How does Leicester’s Cinderella story compare across all sports?
So, the Leicester City story is spreading across the sporting world. Fast.
Fairy tales like this just don’t happen often, if at all.
[ MORE: The Perfect Storm: Leicester’s story ]
What we are witnessing this season in the Premier League could be the greatest team sporting moment of them all. The greatest Cinderella story, if you will.
Leicester, 5000-1 shots to win the PL before the start of the season, needs just three wins from their remaining five games to achieve the unthinkable. They face West Ham United this Sunday (Watch live, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) as they look to take the next step to greatness.
The “Jamie Vardy Party” is ready to continue.
[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]
With that in mind, here at NBC Sports our writers from across the Sports Talk sites looked back at their respective sports for a “Leicester-esque” moment or story. From NBA, NASCAR, NHL, MLB, College Basketball and College Football, below you will find tales of the ultimate Cinderella stories.
Enjoy the collection as Leicester looks to join sporting immortality next to some of these guys...
Kurt Helin - ProBasketballTalk: “We Believe” Warriors of 2007
The NBA doesn’t do upsets well.
Don’t take my word for it, here’s what baseball and analytics guru Bill James once said about the league:
That’s the real problem with the NBA … the best team is going to win in the long run, and everybody knows it. The season becomes a long, crushing battle in which, ultimately, you have no chance to escape justice … as opposed to college basketball, which is vastly more exciting.
He’s not wrong in the big picture — in the NBA favorite wins most of the time. That’s particularly true in the playoffs. That the best team wins may sound like the goal of any league, in reality we want random upsets, we like vulnerability.
We love seeing a Leicester City rise from obscurity to take the Barclays Premier League and knock off the big money, big name clubs (you can watch them go for the title Sunday at 7:30 am ET on NBCSN when they face West Ham). Had you bet Leicester before the season you would have gotten 5000-1 odds they would take the Premier League title. Now Leicester City on the doorstep of soccer history — arguably the greatest upset in sports history.
It’s not the same, but, the NBA has had a few great upsets.
The biggest playoff upset — the closest thing the NBA has to its own Leicester City — was the 2007 “We Believe” Golden State Warriors knocking off the Dallas Mavericks.
While Golden State is on top of the NBA world now, the Warriors of 2007 were in a very different place. Golden State had missed the playoffs for a dozen years before the 2006-07 season — they hadn’t made the playoffs since Chris Webber’s rookie season. That’s not easy to do in a league where more than half the teams make the postseason annually. Golden State had in Chris Cohan a man who would have been seen as the worst owner in the NBA and probably the worst owner in professional sports at the time had the Clippers’ Donald Sterling not been Secretariat at the Belmont with that title. Cohen had brought in the respected mad genius Don Nelson to coach his team that season, but he coached a team led by the mercurial Baron Davis and the unrepentant gunner that was young Monta Ellis. Midseason the Warriors made a big trade with the Pacers that brought in Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Sarunas Jasikevicius, and Josh Powell.
Despite the new players the Warriors fell to eight games below .500 before a run the last six weeks of the season saw them finish 42-40. The Warriors scraped into the playoffs as the eighth seed that season, playing at the fastest pace in the league. Their offense was good; their defense was not impressing anyone.
Going into the playoffs, the team’s marketing department adopted the slogan “we believe” and it was on T-shirts and banners that filled the building. The loyal and starved fans in the Bay Area did beleive.
The Warriors were matched against the Dallas Mavericks — a 67-win team led by MVP Dirk Nowitzki (he had a 50-40-90 season), a team that had lost just five games at home throughout the campaign. They were serious title contenders expected to roll through the first round… like Manchester United through Leicester.
In a move that now seems like foreshadowing of the current Warriors, Nelson unleashed a physical small-ball lineup on Dallas featuring Davis, Ellis, Jason Richardson, Jackson, and Harrington — their tallest player was 6’9″. The Warriors put five guys on the floor who could handle the ball, five guys who could space the floor and shoot the three. They overwhelmed the Mavericks — the Warriors ran off Dallas makes, they were feisty with Jackson and Matt Barnes off the bench, and Dallas couldn’t deal.
People also can forget how good — and how much fun to watch — a focused and in shape Baron Davis could be. He had 33 points, 14 rebounds, and 8 assists in a Game 1 Golden State win. When the series returned to Oakland for game three of the series, the long-starved and passionate Warriors fans unleashed the full fury of Oracle Arena on Dallas. Golden State won games three and four at home and led the series 3-1. Dallas took game five of the best-of-seven at home.
Game six at Oracle is still talked about as one of the great moments in Warrior’s history. Jackson drained seven threes on his way to 33 points, and during a 24-3 Golden State run in the third he was draining long balls and the crowd was raising the roof off that building. More importantly, Jackson was physical and had gotten in Nowitzki’s head (he was just 2-of-13 shooting that game).
