Confetti. Newspapers. Tears, kisses and raised fists.
The sight of a sports championship victory is one of the sweetest sights that sports have to offer (one sadly robbed from us by COVID-19 the past couple of months). Year after year, the crowning of a champion also marks the culmination of a season-long narrative. These teams are not always my favorites, but so many of these teams bring a joy to the court or field that makes their success resonate with even the most uninvested spectator.
Some of the recent victories have been especially resounding, titles whose narratives spanned decades and made history. Others came down to the final buzzer and forged their place in sports lore immediately. These are the types of stories with scripts so perfect that Hollywood screenwriters would drool over them.
Today, I will be ranking and exploring the top 20 sports stories of the past 20 years, and longing for the next day we will see another deserving team raise a glistening trophy. The factors I considered included historical and cultural significance, drama, the quality of the actual games and opponents and the resonance with the average fan.
- Boston Red Sox 2004 (MLB)
The Pitch: Up against the Curse of the Bambino, the dynastic Yankees, and an insurmountable 3-0 ALCS deficit, “the Idiots” pull off a historic comeback and reverse the curse.
The Script: Not only did the Red Sox end the Curse of the Bambino, the most infamous sports “curse” of all-time and one of the most shocking championship draughts, but the obstacle they overcame to reach the sport’s brightest stage may have been even more impressive. Boston entered 2004 as a great team and a title contender, but their arch-rival and the reigning MLB dynasty, the New York Yankees, stood in their way. It seemed like a familiar script when the game’s best rivalry saw the Yanks take the first three games, but Boston miraculously rallied and became the first playoff team to battle back from a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs. The Red Sox then swept another historic franchise, the St. Louis Cardinals, to take their first title in 86 years.
- Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 (NBA)
The Pitch: The game’s greatest superstar returns to his home and delivers on his promise to bring them a title after reversing a 3-1 Finals deficit to the winningest team in NBA history.
The Script: An epic 13 years in the making. When LeBron James left Cleveland unfulfilled to win championships with the more glamorous Miami Heat, the chances of the Akron native ever bringing Cleveland its first title in nearly 50 years seemed extremely slim. Four years later, LeBron returned and teamed up with stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to return the Cavs to relevance and the Finals stage. One problem – the Golden State Warriors, their Finals opponent for four straight years and winners of a league-record 73 regular season games in 2016. The Warriors took a 3-1 lead and looked to close out the Cavs early yet again, but James did it all for his hometown team and forced a winner-take-all Game 7. In a low-scoring, gritty final half, James came up clutch with a defining block of previous Finals MVP Andre Iguodala and Irving drilled a dagger 3, and Golden State’s historic three-point shooting could not bail them out. The championship lifted not only the historically inept Cavs but the entire city of Cleveland and marked the fulfillment of LeBron’s promise, one that seemed impossible given the opponent and still does in hindsight.
- Chicago Cubs 2016 (MLB)
The Pitch: The Cubs win the World Series. Only after battling back from a 3-1 series deficit and a blown Game 7 lead.
The Script: 108 years after their last World Series win, the 2016 Chicago Cubs looked like a great bet to win it all and end the Curse of the Billy Goat (Back to the Future II predicted as much in the 80s). But when another team aiming to end their lengthy drought, the Cleveland Indians, took a 3-1 series lead behind ace Corey Kluber and a potent lineup, the Cubs found themselves on the brink of heartbreak once more. Like the Cavs earlier in the year, the Cubs battled back to force Game 7, then took a commanding 6-1 lead going into the late innings.
Then the tides turned against Chicago once again when unsung hero Rajai Davis belted a three-run shot off All Star closer Aroldis Chapman to tie the game. The Cubs regrouped during a rain delay (this does sound like Hollywood), and utilityman Ben Zobrist batted in the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th. When the Indians’ bats came up short in the bottom of the frame and the final out hit the glove of Anthony Rizzo, the North Siders could fly the ultimate W flag – a World Series championship.
- New York Giants 2007 (NFL)
The Pitch: The most unlikely Super Bowl team in history defeats an invincible, 19-0 powerhouse on a special teamer’s miracle helmet catch.
