The Losingest Losers of Them All

published April 1, 2010

It was a tough week for the New Jersey Nets.

Last Wednesday morning, they stood at 7-63, on pace to post the worst record in the history of the NBA.  That night, they matched their longest winning streak of the season – one – by defeating Sacramento at home.  Two nights later, they doubled it with a win over Detroit.  Monday night, they beat San Antonio for their tenth win, ensuring that they will finish with a better record than the 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers of 1972-3.

They could’ve made history.  Instead, they just suck.

There are bad teams every year, but only a handful of teams in the history of sport are truly, magnificently, unredeemably awful.  They are every bit as bad as the ’27 Yankees or ’95-96 Bulls or ’72 Dolphins were good, and as worthy of our attention.  In honor of the opportunity that the Nets unaccountably let slip through their fingers – rather like everything else this season – let’s take a moment to honor the best of the worst in the world of fun and games.

Nine for the Sixers: It’s amazing enough that the Philadelphia 76ers managed to win just nine games in an NBA season, but the truth is their record could easily have been worse.  One year removed from the playoffs, the Sixers were coached by Roy Rubin, who’d been successful at Long Island University but would have to have been John Wooden, Dean Smith, Phil Jackson, and Red Auerbach combined to have much effect on the “talent” on the roster.  They may have lost All-Star forward Billy Cunningham to the ABA, but they were able to lure away from that rival league center-forward Manny Leaks, one of the few players in NBA history whose name is a complete sentence.

They started out 4-58, with three of the victories coming over teams that would replace their coaches before the next season.  Rubin was let go at the 4-47 point, and never coached in the NBA again.  To save money while waiting for help to arrive in the draft, the Sixers made Kevin Loughery a player-coach.  The change worked wonders, as they lost their next eleven games – then inexplicably won five of their next seven, a two-week burst of competence that promised better days ahead, only to be followed by thirteen more losses to end the season.   Loughery leaped to the ABA himself, to coach Julius Erving, which was a lot more fun.

Tangerine Dreams: It’s probably not fair to blame an expansion team for being lousy, but while none have been good, only one managed to lose every game of its opening season.  The 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14, losing five games by shutout and seven by at least three touchdowns.  Coach John McKay and quarterback Steve Spurrier led the team to a year filled with significant landmarks:

  • First points: Game 3, first quarter, field goal by Dave Green
  • First touchdown: Game 4, fourth quarter, 44-yard fumble return by Danny Reece
  • First offensive touchdown: same quarter, one-yard rush by Charlie Davis.

(Score before those breakthrough TDs: Baltimore 42, Tampa Bay 3.)

  • First touchdown pass: Game 6, third quarter, one-yard pass by running back Louis Carter
  • First touchdown pass by a quarterback: Game 7, first quarter, 18-yard pass by Parnell Dickinson
  • First halftime lead: Game 14, 14-7 over New England.  (Final score: NE 31, TB 14.)

McKay was reportedly asked on his local TV show what he thought of his team’s execution and he replied, “I’m in favor of it.”  He may not have said it, though he did comment during one of the game films, “We pay this guy a lot of money to miss those tackles.”  Bad as the ’76 Bucs were, they might have been harder to watch the next year, when they scored just 103 points and were shut out six times before winning their first game after an 0-12 start.  Two years later, they were a game away from the Super Bowl, losing 9-0 in the conference finals.  The orange uniforms were as hard to look at as ever, but at least there was a reason to try to.

Eight-Legged Exiles: Baseball’s worst team of the twentieth century was either the 1962 New York Mets or the 1935 Boston Braves, judged by either most losses (Mets, 120) or lowest winning percentage (Braves, .248).  Both of these squads were juggernauts compared to the worst team of all time, the 1899 National League’s Cleveland Spiders.

The team was not inept on its own; it had help from venal owners and perfidious opponents.  They were run by Stanley and Frank Robison, who also took over the St. Louis franchise before the 1899 season.  The Robisons thought business prospects were better in St. Louis, so they transferred Cleveland’s best players (Cy Young among them) to their other squad.  The decimated Cleveland team was essentially left for dead.

It was a high-scoring era, but still it was unusual that the Spiders allowed 10 runs or more in twenty of their first forty-six games, contributing to an 8-38 start.  Fans were unwilling to pay porterhouse prices for chopped liver; through the first forty days of the season, “crowds” in Cleveland averaged fewer than 200 per game.  National League teams were unwilling to travel to play for such measly rewards, so beginning on the third of July, the Spiders embarked on a fifty-two day road trip, during which they went 6-44.  After a week back in Cleveland, they hit the rails again for thirty-five of their last thirty-six games.  They lost forty of their last forty-one, finishing with a record of 20-134.  They were 9-33 at “home,” and 11-101 on the road.  It was a balanced effort, as the team was last in the league in runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers, walks, and steals, while allowing the most hits and runs and having the highest ERA.

What’s bad is merely bad.  What’s worst is memorable.  New Jersey, you coulda been a contender.

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