Golden State won — the first eight seed to beat a one seed in a seven-game series in NBA history. We Believe worked and was etched into the history of the franchise.
This is the NBA, upsets don’t last long — the Warriors were manhandled by the Jazz in the second round, and that was the end of that run.
But not before the Warriors gave us the most improbable upset in NBA history.
Daniel McFadin - NASCAR Talk: “Is Alan Kulwicki NASCAR’s version of Leicester City?”
Not much was expected of Alan Kulwicki but he managed to defy all expectations by rallying to win the 1992 Cup Series Championship.
His underdog story is NASCAR’s closest to Leicester City’s amazing run in the Premier League. Leicester City nearly faced relegation last year and entered this year a 5,000 to 1 longshot to win the league.
Mike Halford - ProHockeyTalk: “Stanley Cup Cinderellas”
OK first, let me address the obvious — you’re right, this is not a soccer site. It’s a hockey site. Kudos for pointing it out.
But bear with me for a moment.
Across the pond, tiny Leicester City is doing the unthinkable — closing in on a Premier League title despite opening the campaign as a staggering 5000-to-1 longshot. (Which you can watch this Sunday at 7:30 am ET on NBCSN when they play West Ham.) Leicester is, by every definition imaginable, a true Cinderella story.
Which got us thinking, what about hockey?
At first glance, it’s fair to say the NHL’s had a good number of Stanley Cup Cinderellas.
But most of the time, there’s a catch.
Like the 1991 Minnesota North Stars, for example. The Stars snuck into the playoffs despite a lousy (27-39-14) regular season, then upset the ‘Hawks and Blues and Oilers to make it to the Cup Final — which is when the clock struck midnight. Minnesota was blitzed by Mario Lemieux and the Penguins, losing 8-0 in the deciding game.
There was also the 2006 Edmonton Oilers. That team waited until the final week of the regular season to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, then went on a crazy run to upset top-seeded Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim.
But then… yeah, you guessed it. The clock struck midnight.
In Game 1 of the Cup Final, starting netminder Dwayne Roloson got hurt and was lost for the series. The Oilers rallied to push it to Game 7, only to see Carolina capture the final by a 3-1 scoreline.
Which begs the question: Are there any Cinderellas that made it to 12:01?
Oh sure, there’s a case to be made for the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, who got in as the No. 8 seed in the West and went on to capture the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. But the notion of the Kings being a “Cinderella” was put to bed in subsequent years: in ’13, they went to the Western Conference Final and in ’14, they won the Stanley Cup.
To find arguably the best Stanley Cup Cinderella, we go back to 1938.
NHL on NBC play-by-play man Mike “Doc” Emrick explains:
“The Leicester-like story was the 1938 Chicago Blackhawks. In a virtually-all-Canadian NHL, they had hired an American coach (Bill Stewart), had eight Americans on the squad, scored the fewest goals, only made the playoffs by two points, and upset everyone.”
“So surprising were they that the NHL did not even have the Stanley Cup present for their clinching game. It was being sent on to Toronto for what the hierarchy believed would be a fifth and deciding game there.”
Of course, no discussion about hockey and Cinderellas would be complete without the biggest one of all. No, it didn’t happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs and no, none of the players were professionals.
No matter. From NBC’s Al Michaels, who called the unforgettable game:
“The 1980 United States Olympic Hockey Team had an outside shot at a bronze medal as the Games began in Lake Placid. The group’s average age was 22 and most of the players had just finished their college careers. The Soviet Union team, on the other hand, were amateurs in name only. They spent eleven months each year on the ice either training or dominating competition on the international level. Had the Soviets been allowed to play in the National Hockey League at that time, almost everyone on their roster would have been a star.
“When the teams met on February 22, 1980, most everyone who knew anything about hockey gave the American team no chance. In fact, almost everyone expected the outcome to be totally one-sided. Over the next two hours and 15 minutes, the Soviets outshot the U.S. 39-16. They led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 with the U.S. then tying the game on each occasion. At exactly the halfway mark of the third period, Mike Eruzione scored to give the U.S. its first lead. It held up. None of this would have happened without a performance for the ages by goaltender Jim Craig, who made at least a dozen unbelievable saves to never let the game get out of hand. When the horn sounded an entire country erupted with joy.
“But there was still more work to be done. Forty hours later, that same team would be back in action against Finland needing a win to clinch the gold medal. Final score: U.S. 4, Finland 2. Thirty-six years later, it’s no exaggeration to say it still brings tears of joy to many, many people who reminisce. I’ve seen it firsthand.”