The Script: There is no historic drought at play here, just the greatest David and Goliath story the NFL has ever seen. The Goliath – the New England Patriots, a team that had won all 18 of its previous games (the first in history to do so) and an offense that had been virtually unstoppable behind MVP Tom Brady. The David – the New York Giants (ironically enough), a 9-7 Wild Card who slipped through the tough NFC to earn a spot against their strongly favored foe. Every mismatch seemed to point to a New England victory, from the Patriots’ three recent Super Bowl wins to the relative postseason naivete of Giants coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning (the younger brother of the more renowned Peyton).
Yet when the game kicked off, the Giants more than held their ground. The New York pass rush, anchored by Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, pressured Brady and held the prolific New England offense in check, and to only 14 points in the game. Still, the Giants needed to drive the length of the field down 14-10 to pull off the suddenly feasible upset. And on a long third down, Manning dropped back, evaded heavy pressure, and lobbed a prayer down the field, where unheralded receiver David Tyree pinned it against his helmet and came up with the first down. The Giants went on to win, securing their place in history as an ultimate underdog and putting a “1” in the Patriots’ loss column.
- Washington Nationals 2019 (MLB)
The Pitch: Unable to win a single playoff series for the better part of a decade, a post-hype Nationals team rides youth and ace pitching past the game’s best team before dismantling a historic cheater in seven games.
The Script: To understood where the Nats reached, you must understand where the Nats came from. Since moving from Montreal in 2005, the Nationals mired in mediocrity for their first years in DC, then rose to relevance in the 2010s. Phenoms such as No. 1 picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper infused life and hype into the franchise, and nifty free agent pickups like Max Scherzer made the homegrown talents true World Series contenders. But while the Nationals always seemed to be in the mix, they failed to advance past a single playoff series until 2019, often in disastrous fashion. By 2019, Harper had departed for the division rival Phillies, the Nats’ reign over the division seemed lost to a younger Atlanta team, and the Nats’ years of serious contention seemed at their end. A 19-31 start didn’t help matters either, though the Nationals battled to nab one of the NL’s Wild Card slots.
From there, the playoff success that had proven entirely elusive in their many playoff runs picked up. Washington topped Milwaukee in the one-game Wild Card playoff, then upset the World Series favorites and two-time NL representative Los Angeles Dodgers on Howie Kendrick’s 10th inning Grand Slam in the decisive Game 5. Washington proved their upset wins were far from flukes by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals and earned a trip to the World Series to play against the Houston Astros. The series was a true David vs. Goliath, a Nats team that had never experienced playoff success against one with the game’s best lineup, a menacing trio of starting pitchers, and the 2017 World Series crown. In hindsight, we also know that the Astros had an unfair competitive advantage with their pitch signaling schemes. The series went back and forth, with the away team winning each of the series’ first six games, before a winner-take-all Game 7 in Houston. With the Astros ahead 2-0 in the seventh and their title hopes teetering on the edge, Washington’s offense exploded with homers by All-Star Anthony Rendon and playoff hero Howie Kendrick. Three scoreless innings later, the Nationals had topped off a Cinderella run in victorious fashion.
- Washington Capitals 2018 (NHL)
The Pitch: Hockey team wins over the heart of a football town and exorcises postseason demons to give Washington, D.C. its first title in decades.
The Script: Before DC became “the City of Champions”, it was one of the most futile sports cities in America (I know, because I had a first-row seat to the DC fans’ misery). The Capitals, like their baseball neighbors, rose to prominence behind their young stars, in the Caps’ case superstar Alex Ovechkin. Washington’s young core seemingly positioned them for a deep playoff run and turned the eyes of a football town toward the ice, but those runs failed to materialize. In a 10-season stretch from 2007-08 to 2016-17, the Capitals made the playoffs nine times and failed to advance past the second round each of those years. The playoff disappointments took the air out of Caps fans’ sails, and 2017-18 promised more of the same.
Still, Washington overcame two overtime losses in their first round series against the physical Columbus Blue Jackets and advanced to play their archrival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, yet again in the conference semifinals. The Caps pushed it to Game 7, and even despite the deflated hopes and demons of years past, Washington fans tuned in en masse (even I tuned in!). The sides battled into overtime, until Evgeny Kuznetsov broke free across the ice and tucked the puck past Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray. The breakthrough set off Stanley Cup-level euphoria, and the DC area watched as the Caps took two games from the Tampa Bay Lightning, the consensus best team in the league. The Lightning took over the series with a three-win stretch to put Washington on the brink of elimination yet again, then failed to score a single goal on Capitals goalie Braden Holtby in the final two games. In the Stanley Cup, the Capitals faced off against the only better story than themselves, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, and took the series in five games. At last, Washington had won another title, and an all-time great in Ovechkin got his due with the Conn Smythe trophy.
