Biggest Long Shots in Sports History
In sports, there are long shots that go above and beyond that one day or that one game. That means championships — both for teams and individuals. That means some of the greatest one-game upsets in the history of sports, sure, but they also were part of something bigger.
These are the greatest long shots in sports history.
25. Detroit Pistons (2004)
Why they were a long shot: The Los Angeles Lakers, featuring four Hall of Famers, were trying to win their third title in four years. They advanced to face the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, a ragtag group of journeymen led by veteran coach Larry Brown.
Bottom line: The Pistons built their identity around point guard Chauncey Billups and defense. They set an NBA record by holding five consecutive opponents under 70 points during the regular season, but with the No. 3 seed, they were not considered a favorite in the Eastern Conference yet still advanced to the NBA Finals.
Marketed as a David vs. Goliath series, the Lakers and Pistons split the first two games in Los Angeles. Returning home with the series tied 1-1, the Pistons held the Lakers to 68 points in Game 3 and swept three straight games in Detroit for the title.
It rocked the basketball world and put the nail in the coffin of the Lakers’ dynasty.
24. Goran Ivanisevic (2001)
Why they were a long shot: Multiple shoulder surgeries interrupted Croatian tennis star Goran Ivanisevic’s career in the late 1990s, and he entered Wimbledon in 2001 ranked as the No. 125 player in the world.
Bottom line: Goran Ivanisevic was ranked too low to gain an automatic entry to Wimbledon, but because of his past success there as a three-time runner-up, he was given a wild-card entry into the tournament.
Ivanisevic took down three former or future No. 1 players — Andy Murray, Marat Safin and Carlos Moya — on the way to the semifinals, where he took down local favorite Tim Henman. In the finals, Ivanisevic defeated Patrick Rafter to become the only wild-card entry in history to win Wimbledon.
Ivanisevic was greeted with a hero’s welcome when he returned to Croatia, with 150,000 fans and a parade of boats greeting him at the local harbor. How’d he celebrate? He stripped down and jumped into the Adriatic Sea.
23. Japan Olympic Softball (2008)
Why they were a long shot: Team Japan was an afterthought to Team USA’s coronation in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where the U.S. team was chasing a fourth straight gold medal.
Bottom line: Headed into 2008, the only team to win a gold medal in softball was Team USA.
Knowing 2008 would be the last time softball was an Olympic sport — both it and baseball were voted out at the same time — Team USA was the overwhelming favorite. The Americans had won 22 straight Olympic games dating back to 2000 and had outscored opponents in 2008, 57-2.
Pitcher Yukiko Ueno threw a complete game in the championship for a 3-1 win, just one day after pitching 21 innings. Instead of a legacy of invisibility, the last memory of Team USA was historical defeat.
22. Dallas Mavericks (2011)
Why they were a long shot: The overwhelming (and only) favorite to win the NBA championship was the Miami Heat in their first season with the superstar trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Bottom line: LeBron James did himself no favors in claiming the Heat would win six NBA titles when he signed with the team in 2010, but the Mavericks weren’t much better off.
Their superstar forward, Dirk Nowitzki, had developed a reputation as a playoff choke artist after 2007, when the Mavs earned the No. 1 seed and lost to the No. 8 Warriors in the first round.
The Mavericks entered the 2011 playoffs as the No. 3 seed, beat the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers, then orchestrated one of the biggest comebacks in NBA Finals history to beat the Heat in Game 2.
The Mavs, playing with just one All-Star in Nowitzki, took down Miami in six games.
21. Fresno State Baseball (2008)
Sport: College baseball
Why they were a long shot: Fresno State was an underwhelming 33-27 during the regular season and were on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament when the postseason started.
Bottom line: The Bulldogs needed to win the Western Athletic Conference tournament just to make it to the NCAA tournament, and they swept their way to the WAC title and snuck into the Tempe Regional as a No. 4 seed.
Fresno State won that regional and earned a spot in the College World Series for the first time in 17 years, fighting off elimination game after game until they made it to the finals, where they took down the University of Georgia for the national title.
In all, the Fresno State Bulldogs won six times in elimination games on their improbable run to the title.
20. Greece Men's Soccer Team (2004)
Why they were a long shot: Greece’s national team entered the 2004 UEFA European Championship as a 150-to-1 longshot. Only Latvia had worse odds.
Bottom line: Greece was put in the "group of death" with host Portugal, Spain and Russia. Few expected the Greeks to even make it out of their group and into the quarterfinals.
Greece’s rough defensive style rubbed a lot of traditional soccer fans the wrong way, but they battled all the way into the finals against host Portugal. Angelos Charisteas scored in the 57th minute to give Greece a 1-0 victory in one of the more shocking soccer upsets in history and the exact same score as all of their victories in the knockout stage.
