Heartbreak. It’s defined as crushing grief, anguish or distress. Fans of Washington’s four major sports teams know it better than anyone. Consider:
The knee of the Washington Redskins‘ prized rookie quarterback is shredded in a playoff game; he’s never the same.
A team once known as the Bullets – the Washington Wizards — becomes known for a gun incident.
Despite success in the regular season, the Washington Capitals fail to get past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since their lone trip to the Final in 1998.
The Washington Nationals win the National League East four times in the past six seasons but fail to win a playoff series.
It has been two long decades since the Washington Capitals lost in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. Since then, the city has watched a combined 70 seasons by its four pro sports teams pass without even an appearance in a conference championship. It’s the longest drought in North America.
Meanwhile, Boston’s four professional sports teams have combined to win 10 titles since 2001:
The Boston Celtics, who have won 17 championships in their storied history, break a 22-year drought by winning in 2008.
And then there’s the Boston Red Sox. They not only break the Curse of the Bambino, they blast it to pieces with three World Series titles since 2003.
“It’s bad enough that we’re not good at winning s— here,” said longtime Washington sports talk host Steve Czaban, 49. “To then compare it to Boston, with all they’ve got from the Patriots to the Red Sox to the Bruins and Celtics, it’s more humiliating. It’s the most championship-blessed city in the last 20 years, and we’re easily the worst. We’re the polar opposite.”
It has been 26 years since Washington celebrated a title. That ties it with Minneapolis for the longest drought among cities with at least three pro teams.
Perhaps Kirk Cousins, who’s the closest the Redskins have come to a franchise quarterback since Robert Griffin III tore his ACL, will do for Minnesota what he couldn’t do for Washington. And that, of course, would only increase the misery.
As would slugger Bryce Harper, who is in the final year of his deal with the Nationals, leaving for another city.
Or Alex Ovechkin finishing his Hall of Fame career without a Stanley Cup (or even an appearance in the Final).
It’s worth pointing out that from 1978 to ’98, Washington enjoyed five titles, compared to three for Boston.
“When I got [to Boston in 1993], all the teams were struggling,” former Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown said. “But soon enough, the sports in Boston took off, and I would say the Patriots — winning that first Super Bowl in 2001 — set the winning trend in this area. It’s been pretty unreal. It’s to the point now where the fans, and the expectations, are through the roof. Anything less than a championship for all four teams is now a disappointment.”
The Wizards and Capitals can end the drought this spring in the NBA and NHL playoffs. The Wizards are down 1-0 in their best-of-seven series against the Toronto Raptors with Game 2 on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Caps trail the Blue Jackets 2-0 with Game 3 set for Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio.
While the Washington teams are down in their series, Boston is off to a good start. The Celtics opened their seven-game series against the Bucks on Sunday with a dramatic 113-107 win in overtime. The Bruins also lead the Maple Leafs 2-1 with Game 4 on Thursday night.
Here’s a snapshot of the past two decades for each of the four pro sports team in Boston and Washington.
In each of the past two seasons, the Boston Red Sox won 93 games and the American League East title. And it wasn’t deemed a success.
For a franchise that once went 86 years without winning a World Series and a city that didn’t have a major professional sports championship between 1986 (Celtics) and 2002 (Patriots), expectations are impossibly high in Boston and for the Red Sox.
That’s what happens when you win three World Series in 14 years and the city’s four professional teams combine for 10 titles in 15 years. Around Boston, it’s World Series or bust. Making the playoffs isn’t nearly good enough, especially when you lose in the division series two years in a row, as the Red Sox have done.
“You guys expect a lot,” Red Sox pitcher David Price said in reference to Boston fans. “You’ve had a lot of championship teams. The Patriots have won a lot, the Celtics in ’08, the Bruins. You guys expect a lot, and guys coming into Boston know that.” The best way to deal with such a high-pressure environment? Simple, according to Price: “Go out there and win,” Price said. “Winning cures everything.”
Long-suffering Washington sports fans can’t really blame the Nationals, considering they didn’t arrive here until 2005. But since 2012, the Nats have contributed equal parts hope and misery.
They’ve been a model franchise and a source of playoff angst. This season will be no exception, especially with Harper in the final season of his contract. Harper, a five-time All-Star and the 2015 National League MVP, will likely get the largest deal in history. But it might not be with the Nationals.
“I will not be discussing anything relative to 2019 at all,” Harper told ESPN in February. “I’m focused on this year. I’m focused on winning and playing hard, like every single year.”
The Nats have had a winning record for the past six seasons, winning at least 95 games four times and finishing 138 games over .500. Since 2012, only the Dodgers have won more games.
The Nats have been the higher seed in each of their four postseason trips, but they haven’t won a playoff series. And they’re 0-8 in postseason games decided by one run; in fact, their three defeats to the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 National League Division Series were by a total of three runs.
