More often than not, the sports world is cruel. This is especially true for championship-caliber teams that saw their title hopes dashed due to injuries and other physical setbacks. Diehard sports fans can talk for days about how their promising team was wiped out of the history books all because of some terrible injury or string of bad luck. Sometimes it’s unavoidable — age, chance, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, though, a 6-foot-5 wide receiver with a Super Bowl title on his resume decides the holiday season just isn’t festive enough without taking a loaded weapon into a nightclub.
As in life, there are few, if any, guarantees in sports. Nobody can say with certainty what would have gone down in these tournaments and competitions had these injuries never happened. One thing for sure is fans of the actual champions won’t give those memories and moments back.
Plaxico Burress accidentally shoots himself as 2008 New York Giants sit at 10-1
Ten years after former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress inconceivably shot himself in the leg while carrying a loaded gun in a Manhattan nightclub in November 2008, ESPN’s Jordan Raanan detailed everything that went right for Big Blue ahead of that evening and all that went wrong for Plax and the Giants after the gunshot heard ’round the club. The Giants, reigning Super Bowl champions that fall, won 10 of their first 11 games heading into Thanksgiving weekend, and quarterback Eli Manning seemed poised to defend his Super Bowl MVP crown.
Burress’ crucial lapse of judgment that finished his season and, ultimately, his Giants career left a void in the team’s offense. Manning lost his favorite red-zone target and down-the-field safety blanket, someone who couldn’t be replaced by a December signing. New York defeated the Washington Redskins in the club’s first game without Burress, but the Giants lost three of their remaining four regular-season contests, and the division rival Philadelphia Eagles eliminated the G-Men from the playoffs in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It’s the title and opportunity that got away from a Giants franchise that legitimately could have evolved into a dynasty.
Chicago Bulls lose Derrick Rose in Game 1 of 2012 NBA Playoffs
Injuries sidelined Chicago Bulls guard and 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose for all but 39 regular season games during the 2011-12 campaign, per Basketball Reference, but he was back on the court for his team’s playoff premiere against the Philadelphia 76ers. Nearing a triple-double with 23 points, nine assists, and nine rebounds, Rose tumbled to the court late in the contest, and the worst fears of Chicago fans watching him clutch his leg were realized when, as noted by ESPN, the Bulls confirmed he tore his ACL.
Chicago’s chances of returning to the Finals disappeared along with Rose, as Philadelphia took four of the next five contests to bounce the Bulls from the postseason. Rose, meanwhile, never returned to his MVP form minus the occasional highlight-reel moment or noteworthy night, such as when he scored 50 points while with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Halloween 2018. Barring what would be a comeback story for the ages, he’ll go down as one of the all-time "what if" tales in Association history.
Todd Gurley’s knee affects Los Angeles Rams offense versus New England Patriots
After Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley torched the Detroit Lions for 132 rushing yards and a pair of scores in December 2018, Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times quipped that the 24-year-old ball carrier was "back in the running." Mr. Klein spoke too soon. Gurley topped 100 rushing yards in his team’s playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys, but he was downright anonymous in the NFC Championship game against the New Orleans Saints. Many, including Barrett Sallee of CBS Sports, speculated ahead of Super Bowl LIII that something was off.
Sallee and others were correct. The Rams managed only a field goal in their 13-3 loss to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, and CBS Sports’ Dave Richard confirmed in June through Gurley’s trainer that the back is playing through an "arthritic component to his knee" that stems from the torn ACL he suffered in 2014. Gurley tallied a paltry 35 rushing yards on 10 carries against the Patriots during a game that was tied after three quarters. Logic suggests he could’ve altered football history if healthy.
Cincinnati Bengals lose Carson Palmer on first pass of 2006 playoffs
The 2005 Cincinnati Bengals eked past the Pittsburgh Steelers via tiebreaker to win the AFC North with an 11-5 record, and Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer put pen to paper on a restructured contract that, according to the Associated Press, could have been worth over $118 million up through 2014 roughly two weeks before the inter-divisional playoff showdown between the two clubs. Palmer earned that payday. Per Pro Football Reference, he finished the regular season first in passing touchdowns, second in completions, and fourth in passing yards ahead of receiving a spot in the AFC Pro Bowl squad.
A single dive from Pittsburgh tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen instantly halted Cincinnati’s momentum. As noted by ESPN, von Oelhoffen hit Palmer low on the signal-caller’s first and only throw of the contest, a 66-yard pass that wasn’t worth the torn knee ligaments the QB suffered as a result of the contact. The Steelers, featuring a second-year quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger, beat the Bengals 31-17 en route to defeating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. As of this writing, the Bengals still haven’t gotten past the Wild Card round since 1990.
