The 'what-if' games from recent sports history

ByESPN via ESPN logo
Friday, September 9, 2022
ESPN

The hypothetical question "what if" can give rise to soaring hope or crushing despair. Sports fans are very familiar with this line of thinking. An upset happens and derails a promising dynasty. A routine play is missed and a player's career never recovers, or an obscure call is made and a championship window closes. The games can't be replayed -- except in the minds of fans, over and over again

Saturday's game between No. 1 Alabama and Texas brings back memories of the 2009 BCS title game and its looming question -- what if Longhorns QB Colt McCoy hadn't been hurt early in the game? Would the Heisman finalist pilot Texas' potent offense and deny Nick Saban his first national title at Alabama? Would a Texas victory send Mack Brown out on top or prevent a decade of coaching hires and struggles to find a game-changing QB?

College football is especially made for these types of moments, but it's certainly not alone. Here are a few of the notable recent "what-if" games.

2001 AFC divisional playoff game: Oakland Raiders at New England Patriots

The "what-if" moment: The Tuck Rule

The game is part of the origin story of Tom Brady and the Patriots' dynasty. With 1:50 left in the game, on a snowy night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Brady and the Patriots' offense were driving in Oakland territory trailing by three points. Brady was blitzed by Raiders DB Charles Woodson, who hit Brady and knocked the ball loose. Even though Brady's arm was moving back toward his body with the ball, referees ruled it a fumble and reviewed the play.

That's when we learned about NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2: "When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble."

The Patriots kept the ball, tied the game and won it in overtime. New England's magical postseason continued when the Patriots upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, and then stunned the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

What if that obscure rule isn't called, or the play happened after 2013, when the rule was repealed? Maybe the Raiders reach the Super Bowl and Jon Gruden doesn't leave the next season to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with whomhe wins his only championship. Perhaps Brady's burgeoning career ends that night in the snow, Drew Bledsoe retains his starting QB job and Brady doesn't become the GOAT.

2016 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

The "what-if" moment: Draymond Green's suspension

The Warriors finished the 2016 season with a record 73 wins. All that was left to crown them as the best team ever was a title. The Warriors built a 3-1 series lead, including a 33-point win in Game 2.

Enter Draymond Green's untimely punch. Late in the fourth quarter of Game 4, Green and LeBron James had to be separated and Green fell to the floor. James stepped over Green, who swung his arm and appeared to hit James' groin. After the game, Green got a flagrant foul and, because of his accumulation of flagrants in the postseason, was suspended for Game 5. It was the first time in a decade that a player was suspended for a Finals game.

The Cavs rallied behind epic performances from James and Kyrie Irving to win the series.

What if the historic suspension never happens and Green plays Game 5? He was the team's leading rebounder in the series, one of the Warriors' best defenders and had led Golden State in scoring in two Finals games. Does that mean the Cavs absolutely don't rally? Not necessarily. But if he's there and the Warriors clinch the series in Game 5, LeBron's block and Irving's dagger in Game 7 never happen. The 73-9 Warriors cement their position as the NBA's greatest team, and perhaps they don't recruitKevin Durant to the Bay Area. The City of Cleveland is still waiting on a championship. There's no "Cleveland, this is for you!" and the "Golden State blew a 3-1 lead" meme never happens.

Read more: Oral history of LeBron's Game 7 block

2013 NBA Finals Game 6: San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat

The "what-if" moment: Ray Allen's 3-pointer

It's simply one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history, made by one of the all-time great 3-point shooters. But what happens if Ray Allen misses the shot, down 3 to the Spurs, with 5.2 seconds left in Game 6?

The Heat were in the third season of the Big Three era with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Miami was the top seed in the Eastern Conference and James was on his way to his fourth league MVP.

After alternating wins and losses to take a 3-2 series lead after five games, the Spurs had a lead deep into Game 6. With less than 30 seconds to play, and the Spurs holding a 94-89 lead, the NBA began roping off the court for a potential Spurs celebration.

"We seen the championship board already out there, the yellow tape. And you know, that's why you play the game to the final buzzer," James said after the game. "And that's what we did tonight. We gave it everything that we had and more."

