September’s mortifying Mets collapse prompted me to finally update my “Levels of Losing” column from 2002, which was culled from years and years of unfortunate experiences as a sports fan. Please note that we’re ignoring run-of-the-mill losses and concentrating on memorable defeats (buzzer-beaters, blowouts, choke jobs, etc.) in big moments (pivotal games in a playoff series, Game 7s, NFL playoff games, losses that submarine regular seasons, etc.).
Back in 2002, we only had 13 levels. Now? Sixteen. The list keeps growing. Here are those 16 levels in order of least painful to most painful.
Level XVI: The Princeton Principle
Definition: When a Cinderella team hangs tough against a heavy favorite, but the favorite somehow prevails in the end (like Princeton almost toppling Georgetown in the ’89 NCAAs). … This one stings because you had low expectations, but those gritty underdogs raised your hopes. … Also works for boxing, especially in situations like Balboa-Creed I (“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”). … The moment that always sucks you in: in college hoops, when they show shots of the bench scrubs leaping up and down and hugging each other during the “These guys won’t go away!” portion of the game, before the collapse at the end.
Personal Memory: The first round of the ’95 NBA playoffs between Boston (No. 8 seed) and Orlando (No. 1 seed), the final season of the Boston Garden, when the C’s (with a motley group of has-beens and nobodies) split the first two games in Orlando, then nearly polished off the Magic at home before Shaq, Penny and the gang prevailed. Those Celtics were woefully overmatched, but it was the magical Garden’s last gasp; the electric atmosphere suckered us into thinking, “Damn, we might actually win this thing!” It was extremely tough to leave that place after Game 4.
Level XV: The Achilles’ Heel
Definition: This defeat transcends the actual game, because it revealed something larger about your team, a fatal flaw exposed for everyone to see. … Flare guns are fired, red flags are raised, doubt seeps into your team. … Usually the beginning of the end. (You don’t fully comprehend this until you’re reflecting back on it.)
Personal Memory: During the first quarter of the Chargers-Pats blowout, the broadcast either split-screened Bill Belichick and Norv Turner or showed them consecutively — poor Norv was vacantly staring out to the field, like he couldn’t remember if he’d left the lights on in his rental car or something — and I remember thinking, “Holy crap, their head coach is Norv Turner! We can basically cross the Chargers off the list of 2007 AFC contenders; it’s down to the Pats, Colts and Steelers!”
Best Example: We just had two in the first month of the 2007 NFL season — San Diego getting crushed by New England (the day everyone realized that Norv Turner and Ted Cottrell were prominently involved in the 2007 Chargers season), and Dallas crushing the Rex Grossman era in Chicago and causing Bears fans to start chanting “Griese! Griese!” (Like Brian Griese could ever save the day.)
Level XIV: The Alpha Dog
Definition: It might have been a devastating loss, but at least you could take solace that a superior player made the difference in the end. … Unfortunately, he wasn’t playing for your team. … You feel more helpless here than anything. … For further reference, see any of MJ’s games in the NBA Finals against Utah (’97 and ’98).
Personal Memory: Flipping things around, remember Game 5 of the ’99 ALDS (Red Sox-Indians), when Pedro Martinez came out of the bullpen and slammed the door on Cleveland’s season? Six innings of no-hit ball with an injured shoulder? Nothing you could do about that. Pedro came jogging in from the bullpen like Clint Eastwood … and Indians fans knew they were finished. See you next year.
Level XIII: The Rabbit’s Foot
Definition: Now we’re starting to get into “Outright Painful” territory. … This applies to those frustrating games and/or series in which every single break seemingly goes against your team. … Unbelievably frustrating. … You know that sinking, “Oh, God, I’ve been here before” feeling when something unfortunate happens, when your guard immediately goes shooting up? … Yeah, I’m wincing just writing about it.
Personal Memory: The Red Sox-Yanks playoff series from ’99, when everything went against the Sox — two potential homers bouncing off the top of the wall, egregiously bad umpiring, seeing-eye singles and bloop hits and everything else. After a while, you start battling that nagging, unshakable, “It’s not our year” feeling, which takes on a life of its own and swallows your team whole. Nothing destroys a season faster than bad karma.
