Not long ago I was watching TNT’s NBA postgame show when Shaq said “I got four rings ‘cause of guys like Big Shot Rob.” O’Neil was singing the praises of Robert Horry (owner of an astounding seven championship rings) and other teammates not quite a talented as the Big Cliche. Charles Barkley flinched ever so slightly. How many times must he be reminded of Shaq’s rings? Or Kenny’s? My guess is Barkley heard, “Chuck, I was good enough to get rings with lesser talented guys—and you weren’t.”
No matter what Barkley says, how clever his quip or disdainful his grimace at Shaq’s analysis, when Shaq, Kenny, or Charles’ pal Michael wave the magic ring finger, Sir Charles has no retort. No doubt it hurts him deeply. He almost has no choice but to joke about it, even donning a t-shirt last year after declaring that Golden State couldn’t win a championship because they were a jump shooting team.
But behind the humor is the wince of pain that is—as Jim McKay used to intone melodiously on Wide World of Sports—“the thrill of victory and…the agony of defeat.” I remember the 1989 Knicks-Sixers series, which the Knicks swept 3-0. While the even-then annoying Mark Jackson made sweeping broom motions—a little too early Markie, you’d get your ass whipped by the Bulls—Barkley collapsed agonizingly to the ground as if he’d been shot. All life gone from him. That one melting motion highlighted his great desire and the breadth of his loss. He spent the rest of his career chasing entrance into the elusive society of champions. (Perhaps, not so oddly, I saw the same buckling knees and body collapsing as Chris Bosh walked off the court after Miami’s devastating defeat by the Mavs.)
There are no ifs, maybes or caveats allowed in American sports and now in American culture—you’re either a champion or you’re a loser: a nothing. Sure, Barkley’s done better than just fine in his post-NBA life, but his career was incomplete and will always be associated with never winning a fucking ring. Because, as anyone who’s played a team sport has heard countless times from some numbskull coach, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” That reprehensible and false notion seems to have become a cultural truth. We’re at a nadir where Trump can dis John McCain (who I disagree with on just about every policy issue) because McCain got captured and lost a war. McCain was a damned war hero who suffered more in one day than Trump has in his entire life. But to the Donald, McCain is a loser. And to so many like him, how you win doesn’t matter. Steroids anyone? How about illegal videotaping? And I don’t believe for one second that Penn State’s bigwigs knew zero. Winning was the only thing.
The need to win has ruined scores of lives. The inability to win has scarred too many others.
But I digress, this is a sports site and I come not to bury champions but to celebrate the noble nonchampions of the field. (This is not about anyone’s life outside the arena. That would be a far different list.) I honor the phrase—It doesn’t matter if you win or lose but how you play the game.
So, here are my nominees to the Noble Non-Champions Hall of Fame. I’ve chosen some of my faves from the four major sports. This was damn tough and the list could be so much longer. You can make your own choices . . . My biases are obvious. Childhood fandom and loyalty dies hard.
Charles Barkley — See above. Barkley’s ’92 Suns team lost in the Finals in six games to Jordan’s Bulls and his ‘95 Suns team lost a 3-1 series lead to the eventual champs Rockets.
Elgin Baylor — Before Dr. J, before MJ there was Elgin—the first of the gravity-defying above the rim acrobats. At 6’5” he’d be a guard today. His career stats are 27.4 ppg and 13.5 rebounds. But get this—in game five of the ’62 final against the Celts, Baylor grabbed 22 rebounds and scored 61 points—imagine him with a three point shot. Klay and Steph got nothing on Elgin. But, as usual the Lakers lost, this time in seven games. In 1972, after 13 years and eight finals appearances, Baylor retired nine games into the season, and the Jerry West and Wilt Lakers finally won a championship.