A 3 from James and a free throw from Kawhi Leonard brought things to 95-92. James missed a potential game-tying shot, but Bosh collected the rebound and passed to Allen, who entered into Finals lore.

What if his toe is on the line or he clanks his shot? The superteam Heat fall to 1-2 in NBA Finals, and the "not one, not two, not three" quote becomes a laughable freezing-cold take. The Big Three blueprint had been pushed several times in previous postseason runs, including a Finals loss and consecutive seven-game Eastern Conference finals series in 2012 and 2013. Another Finals loss might have cost Heat coach Erik Spoelstra his job or broken up the group just three seasons into its existence.

The Spurs would win the 2014 NBA title. Had they also won in 2013, Spurs legend Tim Duncan would have had his sixth NBA title -- the same number as Michael Jordan.

1996 American League Championship Series Game 1: Baltimore Orioles vs. New York Yankees

The "what-if" moment: Jeffrey Maier reaches for the ball

At the beginning of the Yankees' 1990s dynasty and the bloom of Derek Jeter's legend is this game. In 1995, New York had lost in the division series, but the Yankees won the AL East in 1996.

Trailing by a run in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the ALCS, Jeter hit a deep drive off reliever Armando Benitez. Jeffrey Maier, a 12-year-old Yankees fan, reached his glove over the right-field fence and snagged the ball. Despite the Orioles' protest of fan interference, the play was ruled a home run. That tied the game, and New York won on a Bernie Williams home run in the 11th inning.

Although the Orioles won Game 2, the Yankees took the next three to reach the World Series, and Maier became a minor celebrity or cursed name, depending on your AL East rooting interests.

Including 1996, the Yankees won four of the next five World Series titles and pennants in 2001 and 2003. If Maier stays home, sits down or the interference is called, does the momentum stay with the Orioles, who would have a 2-0 lead going back to Baltimore? The Yankees are dominant for the rest of the decade, so maybe the teams wouldn't have switched outcomes, but Baltimore and New York have been on wildly different trajectories since then. Baltimore has had 19 losing seasons since 1996.

2016 World Series Game 7: Chicago Cubs vs. Cleveland Indians

The "what-if" moment: The rain delay

The baseball postseason is full of everything from the odd moment to the crushing, cursed play. There's Maier, Bartman, Buckner and more. The 2016 World Series was a collision of two teams looking to end long title droughts -- Cleveland had not won since 1948 and Chicago since 1908.

It appeared, early in the series, that Cubs fans' agony would continue. Chicago went down 3-1 in the series but rallied to force Game 7. The Cubs had a 5-1 lead in the fifth when manager Joe Maddon started making pitching moves that would prove detrimental. After he took out starter Kyle Hendricks for Jon Lester, Cleveland scored two runs. With a 6-3 lead in the eighth, Maddon went to closer Aroldis Chapman. Chapman, who had thrown 42 pitches in Game 5 and pitched in Game 6, proceeded to give up three runs in the eighth. Suddenly the game was tied.

An inning later, the rains came. The game was delayed for 17 minutes. In that time, Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward tried to rally the team. It worked, and the rest is the stuff that ends 108-year-long droughts.

"That rain delay was the most important thing to happen to the Chicago Cubs in the past 100 years," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said after the game. "I don't think there's any way we win the game without it."

If it doesn't rain, perhaps Cleveland takes momentum and home-field advantage into extra innings. It doesn't guarantee a change of outcome, but it doesn't hurt. Without the rain, Maddon might be less genius and more goat. Heyward has no inspiring speech and is remembered for hitting .106 in that postseason while being paid $184 million. Terry Francona, not Cubs GM Theo Epstein, goes down as baseball's biggest streak buster. And, the Cubs are still waiting.

UFC 193: Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm

The "what-if" moment: The result

Rousey was the UFC's first women's bantamweight champion. She reigned as champion for three years, often winning fights in seconds, and rose to international stardom. She was the best female fighter on the planet.

Holm was Rousey's seventh title defense. Holm had fought in Legacy Fighting Championship and Bellator before coming to the UFC in 2014. Their fight headlined the event in Melbourne, Australia.

