said, "Diego was capable of things no one else could match. The things I could do with a football, he could do with an orange."

    Maradona helped Argentina win the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1979 and the big one in 1986. En route to the '86 World Cup, Maradona scored or assisted on 10 of Argentina's 14 goals, according to ESPN FC, including the truly devastating (for England) "Hand of God" in the quarterfinal.  

    As a club player, Maradona spent time in Argentina, Spain and Italy. His major titles included: an Argentine league crown, two Italian league titles, a Copa del Rey, Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup, according to Rupert Fryer of Goal.com.

    Though his official goal total is far less than Brazilian legend Pele, one could argue Maradona faced stiffer competition. 

    Bate wrote, "Maradona cannot boast the numbers of his rivals in the club game but his supporters would argue it's quality not quantity. Italy's Serie A was as tough as it gets when Maradona inspired Napoli to titles in both 1987 and 1990..." 

Christian Laettner

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    Christian Laettner played four years of basketball at Duke University from 1988-1992. During that time, Duke had a combined 123-26 record, went to four Final Fours and won two national championships.

    Laettner was the architect of several back-breaking moments in the NCAA tournament, moments Connecticut, UNLV and Kentucky certainly remember. He drained an overtime game-winner to oust UConn from the Elite Eight in 1990, and then he did the same thing to Kentucky in 1992. He made two monster free throws with 12.7 seconds remaining to take the lead against an undefeated UNLV team in the 1991 Final Four.

    Laettner won, he won a lot and he made it hurt.

    On top of it all, Laettner was disliked by pretty much everyone outside Durham, North Carolina. His soul-crushing ways were made even worse by the perception of him as a cocky sports supervillain.

Sandy Koufax

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    Sandy Koufax pitched for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers from 1955-1966. Though his career was short, relatively speaking, he made his time count, and he made hitters pay. 

    Koufax notched a career 2.76 ERA and won three Cy Young Awards. In his final season, he won 27 games and recorded a 1.73 ERA. He was part of three world championship teams and was named the series MVP twice. 

    Koufax's clutch performances were plentiful. In 1965, he started Game 7 of the World Series on two days' rest and shut out the Minnesota Twins for the second time in the series. He threw one of only 23 perfect games in baseball's history, a gem in 1965. 

    According to Brian Robitaille of Dodgers Nation, former Pittsburgh Pirate Willie Stargell said, "Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork."

Mark Messier

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    Wayne Gretzky will always be "The Great One,” and he and Mark Messier won four Stanley Cups together with the Edmonton Oilers. Still, Messier notched two more after Gretzky left for the Los Angeles Kings, one with the Oilers in 1990 and one with the New York Rangers in 1994. 

    Over his career, Messier took home the Conn Smythe Trophy once, the Hart twice and the Ted Lindsay twice. He is the only player in NHL history to captain two teams to Stanley Cup titles, and John Kreiser of NHL.com named him the best captain of all time in 2012. 

    But perhaps Messier's most famous in-your-face moment came during the 1994 Eastern Conference Final. Before a must-win Game 6, he famously guaranteed victory, and then he delivered, notching a hat trick besides. The Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup, Messier's sixth and last. 

    David Staples of the Edmonton Journal once wrote, "Messier skated harder, hit harder, took faceoffs with more intensity, even scowled at the refs and the opposition with added bite in the playoffs."

Serena Williams

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    Serena Williams has won 21 Grand Slams. She has a legitimate shot to pass Steffi Graf's 22 and break Margaret Court's record of 24. She isn't completely invincible, but seeing her name in a draw probably doesn't inspire much confidence in her competitors, either. 

    One of Williams' greatest so-called rivals, Maria Sharapova, has only beaten her twice in head-to-head competition. In 2004, at 17 years of age, Sharapova knocked off Williams in the Wimbledon final, and many thought it would be the beginning of a legendary rivalry. Instead, the rivalry has been largely one-sided. 

    Williams is a perennial champion, and she has shown little-to-no sign of slowing down into her 30s. Even when it looks as though an opponent might have her beaten, she is resilient. In June 2015, Melissa Isaacson of espnW.com reported Williams had come back from a set down to win 33 matches in Grand Slam play. 