Level XII: The Sudden Death
Definition: Is there another fan experience quite like overtime hockey, when every slap shot, breakaway and centering pass might spell doom, and losing feels 10 times worse than winning feels good (if that makes sense)? … There’s only one mitigating factor: When OT periods start piling up and you lose the capacity to care anymore, invariably you start rooting for the game to just end, just so you don’t suffer a heart attack.
Personal Memory: Game 1, Bruins-Oilers, 1990 Stanley Cup Finals, the tail end of my sophomore year in college, when everyone from school trekked down to Cape Cod for seven days of drinking and general mayhem. On this particular night, my buddy Sully and I skipped out of a party to watch the third period at a Hyannis bar. Just the third period, right? It ended up being the first OT. And the second OT. And the third OT. Imagine the most nerve-wracking moment of your life, then imagine it ballooning to three-plus hours. That’s playoff hockey.
Anyway, by the time Edmonton’s Petr Klima drove a stake into our hearts around 1 a.m., we were drunk, drained, jittery and semi-suicidal. I don’t even really remember what happened after that. I think we ended up walking down Route 6 and hitchhiking or something. Who knows? We didn’t even know what to do. If I bumped into Sully 50 years from now, “Glen Wesley missing the net in the second OT” would be the first thing we brought up. I can’t even talk about this anymore.
Level XI: Dead Man Walking
Definition: Applies to any playoff series in which your team remains “alive,” but they just suffered a loss so catastrophic and so harrowing that there’s no possible way they can bounce back. … Especially disheartening because you wave the white flag mentally, but there’s a tiny part of you still holding out hope for a miraculous momentum change. … So you’ve given up, but you’re still getting hurt, if that makes sense. … Just for the record, the 2002 Nets and 2005 Astros proved that you can fight off The Dead Man Walking Game, but it doesn’t happen often.
Decent Example: Remember Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals in ’93 (Knicks-Bulls), when Charles Smith had all those chances to make the winning layup and kept getting stuffed, so the Knicks lost home-court advantage and had to travel to Chicago for Game 6? They didn’t have a chance in hell. Bring this game up to a Knicks fan and they invariably start dropping f-bombs.
Personal Memory: Two quintessential examples, both from the ’86 baseball playoffs.
• Games 6 and 7 of the 1986 ALCS (Red Sox-Angels), following the dramatic Game 5 when the Angels (three outs from the World Series) blew a 5-2 lead in the ninth inning (capped off by Dave Henderson’s go-ahead homer with two strikes and two outs in the ninth, as policemen surrounded the field and the Angels bench was ready to run out to celebrate). If that wasn’t bad enough, the Angels tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, had two chances with the bases loaded to score the winning run, then blew the game in the 11th. Then they flew cross-country to Boston to play Games 6 and 7, which they promptly lost by a combined score of 132-2. Talk about Dead Man Walking.
Level X: The Monkey Wrench
Definition: Any situation in which either (A) the manager/coach of your team made an idiotic game decision or (B) a referee/umpire robbed your team of impending victory. … The Monkey Wrench Game gains steam as the days and months roll along. … The Patriots and Raiders deserve special mention here because they played two Monkey Wrench games 26 years apart — the ’76 playoff game (when Ben Dreith’s dubious “roughing the passer” call on “Sugar Bear” Hamilton gave the Raiders second life), and the infamous Snow Game (the Brady fumble/nonfumble). … Funny how life works out.
Best Example: Don Denkinger’s famous call in Game 6 of the ’85 World Series (Cardinals-Royals). We don’t even need to go there.
Personal Memory: The ninth inning of a tie game during Game 7 of the ’75 World Series, when Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson pitched untested rookie Jim Burton. I was 5 years old at the time … even I knew this was a bad idea. Peter Gammons always mentions a funny story about being in a bar two months later and watching a drunken Sox fan scream out, “Why did they pull Willoughby and bring in Burton???” before passing out on the bar. That’s the classic Monkey Wrench story.