Portugal became the first host country to lose in a Euro final.
19. Tennessee Women's Basketball (1987)
Sport: Women’s basketball
Why they were a long shot: The University of Tennessee was far from the dynasty it would become, and national power Louisiana Tech was heavily favored in the NCAA championship game.
Bottom line: Legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt had not won an NCAA title despite three trips to the Final Four, but she had a very simple, sound philosophy: Her teams would outwork everyone they played.
Led by stars Bridgitte Gordon and Tonya Edwards, the Volunteers rolled to a 67-44 win over Louisiana Tech for the first of eight national titles under Summitt.
How tough was Summitt? When she announced she had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2011, she told reporters: "There isn’t going to be any pity party. I’ll make sure of that."
She died in 2012 at 64 years old and is thought of as one of the greatest coaches of all time, regardless of sport.
18. Washington Nationals (2019)
Why they were a long shot: The Nationals were an afterthought heading into the season following the loss of "generational talent" Bryce Harper in free agency, and the franchise had lost in the first round in all four of the Nationals' previous playoff series.
Bottom line: The Nationals started the season 19-31 before getting it together and earning a wild-card spot with a 74-38 finish. They trailed 3-1 to the Brewers in the wild card and rallied to win. They trailed 2-1 in the best-of-five NLDS against the Dodgers before winning on an extra-innings grand slam.
Facing the 107-win Houston Astros in the World Series, the Nationals were huge underdogs but won all four games in Houston, including rallying from a 2-0 deficit to win Game 7, 6-3.
It was the first World Series title in franchise history and the first time in pro sports history that the road team won all seven games in the playoffs.
17. Boise State Football (2006)
Sport: College football
Why they were a long shot: Boise State beat five bowl-bound teams in the regular season, going 12-0 and earning a spot in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, where they were heavy underdogs to powerhouse University of Oklahoma.
Bottom line: Boise State was only the second team outside of the Power Five conferences to be invited to play in a BCS bowl game, and the invite was perceived more like a pat on the back for a good season.
The Broncos' audacious play calls in the final minutes of regulation and overtime are the stuff of legend. First, a hook-and-lateral for a touchdown to tie the game at the end of regulation.
Then, a pass by a wide receiver for a touchdown to tie the game in overtime.
And a "Statue of Liberty" play for the two-point conversion, 43-42 win and a perfect 13-0 season.
16. Texas Western Men's Basketball (1966)
Sport: Men’s basketball
Why they were a long shot: By 1966, there were still some pockets of college basketball that believed a team like Texas Western, which featured mostly African-American players, could not win a national title.
Bottom line: Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) rejected the notion teams in Southern states should have no more than two African-American players. Head coach Don Haskins put seven on the roster.
The Miners went into the NCAA tournament with a 23-1 record and a season’s worth of battling racism at every turn. They advanced to the NCAA championship game in College Park, Maryland, as heavy underdogs against the all-white University of Kentucky Wildcats and legendary coach Adolf Rupp.
Texas Western’s attacking style overwhelmed Kentucky on the way to a 72-65 win that changed basketball forever. The Miners’ story was depicted in the 2006 box-office hit "Glory Road" starring Josh Lucas.
15. Los Angeles Dodgers (1988)
Why they were a long shot: The Dodgers lost 10 of 11 games to the New York Mets in the regular season before facing them in the National League Championship Series.
Bottom line: The Mets were heavy favorites and trying for their second World Series title in three years, having won the NL East by 15 games over the Pirates. They were no match for the Dodgers and pitcher Orel Hershisher, who picked up a save and a complete-game shutout in Game 7.
In the World Series, the Dodgers faced Oakland A’s, who were heavy favorites with the "Bash Brothers" of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Severely injured National League MVP Kirk Gibson, in his only at-bat of the series, hit a walk-off home run in Game 1, rounding the bases in one of the most iconic moments in sports history.
The Dodgers won the World Series in five games.
14. Toronto Maple Leafs (1942)
Why they were a long shot: The Toronto Maple Leafs trailed the Detroit Red Wings, 3-0, in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Finals — a deficit no team had managed to rally from in 50 years of the Stanley Cup.
Bottom line: The Maple Leafs seemed doomed for a sweep after dropping the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final, but head coach Hap Day flipped the script in Game 4.
Day changed his lineup around, using backups in place of starters, a strategy that so frustrated Detroit coach Jack Adams that he punched a referee at the end of the game and incited a near riot in Detroit. Adams was suspended for the rest of the series, and Toronto reeled off three straight wins before Game 7 in Toronto, when a record 16,000 fans packed into Maple Leafs Gardens to watch the Maple Leafs’ 3-1 win.
It’s still the only time a pro sports team has rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the championship round.
