When the Houston Rockets lost a playoff game to the Golden State Warriors recently, some blamed James Harden’s failure to get off the potential winning shot on a curse placed on him by rapper Li’l B.
The Rockets went on to lose the series.
Are sports curses real? There’s no proving yea or nay in a rigorous scientific way, since curses, by their metaphysical nature, defy physical explanation; but there have been many curses in the history of sports that fans talked about only half-jokingly — and some actually seemed to be in effect.
The Most Famous Whammy: Boston Red Sox’s Curse Of The Bambino
Babe Ruth (nickname: The Bambino) is, by many metrics, the most famous baseball player of all time. His record of 60 home runs in a 154-game season stood for 34 years. To this day it can be argued that he would still hold the single-season home run record if the schedule hadn’t been expanded to 162 games and players didn’t use steroids.
Ruth began his career as a pitcher — and a great one. He led the Red Sox to three world championships, once pitching 29 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series. Before the 1920 season, Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees in order to acquire funds to back a Broadway play, No, No Nanette.
At least that’s the legend. The truth might not be as exciting, but the fact is that Frazee did sell The Babe to New York, and the Red Sox didn’t win another championship for 84 years, including heartbreaking losses in 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1978.
Ruth, of course, was converted to an outfielder and became one of the great sluggers in baseball history.
In 2004, the Red Sox broke the curse in the most improbable way, recovering from a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship series to, yes, the Yankees — the first time a major league baseball team ever overcame such a post-season deficit.
The Curse Of The Cardinals
Tradition has it that bewitchment follows franchises; moving from one city to another is not enough to get a team off the hook. And so it is that the Arizona Cardinals, having journeyed from Chicago through St. Louis to the desert, have not won a National Football League championship since 1947, a 68-year drought that is the longest of any NFL team. Strangely, the curse stems from a disputed championship in 1925 — which proves that curses will pop up on their own timetable. Here’s the story:
In the early days of the NFL, the teams played a league schedule, but were also allowed to schedule other games on their own (to enhance revenue; there were no lucrative TV deals), and those games counted in the standings. The team with the best overall record was declared the league champion.
The two best teams in 1925 were the Chicago Cardinals and the Pottsville Maroons (most teams didn’t play in major cities back then). The Maroons had the best record by most reckoning, but they were suspended by the league commissioner for playing an unauthorized game in Philadelphia, which allegedly violated the territorial rights of the team from Frankford.
Pottsville lost the right to count their remaining victories, and the Cardinals played two extra games against teams which used high school players. The result: Chicago had the better ‘official’ record and was declared the champion.
It’s a strange way to begin a curse which will be put into effect 22 years later, but the fact remains that the Cardinals’ trophy case is high and dry in Arizona.
Curses Enter The Twenty-First Century
Modern hexation has entered the age of social media. The curse allegedly placed on James Harden has its beginning in 2011, when Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant tweeted uncomplimentary musings about Li’l B. The rapper responded in kind and more, placing a curse on Durant that would prevent him from ever winning an NBA championship. Later, Li’l B said he had rescinded the ‘curse.’
In 2014, the feud resumed, and Li’l B apparently reinstated the curse in a more virulent form. Since the reinstatement, Durant has been injured and his career is in some jeopardy.
So how did James Harden become involved with Li’l B? For reasons known only to Harden, he began making a certain gesture after scoring a basket. It’s as if he’s stirring a cup of coffee. Where did it come from? Li’l B claims it’s one of his moves in a particular dance (I’m taking his word for it; rap music is a little beyond my field of expertise).
Did Li’l B Curse James Harden?
After Harden missed the opportunity to win game 2 of the playoff series with the Warriors, Li’l B said he had not cursed Harden, just asked him to explain what he was doing.
In any event — if Harden was cursed, and if the way to break a curse is to come back from a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs — Harden had his chance to break the spell. After losing game 2, he played poorly in a game three loss, putting the Rockets behind 3-0. The stage was set. Harden was brilliant in a game four victory.
But alas, the series ended when Golden State took game five.
Sports Curses: Real Or Imagined?
Curses might have some minimal psychological effect on players, but it’s unlikely that any mysterious forces are at work. Harden simply lost the ball because of a terrific double-team by the Golden State guards. The Red Sox lost the 1946 World Series when Johnny Pesky held a relay throw a fraction of a second too long.
In 1978, the Red Sox played a playoff game with the Yankees for the American League pennant. The game was decided when Bucky Dent, hitting ninth in the Yankee order (for good reason), hit a three-run home run. The hit was not much more than a popup, blown by the wind into the net a few inches over Fenway Park’s Green Monster.
Call it a curse if you like; I call it a game of inches.