Level IX: The Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking
Definition: Sometimes you can tell right away when it isn’t your team’s day. … And that’s the worst part, not just the epiphany but everything that follows — every botched play; every turnover; every instance where someone on your team quits; every “deer in the headlights” look; every time an announcer says, “They can’t get anything going”; every shot of the opponents celebrating; every time you look at the score and think to yourself, “Well, if we score here and force a turnover, maybe we’ll get some momentum,” but you know it’s not going to happen, because you’re already 30 points down. … You just want it to end, and it won’t end. … But you can’t look away. … It’s the sports fan’s equivalent to a three-hour torture session.
Best Example: The 2001 NFC Championship (Vikings-Giants). The Giants took the kickoff, rolled down the field and scored in four plays. … Minnesota fumbled the ensuing kickoff. … Now the New York crowd was going bonkers, a sea of blue. … Collins lofted a TD pass to the fullback — 14-0. … Fox’s cameras caught Dennis Green staring at the field in shock. … The Giants were whooping it up. … Minnesota couldn’t respond on offense. … Madden was saying things like “There’s just no fire on that Minnesota sideline” and “They just don’t look crisp at all.” … Culpepper tossed an interception, followed by a Giants field goal (17-0). … And that’s when my buddy Geoff (a diehard Vikes fan) left a despondent message on my answering machine: “It’s over.”
Personal Memory: January ’86. Pats-Bears. Super Bowl XX. Ugh. I was so nervous before that game, I watched it by myself, surrounded by all kinds of junk food, various magazines and newspapers and everything else you could imagine, like I was headed for Sports Fan War. And within 30 minutes, it was over. Watching Eason fold like an accordion, watching Grogan standing helplessly on the sidelines, watching the Bears dancing and jiving, watching the Pats roll over and die, watching the Bears whooping it up and, worst of all, watching the freaking Fridge score a touchdown. … Good God almighty.
Level VIII: The “This Can’t Be Happening”
Definition: The sibling of the Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking. … You’re supposed to win, you expect to win, the game is a mere formality. … Suddenly your team falls behind, your opponents are fired up, the clock is ticking and it dawns on you for the first time, “Oh, my God, this can’t be happening.”
Best Example: Round 2 of the AFC playoffs on Jan. 4, 1997, when Mark Brunell and the Jaguars stunned the No. 1 seed Broncos at Mile High. Watching that one on TV, you could feel the collective sphincter of the Broncos and their fans tightening as the game went along. This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening. Another great example: When Albert Pujols’ famous home run off Brad Lidge staved off elimination in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS, the Cardinals headed back home to “clinch” the series in St. Louis. Improbably, the devastated Astros fought off Dead Man Walking status and beat St. Louis in Game 6 in front of the shocked Cardinals fans (who were already making their World Series plans). At the time, I wrote that we needed to come up with a new level for that Cardinals’ loss (The “Wait, That Wasn’t The Plan” Game), but upon further review, it fell under the jurisdiction of The “This Can’t Be Happening” Game. Please adjust your scorecards accordingly.
Personal Memory: Game 7 of the ’82 Eastern Conference finals, when the Celts rallied from a 3-1 deficit to force a seventh game against Philly at home (just like they did the previous spring, when they eventually won the title). Not only had the Celts never lost a Game 7 at the Garden, during a Game 5 comeback that Wednesday, Boston fans chanted, “See you Sunday! See you Sunday!” at the Sixers’ bench (inferring that the C’s would win Friday’s Game 6 in Philly, which they did).
Needless to say, our confidence had surged to dizzying heights. It never even entered our minds that we might lose. I remember seeing fans walking around the Garden wearing white sheets and dressed as “The Ghosts of Garden Past” — an unreal atmosphere, certainly an impossible place for Philly to win. Um … right? Unfortunately, Andrew Toney (one of the truly underrated NBA stars of my lifetime) had other ideas; nobody on the Celts could guard him. And you could feel that twinge of “Uh-oh” in the air, as we slowly realized things weren’t working out like we had planned.
