Aside from NCAA basketball, the only major American sport that utilizes an all-or-nothing single-elimination playoff is the NFL — in which higher-ranked teams gain advantages, like byes and home games, that don’t exist in the NCAA tourney. What would happen if other sports determined their champions in the style of March Madness? For one, the following historically great championship teams — which lost the first games of playoff series against opponents they eventually vanquished — would have gone home single-elimination losers.
2. The 1996 New York Yankees
In the first championship season of the Joe Torre–Derek Jeter Era, the Yanks lost the opener of both the AL Division Series (6-0 to the Texas Rangers) and the World Series (12-1 to the Atlanta Braves). Would a single-elimination playoff “choke” have prompted George Steinbrenner to fire Torre, demoralize a young and promising team, and prevent the most recent Yankees dynasty from ever happening? And, if so, is this the best argument for implementing a single-elimination playoff system in baseball?
3. The 1990-1991 Chicago Bulls
Another dynasty whose takeoff would’ve been aborted. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen began their first NBA Finals with a 93-91 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in Magic Johnson’s last Finals appearance. Magic’s AIDS-triggered retirement happened the next year, so in this scenario he would have had ended his last full season with a ring. (Though the Lakers conversely wouldn’t have won the 1985 and 1988 Finals in a single-elimination world. And they lost the first game of the conference finals in their 1980 title year as well. The difference between series and single-elimination tournaments is pretty big.)
4. The 1993-1994 New York Rangers
En route to Mark Messier’s crowning achievement, leading New York City’s beloved yet frustrating hockey team to their first Stanley Cup in over 50 years, the Rangers lost the opening game of both the Conference Finals (4-3 to the New Jersey Devils) and the Stanley Cup Finals (3-2 to the Vancouver Canucks). Single-elimination would have left Rangers fans still longing to drink from the Cup after what would now be a 70-year draught — Cubs territory.
5. The 2000-2001 Los Angeles Lakers
Defending champions Shaquille O’Neal (in his prime) and Kobe Bryant (in his ascendancy) lost 107-101 to the Philadelphia 76ers in game one of Allen Iverson’s only NBA Finals. Would losing a one-game Final have broken up the Shaq and Kobe partnership three years earlier with only one ring to show for it? Maybe, given the enmity already brewing between them. Meanwhile, Allen Iverson might have been remembered in a totally different light if his ball-dominating style had managed to produce a flash-in-the-pan championship à la Kemba Walker’s long-shot 2010 NCAA UConn team.
6. The 2004 Boston Red Sox
In a single-elimination world, the most famous baseball showdown of the last quarter-century would’ve been just another routine Yankees victory; the Bombers won Game 1 of this ALCS 10-7. Of course, if MLB had always employed single-game playoffs (which they did actually introduce last year in limited fashion, in the form of a two-team wild-card play-in), the Sox might not have been so notoriously cursed in the first place…
7. The 1975 Cincinnati Reds
The now-legendary Cincinnati “Big Red Machine,” featuring Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose, lost the first game of the famous ‘75 World Series — the Carlton Fisk Series — 6-0 to AL MVP Fred Lynn and the Red Sox. More like Big DEAD Machine.
8. The 1986-1987 Edmonton Oilers
Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, was on the way to hoisting a third Stanley Cup trophy with sidekicks Jari Kurri (whose name is, scientifically speaking, “the most ’80s name ever”) and Mark Messier — but his Oilers lost the opening game of the 1987 playoffs 5-2 to the Los Angeles Kings in what was then called the “Smythe Division Semi-Final.” They also lost the opener of the Campbell Conference Final 3-1 to the Detroit Red Wings. That’s twice they would’ve gotten bounced via early upset in a single-elimination playoff. Gretzky would still be considered a legend, of course; we’re mostly including this one because of the cool division and conference names the NHL used to have. “Smythe Division Semi-Final.”
9. The 1968-1969 Boston Celtics
In an NBA finals featuring seven Hall of Famers and ending (in the real world) with the last of Bill Russell’s 11 championships, the Celtics lost the first two games to Wilt Chamberlain’s Los Angeles Lakers. Would Chamberlain, kept out of the argument for “greatest player of all time” by his failures against Russell and the Celtics in the postseason, have a legacy more befitting his talent if he’d outdueled Russell head-to-head in a single-game finals? Maybe, but a one-game finals format would also have denied him his ring in 1972 against the Knicks.
10. The 1861-1865 Union Army
Before ultimately defeating the Confederacy, reunifying the nation, and abolishing slavery, Abraham Lincoln’s squad lost the battle that started the American Civil War at Fort Sumter, evacuating on April 14, 1861. Three months later, the Union suffered the war’s biggest early defeat in the First Battle of Bull Run. But wars aren’t decided by a single contest, so America is still one nation, divisible only by college basketball rivalries during the month of March.
CORRECTION: Bill Russell won 11 NBA titles. An earlier version of this story listed the wrong number. (3/28/13)