Riding the NBA stairway to 7

The Cleveland Cavaliers are swimming upstream against history. No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to win a championship. And only three teams have ever won a seventh game on the road.

For just the third time in history, a team has forced a seventh game after trailing 3-1 in the NBA Finals. That would be the Cavaliers, who will go to the mat against the Warriors on the road in Oakland.

In 1951, the Knicks trailed the Rochester Royals 3-0 and rallied to force a Game 7 but lost 79-75 in the final game (shown above). Arnie Risen led all scorers with 24 points as Rochester won its only NBA Championship. The Royals later moved West, first to Cincinnati, then Kansas City-Omaha, and eventually Sacramento. Somewhere in transit they become the Kings.

In 1966 the Lakers trailed the Celtics 3-1, only to win twice and force a decisive game. Boston held on to win that game 95-93 at the Boston Garden and capture a record eighth straight NBA championship. Bill Russell scored 25 points and took down 32 rebounds to lead the way.

Seventh games are a rarity in the NBA Finals. Cleveland-Golden State is just the 19th Game 7 since the league’s first playoff in 1947. Since 1984, only six Finals, including this one, have gone the distance.

And the home team – that would be the Warriors – has the decided edge if history proves true to form. Only three teams have won a seventh game game on the road. The last team to win a Finals Game 7 on the road was the Washington Bullets, who beat the Supersonics in Seattle. The Bullets won 105-89 behind center Wes Unseld, who was named MVP.

The Celtics did it twice – in 1974 against the Bucks in Milwaukee and.in 1969 against the Lakers at the Los Angeles Forum. In 1974, the road team won five times, including the last four games. The Celtics won 102-87 in what turned out to be Oscar Robertson’s final game.

In 1969, Boston, which finished in fourth place in the Eastern Division, came back to take the last two games as Russell outplayed Wilt Chamberlain. Boston held onto what had been a 17-point lead in the finale to win its 11th title 108-106.

Jerry West became the only player on a losing team to win Finals MVP. LA owner Jack Kent Cooke had thousands of balloons in the rafters ready to be released when the Lakers won. The balloons never came down.


The Last Champions

On October 14, 1908, a cool, crisp Wednesday afternoon in Detroit, the Chicago Cubs were sitting on top of the world after shutting out the Detroit Tigers, 2-0, to win their second straight World Series.

On a cold December 28th afternoon at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals outscored the Philadelphia Eagles, 28-21, to win the 1947 NFL championship.

Rochester’s Edgerton Park Sports Arena was the scene on April 21, 1951, when the Rochester Royals beat the New York Knickerbockers, 79-75, to win the NBA title after nearly blowing a 3-0 lead in the series.

Ten years later shy five days, the Chicago Blackhawks won the 1961 Stanley Cup, their third NHL title, skating past the Detroit Red Wings, 5-1, at the Olympia in the Motor City.

Longest Droughts

In each case, these championships marked a moment frozen in time — the last franchise championships for each of these star-crossed franchises. None of them has won a title since, marking the longest droughts in each of their respective sports.

The foibles of the Cubs have been well-documented; this year marks their 100th since that 1908 title.

The Cardinals moved to St, Louis and later Arizona, and have never won another NFL championship or appeared in the Super Bowl.

The Royals hopscotched West, first to Cincinnati, and then on to Kansas City, Omaha and eventually Sacramento in 1985, changing their name to the Kings along the way.

And the Blackhawks remain the last of the “Original Six” NHL franchises to win the Stanley Cup.

Tinkers to Evers to Chance
In 1908, the Cubs became the first team to win consecutive World Series. Right-hander Orval Overall pitched a three-hit shutout for his second win of the Series, with manager Frank Chance and Johnny Evers (two of the triumvirate of Tinker to Evers to Chance) driving in the only runs. Only 6,210, the smallest crowd in World Series history, were on hand in game five at Detroit’s Bennett Park to witness the Cubs last championship.