John Taylor - CollegeFootballTalk: “One Big House afternoon, App. State was 2016 Leicester City”
Bear with me on this, even as you may not follow the “other” football. Or give a spit aboutthat futbol.
Leicester City is a soccer club in the English Premier League, the former an organization much more familiar with — and heretofore worried about — relegations than championships. In fact, headed into the 2016 season, Lester City was given 5,000-1 odds to win the EPL championship; those are the same odds the British books gave Kim Kardashian to be in the White House as President by 2020.
In 2015, they narrowly averted relegation. And then The Perfect Storm of 2016happened, with the Foxes needing to win just three of their remaining five matches to become EPL champions for the first time in the club’s not-so-storied 132-year history. In fact, Leicester City would become the first EPL team ever to win a title the year after finishing outside the top four in England’s top league.
For all intents and purposes, it’s the ultimate Cinderella story in any sport ever — but, given the fact that the EPL airs on the NBC Sports Network, it got us thinking about underdogs in our own beloved sport, college football. Normally, the sport CFT focuses on doesn’t lend itself to season-long Cinderella stories, although you could make an argument for the likes of the 1984 BYU Cougars (national champions from a non-Power Five conference) or the 2006 Boise State Broncos (stunning blue-blood Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl).
Still, the Cougars were on or around the national stage in the seventies and on into the eighties. The Broncos, meanwhile, have been the Little Football Program That Could for most of the 21st century, so the undefeated run capped off by knocking down the Sooners was hardly a fairy tale, let alone the likes of what’s currently going on in the EPL. For one game in 2007, though, Appalachian State was 2016 Leicester City.
Yes, App. State was in the midst of a three-year run as FCS champions. That didn’t stop the oddsmakers from making ASU 33(ish)-point underdogs for their game against No. 5 Michigan in the Big House that September afternoon — especially as said oddsmakers were armed with the knowledge that no FCS had ever beaten an FBS team ranked in the Top 25.
Playing for 60 minutes and using less than 30 players — UM had 85 scholarship players at its disposal — playing in the Big House against both the iconic Maize & Blue and their 100,000-plus fans, the five-touchdown underdog from Boone, NC (pop. 17,000), did the seemingly impossible: they knocked off the winningest program in football history. A field goal gave the Mountaineers, who held a two-touchdown lead in the first half, a 34-32 lead with under 30 seconds left; the block of the Wolverines’ game-winning field-goal attempt as time expired gave the FCS program the most stunning upset in the history of the sport.
It may not be Leicester City’s sustained, season-long excellence at the highest level of their respective sport, but, for three hours one Ann Arbor afternoon, Appalachian State was every bit the Cinderella their underdog cousins from across the pond have been this season.
Craig Calcaterra - ProBaseballTalk: “The 1969 Mets: The greatest Cinderella story in baseball history”
Given the many, many variables which go into building a baseball team, and given how long it takes to build a winner, there aren’t all that many true Cinderella stories in the national pastime.
Baseball has had its share, of course. The 1914 “Miracle Braves” may have been the prototype “where the heck did THEY come from?” story in professional sports. The 1950 “Whiz Kids” Phillies are often mentioned as a Cinderella team. In recent years we have seen our share of worst-to-first clubs, most notably the 1991 Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins. But while there are several teams one can talk about as a Cinderella story in Major League Baseball, there can be no doubt that the greatest Cinderella story in the history of the game is the 1969 Mets.
An expansion team in 1962, the Mets set the standard for baseball futility right out of the gate by going 40-120 in their first season. They’d lose more than 100 games the next three seasons after that, 95 in 1966 and another 101 in 1967. In 1968 their loss total was down to a “mere” 89, but they still finished in ninth place out of ten teams in the National League and no one considered them a competitive team entering 1969. No one at all. Even after seven seasons as a franchise, the Mets were most famous for their former manager, the great Casey Stengel, and his habit of giving his team humorous backhanded compliments. As a point of conversation they were laugh-inducing. As a baseball team they were a laughingstock.
The 1969 season started as usual, with the Mets digging themselves a nine-game hole by the end of May. Their record — hovering around .500 — was a bit better than it had been in recent years, but they still stood in fourth place, scaring no one. Then, suddenly, manager Gil Hodges’ men began to make a move.
Young outfielder Cleon Jones heated up and talented young starters Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman came into their own. Seaver more than came into his own, actually. He began to dominate. Thanks to contributions from rookie starter Gary Gentry, outfielder Tommie Agee, and a stronger-than-expected bullpen, anchored by Ron Taylor, Tug McGraw, Nolan Ryan, and Jack Dilauro, the Mets began to climb up the standings. By early June they were still a good distance behind the first place Chicago Cubs, but they had jumped two teams and were ensconced in second. Throughout July and August, the Mets would wax and wane, climbing to within four games at one point, then falling back to ten behind, raising eyebrows but never seeming able to find that extra gear.