    Tennis great John McEnroe said, "To me, she's the greatest. I've never seen someone come back from behind as much as she has," per Isaacson.

Tom Brady

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    They might not have won Super Bowl 50, but the 2015 New England Patriots reminded the sports world of something: Don't make those guys mad, especially quarterback Tom Brady.

    Reeling from a Deflategate scandal that dominated the offseason, Brady started off the 2015 season like a Hall of Famer scorned. Through the first five games, he didn't post a quarterback rating lower than 100, and his number for the season ended up at 102.2, per Pro-Football Reference.com.

    The Pats didn't lose a game until Week 12. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote, "This is the real outcome of Deflategate: A guy who had nothing left to gain now has everything to prove." Per Jenkins, Pats owner Robert Kraft said, "They did us a favor."

    Brady is a four-time champion and three-time Super Bowl MVP. He is the master of the game-winning drive, the active leader with 48 on his career. During his first season as an NFL starter, he led a legendary drive to win Super Bowl XXXVI, going 53 yards in less than 90 seconds to set up a game-winning field goal from Adam Vinatieri.

    Brady's preparation, focus and drive for the game leave no one safe. Add a little frustration, anger, whatever you want to call it, and watch out.

Kobe Bryant

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    Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has been one of the fiercest competitors in the NBA for 20 years. He is an 18-time All-Star, a five-time NBA champion and two-time Finals MVP. 

    He scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in 2006. In 2007, he scored 50 or more points in four consecutive games. He excelled on the big stage and came up huge in big moment after big moment. In 2004, he famously drained not one but two buzzer-beaters to overcome the Portland Trail Blazers in a crucial double-overtime game. 

    His work ethic and intensity have become legendary. Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James recalled a story about Bryant during a Team USA matchup against Spain in 2008, per Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com: "The first play of the game he ran through the chest of Pau Gasol and got a flagrant. And Pau Gasol was his teammate with the Lakers. I was like, 'Yeah, this guy is on another level.'"

Pele

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    Brazilian football legend Pele crushed souls by scoring goals, to the tune of 757 (official) in his career. That's over twice as many as Argentine great Diego Maradona, according to Adam Bate of Sky Sports. 

    Per Nick Miller of ESPNFC, former Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich, who was tasked with defending Pele during the 1970 World Cup final, said, "I told myself before the game, he's made of skin and bones just like everyone else. But I was wrong."

    Pele won seven club championships and two continental titles. But perhaps most impressive are his three World Cups (1958, 1962 and 1970). That's two more than Maradona and three more than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. 

    In addition to team success, Pele's individual moments were impressive. Playing in his first World Cup 1958, at just 17 years old, he scored a hat trick in the semifinal. 

    Nate Scott of For the Win wrote: "Most players in the world panic inside the 18-yard box, or at least rush their play. Pele actually seems more calm the closer he is to goal, which allows him to beat defenders who are losing their wits around him."

Larry Bird

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    Pretty much any loss is demoralizing, but the devastation amplifies as the stakes get higher. That's why Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird was such a master of soul destruction. He hit opponents when it mattered most—on the big stage.

    Larry Legend won three NBA titles and took home the Finals MVP twice. Among those legends he helped beat were Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers and Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets. Bird averaged 23.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game for his career in the playoffs.

    Not only that, but Bird was a prolific trash-talker. According to Teddy Mitrosilis of Fox Sports, Bird once told Xavier McDaniel of the old Seattle Supersonics, "I'm going to get the ball right here and I am going to shoot it right in your face." Then he did it.

    From his famous steal to bury the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals to his two-buzzer-beater performance against the Washington Bullets earlier that year, Bird could hurt you, and when he did, he talked smack while he was at it. 

Tiger Woods

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    Tiger Woods may have lost a step in recent years, but his career will long be remembered as one of the best in golf history. He has won 14 major titles (notably, four fewer than Jack Nicklaus' 18), and he has authored some of golf's most memorable moments.

    Woods' prime represented a stretch of dominance unlike most sports fans have ever seen. Clutch shot after clutch shot, he proved to fans, and the competition, just how close to unstoppable he really was. 