Last fall, they led the Chicago Cubs 4-1 in the second inning of the deciding Game 5 of last year’s wild-card round at home. They lost 9-8. They entered 2015 as a heavy favorite to win the World Series and failed to make the playoffs.
In 2012, they won on a walk-off homer in Game 4 to even their series against the St. Louis Cardinals and took a 6-0 lead after three innings in Game 5. And then took a 7-5 lead into the ninth. And then lost 9-7.
“They just seem to shrink in big moments, just like the Caps,” said fan Brian Murphy, who goes by the Twitter handle Homer McFanboy. “It’s amazing how similar those franchises are.”
With 17 championship banners hanging in the rafters at TD Garden, it’s easy to forget the Boston Celtics endured a 22-year title drought before bringing together Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for the 2007-08 season.
Celtics fans weathered both the Rick Pitino era and a bunch of defiant ping-pong balls that prevented them from landing a franchise-altering talent such as Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant. But Garnett’s arrival in the summer of 2007 almost immediately restored title aspirations, just one season after the Celtics endured a franchise-worst, 18-game losing streak.
“It was just such an unusual excitement. Paul was like a little kid [about adding Garnett and Allen]. It was like he was drafted again,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said. “Same thing with KG and Ray. There was just so much enthusiasm.”
Maybe the only disappointment from that big three era was that Boston didn’t emerge with more than one title. Garnett’s knee injury deterred a title defense in 2009, and Boston fell to the Lakers in seven games in the 2010 NBA Finals. LeBron James‘ heroics in the Eastern Conference finals in 2012 prevented one last title run for that group.
A decade later, the Celtics are toasting the 10-year anniversary of that 2008 squad (one that can’t stay out of the headlines, especially as Allen tries to mend fences with his former teammates) while also celebrating how Boston’s current squad, led by coach Brad Stevens, is set up for a sustained run as a legitimate title contender. With a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, along with an intriguing and developing young core headlined by Jayson Tatum, there’s hope in Boston that banner No. 18 isn’t too far down the road.
Every so often the Wizards trot out a team worthy of what-ifs.
What if Gilbert Arenas continues to dominate? What if John Wall and Bradley Beal become the best backcourt in the NBA? The problem is those lead to more what-ifs. As in, What if Arenas hadn’t injured his knee? What if a gun battle hadn’t nearly ensued in the locker room? What if Beal and Wall could actually co-exist to become a dominant backcourt?
After the then-Bullets lost three close games to the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in 1997, they were proclaimed a team of the future with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard. A year later, they finished two games over. 500. A year after that, they started a streak of finishing below .500 for six straight seasons.
The Wizards have had pockets of hope — they were one of the most exciting teams to watch in the early 2000s. Then they became one of the most difficult to watch before an incident in 2010, in which Arenas pulled a gun on teammate Javaris Crittenton in the locker room — who then displayed his own firearm.
“It’s always someone else who gets the great situation,” said Danny Rouhier, a co-host on 106.7 The Fan in Washington. “When the Wizards get the first pick, it’s Kwame Brown. When Cleveland gets it, it’s LeBron James. Sports isn’t fair, I get that. I was spoiled in the ’80s by the Redskins. I went from thinking it was a birthright, to where I just want them to get to a semifinal.”
The Wizards have been able to reinvent themselves a handful of times but have been unable to build on any success. They finished 16 games over .500 last season and lost a Game 7 — yes, to Boston — in the Eastern Conference semifinals. They built on that by finishing four games over .500 this season, good for the eighth playoff seed.
The franchise hasn’t won 50 games since 1979, the last time it advanced to the conference finals.
When the Patriots won the first of their five Super Bowl championships, they were a lovable underdog to the rest of the country. The decision to forgo individual introductions at Super Bowl XXXVI and take the field as a team before they stunned the St. Louis Rams with “The Greatest Show on Turf” on Feb. 3, 2002, endeared them to many.
As they went on to win two more Super Bowls over the next three years (2003, 2004), they morphed into a perennial favorite and have maintained that lofty status ever since, even during a 10-year Super Bowl “drought” that was broken with titles in 2014 and 2016.
In all, they’ve been to eight Super Bowls and 12 AFC Championship Games over that time. They also posted a 16-0 record in the 2007 regular season.
“It’s been a remarkable run in Patriots history,” said Troy Brown, who played for the team from 1993 to 2007 and now works as a football analyst for NBC Sports Boston. “You look back on a team like the 49ers of the ’80s doing something like that, but that was before free agency, when it was easier to keep teams together.”
To Brown, the Patriots’ sustained success has always been about the complete team, but there have obviously been three constants through it all. “They’ve been able to retain Bill Belichick for 19 years as the coach, have Tom Brady at quarterback for that stretch of time, and you have stable ownership with Robert Kraft,” Brown said. “That’s a good place to start as you adapt over time.”
The high point and the low point might have occurred on the same afternoon: Jan. 6, 2013. The Redskins held a 14-0 lead in the first round of the playoffs over Seattle, thanks in part to their rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III.