In late August the Cubs began to crumble, however, and the young Mets caught fire. New York overtook them for first place on September 10. They’d never fall out of first again. After defeating the Atlanta Braves in the first League Championship Series in history, the Mets had won the National League pennant.
The pennant was nice enough, but most didn’t think they stood a chance against the American League Champion Baltimore Orioles, who had won 109 games that year and featured the most impressive array of talent in all of baseball. Many of the Orioles players were still around from when they won the 1966 World Series and most of them would be on the club when it would go on to win the World Series in 1970 and another pennant in 1971. But the Amazin’ Mets — a nickname given to them as a joke by Stengel when they were far from amazing — would not be denied. They took true ownership of the “Amazin’” moniker and beat the fearsome Orioles in five games, becoming the stuff of legend. Truly, and without question, baseball’s greatest surprise in history. It’s greatest Cinderella story by far.
I’m talking about baseball’s greatest Cinderella story for a reason today. Over in the English Premier League, soccer fans are bearing witness to what may not only be the greatest Cinderella story in EPL history, but perhaps the greatest Cinderella story in the history of sports. Leicester City was one of the worst clubs last year, just barely avoiding relegation. Entering the current season, oddsmakers made them 5000-1 long shots to win the league title. I would guess that not even the 1962 Mets were such long shots, let alone the 1969 Mets. Leicester City’s odds of their being relegated? Far, far more likely. Yet here they are now, nearing the end of an astounding season, positioned to win it all. It’s truly a fantastic story.
A lot of baseball fans also follow the English Premier League. The seasons are complementary goods, with English soccer coming to the fore when baseball goes to sleep for the winter and the season ending just as MLB is heating up. Those of you who do are getting quite a treat this year. You’re watching a club that, even if it’s not your rooting interest, you will always remember. A club about which NBC’s Premier League play-by-play announcer Arlo White has said, “If they manage to seal the title, they may well be the most universally popular Champions in Premier League history.” That’s high praise indeed.
You might even say it’s . . . Amazin.’ Maybe even amazin’ enough that you too will want to jump on the Leicester City bandwagon.
Rob Dauster - CollegeBasketballTalk: “Nothing in college basketball compares to Leicester City”
When we’re talking about the greatest Cinderella story in college basketball history, the name that most people are going to cling to is Butler.
You remember those Bulldogs, right? They made it to back-to-back national title games out of the Horizon League, and on paper, that sure makes them seem like an underdog, right? But the thing you have to remember about those Butler teams: They had two players on their roster — Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward — that spent this season as starters for the Utah Jazz, and they were coached by Brad Stevens, the man who somehow got the Boston Celtics to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
So I’m not sure I can call them a Cinderella.
I will, however, call the 2006 George Mason team that made a Final Four a Cinderella just like I will call the 2011 VCU team that reached the Final Four (from the First Four!) a Cinderella. VCU, at that point, was a really good mid-major program in the CAA, not an Atlantic 10 powerhouse. Mason was actually VCU’s rival in the CAA at the time, and the year they got the Final Four most believed they didn’t even deserve to get into the tournament. Period!
But neither of them are my favorite Cinderella.
FGCU become the seventh No. 15 seed to upset a No. 2 seed in the first round back in 2013, and they then became the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. They did so by beating down both Georgetown and San Diego State, to the point that they were showing off with alley-oops with a couple of minutes left in the game:
Awesome. I loved every second of it.
And it pales in comparison with the run that Leicester City has been on this season. The Foxes are currently up seven points on Tottenham with five games left in the season, which is a nearly* insurmountable hole to dig out of.
It’s impossible to make a direct comparison between Premier League soccer and college basketball simply because the structure of the two sports are so different. But think about it like this: Coastal Carolina somehow gets a spot in the ACC and goes on to win the league’s regular season title by three full games. Leicester was 5,000-to-1 to win the league before the season, the same odds that British sportsbooks were giving gamblers that wanted to bet on Elvis being found alive.
And therein lies the biggest difference. What Leicester is doing is not a “Cinderella run”. Being a Cinderella implies that you aren’t the best team, that you can lightening in a bottle, pull off a couple of upsets against the biggest names in the sport and find yourself on a stage you never imagined you would be on.
Leicester is the best team in the Premier League, and it’s not all that close.
So they aren’t a Cinderella.
But they are likely* to end up being the most unlikely champion and the most amazing story in sports in my lifetime. You can watch their title chase on Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m. on NBCSN or the NBC Sports Live Extra app.
*(I say “likely” and “nearly” because, as a Spurs supporter, I’m quite certain that Tottenham will end up winning the league. We got ’em right where we want ’em.)