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Perfecting the Top 10: Championship Upsets of the 21st Century

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Golf, Perfecting the Top 10, Soccer, Tennis on July 9, 2011 at 12:00 PM

In discussing who we are here at Perfecting the Upset, we argue that, “Everyone believes in miracles whether they admit it or not.  And for a sports fan, miracles happen when someone pulls off the perfect upset: That team nobody saw coming against the team who we thought would take it all.” But there’s an additional curl in this fabric that can make some victories considerably more satisfying because of their rarity: Upsets in championships.  In order for this to happen, there has to be perfect harmony in the cosmos.  Not only does David have to first make his way through the rubble, but he also needs Goliath to be waiting at the end of the tunnel.  There are some quite unfortunate cases where, if Goliath was waiting, the story could have been sweeter.  After all, Portsmouth winning the FA Cup in 2008 sounds like a story to tell until you remember they defeated a team from a lower division (Cardiff City) in the finals.

So, what better way to continue our Perfecting the Top 10 series than to count down the ten most memorable championship upsets of the 21st century?  In coming up with the list, more popular leagues were given greater weight.  They had to be head-to-head matchups, not just against the field.  Attention was given to genuine upsets, not those simply perceived as such by the sensationalist media (such as a formidable Diamondbacks team defeating an equally-talented Yankees team).  And finally, additional credence was given to teams with legacy: It’s one thing defeating the flavour-of-the-year, but it’s another to defeat a Goliath packing a dynasty in his holster.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48 – Oakland Raiders 21 (Super Bowl XXXVII) »  At age 37, Rich Gannon threw for 4,689 yards, won the league MVP and took the Raiders to their first Super Bowl since 1983.  The oddsmakers favored their top-rated offense by 4 against Jon Gruden’s top-rated defense, but by the time the third quarter ended, it was obvious that defense did, in fact, win championships.  Gruden had gotten revenge against his previous team, and the Al Davis affliction in sunny California continued to persist.

9. Florida Gators 41 – Ohio State Buckeyes 14 (2007 BCS National Championship Game) »  Troy Smith, Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez made the Buckeyes look invincible throughout the season (which included a 24-7 dismantling of defending champions from the University of Texas).  Aside from a late game comeback by rival Michigan, Ohio State was never in danger of losing a game.  This was supposed to be one of the most lopsided deciding bowl games ever.  But Chris Leak, Percy Harvin and some fellow named Tim Tebow had other ideas.  After the Buckeyes returned the initial kickoff, Harvin matched—and it was a cakewalk for the remainder.  It was lopsided, alright, just on the other side.

8. Florida Marlins 4 – New York Yankees 2 (2003 World Series) »  Money doesn’t always make you happy, and money definitely can’t buy you championships.  The Marlins shocked the Yankees (and their $110 million difference in payroll) by riding Josh Beckett to the glory land for the second time in seven years.  Along the way, though, they had some extra help from a Cubs fan whose memorabilia-hogging instincts kept the grand prize away for his cursed team.

7. Greece 1 – Portugal 0 (Euro 2004) »  Greece’s improbable run at Euro 2004 was capped with a second defeat of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Portuguese squad, headlined by Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, who failed to avenge their opening day loss.  Along the way, they also beat France and England.  It’s possible to pad this further, but seriously, there shouldn’t be any other data necessary: Greece won Euro 2004 by defeating three powerhouses four times total.  That’s the math, and that’s pretty amazing.

6. Maria Sharapova (6-1, 6-4) over Serena Williams (2004 Wimbledon) »  Out of nowhere, 13th seeded, 17-year-old Sharapova beats two-time defending champion and #1 seed Williams in straight sets.  This was a passing of the torch, of sorts, not unlike Federer beating Sampras in 2001.  Of course, Serena continued her dominance for a while longer, but she’ll never forget the spark she provided to Sharapova’s career at Centre Court.

5. Y.E. Yang (-8) over Tiger Woods (-5) (2009 PGA Championship) »  Golf isn’t a head-to-head sport, but when you take into effect that Yang and Woods were paired up for the final round at the Hazeltine National Golf Club, you can imagine how intense it must have been throughout the day.  Tiger entered the day with a 2 shot lead before ending the day +3, in the process witnessing the first Asian-born player to win a major on the PGA tour.  This was all the more impressive as Yang didn’t start playing golf until age 19.  The maturing prodigy was defeated by the budding late-bloomer.

4. Texas 41 – USC 38 (2006 Rose Bowl/BCS National Championship Game) »  Matt Leinart this.  Reggie Bush that.  For all the hype the media loves to generate, there’s probably no doubt amongst college football fanatics that this Trojans team was one of the greatest to ever play.  But there was one man who, frankly, didn’t give a damn: Vince Young.  He had put in the single greatest individual performance I’ve ever witnessed by the time he crossed into the endzone on 4th and 2.  While the awe and magic of a game like this may never again be repeated, Young’s lesson in media-founded histrionics will always be remembered.

3. Patriots 20 – Rams 17 (Super Bowl XXXVI) »  September 11 made New York City a solemn place to live.  But for some reason, it felt as if supporting these mediocre “Patriots” would make us all happier.  So, we did.  Against “the Greatest Show on Turf.”  Little did we know that we’d witness the genesis of one of the most hated dynasties in sports history, and that of a man who would end up marrying the world’s highest-paid supermodel and have hair softer than Justin Bieber.