Wait a second … this can’t be happening …
Level VII: The Drive-By Shooting
Definition: A first cousin of The “This Can’t Be Happening” Game, we created this one four weeks ago to describe any college football upset in which a 30-point underdog shocks a top-5 team in front of 108,000 of its fans and kills its title hopes before Labor Day.
Best Example: The unprecedented “Assassination in Ann Arbor,” which trumped The “This Can’t Be Happening” Game for three reasons. First, it’s an understatement to say that nobody saw Appalachian State coming (in some Vegas casinos, they didn’t even have a line for the game). Second, it was one of the most humiliating defeats in college football history. And third, it killed any realistic chance for Michigan to win the national title, only it happened in Week 1 and the Wolverines still had to play out the rest of their suddenly meaningless season. Just for the record, the “Drive-By Shooting” can only happen in college football.
Level VI: The Broken Axle
Definition: When the wheels come flying off in a big game, leading to a complete collapse down the stretch. … This one works best for basketball, like Game 3 of the Celtics-Nets series in 2002, or Game 7 of the Blazers-Lakers series in 2000. … You know when it’s happening because (A) the home crowd pushes their team to another level, and (B) the team that’s collapsing becomes afflicted with Deer-In-The-Headlitis. … It’s always fascinating to see how teams bounce back from The Broken Axle Game. … By the way, nobody has been involved in more Broken Axle Games than Rick Adelman.
Best Example: I hate bringing golf into this, because it isn’t a team sport, but remember the Masters tournament when Greg Norman blew the six-stroke lead to Nick Faldo, then ended up losing by, like, five strokes? That was the all-time Broken Axle moment. Plus, writing a “Levels of Losing” column and not mentioning Greg Norman would have been almost sacrilege.
Personal Memory: With 1:06 remaining in the Celts-Nets game in 2002, the Celts whittled it down to one and the Fleet Center roof was blowing off. So Byron Scott calls timeout and tries to pull the George Karl/Pat Riley routine; in other words, he stands about 10 feet away from the bench, his back turned, staring out to the court and hoping that his guys will talk things out and band together. Of course, the five Nets starters were sitting there, heads down, elbows on their knees — and nobody said a word. In three decades of Celtics games, I’ve never seen a team look more demoralized. You couldn’t have dug a ditch big enough for them.
Level V: The Role Reversal
Definition: Any rivalry in which one team dominated another team for an extended period of time, then the perennial loser improbably turned the tables. … Like when Beecher fought back against Schillinger in “Oz,” knocked him out and even pulled a Najeh Davenport on his face. For the fans of the vanquished team, the most crushing part of the “Role Reversal” isn’t the actual defeat as much as the loss of an ongoing edge over the fans from the other team. You lose the jokes, the arrogance and the unwavering confidence that the other team can’t beat you. There’s almost a karmic shift. You can feel it.
Worst Personal Example: Peyton Manning and the 2006 Colts rallying back from a 24-point deficit in the AFC title game to vanquish Brady, Belichick and the Pats.
Best Personal Example: Playing the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, the Red Sox become the third team in the history of professional sports to rally back from a 3-0 series deficit and win the series (killing the Curse of the Bambino and every “1918!” chant in the process). Never has a rivalry been transformed so swiftly and totally.
Level IV: The Guillotine
Definition: This one combines the devastation of The Broken Axle Game with sweeping bitterness and hostility. … Your team’s hanging tough (hell, they might even be winning), but you can feel the inevitable breakdown coming, and you keep waiting for the guillotine to drop, and you just know it’s coming — you know it — and when it finally comes, you’re angry that it happened and you’re angry at yourself for contributing to the debilitating karma. … These are the games when people end up whipping their remote controls against a wall or breaking their hands while pounding a coffee table. … Too many of these and you’ll end up in prison.
Best Example: Game 7 of the ’97 World Series (Indians-Marlins), when Cleveland’s Jose Mesa gave up the game-tying run in the ninth inning. Every Indians fan knew it was coming. Of course, the ’97 World Series never happened, so it’s probably a moot point. We need to get that one wiped out of the record books.