13. North Carolina State Men's Basketball (1983)
Sport: Men’s basketball
Why they were a long shot: The University of Houston featured two future Hall of Famers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, and was favored by almost 10 points in the NCAA championship game against North Carolina State.
Bottom line: North Carolina State wasn’t turning many heads with a No. 6 seed entering the NCAA tournament, but the Wolfpack pulled off a series of upsets behind head coach Jim Valvano to advance to the Final Four.
With time running down and the game tied, North Carolina State’s Derrick Whittenburg tossed a desperation shot from 35 feet that was coming up several feet short of the rim.
Quick-thinking Wolfpack center Lorenzo Charles went up, grabbed the airball with two hands and slammed it home as the buzzer sounded, for the win and the national title in one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.
12. Pittsburgh Pirates (1960)
Why they were a longshot: The New York Yankees won the World Series six times in the 1950s, and with five former MVPs on their roster in the 1960 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, they were overwhelming favorites.
Bottom line: The Yankees set the World Series record by scoring 55 runs in seven games, and by defeating the Pirates by 10 or more runs three times.
The Pirates, who only scored 27 runs in the series, squeaked out three wins to set up a deciding Game 7 in Pittsburgh. With the score tied 9-9 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run off Ralph Terry won the World Series for the Pirates.
It was the first time the World Series ended with a home run. It has happened just once more, when Toronto’s Joe Carter did it against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993.
11. Duke Blue Devils (1991)
Sport: Men’s basketball
Why they were a long shot: Upstart Duke was facing the undefeated, defending national champion, UNLV, in the national semifinals just one year after the Runnin' Rebels beat them by 30 points in the national championship game.
Bottom line: This was the game that started the Duke dynasty as we know it. Before 1991, Duke was 0-for-8 in the Final Four. Legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski was 0-for-4 and playing in his fifth straight Final Four.
UNLV entered the game on a 45-game winning streak and with National Player of the Year Larry Johnson, whom Duke double-teamed all game and held to 13 points. Duke’s Christian Laettner hit a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left to seal the 79-77 win, pulling off arguably the biggest upset in Final Four history.
Two days later, Duke beat Kansas 72-65 for the first of back-to-back national titles.
10. New York Giants (2008)
Why they were a long shot: The New York Giants snuck into the NFC playoffs with a 10-6 record. Waiting for them in Super Bowl XLII was a team chasing history — the unbeaten New England Patriots.
Bottom line: Not only were the Patriots 18-0 and trying to become just the second team to complete an unbeaten season after the 1972 Dolphins, but quarterback Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were 3-0 in Super Bowls.
This was not just the Patriots' best team, but they were being talked about as the best team in NFL history.
The Giants had a simple plan — hit Brady over and over again, giving the directive to the defensive line to rotate constantly so bodies were always fresh. The Giants sacked Brady five times, held the Patriots to 274 yards total offense.
That and David Tyree’s famous "helmet catch" on the game-winning drive gave the Giants a 17-14 win.
9. Ben Curtis (2003)
Why they were a long shot: Ben Curtis entered the 2003 British Open as a 300-to-1 long shot to win after a 13th place tie in the Western Open qualified him for his first major championship.
Bottom line: Ben Curtis shot a 72 in back-to-back rounds to open the British Open and found himself tied with seven others for fourth place.
He shot a 70 in the third round to move into a tie for third, then shot a 69 in the final round to top Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh by one stroke.
No golfer had won in their major championship debut since Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open and wouldn’t again until Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship in 2011.
8. New York Jets (1969)
Why they were a long shot: The AFL’s New York Jets and brash quarterback Joe Namath were 18-point underdogs to the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III after blowout losses by AFL teams in the first two Super Bowls.
Bottom line: Days before the game, Namath spoke at the Miami Touchdown Club and guaranteed a win over the Colts. Today, this would be considered complete insanity. In 1969, it was even worse.
The Jets’ roster, dotted with cast-offs from other teams, was an afterthought. Namath led the Jets to a 16-0 lead, and they held off the Colts for a 16-7 win that shook the foundations of the game.
The aftereffects were profound. The upset win brought sports gambling into the national spotlight, turned the Super Bowl into a national obsession and, most importantly, doubled the league’s next television contract.
7. Olympic Wrestler Rulon Gardner (2000)
Sport: Greco-Roman wrestling
Why they were a longshot: The heavyweight division in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney belonged to one man — Aleksandr Karelin, a three-time gold medalist for the Soviet Union and Russia.
Bottom line: Wyoming farmboy Rulon Gardner was a two-time U.S. heavyweight champion in 1995 and 1997. The only other big item on his resume heading into the 2000 Olympics was a fourth-place finish at the 1993 NCAA championships wrestling for the University of Nebraska.