Liverpool loses Mo Salah in 2018 Champions League Final
The 2018 Champions League Final between Liverpool and Real Madrid featured a pair of high-powered attacks. On one side, the Spanish giants possessed stars and goal-creators such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, and Karim Benzema. Liverpool, meanwhile, started Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and 2017-18 Premier League Golden Boot winner Mohamed Salah. Salah’s impact on the game ended abruptly, however, after he suffered a serious shoulder injury, as described by BBC Sport, following a clash with Real defender Sergio Ramos in the 26th minute.
A healthy Egyptian King may not have prevented Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius’s horror show, and Salah likely could have done little to keep Gareth Bale’s second-half wonder strike from hitting the back of the net. But Salah had no fitness concerns when the Reds downed Tottenham Hotspur in the 2019 European Final, suggesting that Liverpool might have been going for back-to-back titles if not for Ramos’ questionable and potentially red-card worthy defending the previous spring.
LeBron James takes on the Warriors without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in 2015
Roughly nine months after LeBron James penned his now-famous love letter to Northeast Ohio with help from Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, the Cleveland Cavaliers entered the 2015 NBA Playoffs with the King, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love making up seemingly the best trio in the sport. Even after Love got tangled up with then-Boston Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk and went down to what ESPN.com later reported was a dislocated shoulder, James and Irving guided the Cavs to an NBA Finals showdown with the Golden State Warriors.
Disaster struck Cleveland in the series opener. After James bricked what would have been a walkoff jumper at the end of regulation, Irving aggravated his knee in overtime. Tests confirmed the guard fractured his kneecap, per ESPN, and the eventual champion missed the rest of the series won by the Warriors. As Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale wrote, Irving went on to claim that July the Cavs would’ve toppled Golden State (which they did the subsequent spring) had his knee remained healthy through the ’15 Finals. One missed attempt by James may have been the only thing standing in the way of Cleveland, the "Mistake on the Lake," from winning at least two titles in the second half of the 2010s.
Boston Red Sox play hurt Bill Buckner in 1986 World Series
It’s one of the most famous plays in MLB history that gave us a gift of a call from legendary broadcaster Vin Scully: "Little roller up along first. Behind the bag. It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it." When Mookie Wilson’s routine ground ball went through the legs of Boston Red Sox infielder Bill Buckner in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, the error cemented an incredible comeback that night for the New York Mets, and many blamed Buckner for years, even decades, after the Amazins won Game 7 at Shea Stadium.
It’s now public knowledge Buckner wasn’t 100 percent and probably shouldn’t have been standing anywhere near first for that pivotal moment. In October 2011, ESPN’s Mike Simon explained the veteran infielder was playing with "a severely injured Achilles" which had bothered him for over a decade. It’s possible a healthy Buckner would’ve easily bent over, gobbled the grounder, and extended a 5-5 game further into extra innings.
Brazil lose Neymar during 2014 World Cup
Hosts of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil were flying high and appeared favorites to win the whole competition after finishing atop Group A with seven of a possible nine points. The Selecao then survived Chile, winning their first knockout game via shootout, before downing Colombia 2-1. That victory proved costly, though, as Neymar, the electric forward and playmaker, fractured a vertebra in his back following a challenge, according to the BBC. His World Cup and the hopes of a nation yearning to celebrate a championship met similar fates that ominous day.
Without the then-Barcelona front man in the team and potentially weighed down by the pressure of playing in front of an emotional home audience, Brazil fell to eventual champions Germany 7-1 in an embarrassing result for the proud footballing country. Per Telegraph Sport, Brazilian captain David Luiz, in tears at the sound of the final whistle, apologized for his side’s play. "Apologies to everybody, apologies to all the Brazilian people," he said. "I just wanted to see my people smile."
2019 Golden State Warriors play without Kevin Durant and with a (probably) injured DeMarcus Cousins before losing KD and Klay Thompson
The official record book contains no asterisk next to the 2019 Toronto Raptors, as Toronto defeated the available Golden State Warriors roster in the Finals. Nevertheless, skeptics will always wonder what the Raptors would’ve achieved against a fully healthy Warriors squad. Two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant missed the first four games of the series because of an injured right calf, and he looked like the player of old in Game 5 until a ruptured Achilles ended his postseason.