It was easy to imagine a bright future: Griffin, the rookie of the year, leading the Redskins to a title at some point in the next decade. It was Griffin, not Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who was starring early in the game with 68 yards passing and two touchdowns. But by the end of the day, the Redskins had lost and Griffin had torn his ACL.
Within a year, coach Mike Shanahan was fired. Within two years, Griffin was fighting for his job. Within three years, Griffin would never start another game for Washington. For fans, Griffin represented the franchise’s best hope for a return to glory.
Since winning the Super Bowl after the 1991 season, capping a run in which they won three titles in 10 seasons, the Redskins have been mediocre to bad. They have won the NFC East three times, finished with a losing record 14 times and won double-digit games only three times. They’re 3-6 in the postseason, with no wins since 2005.
From 1970 to ’91, the Redskins played in five Super bowls and won three. They won double-digit games 13 times and won six division titles, plus 17 playoff games.
“The number that Redskins fans are constantly reminded of is that the team hasn’t won 11 games [in a season] in 26 years,” Czaban said. “We haven’t won 11 games in 26 years. That’s unthinkable.”
Ironically, Griffin was drafted one day after the Capitals won a Game 7 in Boston. Life, for a moment, was good.
“All this hope and excitement around D.C. sports,” said Jenni Ryon, a 27-year-old who says in her Twitter bio that she’s a D.C. sports masochist. “We all know how that story ends.” It’s a vicious cycle.
“I live in a six-month cycle of sadness and happiness, as one sport’s ending and another is coming around to get me excited. I can’t say I’m completely disheartened — but I know how it’s going to end. When I see January or May or October on the calendar, I know what I’m getting myself into. Yet, I’m still glued to the TV.”
The early aughts were one of the lowest points in Bruins history. From 2000 to 2007, they missed the playoffs three times and lost in the quarterfinals three other times.
Beloved captain Ray Bourque requested a trade and then won his only Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001. Defenseman Marty McSorley was convicted for assault and suspended for a year after a stick-swinging incident against Donald Brashear. Underappreciated superstar Joe Thornton was traded to San Jose in a lopsided deal. Attendance was down. It was bad. Then, it was great.
General manager Peter Chiarelli built a blue-collar (yet very talented) club through shrewd signings (defenseman Zdeno Chara, goalie Tim Thomas), drafting (Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand) and hiring a great coach (Claude Julien).
They were conference semifinalists in consecutive seasons before defeating Vancouver in a brutal, seven-game 2011 Final for their first Stanley Cup since 1972. They played for the Cup again in 2013, losing to Chicago.
Mismanagement caused a recent downturn, but the future is bright. The Bruins, who are currently locked in a first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, recaptured the hearts of hockey faithful who had become disillusioned a decade earlier. Boston is a fanatical hockey town again.
“We have an unbelievable fan base. This city is so special when it comes to its sports teams,” said Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who played college hockey at Boston University. “We have games in the regular season where I’ve had to stop and look around and just marvel at how loud it is.”
The Capitals have provided Washington something the other franchises in town haven’t: a decade of winning. And they’ve done it with one of the game’s superstars, Ovechkin.
That means they’ve been the most consistent hope and caused the most heartbreak.
This season should be celebrated. They made several changes to their roster and were greeted with dire predictions when camp opened. Yet they still managed to finish tied for third in the Eastern Conference with 105 points.
“We had a lot more fun, to be honest with you,” Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “There were less expectations, and we had a lot of guys that relaxed and had a chip on their shoulder, too. Guys didn’t like hearing we were going to struggle to make the playoffs. They took it personally. … The last couple years, we let a lot of external expectations and pressure creep into our room, and it affected us.”
The Capitals have finished first in the division in eight of the past 11 years. They have won the President’s Trophy for most points three times since 2009-10.
Where they’ve failed? They haven’t advanced beyond the second round since 1998. And they hear about it. All. The. Time.
“At the media day at the beginning of the year, that’s all the questions you get,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “It’s never about, ‘What do you think of these young guys? What style of play is the NHL going to?’ It’s always, ‘Are you going to win this year? Do you have what it takes?'”
Fan Murphy, 41, has attended a number of playoff games. There’s a different atmosphere in Washington after all these years.
“You’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said. “There’s 18,000 people in the building sucking the oxygen out of it. You’re holding your breath that something bad doesn’t happen.”
Before a Game 7 vs. Pittsburgh in 2009, Murphy remembered thinking at the time: Today is the day. They’re just as good as the Penguins. It’s time.
“There were seven of us [in our group], and we walked out of the building when it was 6-1,” Murphy said of the eventual 6-2 loss. “That’s the one and only time I left a sporting event early, because everyone in the group was so furious, beaten down.”
Maybe this is the year?
“We feel confident,” Carlson said. “We have just as good a chance this year as in years past. We’re ready for it. … It’s the guys in there that can change it.”
Chris Forsberg, Scott Lauber, Mike Reiss and Greg Wyshynski contributed to this report.