Evaluating the Era of Curse-Breaking (WTBU Sports)

This post was originally published with WTBU Sports.

Everyone loves a good underdog story. To see the Davids of the world take down the Goliaths makes us feel better. It allows us to believe that if those people can overcome the odds and accomplish something seemingly impossible, then maybe we can too – Disney has been profiting off of this feeling for decades.

But what happens when the Goliath keeps getting knocked down by a bunch of Davids? At a certain point, these supposed “villains” develop a bit of an underdog reputation of their own, and the tables are turned to where they are viewed as the hero. 

No, I’m not talking about the 2010 DreamWorks film Megamind, and not because it’s one of the few films Disney is not profiting off of, but for nearly half a decade, this dynamic has dominated the North American sports landscape when it comes to struggling athletes and suffering fanbases.

Since 2016, the four major American sports leagues have seen a constant trend of perennial chokers (the Goliaths-turned-Davids) or teams in the midst of long championship droughts (the Davids-turned-Goliaths) finally reaching the pinnacle and getting that classic movie ending.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are now the most recent example. The Dodgers have been the best National League team of the decade… when it comes to regular season success. They have won eight straight division titles and made their third Fall Classic since 2017. The last time they won fewer than 90 games in a full season was 2012. They are Goliaths in every sense of the word, but the one thing maring this great stretch in Dodger history was the lack of hardware.

They have choked in the playoffs so many times in recent years, that despite being the top-seeded team in the National League, yet again, for the 2020 postseason, it would have no longer been a surprise to see them come up short. These Dodgers were the most prominent playoff chokers in North American sports today, but they just became the next Goliath-turned-David to reach the mountaintop.

The city of Los Angeles isn’t exactly starved of a championship – the Lakers just won the NBA title a few weeks ago – but the Dodgers ended the franchise’s 32-year championship drought. It also solidified the legacy of Clayton Kershaw, arguably the greatest pitcher of his era.

Kershaw himself was the most prevalent individual embodiment of a Goliath-turned-David. For years, he’s dominated on the mound, winning three Cy Youngs and one NL MVP award. Whenever he takes the mound before October, he is the pitcher to be feared, but after multiple postseason meltdowns, he often felt like the underdog in the playoffs.

Kershaw won both of his World Series starts, putting the Dodgers in a great position to clinch, which they did last night. The Dodgers are the most recent example, but let’s look back on the incredible, ongoing run of curse-breakers and choke-shakers.

2016

Going back to 2016, two major droughts were broken when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Cubs each won championships. 

LeBron James was already a two-time champion with the Miami Heat but had yet to bring his hometown team to the promised land. He had gotten close and fallen short numerous times with the Cavs, including Finals losses in 2007 and 2015. But after trailing 3-1 to the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, James battled back and won the city of Cleveland its first title since 1964.

Cleveland nearly got its second title in months when the Indians took on the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 World Series, but it was the Cubs’ turn to break a drought, ending their 108-year gap between championships. There was no real individual player on that roster that fit the Kershaw mold, and the Cubs hadn’t really choked in any playoff series since 2003, but the drought was so notorious that it undoubtedly fit the narrative.

These two monumental drought-ending championships opened the floodgates for more like them to follow.

2017

2017 continues the trend, but it contains a few caveats as two legendary athletes were able to add to their legacies. First was Kevin Durant with the Golden State Warriors. The elite forward had scoring titles, All-NBA selections and an MVP award to his name, but was unable to capture a championship with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Prior to the 2016-17 season, he famously signed with the 73-9 Warriors that had knocked his Thunder out of the Western Conference Finals and narrowly lost to the Cavs in the Finals.

Golden State instantly became title favorites, and they followed through to give Durant his first NBA championship. That said, the Warriors had just won the championship two years prior and were in the Finals for the third year in a row, meaning there was no drought to erase, and the team became an even bigger Goliath than it was before, taking away any favorite-turned-underdog notion. Still, Durant had fallen short in the playoffs plenty of times before, but finally got his ring in 2017.