    A quintessential moment came at the 2008 U.S. Open. Woods needed a birdie on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff. He sank a 12-foot putt, made the playoff and, of course, ultimately won the tournament. 

    In October 2015, Jaime Diaz of Golf Digest wrote: "His 14-1 record with at least a share of the 54-hole lead in majors, which extends to 54-4 (a 94 percent conversion rate) in all official events, is arguably his most impressive and telling record (the PGA Tour average is perennially below 40 percent)."

    Though Phil Mickelson has been one of Woods' biggest rivals, he still has nine fewer major victories. And though Woods' decline has helped close the gap in head-to-head competitions, Mickelson said, "It's only been the past five years—before, I got spanked pretty good," per Chuck Schilken of the Los Angeles Times.

Babe Ruth

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    Some facts on baseball legend Babe Ruth: He was part of a 1927 New York Yankees lineup nicknamed "Murderer's Row." According to David Schoenfield of ESPN.com, the group (which included the great Lou Gehrig) hit .307/.384/.488 collectively and scored 6.3 runs per game. 

    Ruth crushed souls not just with his bat but from the pitcher's mound as well. He hit .342/.474/.690 and smashed 714 home runs in his 22-year career. In 1916, still with the Boston Red Sox, Ruth started 40 games as a pitcher and recorded a 1.75 ERA. He won seven World Series titles.

    When Boston sold Ruth to the Yankees in 1920, it marked the beginning of a World Series drought in Boston that would last 86 years. 

    And, he may, or may not, have promised to hit a home run in the 1932 World Series and then promptly delivered. 

Bill Russell

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    Any team that hoped to win an NBA title from 1957 to 1969 faced a nearly impossible task. The Boston Celtics and their big center Bill Russell won 11 titles during that time, including eight straight, an unbelievable feat then and now. 

    The Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers were the biggest victims, losing to the Celtics in the Finals seven times during that stretch. Legendary Lakers guard Jerry West won just one title in his playing career despite playing in seven Finals, and it wasn't until 1972, post-Russell. All his previous Finals losses came courtesy of Russell's Celts. 

    To add insult to injury, the Lakers put balloons in the rafters at the Great Western Forum ahead of Game 7 in the 1969 Finals. According to Steve Springer of the Los Angeles Times, Russell "glanced up and saw the balloons, then vowed they would not come down." They did not.

    For his part, Russell averaged 16.2 points and an astonishing 24.9 rebounds per game during the playoffs. He famously grabbed 40 rebounds (and scored 30 points) in Game 7 of the 1962 Finals, helping the Celtics to an overtime win against the (you guessed it) Lakers and a fourth straight title. He took over as player-coach when Red Auerbach retired after the 1966 season. 

    Russell didn't win any Finals MVP Awards, but that's just because they didn't exist until 1969. The league actually named the trophy after him in 2009.  

Lionel Messi

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    Since joining Barcelona's first team in 2004, five-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi has scored 449 goals in 519 club appearances (as of March 17). Add in 49 goals for his native Argentina, and the 28-year-old is just shy of the 500 mark.

    He scored twice in February in a pivotal Champions League matchup with Arsenal and added another against the Gunners in March.

    In fact, Messi's dismantling of Arsenal is well-documented. According to Opta (via Will Magee of the Mirror), "No player has scored more Champions League goals against a single opponent than Messi has against Arsenal."

    But it's not just his scoring abilities. Messi's ball-handling skills are unparalleled. He ran by half a dozen opponents to score one of his most famous goals during the Copa del Rey in 2007, and it was absolutely breathtaking.  

    He might not have a World Cup title, but Messi's club team is about as dominant as they come. As of March 17, the defending Champions League and La Liga titleholders had gone 38 consecutive matches without a loss.

Patrick Roy

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    Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy played for 19 years with two different teams. He crushed souls through sheer frustration, five times winning the Jennings trophy for fewest goals scored against per season. He sits behind only Martin Brodeur on the all-time list of wins for goaltenders. 

    Part of being a true soul-crusher is winning, a lot, and when it counts. Roy won four Stanley Cups, two apiece with the Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche, and he is the only player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe trophy for most valuable postseason player three times. 