- New Orleans Saints 2009 (NFL)
The Pitch: The Saints rise from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina and deliver the woebegone franchise’s first Super Bowl trophy four years later. Make sure to include the onside kick scene.
The Script: The Saints were an absolutely great team in 2009 (which they proved by winning their first 13 games) and appeared to be on a crash course against Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts from the outset of the playoffs. Still, it was a thrilling journey for the Saints, who had never experienced success of any kind before the arrival of franchise quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton. The greater obstacle to the Saints’ rise to relevance than historical awfulness was Hurricane Katrina, which put the franchise’s future in New Orleans in doubt and devastated the community. Brees help lift the city’s spirits from his first snap and led the team to an unexpected NFC Championship appearance in 2006 before bowing out to the Bears.
But by 2009, New Orleans proved they could hang with the league’s powers. The Saints reached their first Super Bowl by outlasting two other historically inept teams, blowing by the reigning NFC champion Cardinals before outlasting the Minnesota Vikings and the ageless Brett Favre in overtime. Peyton Manning looked to be a different challenge. The all-time great led the Colts to a 10-0 advantage and carried a lead into halftime. New Orleans persisted, recovering a gutsy onside kick attempt to open the second half and pulling ahead by a full seven points on two Drew Brees throws, one to tight end Jeremy Shockey and the ensuing two-point attempt to a diving Lance Moore. With five minutes remaining, the Sheriff led his team down the field for the tie, but instead saw his throw to Reggie Wayne intercepted by Tracy Porter and returned 74 yards for the pick-six. The visual of a triumphant Porter bounding into the end zone, football pointed in the air, served as the game’s enduring image, signaling the redemption of not just the “Aints” but the city of New Orleans.
- New England Patriots 2001 (NFL)
The Pitch: A backup quarterback named Tom Brady leads the historically irrelevant Patriots past The Greatest Show on Turf, the first step toward the New England dynasty.
The Script: Before they were America’s Dynasty, the Patriots were nobodies. New England had a relatively slim following in sports-crazed Boston, with only two Super Bowl appearances to their names and zero wins. A 2001 team that finished the previous year 5-11 gave little reason for excitement, and even those reasons seemed foolish once Drew Bledsoe, a Super Bowl starter who the team had recently signed to a 10-year deal, was knocked out of the action and was replaced by a sixth-round draft pick from Michigan. The guy’s name was Tom Brady, and he turned out to be just what the Patriots needed – a game manager who could complement their talented defense and lead them to the playoffs.
Once in the postseason, New England won an overtime home game against the Oakland Raiders (a Super Bowl participant the next year) in a game known for the controversial “Tuck Rule” turn of events and Adam Vinatieri’s miracle field goal in the snow. The Patriots then beat the Pittsburgh Steelers to keep their hopes alive, only to run into the juggernaut known as the St. Louis Rams, the Greatest Show on Turf, in the Super Bowl. Behind MVP quarterback Kurt Warner, offensive dynamo Marshall Faulk, and receiver duo Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, the Rams looked unbeatable, while the Patriots, a feel-good story behind Brady and their patriotic style (the events of 9/11 happened during the 2001 season), entered as heavy underdogs. Astonishingly, New England took a 17-3 lead into the final quarter, though Warner rallied his troops and tied the game at 17 on a toss to Ricky Proehl. Brady, in just his second year in the league and first under center, lived up to the moment, driving the Patriots into field goal range. Vinatieri came up clutch once again with a 48-yarder as time expired, giving New England its first Super Bowl. It would not be their last, and they certainly would not be underdogs again.
- Dallas Mavericks 2011 (NBA)
The Pitch: Written off after years of futile title challenges, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks defeat the NBA’s foremost villains, the Miami Heat and their Big Three.
