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Top Five: Most Heartbreaking Moments in Arizona Sports History

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Arizona's most heartbreaking sports moments. Warning - it gets depressing.

Following the United States soccer team falling out of the World Cup I feel that we've officially entered the dog days of summer. The D-Backs took 2 of 3 from the Rays - including a no-hitter from Edwin Jackson - but it's fairly well acknowledged that it was the high point of a lost season.

Talking NBA free agency already makes me want to bang my head against a brick wall while the Cardinals are still a month away from training camp so it's time to get creative.

Let's concentrate on pain.

Arizona hasn't exactly been a state of champions but we have had our share of rough losses. Since pessimism and living in a pool of sports negativity is one of my more charming traits I've decided to put together a list of the 5 most heartbreaking moments in Arizona sports history. There's nothing else going on so just bask in the trip down depression lane.

But first, the criteria:

1) Has to be a "moment" - We've definitely had our share of heartbreaking losses as Arizona sports fans. Yet for this list, the loss itself isn't enough. It has to be connected to a shot, a hit, a catch, or something like that.  

2) Has to have actually occurred during the game - I had this conversation with the bearded Justin Burning on Friday as he was trying to convince me that the Horry hip check of Steve Nash in 2007 should count. However, think about it like this - what was the moment in that situation which broke your heart? Though Stoudemire and Diaw left the bench it could still have been argued that they weren't going to get suspended. Thus the heartbreaking moment occurred a day later in an office in New York when David Stern decried that the two Suns forwards would be suspended.

3) Has to have actually been significant - Not clear enough? I'll use an example. Take Game 1 of the 2008 NBA playoffs as an example. The Suns lost Game 1 of their first round series to the Spurs in which Michael Finley and Tim Duncan hit game-tying three pointers. But say the Suns win the game, do they win the series? Possibly. Could they have beaten the Hornets in the second round? I'd say no since they swept the Suns during the season. Maybe you're the confident type and think they could get by NOH, would they have a chance to beat the Lakers and Celtics? Unless you're drinking the Suns Kool-Aid at a Heaven's Gate-like rate, the answer is a clear no.

On with the list. Take it away, Scott.

Honorable mention - 2010 Western Conference Finals: Game 5 Suns @ Lakers: Ron Artest catches a Kobe Bryant airball and sends the Suns to the brink of elimination.  It was sad.

5) Arizona Diamondbacks @ New York Mets - Game 4, 1999 National League Division Series

The Setup:

In just the second season for the franchise, the D-Backs added Randy Johnson, Matt Williams, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, Tony Womack, and (midseason) Matt Mantei and saw their win total jump from 65 to 100.  The 100-62 record gave Buck Showalter's D-Backs the 2nd best record in all of baseball and set them up for a date with the Wild Card winning New York Mets.

In the first game of their first playoff appearance, the Mets managed to get to Cy Young winner Randy Johnson. Though the D-Backs rallied, New York used a game breaking grand slam from Edgardo Alfonzo in the ninth inning to take a 1-0 series lead. 

The teams split the next 2 games of the series and the Mets entered Game 4 with a chance to win the series. Arizona took a 3-2 lead in the top of the 8th inning on a Jay Bell double but New York tied it up in the bottom of the inning and took the game to extras.  

The Moment:

Arizona had no luck against John Franco in the top of the 10th and with one out in New York's time at bat, Todd Pratt came to the dish to face Matt Mantei. 

Pratt had started Games 3 and 4 in place of the injured Mike Piazza and was 0/7 with a pair of walks to that point in the series.  Though Mantei had been basically lights out as a Diamondback and Pratt hit just 49 home runs in his 14 season MLB career - Pratt got the best of this encounter. 

The Mets backup catcher cracked a drive to deep center field that eluded the grasp of center fielder Steve Finley and ended the series

The Aftermath:

Well, it ended the series.  But the primary reason I've included it on this list is because had the D-Backs pulled off a win in Game 4 they would have headed back to Bank One Ballpark for a decisive Game 5 with Randy Johnson on the mound. 

Realizing the Mets had already beat him once, I would have taken the Big Unit's chances with a second shot.  Sure the Braves and the Yankees would have been the next two teams on the horizon but Atlanta wasn't unbeatable and the D-Backs certainly stood more than a puncher's chance against the Yanks. 