Despite Rousey's propensity for quick finishes, Holm defended against Rousey's takedowns while landing many of her own strikes. Taking Rousey to the second round was also a big deal. Holm became just the second fighter to do so at that point. In that round, Holm knocked out Rousey with a high kick that ended her undefeated record and title run.

Rousey would lose her next fight, against Amanda Nunes, and would never fight in the UFC again. Had Rousey won, the women's side of UFC competitions could have looked differently. After losing to Nunes, Rousey left for WWE, and the women's title has since rotated between Miesha Tate, Holm and Nunes. With a successful title defense, perhaps Rousey stays on top of the UFC world and doesn't move to WWE right away. That slows the rise of Nunes, who held the title for five years. A female headliner at WrestleMania and the rise of female stars in UFC could be delayed if Rousey continues her dominance.

Read more: Taking stock of Rousey's legacy

1994 Stanley Cup Final Game 7: New York Rangers vs. Vancouver Canucks

The "what-if" moment: Mark Messier's guarantee

If the Rangers' captain is wrong about winning Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals and New York loses to the New Jersey Devils, or the Canucks capitalize on several shots on goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers' championship drought could stand at 82 years and counting.

Messier's "guarantee" would exist as a conference finals footnote, and the Edmonton Oilers, with whom Messier won four titles, would have sole custody of his leadership legacy.

The Canucks would capture the first Stanley Cup championship in their history, bringing down the overall stress level in Vancouver to the point where perhaps fans don't attempt to burn down their own city after the team's Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2011.

1999 Stanley Cup Final Game 6: Dallas Stars vs. Buffalo Sabres

The "what-if" moment: The NHL's circulation of a memo allowing a goal if a player's skate was in the crease

The memo, which said that if a player had control of the puck but his skate was in the crease for a goal, it be allowed, caused widespread confusion in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final. The confusion came because the memo undermined the way the rule was called all season.

The Stars held a 3-2 series lead when Game 6 went into a third overtime tied 1-1. That's when the rule struck. Brett Hull grabbed a rebound and shot the game winner when his skate drifted into the crease.

Had the Sabres won this triple-overtime Game 6, they would have rolled into Game 7 with delirious momentum and the best goalie in the world, Dominik Hasek. It could have resulted in Buffalo's first Stanley Cup win ... and deprived the Stars of their only championship. Buffalo has not returned to the Cup Final.

The loss also capped an incredibly crushing decade for the city. The Buffalo Bills started the 1990s with four consecutive losses in the Super Bowl.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool -- May 11, 2003

The "what-if" moment: Chelsea beat Liverpool

When Roman Abramovich originally decided to buy an English team in 2003, he and his advisers drew up a five-club shortlist: Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. A source close to Abramovich at the time told ESPN that contact was made with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, while Arsenal informed Abramovich they were not for sale. Liverpool were ruled out, and United's asking price was thought to be too high at 500m, but Abramovich already had designs on London, not least because he already owned property in Knightsbridge, one of the most affluent parts of the city.

Chelsea were in a vulnerable state. Then-chief executive Trevor Birch told the players before their final game of the 2002-03 season that victory was essential to help the club avoid financial ruin. Denmark winger Jesper Gronkjaer scored the goal that secured a 2-1 win over Liverpool and assured Chelsea of Champions League qualification with a fourth-place league finish. Six weeks later, Abramovich bought the club for 140m and immediately began spending money on top players to close the gap on Manchester United and Arsenal.

"The Gronkjaer goal is probably the most important goal in the history of Chelsea," Kieran Maguire, author of "The Price of Football," told ESPN. "Whether Abramovich would have bought the club without Champions League football is the question, but that certainly helped seal the deal. The total spending in the Premier League in 2002-03 was 187m. In 2003-04, it doubled to 390m. It never dipped back down to those levels after. Abramovich was a contributing factor not only in the increase in player purchases but the acceleration of wages as well."

What if Abramovich decides not to buy? Does Chelsea have the four Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two UEFA Champions League crowns it won when Abramovich was owner?

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