Patrick Ewing — The great Knick hope happened to play in the Michael Jordan era. His career stats are 20 ppg and 9.8 rebounds. He gave a dispirited franchise renewed life and the shot at a championship remained a powerful possibility. I’ve always thought if Bernard King, as terrifying a scorer as I’ve ever seen in person, had remained healthy the Ewing/King duo could’ve gotten them to the Promised Land. Ewing’s best chance came when MJ decided to prove that the greatest basketball player of all time wasn’t among the top 10,000 to attempt to hit a minor league curve. The Knicks made it to the finals in ‘94 against Hakeem’s Rockets, where John Starks 2-18 game seven is NYC legendary for all the wrong reasons. Yet it was game six, with the Knicks up 3-2, when Hakeem outplayed Ewing—and the Dream’s last second block of Starks’ shot that was the real killer—that sealed Ewing’s fate as an NBA all-timer without a ring.
Ted Williams — The Splendid Splinter had a career batting average of .344, won six batting titles, two triple crowns and hit fucking .406 in 1941 and .388 in 1957. He missed some of his best years serving in the army during WWII and then again during the Korean Police Action. Williams and the Red Sox made the series in 1946. Williams, playing hurt, refused to sit out and was less than stellar, as the Cardinals won 4-3 in game seven. Williams’ sons had his body frozen so the now Perpetual Cryonic could come back and play in some futuristic series.
Ernie Banks — Dubbed Mr. Cub and Mr. Sunshine for his absolute love of the game, is the poster player for this piece. Banks, the first black player signed by the Cubs in 1953, played 19 years and a record 2,528 games without ever making it to the post season. The closest he came was in ’69 when the Cubs blew an 8 game lead to the Amazing Mets. Banks was an all-star at shortstop and first base. Truly, one of the all-timers. He hit a then-record 44 homers at shortstop in ’55 and retired with 512 career homers. For much of his career Banks played alongside the Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams, who made it to the postseason in his penultimate year in the bigs with the Athletics, but they failed to make the series.
Don Mattingly — He of the most beautiful swing and the hardest hitter I’ve ever seen—outside of Barry Bonds pre-steroids. His career was cut short by a debilitating back injury. Donnie Baseball, winner of nine golden gloves at first base, played during the Yankees driest playoff stint ever. Perhaps cursed even worse than Elgin Baylor, Mattingly played in just one divisional playoff series, and to make matters more disheartening the Yankees made the World Series and lost the year before he came up (1981) and won it the year after he retired (1996).
Tony Gwynn — Mr. Padre had a life time batting average of .338 and hit an astonishing .394 in 1994. He made it to the series twice losing both times. In the 1998 four game sweep to the Yankees he hit .500, going 8 for 16. The rest of the team hit .203. He also won five Gold Gloves. Gwynn used to study video long before it became everyday practice. By all accounts, he was the nicest, most generous guy in the game, who chose to play his entire career with the same team. Gwynn died way too young at 54.
Dan Marino — If you need an explanation for this one—why are you reading this site? As a Jet fan, the guy made me suffer far too often. Anyone who saw Marino throw the ball, all you could do was watch mouth agape. The best passer I’ve ever seen. The Dolphins lost to the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX in his second season, where admittedly he didn’t shine, and although he made the playoffs another nine times that was his only shot at a ring.
Barry Sanders — After ten years with the pathetic organization known as the Detroit Lions, and one playoff win, no Super Bowl appearances, the at once balletic, powerful and on-field modest, Sanders called it quits. Had he stuck around he’d probably be the all-time rushing leader. But the losing and ineptitude of the Lions front office wore him down more than any tackler. After the ’98 season, although healthy and with no decline in his abilities, Sanders saw no winning future with the Lions. Despite offering to pay back his signing bonus, thinking he was bluffing, the Lions refused to trade or release him. Sanders never played another game. Given what we know now about CTE, that was not a horrible decision.