Personal Memory: Just about every crucial Bruins-Canadiens playoff game from the ’70s, especially the unforgettable “Too Many Men on the Ice” Game in ’79, when the B’s blew a chance to advance to the Cup finals by getting called for one of the lamest penalties in hockey (Guy Lafleur tied the score in the final minute, then the Habs finished it off in OT). One of two games that actually made Young Sports Guy cry in the ’70s (along with the ’78 Yanks-Sox playoff game); I couldn’t figure out how I was 8 years old, yet I knew the Canadiens were coming back. Just excruciating.
Level III: The Stomach Punch
Definition: Now we’ve moved into rarefied territory, any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch. … Usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all. … Always haunting, sometimes scarring. … There are degrees to The Stomach Punch Game, depending on the situation. … For instance, it’s hard to top Cleveland’s Earnest Byner fumbling against Denver when he was about two yards and 0.2 seconds away from sending the Browns to the Super Bowl.
Best Example: Wouldn’t it have to be the Titans-Bills playoff game from ’99, when the Bills kicked the alleged game-winning field goal in the final seconds, then Tennessee pulled off that miracle Wycheck-to-Dyson lateral play for the game-winning TD (on the kickoff, with no time remaining)? Not only was that a top-five Stomach Punch Game, it doubled as the greatest Gambling Moment of all-time (since Tennessee ended up covering by a half-point). That was un-beeeeeeeeeeeeeee-lievable.
Personal Memory: Magic draining that baby sky hook to topple the Celts in Game 4 of the ’87 Finals, capping off a Celtics collapse and preceding Bird nearly saving the game at the buzzer (he missed a 25-foot prayer by about 1/100th of an inch). More than 20 years have passed and I still haven’t fully recovered from that chain of events. Unreal.
Level II: The Goose/Maverick Tailspin
Definition: Cruising happily through the baseball regular season, a potential playoff team suddenly and inexplicably goes into a tailspin, can’t bounce out of it and ends up crashing for the season. In “Top Gun,” the entire scene lasted for 30 seconds and we immediately moved to a couple of scenes in which Tom Cruise tried to make himself cry on camera but couldn’t quite pull it off. In sports, the Goose/Maverick Tailspin could last for two weeks, four weeks, maybe even two months, but as long as it’s happening, you feel like your entire world is collapsing. It’s like an ongoing Stomach Punch Game. And when it finally ends, you spend the rest of your life reliving it every time a TV network shows a montage of the worst collapses in sports history. Other than that, it’s no big deal.
Best Example: The incredible collapse of the 2007 Mets. I have three buddies who root for them, so I was able to witness the emotional devastation firsthand: in five days, they went from planning for the playoffs to planning for a potential nightmare. Just when it looked like the ship had been righted, they were swept at home by the lowly Nationals, passed by the Phillies, given a second life on Saturday with a Phillies loss and Maine’s one-hitter and then, just as abruptly, everything ended when Tom Glavine got shelled by the Marlins. Win or lose on Sunday, the damage had already been done to the psyche of Mets fans. On Friday night, as Cole Hamels was pitching Philly to victory, my friend Paul Raff (a Mets fan) sent me the following e-mail: “Honestly, it’s such a betrayal by the team. They have ruined us fans this season and last October. I hate this sport now. They’ve violated and befouled every [expletive] nuance of the game, playoffs or no playoffs.” Now that’s a baseball fan with some healing to do.
Personal Memory: The ’78 Red Sox. Good God. You have to survive one of these pennant-race meltdowns to fully understand how scarring and debilitating they can be. Obviously, you can only compare sports and real life to a certain degree, but watching your baseball team die over an extended period of time is almost like watching a family member die over an extended period of time — every day is worse than the last, you don’t feel better when it’s over, and afterward, you spend the next few weeks and months coming to grips with everything that happened and trying to make sense of it. Anyway, Mets fans, we’re all feeling for you this week.
Level I: That Game
Definition: Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. … One of a kind. … Given the circumstances and the history involved here, maybe the most catastrophic sports loss of our lifetime.
Personal Memory: The only game that actually combined The Guillotine and The Stomach Punch. No small feat. Let’s just hope we never travel down that road again.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can check out his revamped “Sports Guy’s World” site here.