That’s only the beginning. Center DeMarcus Cousins suffered what head coach Steve Kerr told reporters was a "significant quad injury" on April 15. While Cousins played in the Finals, he visibly wasn’t at his All-Star best. If all of that wasn’t enough, sharpshooter Klay Thompson tore his ACL, per ESPN’s Nick Friedell, right as he was activating "Game 6 Klay" mode.
Clearly, some force or being out there did not want the Warriors to three-peat and win a fourth title in five years. Maybe Michael Jordan works in mysterious ways.
Detroit Pistons sweep 1989 Los Angeles Lakers missing both Magic Johnson and Byron Scott
The 1988-89 Los Angeles Lakers notched 57 regular season victories, more than any other team in the conference, and the franchise responsible for five title wins during the decade swept the competition in the postseason before meeting the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, a rematch of the prior year’s championship series. Magic Johnson led the team in scoring during the campaign with 22.5 PPG, and backcourt mate Byron Scott added 19.6 PPG. As tough as the "Bad Boy" Pistons were that spring, the flashy Lakers had played an unbeatable brand of basketball on the sport’s biggest stage.
Games aren’t decided on paper, and simulations and forecasts don’t account for injuries. After the Pistons jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, Bruce Newman of Sports Illustrated described how Scott hurt his hamstring during a pre-series practice, an injury that kept him a spectator through Detroit’s sweep. The situation went from bad to worse for the Lakers when Johnson, capable of playing any position during a Finals, strained his hamstring in the third quarter of Game 2. The Hall of Famer contributed only five minutes in Game 3, and he didn’t even play in the last game.
Zdeno Chara plays in 2019 Stanley Cup Final while on a liquid diet
Hockey players are notoriously tougher than the rest of us. As Tarik El-Bashir of NBC Sports Washington pointed out, Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik lost part of his pinky near the end of Game 2 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, but he had that sucker reattached and kept on playing without missing a second of a game. Not to be outdone, Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara told reporters that he played the last three contests of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues with "multiple fractures in his jaw" after taking a puck to the face in Game 4.
There’s more. Per The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa, Chara "was mostly on a liquid diet" from June 3 through June 12, the last day of the series. Looking at the numbers provided by ESPN, one can see Chara’s on-the-ice time was slightly affected, but he heroically played through the rest of the Final and even scored in Boston’s must-win Game 6. A good steak might’ve been all Chara needed to carry the Bruins to yet another trophy-raising ceremony, but, alas, the Blues drank from Lord Stanley’s chalice after taking Game 7.
Kendrick Perkins injures knee as Boston Celtics lead Los Angeles Lakers in 2010 NBA Finals
Kendrick Perkins was never a superstar of the caliber of Magic Johnson, Kyrie Irving, or Derrick Rose, but don’t undersell what he meant as the enforcer for the Boston Celtics facing the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2010 NBA Finals. As Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press wrote, Perkins excelled at man-to-man defense against All-Star opponents that spring, and he provided a needed toughness and edge as the C’s entered Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead.
In February 2016, Zach Harper of CBS Sports recounted how the Lakers took advantage after Perkins injured his knee in the first quarter of that contest. Boston’s physical superiority down low vanished, and the Lakers cruised to a double-digit win to force a Game 7. Even though Kobe Bryant converted only six of his 24 field goals, the Celtics averaged fewer than 20 points per quarter in the title decider. Los Angeles won 83-79 for Bryant’s fifth and final championship as a player and additional bragging rights over their long-time rivals from the Eastern Conference.
Lieke Martens plays hurt in 2019 Women’s World Cup Final
Any unbiased observer who watched the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final between the United States and the Netherlands could see by halftime the Americans were the better and deeper side. U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher had little to do other than serve as a spectator throughout the encounter, and Rose Lavelle’s goal in the 69th minute expanded Team USA’s advantage to 2-0 and essentially put the match to bed. With that said, Holland possibly could have put up more of a fight had Dutch midfielder Lieke Martens, the 2017 UEFA Women’s Player of the Year and 2017 FIFA Best Women’s Player, begun the game healthy.
As ESPN’s Graham Hays wrote, a foot injury limited Martens’ availability to only a half of action in Holland’s semifinal win over Sweden, and her impact on the Final was minimal minus a couple of transitional attacks that went nowhere for the Oranje. As much credit as the U.S. back line, a unit with several questions hovering over it ahead of the tournament, earned for its play during the competition, Martens had in the past shown she possessed the athleticism and on-the-ball skill to challenge that defense. Instead, a Netherlands attack that left much to be desired in each stage of the World Cup ran out of gas facing arguably the greatest women’s team to ever win a major tournament.