Buffalo Bills, 1990-1993 — No other team has gone to more than two Super Bowls in a row. These Bills made it four times—and lost them all. Had poor Scott Norwood—the Bill Buckner of the grid iron—not missed a last second 47 yard field goal, the Bills would have won 22–20. If they had the Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Coach Marv Levy group would be in some kind of discussion as “a disappointing team who, with only one title, didn’t fulfill their potential as a mini-dynasty.” (See also: 1990s Atlanta Braves.) Instead they’re considered more of a sports jock trivia question.
Darrelle Revis — Oh wait, he won a ring with the dreaded deflating demons of darkness in a Super Bowl where both teams’ coaches would be first ballot inductees into the win-at-all-costs Cheaters Hall of Fame. To quote Casey Stengel “You can look it up.” So, Darrelle, let’s win one for the J-E-T-S.
Brad Park — Seventeen years in the league, 17 years in the playoffs, three visits to the Stanley Cup finals and zero sips from Lord Stanley’s chalice. Playing with the Rangers and then the hated Bruins—Park cried upon hearing of the trade—and briefly for the Red Wings, Park, a rushing defensemen, was overshadowed first by Bobby Orr, who revolutionized the position, then Denis Potvin-sucks (every Ranger fans knows his last name is a hyphenate) and then the phenomenal Ray Borque. Because of those three Park never won the Norris trophy as best defenseman but finished second multiple times.
Rod Gilbert – Jean-Paul Belmondo on skates; the Flying French Canadian in NYC. He played on the GAG line — goal a game — with Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield and with Park and Eddie Giacomin made the Rangers contenders but never champs. Gilbert was plagued by back problems throughout his career and retired after 19 years in 1978. He remains the Rangers’ career leader in goals and points. He may not have gotten the cup but Andy Warhol immortalized him in his prominent athlete series.
The hour is getting late.
Chris Paul — Barkley has said how much he hopes Chris Paul wins a ring to avoid his own fate. With GS, SA, perhaps OKC (destination KD TBD) standing in the way and with comers like Portland, and possibly the Pelicans and the T-Wolves—life is not going to get easier for CP3. The best pure all-around point guard of his era: his defense, decision making, assist-to-turnover ratio, and shooting percentages are all magnificent. His frailty has hindered him almost as much as his less-than-clutch teammates. His contract is up next year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him join LeBron wherever he’s taking his talents.
Kevin Durant — Blown 3-1 lead to Golden State. ‘Nuff said.
I don’t care about his stats.
Bobby Murcer — OK, OK. No way does he belong in the Non-Champions Hall of Fame. His stats are decent and I can’t justify his inclusion—I don’t care. As a kid, I loved the guy. Being touted as the heir to Joe D and the Mick was an impossible burden he handled with dignity. The Yanks made the series in ’81, when he was thirty-five and Bobby went 0-3. I so wish he had won the Series just once.
Almost time to think about going elsewhere.
Clayton Kershaw — Even though I’ve lived in LA for 16 years, I can’t root for the Dodgers. But I’m a Clayton Kershaw lover. Because of his less than stellar playoff record, there’s talk radio shouts (no whispers on blabber mouth radio) that Kershaw can’t win the Big One. He is already one of the greats, and is destined to be even greater. I just hope he wins a championship after he’s left the Dodgers, preferably for the Mets or Yanks. Yeah, I’m deluded.
Twilight of a New York Idol
David Wright — As I was writing this I read that Wright is going on the DL for an extended period. I have loved Wright since the first time I saw him play. Bill James wrote a rave about Wright’s future and I hoped for so many great things from him. Next to Adrian Beltre, who also qualifies for this list, Wright has been about the best third bagger of his era. There are many reasons I wanted the Mets to win the series last year, but most of all, it was so Wright could get a ring. Now I fear his career is all but done.
Two Is Not Enough
Peyton Manning and LeBron James — Sometimes you can win a championship or two and still get shit. The two greatest “regular season” players of their eras are often and quite viciously criticized for not winning the Big One enough times so it tarnishes their legacy. As a fan, you get my team to the Super Bowl four times or NBA Finals seven times and I’ll call you a winner forever.