The Script: Many great stories are great because of the villain, and the 2010-11 Miami Heat fit the bill. The Miami Hate…er…Heat were loathed across the NBA after the game’s top star, LeBron James, decided to join forces with All Stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in South Beach. He then brashly promised seven titles, and given the talent on the team, it didn’t seem like the most outlandish prediction. And though there were struggles throughout the season, the Heat picked it up in the playoffs and survived the Eastern Conference, setting up a matchup against the Dallas Mavericks. While the Heat were exciting, brash and controversial, the Mavs were none of those things. Team leader Dirk Nowitzki had been one of the league’s top big men for years, but the Mavs’ dominance in the decade culminated in just one Finals appearance, a 4-2 loss to Wade’s Heat. Dirk’s Mavs were as post-hype as it gets, an old team with vets like Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, and Tyson Chandler whose window looked to be slammed shut.
But after knocking out the Blazers in six games, sweeping the reigning Western Conference champ Lakers, and outlasting the young Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals, the Mavericks had one more chance at glory. Dallas dropped Game One but rallied from a second-half deficit to take the second game in Miami, then took two of three home games to build a commanding 3-2 series lead. The Mavs’ vets came up clutch yet again, with Nowitzki tallying 21 points and 11 rebounds and bench spark Jason Terry leading the team with 27 points in a 105-95 road victory. The win gave Mark Cuban and Dallas its first Finals win in franchise history and finally gave a title to one of the best teams of the 2000s, but, most importantly to many NBA fans, foiled the villain from South Beach.
- Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2016-17 (NCAAW)
The Pitch: A talented Notre Dame team not only topples the juggernaut UConn women in overtime, but proceed to win the title game on Arike Ogunbowale’s buzzer beater.
The Script: For most of the 2010s, the UConn women could not be beat. Literally. The Huskies won 111 straight games from 2014 to 2017 and won five of 10 titles in the decade. Picking them to win it all in my March Madness lady bracket on ESPN was the easiest pick I ever made. A couple weeks later, I checked the box score and UConn was in overtime. It wasn’t a typo. Notre Dame, a one seed in its own right, had the Huskies on the ropes before UConn’s Kia Nurse tied the game at 79 with nine seconds to go. A back-and-forth overtime period seemed ready to go Notre Dame’s way before UConn hit a three to tie the game at 89. Still, the Irish had one possession, and Arike Ogunbowale made the most of it, sinking a jumper from the side as time expired to send the Irish to the championship and down the Huskies. So much for my lady bracket.
The excitement didn’t end there, either, as Notre Dame and fellow one seed Mississippi State duked it out until the final minutes of regulation. Once again, the Irish had one last possession with the score deadlocked at 58, and it was no surprise that Notre Dame put the ball in Ogunbowale’s hands. With three seconds left, Notre Dame inbounded to Ogunbowale in the right side. Heavily guarded, Ogunbowale dribbled to the corner and lifted up an off-balance, high-arching shot that was just a couple feet away from the location of her UConn game winner. Like the UConn shot, this one found the bottom of the net and sent the basketball world into pandemonium.
- Baltimore Ravens 2012 (NFL)- Beat three Super Bowl-deserving teams and outlasted a power outage in franchise legend Ray Lewis’s last ride.
- New England Patriots 2015 (NFL)- Overcame a 28-3 deficit to win the Super Bowl in overtime.
- Auburn Tigers 2013 (NCAAF)- One week after defeating Georgia on Immaculate Deflection Part II, the Tigers won the Iron Bowl against No. 1 Alabama on the single greatest college play of the 21st century, the Kick Six.
- St. Louis Cardinals 2011 (MLB)- St. Louis sat one strike away from losing the World Series multiple times, yet still came through and downed the Texas Rangers.
- UMBC Golden Retrievers 2018 (NCAAM)- The first 16 seed to ever win a March Madness Round of 64 game, and against national power Virginia.
- St. Louis Blues 2019 (NHL)- The Blues transformed from league’s worst to drought-enders in just a couple months.
- Arizona Diamondbacks 2001 (MLB)- The D-Backs beat the Yankees and star closer Mariano Rivera in thrilling fashion.
- Butler Bulldogs 2011 (NCAAM)- Star Gordon Hayward’s desperation half-court shot hit rim, but Butler’s run to the final game of March Madness as an unheralded 5 seed was still incredible.
- Los Angeles Kings 2011-12 (NHL)- The Kings won their first Stanley Cup in true underdog fashion, running the table as an eighth seed in the Western Conference.
- Loyola-Chicago Ramblers 2018 (NCAAM)- George Mason brought the underdog ethos to the Final Four, but Loyola-Chicago made it all the way to the last weekend with Sister Jean.