    During the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs, Roy and the Canadiens won 10 overtime games en route to the Cup. Up three games to none against the Florida Panthers in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, Roy was dominant. He stopped all 63 shots in the series-deciding triple-overtime win for his Avalanche.

Mariano Rivera

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    Derek Jeter was nicknamed "Captain Clutch," but closer Mariano Rivera was the true dream-killer on the dynastic New York Yankees of the 1990s and 2000s. 

    He is baseball's all-time saves leader with 652. Over 19 years, he compiled a 2.21 regular-season ERA. If it's possible, Rivera excelled even more in postseason play. In 96 games over 32 series, he posted a 0.70 ERA (!) and made 42 saves.

    In 2013, Mike Foss of USA Today pointed out, "More people have walked on the moon (12) than men who have scored against Mariano Rivera in the postseason (11)."

    Rivera and his cutter formed a brick wall between his opponents and their chances to win. The Boston Red Sox might have gotten it the worst from the Sandman, in part because the division rivals played each other frequently.

    According to Katie Sharp and Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information, Rivera had 58 career saves against Boston and six in the postseason, the most for him against a single team. In the 2003 American League Championship Series, he threw three scoreless innings of relief against them to set up Aaron Boone's famous Game 7 walk-off home run. 

    Sure, Rivera blew saves in his career, most notably in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against those aforementioned Red Sox. Still, by and large, the man was as unhittable as pitchers get.

Joe Montana

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    If Tom Brady is on this list, then Joe Montana has to be as well. In 2009, NFL.com put the legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterback at No. 1 on its list of all-time clutch QBs. 

    Montana was a true champion and master of the comeback drive. He won a college national championship in 1977 with Notre Dame. Two years later, in the 1979 Cotton Bowl, he brought the Irish back from 34-12 in the final 7:37 and completed a last-second touchdown pass to win the game. 

    In the NFL, Montana played in four Super Bowls. He won all four, never threw an interception and took home the game's MVP award three times. In the 1982 NFC Championship Game, he completed an incredible touchdown pass to Dwight Clark that put the Niners up for good and ultimately became one of the most famous plays in NFL history. 

    Montana didn't get his nickname "Joe Cool" for nothing. It didn't matter if he was down, he was never out. He mounted 33 game-winning drives in his career, including a 92-yard beauty against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. 

    The Bengals led 16-13 with 3:20 remaining. As the story goes, according to Rick Weinberg of ESPN.com, a few Bengals were acting like the game was wrapped up when receiver Cris Collinsworth told his teammates, "Are you guys nuts? You think this is over? Don't you see who's out there?"

Michael Jordan

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    Was there ever an athlete who crushed more hopes and dreams than NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan?

    The man won six titles via two three-peats. His Chicago Bulls took down Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns in the 1993 Finals and Karl Malone and John Stockton's Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998. Of course, Game 6 of the '98 series featured the infamous "push-off" on Jazz guard Bryon Russell that set up Jordan's iconic game/series-winner, aka "The Last Shot."

    New York Knicks legend Patrick Ewing fell Victim to Jordan as well. During four of those six championship runs, the Bulls went through the Knicks somewhere along the postseason line. During a promotional interview for NBA 2K14 in 2013, Jordan named his righteous posterization of Ewing in the 1991 playoffs as his favorite dunk ever and said, "Every time I see him that's the first thing I remind him of," per Justin Terranova of the New York Post.

    Benjamin Hoffman of the New York Times wrote: "There was a time when it felt as if the only thing standing in the way of a Knicks championship was Michael Jordan. Throughout the 1990s, the Knicks would charge into the playoffs looking for the team's first title since 1973 only to be sent home unceremoniously by Jordan's Chicago Bulls."

    The Sportster put together a list of the "Top 15 NBA Superstars Michael Jordan Prevented From Winning a Championship," the mere existence of which is telling.

    Jordan's clutchness was legendary. Throughout his career, he made some of the biggest buzzer-beaters in NBA history, all the way from "The Shot" in 1989 to "The Last Shot" in 1998.