Many fans still debate the legitimacy of Durant’s rings today, but an even bigger controversy surrounds the 2017 Houston Astros, who cheated their way to their first World Series title in franchise history, giving Houston its first champion since 1995. Not to mention it also gave legendary pitcher Justin Verlander a ring, who like Kershaw was a Cy Young winner and MVP and is among the top pitchers of his time.

Of course, the entire sign-stealing scandal throws the legitimacy of that championship up in the air, if not entirely out the window, but at the time it was viewed as yet another athlete, franchise and city that had received its first championship after many years of waiting.

2018

The following year saw two more major droughts fall down. First was the Philadelphia Eagles, who won their first Super Bowl in franchise history and made the NFC East the first division to have each of its franchises be Super Bowl winners.

Then, that summer the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, giving the nation’s capital its first championship since 1992. The Capitals were prominent playoff chokers, winning the President’s Trophy as regular season champions three times and faltering in the second round or earlier before they got over the hump in 2018. 

The win also gave Alex Ovechkin a much-deserved Stanley Cup, solidifying him as one of the greatest players of his era. Ovechkin and the Caps were one of the best regular season teams of the 2010s, but early exits became expected. Finally in 2018, they had something to show for it.

2019

Last year saw three teams make major breakthroughs. The St. Louis Blues won the first Stanley Cup in their 51-year history, rallying from the league’s worst record in January to becoming the World Champions in June. Over the seven years prior, the Blues continually made the playoffs but always fell short, making it as far as the Western Conference Finals in 2016. They even missed the playoffs entirely in 2018 before finally lifting the Cup in 2019.

The Washington Nationals, who like their NHL counterpart had developed a reputation for choking in the playoffs, followed a similar script as the Blues. They held one of baseball’s worst records in May, but battled into the playoff picture and took down two 100-plus win teams in the Dodgers and Astros en route to the franchise’s first championship. It also gave three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer a championship to add to his Hall of Fame resume.

In between the Blues and Nats, the Toronto Raptors won their first championship as well, giving the NBA its first ever international champion and the city’s first championship since 1993. Also like the Blues and Nats, the Raptors had spent years trying to get over the hump, sandwiching a Conference Finals loss in 2016 between two first-round and two second-round exits from 2014 through 2018.

2020

This year alone has seen two championships with major legacy implications. The Kansas City Chiefs won their first Super Bowl since 1970, giving head coach Andy Reid his first championship in his 21st year as an NFL head coach. Reid also had a reputation for not being able to get his teams to the top in the postseason, but he became the latest figure to secure his legacy back in February.

The Capitals’ championship two years earlier led to the Tampa Bay Lightning taking the mantle as the NHL’s most prominent postseason choker, but Tampa got their due and won the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. Captain Steven Stamkos was one of the few players on the shortlist of “Greatest active players that did not have a Cup,” but he finally took his name off.

Granted, Stamkos rarely played during the postseason, so it was not as redeeming as some of the other players mentioned before, but it was still a breakthrough championship for a Lightning franchise that often fell short of winning the Cup outside of their 2004 victory.

We’ve seen plenty of redemption arcs come to a happy ending in the past; the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972 after losing so many Finals in the 1960s, Michael Jordan and John Elway in the 1990s, the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and so on. However, never before have there been so many teams and athletes winning monumental championships in such a short period of time.

Now that the Dodgers have climbed the mountain, who will be next in line? The Atlanta sports landscape has been long-suffering, but the Braves nearly made the World Series this year and have the roster to make runs in 2021 and beyond. Perhaps the Vegas Golden Knights can reach the top for the first time after all the close calls in their brief history. Maybe Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the next NBA star to earn his first ring, giving Milwaukee a rare championship. The narratives are there, so it’s certainly on the table.

It’s an unprecedented time in American sports history; every year it seems as if a different perennial choker finally gets to breathe the air of greatness. Who knows when this period will end, but soak it in, Dodger Nation, you finally got your Hollywood ending.

Cover Photo Credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press

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