When Gardner and Karelin met in the Olympic finals, Karelin hadn’t lost in 13 years and hadn’t given up a point in six years. Gardner became the talk of the sports world with a 1-0 victory over Karelin in one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all time.
Karelin retired after the match with a career record of 887-2. Gardner was named the U.S Amateur Athlete of the Year and won the ESPY for U.S. Male Olympic Athlete of the Year.
6. New York Mets (1969)
Why they were a long shot: The expansion New York Mets had never finished higher than ninth place before making it to the World Series to face the Baltimore Orioles, considered one of the greatest teams of all time.
Bottom line: The "Miracle Mets" pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in World Series history, defeating the Orioles 4-1 in a seven-game series — after losing the first game of the series in Baltimore.
In Game 3, a little-known Mets pitcher named Nolan Ryan, threw 2.1 innings to earn the save in his only career World Series appearance. In Game 4, Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda made "The Catch."
The Orioles, with a lineup that included future Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer, would win 108 games in 1970 and cruise to a World Series win over the Cincinnati Reds.
5. New England Patriots (2002)
Why they were a long shot: The Patriots were 14-point underdogs heading into Super Bowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams, who were trying to win their second title in three years.
Bottom line: New England lost starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe to injury and plugged sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady into the lineup in the second week of the season. Two decades later, Brady still has the job.
Tied 17-17 with 1:30 left in the Super Bowl against the Rams, Brady guided the Patriots into field-goal range to set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning, 48-yard kick as time expired.
It was the first of four Super Bowl MVP awards for Brady, and the first of nine Super Bowl trips for the quarterback and head coach Bill Belichick, who have come away with six wins.
4. Uruguay National Soccer Team (1950)
Why they were a longshot: Uruguay’s men’s national soccer team was an afterthought when they faced host Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro.
Bottom line: An estimated 200,000 fans packed into every corner of Maracana Stadium for the World Cup final, all convinced they were about to witness the start of the greatest party their country had ever seen. It wasn’t to be.
Uruguay captain Obdulio Varelo’s pregame speech is the stuff of legend (it finished with "let’s start the show"), and Alcides Ghiggia’s goal with 11 minutes left gave Uruguay a 2-1 victory. In Brazil, the loss is looked at more like a national tragedy than a sporting event, and is referred to as "Maracanazo," which roughly translates to "the agony of Maracana."
It also led a handful of fans to take their own lives following the World Cup.
3. Villanova Men's Basketball (1985)
Sport: Men’s basketball
Why they were a long shot: Villanova made the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed and clawed its way to the championship game, where it faced Big East foe, No. 1 seed and defending national champion Georgetown.
Bottom line: Georgetown, after already beating Villanova twice in the regular season, was a 9-point favorite in the championship game.
Villanova played what basketball pundits have called "The Perfect Game" on the way to a 66-64 victory, shooting a stunning 78 percent from the field, including 90 percent in the second half.
What else was perfect about the game? The way Villanova ran its offense in a pre-shot clock era, running over a minute off the clock on several key possessions.
Georgetown center Patrick Ewing was outplayed by Final Four Most Outstanding Player Ed Pinckney, who was giving up four inches to the future No. 1 overall pick.
Villanova remains the lowest-seeded team to win the NCAA tournament.
2. Leicester City (2016)
Why they were a long shot: The odds against Leicester City winning the Premier League championship before the 2016 season were 5,000-to-1.
Bottom line: For 111 years, Leicester City seemed to constantly teeter on the brink of relegation or promotion. Some years, they were the second-most popular pro sports team in their own city, behind the Leicester Tigers rugby club. And the soccer club had never even sniffed a Premier League title.
That’s why what happened in 2016 is still so hard to comprehend. Leicester City beat astronomical odds (it’s 2,000-to-1 that Elvis is still alive) to win the Premier League for the first time, taking down clubs like Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri's team clinched with two games left when Tottenham Hotspur was held to a 2-2 draw by Chelsea.
According to the Daily Telegraph, five people placed money on Leicester City at 5,000-to-1, with one man making $75,000 on a $50 bet after he took an early buyout.
1. Team USA Hockey (1980)
Why they were a long shot: Team USA was a mish-mash of college stars led by a former college coach, Herb Brooks. Their impossible task? Taking down the four-time defending Olympic gold-medal team from the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Bottom line: On Feb. 22, 1980, in Lake Placid, New York, Team USA faced the Russians in the Olympic semifinals, just months after the Russians had destroyed the Americans, 10-3, in an exhibition game.
Team USA rallied from a 3-2 deficit in the third period for a 4-3 win, inspiring broadcaster Al Michaels’ famous line: "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" It was perhaps the greatest sports moment in U.S. history and the greatest upset in sports history.
Team USA defeated Finland in the next game for the gold medal.