2. Giants 17 – Patriots 14 (Super Bowl XLII) »  18-1.

1. Detroit Pistons 4 – Los Angeles Lakers 1 (2004 NBA Finals) »  Many would contest that the Giants’ defeat of the previously undefeated Patriots should be #1.  But I can’t help but argue for these pesky, blue-collar boys from Detroit.  Not only did the Pistons embody everything the Motor City stood for, they outright dominated a stacked team filled with four future Hall-of-Famers.  Keeping the Lakers to 68 points in a game?  That’s a team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.  Yet they never broke 100 points.  Winning one game is great.  But winning a championship in this commanding a fashion as an underdog?  Incredible. Keeping someone from perfect once has some luck involved.  But keeping a great team from reaching its ultimate goal over a seven-game series?  That’s the kind of perseverance and teamwork that makes us believe that miracles are possible.

Championship Upsets of the 21st Century

Learning to Love the Hated

In Basketball, Houston, Loyalty on June 27, 2011 at 10:00 AM

There are people in Kentucky who will threaten bloody murder upon hearing the words “Christian” and “Laettner” one after another.  Because his shot was the kind of moment that creates hatred in the heart.  It’s the kind of moment that spontaneously imbues everlasting enmity towards not just players, but whole franchises.  And tragically, every fan has one of these moments.  For me, it was John Stockton’s three-pointer against my Rockets in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals.

Little did I know that it was just the beginning: The Jazz went on to knock us out of the playoffs three more times over the next decade (1998, 2007, 2008).  On their first go-around, the Jazz were hated for being ruthless: On top of Stockton, you had the hard-to-love, nearly mechanical mailman in Karl Malone and James Bond-villain rejectee Greg Ostertag.  (Face it: If they remade The Spy Who Loved Me, Richard Kiel would have had some serious competition for the role of Jaws.)  As if that wasn’t enough of a trio to despise, Jerry Sloan came off as a brutally exacting coach.  He kept the Jazz competitive every year without actually winning.  They were the NBA-counterpart of the 90s Braves (though Bobby Cox did get his World Series win).  It’s frustrating seeing a team fail so often, especially when they do so at your expense.  Then came the crew of Boozer, AK47, D-Will and Ashton Kutcher.  While lacking the same sort of instant revulsion the old school crew brought us, Sloan’s basic presence still allowed them to embody the sort of cold swagger that reminded us of the Stockton-Malone era.  The first round exits in 2007 and 2008 were effectively the only real shot we ever had for the McGrady-Yao combo to bring home a trophy.  And the Jazz killed it.  They dashed our hopes, slashed our tires, left us on a ditch with our necks spewing blood on broken glass.  The team was broken, spirits dismantled.  Fans were on the verge of complete resignation.  The only thoughts that ran through our minds: “Fucking Stockton.”  It always went back to him.  To that one shot.

On February 9 of this year, Jerry Sloan coached his last game as the coach of the Utah Jazz.  On February 23, Deron Williams was traded to the New Jersey Nets.  Boozer left the summer before in free agency, as did Korver.  It’s inevitable that Kirilenko will bolt this summer (possibly to the Russian-soiled Nyets or literally to Russian soil).  And now the Jazz are no longer the team that I hated.  Been a huge fan of Al Jefferson for years, watching him toil away in the Minnesota cold.  Like Devin Harris and am looking for good things from Derrick Favors.  And when on draft night Enes Kanter found himself in Salt Lake City, I started feeling guilty.

I kind of want to support these guys.

Does that make me disloyal?  Am I suddenly a treacherous fool unworthy of cheering for the Rocket Red?  The Jazz and the Rockets don’t have a geographical rivalry: It’s been a purely incidental product of chance playoff seedings.  We’re not even in the same division anymore.  And the bad blood is mostly within a 15 year time frame.  Or wait: Am I just making excuses?

At what point are we allowed to stop hating certain teams?  If the Red Sox move to Montreal and change their name to the Expos, will Yankee fans still be mandated to wish ill on their pitchers and hock long-distance loogies at batters on-deck?   The Seattle SuperSonics were the bane of my existence as an early 90s Rockets fan.  But they’re the Thunder now.  In Oklahoma City.  With a crop of young talent headlined by a Longhorn.  I support them without guilt.  Is there a flaw in our logic of who we can and cannot hate?  The Jazz aren’t moving, but their pieces are drastically different from before.  The only real vestige of the old guard is Okur, and even he may be gone after next year.  Is change of culture enough of a justification?

Between love and hate, the memories we try to forget (or grudgingly hold onto because it feeds us the fire we sometimes need), there has to be a way to learn to love the hated.  Blind hate does a disservice to the beauty of a game.  It does disservice to players who are trying to make something of themselves.  All indications point to Kanter being the kind of guy you want on your team.  Shall we force upon him an unnecessary, inherited hatred?  We support teams because we like the sport.  The sport is the priority.  When we let blind hatred ruin the appreciation of a game, are we even worthy of being a fan?