The majority of the 1999 D-Backs core added Curt Schilling the next season and managed to win the World Series in 2001.  All's well that ends well. 

4) Houston Rockets @ Phoenix Suns - Game 7, 1995 Western Conference Semifinals

The Setup:

The Suns had won 59 games during the 1994-95 season to the Rockets 47 wins.  During the previous season, the Rockets had won their first NBA championship and done so by going through the Suns in the Western Conference Semifinals after falling behind 2-0. 

Theoretically having learned their lesson from the year before, the Suns sprinted out to a 3-1 series lead this time, including a wild 43 point performance from Kevin Johnson in Game 4. Houston took Game 5 back in Phoenix and then claimed Game 6 to force a deciding seventh game.

Game 7 was a classic in which both team's stars were playing sports at an above average level. Both Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler put up 29 points while Charles Barkley posted 23 rebounds and Kevin Johnson scored 46 points. But it wasn't a star that decided this game.

The Moment:

With 21.6 seconds remaining in the game, Kevin Johnson stepped to the line with the Suns down 1.  KJ had hit all of his 21 free throw attempts during the game until he missed the 2nd of his 2 shots. The Rockets took the opportunity and capitalized.

Kenny Smith received the inbounds pass and found Robert Horry (see he still made the list) just before the half court line. Horry took a couple dribbles up and launched a cross court pass to a waiting and wide open Mario Elie. Open due to what appeared to be slow defensive rotation, Elie stroked a corner three with 7.1 seconds left and blew a kiss to the Suns bench.

The Aftermath:

The "Kiss of Death" from Elie wasn't the exact end of the game as the teams traded a pair of free throws. Phoenix had the ball down 3 with 3.5 seconds left but the Rockets opted to foul instead of letting the Suns attempt a three.

Danny Ainge hit his first free throw but failed in his attempt to miss his second (aka he made it) and the ball turned back to Houston. Although Ainge intercepted the inbounds pass, his 60+ foot shot was too hard and the Rockets won the game, the series, and went on to win the NBA Championship again.

In the off-season, Bryan Colangelo decided the Suns needed a center to contend with Olajuwon and David Robinson in the West. Sadly he decided that center should be Hot Rod Williams and gave up Dan Majerle and a first round pick to get him. Phoenix won 41 games the next season and an era was over.

3) Arizona State Sun Devils v. Ohio State Buckeyes - 1997 Rose Bowl

The Setup:

Prior to the 1996 season, Arizona State's football team had not won more than 6 games since 1987. Head coach Bruce Snyder was entering his fifth season and expectations were certainly not sky high - despite the presence of quarterback Jake Plummer.

All that changed in the third week of the season when the 17th ranked Sun Devils took on top ranked and back to back national championship winning Nebraska - and shut them out 19-0. The win propelled ASU to a top 10 ranking which they would retain for the rest of the season.

The Devils earned a Rose Bowl berth and entered bowl season as one of just two undefeated teams in all of college football. Florida State - the other undefeated team - was yet to play their bowl game against Florida when ASU and Ohio State took the field.

ASU took a 17-14 lead on a Jake Plummer scramble with 1:40 left in the game.

The Moment:

Ohio State was led on their final drive by Mesa Mountain View High School product Joe Germaine - a fact making his drive to defeat the Sun Devils all the more crushing. ASU committed two pass interference penalties on the last drive and Germaine found Dimitrious Stanley on a pair of third down conversions to lead the Buckeyes down to the Devils 5 yard line.

Now down to 24 seconds, Ohio State receiver David Boston faked ASU corner Courtney Jackson out of his jock and walked into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.

The Aftermath:

ASU actually blocked the Ohio State extra point attempt to keep the team within a field goal.  Yet there was not enough time for the Devils to even get close to scoring. 

To make matters even more depressing, Florida upset Florida State the next day and due to the Arizona State loss, Florida won the national championship.  While the 32 point margin of victory for the Gators was impressive, I would be hard pressed to think that ASU wouldn't have won the title if they'd finished off Ohio State.  Ouch. 

2) Chicago Bulls @ Phoenix Suns - Game 6 , 1993 NBA Finals

The Setup:

In the wake of multiple "right there" seasons for the Suns, the franchise went out and acquired all-star forward Charles Barkley in the summer of 1992.  With Barkley aboard and in MVP form, the Suns cruised to 62 wins and the best record in the NBA. 

