ATLANTA — On the sports misery index, Atlanta and Cleveland are hard to beat.
The two cities have combined for one championship over the last half-century — and that came in 1995, when the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.
So, you know, one of them had to win.
Otherwise, they’ve come up with plenty of excruciating ways to come up short.
With the Atlanta Hawks taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, let’s take a look at some of the lowlights:
THE DRIVE AND THE FUMBLE
The Cleveland Browns have never reached the Super Bowl. In the 1987 AFC championship game, they led 20-13 and had Denver backed up on its own 2-yard line. John Elway engineered one of the most memorable drives in NFL history, going 98 yards for the tying touchdown with 37 seconds left in regulation, and Denver won in overtime. The teams again met in the conference final the following year. With the Broncos clinging to a 38-31 lead, Earnest Byner got loose for what looked to be the tying score, only to be stripped of the ball at the 2. The Broncos recovered to preserve the victory.
BRAVES BLOW IT
Coming off their 1995 World Series championship, the Braves won the first two games of the 1996 Series at Yankee Stadium by a combined score of 16-1. New York won the next four and the championship, most notably rallying from a 6-0 deficit in Game 4 when Jim Leyritz hit a tying three-run homer off Mark Wohlers. The Braves would go on to claim a record 14 straight division titles, but never came so close to winning another title.
THREE OUTS AWAY
Talk about close. Two years after losing to the Braves, Cleveland was three outs away from winning the ’97 World Series, leading Florida 2-1 going to the bottom of the ninth. Jose Mesa gave up the tying run, and the Marlins won in the 11th on Edgar Renteria’s two-out single off the glove of pitcher Charles Nagy.
Michael Vick was one of the most exciting players the NFL has ever seen, a quarterback with a rifle arm and a sprinter’s speed. He guided the Falcons to the NFC championship game but his Atlanta career came crashing down in 2007 after he acknowledged running a dogfighting operation. Vick served time in federal prison and never played again for the Falcons.
Since entering the NFL in 1966, the Falcons have been an infrequent playoff team. Still, there are some postseason losses that really sting. Like blowing a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead at home to Dallas in 1981. Or, when hosting the NFC championship game in 2013, squandering a 17-point lead to San Francisco and coming up 10 yards short of the potential winning touchdown on their final possession. Then, of course, there was Atlanta’s only trip to the Super Bowl in 1999. Safety Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the game and got beat for a long touchdown in Denver’s 34-19 victory.
The Browns were not just Cleveland’s NFL team, they were a part of the city’s fabric. That’s why it hurt so badly when owner Art Modell, rebuffed in his bid for a new stadium, moved the Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season. At least Cleveland got to keep its history; Modell’s team was renamed the Ravens, while the Browns returned to the NFL with a new team and stadium in 1999.
LeBron James was Cleveland’s hometown hero, helping transform the Cavaliers into one of the NBA’s top franchises.
After several playoff flops, he signed with Miami in 2010 — announcing the move in a much-panned television special known as “The Decision.” The King would win two titles in four years with the Heat, while Cleveland had a 26-game losing streak in 2010-11. But like the Browns, James returned to his roots by re-signing with the Cavaliers. Once again, he has Cleveland tantalizingly close to its first NBA title.
The Hawks looked like a team on the rise in the 1980s, assembling a high-flying roster led by future Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins. In the 1988 playoffs, Atlanta took a 3-2 lead on Larry Bird and the aging Boston Celtics, with the potential clinching game at the Omni. Trailing by two points, the Hawks couldn’t get the ball to Wilkins for a game-tying shot, forcing Cliff Levingston to put up an awkward attempt that missed. The Celtics wrapped up the series in Game 7 after an epic duel between Bird and Wilkins.
STEPIEN’S REIGN OF TERROR
Ted Stepien bought the Cavaliers in 1980 and thought the best way to build a winner was by trading first-round picks for aging players. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. Cleveland started the 1981-82 season with 19 consecutive losses and finished 15-67, one of the worst seasons in NBA history. Stepien eventually sold out after threatening to move the Cavs to Toronto. The NBA passed a rule that prohibits the trading of first-round picks in consecutive years, known appropriately enough as the “Ted Stepien Rule.”
Atlanta was the first Deep South city to land a major league hockey team in 1972. The Flames were an early hit, but the fire quickly burned out; they moved to Calgary in 1980. Nineteen years later, the NHL granted another expansion team, the Thrashers. Like their predecessor, they never won a playoff series, eventually moving to Winnipeg in 2011 to make Atlanta the only city in the NHL’s modern era to lose two teams. And Cleveland? It had the largely forgotten Barons for two years in the 1970s, a team that won less than 30 percent of its games and quickly went out of business.