The double-play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance inspired a “sad lexicon” written by Franklin Pierce, a writer with the New York Times:

These are the saddest of possible words … Tinker to Evers to Chance … A trio of bear Cubs and fleeter than birds … Tinker to Evers to Chance … Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble … Making a Giant hit into a double … Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble … Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

The Cubs had to beat the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan to win the pennant and go on to the World Series. Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown won that playoff game, and earned the other two Cub victories in the Series.

The Cubs would go on to win National League pennants in 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945, only to lose the World Series each time. They haven’t been back in 63 years, since losing to the Tigers in seven games in 1945.

‘Million Dollar Backfield’
In 1947, Cardinal running backs Charley Trippi and Elmer Angsman each scored a pair of touchdowns as Chicago outscored the Philadelphia Eagles. Playing on an icy field in Chicago, Charley wore basketball shoes for better traction and totaled 206 yards, including 102 yards on two punt returns. He scored touchdowns on a 44-yard run and a 75-yard punt return.

Angsman scored twice on runs of 70 yards each. Angsman finished the game with 10 carries for 159 yards. His 15.9 yard per carry average is still an NFL post-season record (10 carries or more).

Trippi and Angsman joined quarterback Paul Christman and backs Marshall Goldberg and Pat Harder in what Cardinals’ owner Charles Bidwill dubbed his “Million-dollar backfield.” Jimmy Conzelman coached this collection of stars.

The Cardinals returned to the NFL Championship Game the following year, where they lost to the Eagles, 7-0, in a snowstorm in Philadelphia. They haven’t been back since.

Royals Survive Scare
In 1951, the Rochester Royals would beat the Fort Wayne Pistons in two straight before beating finally beating the Minneapolis Lakers in four games to reach the NBA Finals. There Rochester jumped out to a 3-0 lead, only to see the Knicks rally and force a game seven. Rochester’s Bob Davies made a pair of free throws late in the game to break a tie, and the Royals went on to a 79-75 victory and the only championship in the history of the franchise.

Arnie Risen led the Royals in scoring in 1951 with 16.3 points per game, just ahead of Davies at 15.2. Red Holzman, who would lead the Knicks to their only NBA titles in 1970 and 1973, was a guard with the Royals.

No Dynasty for Blackhawks
When the BlackHawks vanquished the Red Wings in 1961, it marked Chicago’s first title since the Cardinals won the 1947 NFL title.

With goalie Glenn Hall, winger Bobby Hull and center Stan Mikita, it appeared that the Blackhawks might have the makings of a dynasty to rival the Montreal Canadiens, whose run of five straight Stanley Cups ended with Chicago’s triumph. The Hawks knocked off Montreal in six games in the NHL semifinals.

The Hawks were foiled twice — in 1971 and 1973 — by Montreal in the final round. The team returned to the Stanley Cup finals in 1992, but was swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Other Long Losers

In recent years, both the Red Sox and the White Sox have ended long dry spells with World Series championships — 86 years for the Red Sox and 88 years for the Pale Hose. Other than the Cubs, the Cleveland Indians have the longest championship drought in baseball. The Tribe last won in 1948, when they beat the Boston Braves in six games.

As far as expansion teams, the longest droughts belong to the Washington Senators (now Texas Rangers), who joined the league in 1961 and never won a pennant, and the Houston Astros, class of 1962, who won their only National League pennant in 2005 but lost the World Series — to the White Sox.

The St. Louis Hawks, who moved to Atlanta in 1968, won their only NBA championship in 1958. The Detroit Lions won their last NFL title in 1957, when they beat the Cleveland Browns, 59-14. In the old American Football League, the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) won the first two AFL crowns in 1960 and 1961, and haven’t won since.

In the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs won their last Stanley Cup in 1967, the year before the league’s first expansion. The St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings, each of whom entered the NHL in 1968, have never won a Stanley Cup.