Phoenix rallied past the Lakers in the first round, beat the Spurs on a Barkley game winning jumper, and took down the Sonics in 7 to make just their second NBA Finals in franchise history.

Having to face the two-time defending champion Chicago Bulls wasn't the most friendly assignment and when the Suns lost the first two games of the series at home, all looked relatively lost. But the Suns managed to win a thrilling triple overtime contest in Game 3 and also Game 5 to take the series back to Phoenix.

Chicago controlled the majority of the first three quarters of Game 6 but the Suns managed to rally and held a 98-94 lead with 38 seconds left in the game. A bald Chicago guard made a driving lay-up to cut the lead to 2 and Dan Majerle missed a baseline 15 footer on the Suns next possession.

The Moment:

Now trailing by just two and having the ball, the champs were ready for work.  Jordan took the ball first, and kicked it to Scottie Pippen.  Pippen drove the lane and passed to Horace Grant cutting towards the basket. For some god forsaken reason, Danny Ainge decided to help on Horace Grant leaving John Paxson wide open for a three pointer from the left side.  Paxson buried the three to give Chicago the lead.

The Aftermath:

At this point the Suns trailed 99-98 with 3.9 seconds remaining in their NBA Finals.  Kevin Johnson received a pass from Oliver Miller and cut through the lane but had his running free throw line jumper partially blocked by Horace Grant as time expired. 

The Bulls won their third straight championship and though Jordan retired the Suns were unable to make it back to the Finals, much less win that elusive championship in his time away.  As every single human being reading this blog already knows...the Suns haven't been to the Finals since.

1) Arizona Cardinals v. Pittsburgh Steelers - Super Bowl XLIII

The Setup:

Though they had gone just 9-7 during the regular season - including unholy ass kickings at the hands of the Patriots and Eagles - the Cardinals won the NFC West and entered the playoffs for the first time since 1998.  Then in likely the most exhilarating playoff run in Arizona sports history, the Cards took down the Falcons, Panthers, and Eagles on their way to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. 

Three quarters deep in that Super Bowl, the Cardinals found themselves trailing Pittsburgh 20-7 and looked to be in trouble town USA.  Larry Fitzgerald was uninformed of this decision. 

Following a furious rally that culminated with Fitzgerald going 64 yards down the middle of the field, the Cardinals were up 23-20 and stood just 2:37 from a Super Bowl win.  Life was so good! 

I didn't even have to look back through the game log to remember what happened here.  Arizona had Pittsburgh in a 3rd and 6 situation that the Steelers obviously converted.  After a couple more complete passes the Steelers found themselves in Cards territory with a 2nd and 6. 

On the next play, Ben Roesthlisberger found Santonio Holmes for what would have been a moderate gain until Cards safety Aaron Francisco took a terrible route to the ball and fell, allowing Holmes to march down to the Cardinals 6 yard line. 

The Moment:

It's burned into my brain.  It still scars me to this very day, and it was what I consider the most painful moment in Arizona sports history. 

Roetlisberger took the snap, moved slightly to his right and fired a bullet to the back of the end zone to a waiting Holmes.  Notwithstanding the outstretched arms of Ralph Brown and the presence of Francisco and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Holmes caught the ball and managed to get both feet down inbounds (or so it has been ruled). Absolutely soul crushing.

The Aftermath:

With just 35 seconds remaining on the clock and a pair of timeouts the Cards made it down to the Steelers 44 yard line.  Now out of timeouts and down to 15 seconds Kurt Warner dropped back to pass for a possible hail mary attempt.  Unfortunately for Arizona, Lamar Woodley stripped Warner, the Steelers recovered the ball and ended the Super Bowl.  Not like there was any possiblity Fitzgerald could have come down with such a pass, right?

The Cardinals won the NFC West again in 2009 but were crushed by the Saints in the NFC Divisional round.  Kurt Warner retired following the loss so it may be a little while until the Cards next Super Bowl appearance.  I'd like to be alive.

That's my offering to you. What do you think? Agree? Disagree? I'm sure you have your own list - and if you don't comment on this story I'll consider it a personal insult. Share your pain, criticize that I ignored the 60's, 70's, and 80's (nothing jumped out to me), talk about Mr. Belvedere, just come hang out.