In every sport, legacies are often cemented via championships. Fair or unfair, the end to most debates involving the greatest player in a particular sport is settled via rings. Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Tom Brady are the unquestioned “Greatest of All-Time'' in their respective sports because they routinely came through when the stakes were at their highest. Often overshadowed, there is a long list of elite athletes that have never taken home the ultimate prize. Many never had the team around them, while others were victims of wrong time and place, stuck in the path of dynasties that would not relent. Here are the twelve greatest players to come up short of winning a title.
The Top 12 Athletes Who Have Never Won a Championship
12. Tony Gwynn
In an era where power hitters garnered most of the attention, Gwynn made hitting for contact an art form. Following his rookie year, Gwynn never had a season with more strikeouts than walks, and never had a season with more than 40 strikeouts total. Gwynn recorded the highest batting average in a single season since Ted Williams in 1941 (.394 in 1994) and was the closest to reaching .400 since George Brett in 1980.
Eight times in his career, Gwynn led the NL in batting average to go along with five Gold Gloves and seven Silver Slugger awards. The Padres only reached the postseason three times during Gwynn’s 20-year career, losing twice in the World Series to the Tigers in 1984, and the Yankees in 1998.
11. Charles Barkley
“Sir Charles” was an All-Star every year from 1986 through 1997, and is 27th on the all-time NBA scoring list. Barkley was a relentless player on the boards, leading the league in offensive rebounds three straight years in the late 80s with Philadelphia, and currently sits 5th all-time in offensive rebounds.
Barkley’s best chance to win a title came during his four-year run with the Phoenix Suns. In 1992-93, Barkley finished the year as league MVP and took the Phoenix Suns all the way to the NBA finals. Despite Barkley averaging 27.3 PPG and 13.0 RPG during the series, the Suns would lose in six games to the Jordan led Bulls. During the following two seasons, Phoenix would fall to the eventual NBA champion Houston Rockets in back to back seven game series.
10. Reggie Miller
One of the best three-point shooters, free-throw shooters, and trash talkers of his era, Miller only performed better as the moments got bigger. Miller’s postseason career is highlighted by comeback wins and last-second threes, most notably his eight points in 8.6 seconds against the Knicks in 1995, and a three with 0.4 seconds left in Game 4 of the ECF to beat the Bulls. At just 195 pounds, Miller always backed up his trash talk which included fights against Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
The Pacers would make the finals just once in Miller’s career, losing in six games to Kobe and Shaq during the 2000 Finals. The Pacers would lose five times in the ECF during Miller’s 18-year career, twice to the Knicks and one each to the Magic, Bulls, and Pistons. In Miller’s final season, the Pacers were viewed as one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference until the “Malice at the Palace” and ensuing suspensions led to a sixth seed and second-round playoff exit. Miller finished his career 1st all-time in three pointers made (now 3rd) and 12th all-time in scoring (now 21st).
9. Dan Marino
Marino was putting up video game numbers at the quarterback position during a time when the rules didn’t favor offense. Receivers could still get mauled and there was little protection for quarterbacks compared to what is considered “roughing the passer” in today’s NFL. Marino finished with over 10,000 yards more than other QBs such as John Elway and Warren Moon who played for a similar amount of time during the same era. One of my earliest childhood memories attending a football game was the demoralizing Marino “fake spike” game in 1994.
Marino held the single season passing yards record for 17 years until broken in 2011 by Drew Brees and Tom Brady. He currently ranks 6th all-time in both passing yards (61,361) and passing touchdowns (420). Marino won MVP during his second season in 1984 and helped lead Miami to the Super Bowl (a 38-16 loss to SF) but would never return. He ended his career with an 8-10 record during the postseason to go along with 32 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.
8. Patrick Ewing
Patrick Ewing was the heart and soul of the 90s Knicks that captivated the city of New York. The rest of the team was filled with hard-nose, gritty players, but it is difficult to imagine the Knicks ever even competing for a championship without Ewing. Ewing was an 11-time All-Star and finished in the top five of MVP voting on six different occasions. He finished his career as the Knicks all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocks, and steals. Ewing was also named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history and helped win two gold medals for Team USA in 1984 and 1992.
The Knicks ultimately blew a 3-2 series lead in the NBA Finals to the Houston Rockets in 1994, with John Starks infamously going 2 for 18 (where was Hubert Davis?!). Ewing would lead the Knicks in PPG every year from 1987-88 through 1998-99, with the Knicks making the playoffs in each of those seasons. Unfortunately, five of those runs were cut short by Jordan and the Bulls, with another three ended by Reggie Miller and the Pacers. The Knicks were able to revamp for another title run with Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, and Marcus Camby as the new core around Ewing. The Knicks went from eighth seed all the way to the NBA Finals in a shortened 1998-99 regular season. Ewing would ultimately go down midway through the playoffs to a partially torn Achilles and the Spurs took down New York in five games.
7. Barry Bonds
While it may be difficult for many to look beyond the steroid years, Bonds was still one of the greatest five-tool players in baseball before he became the all-time home run leader. Until those years are wiped from the history books, Bonds was the best of his era during a time when many were using performance enhancing supplements.
Bonds is the only player in baseball history to hit 500 home runs and steal 500 bases, something he would have likely accomplished with or without steroids. The rest of his career accomplishments should have Bonds much higher on this list. A seven-time league MVP (no other player has more than 3) Bonds also took home eight Gold Gloves and twelve Silver Slugger awards. Bonds came closest to winning a World Series in 2002, hitting eight home runs during the postseason (four in the World Series) but the Giants lost to the Angels in seven games.
6. Karl Malone
During his 19-year career, 18 with the Jazz, Malone never missed the playoffs. “The Mailman” will go down as one of the best power forwards to play the game, making his office in the low-post. Malone remains second on the all-time scoring list with 36,928 career points, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and 7th all-time in rebounds at 14,968. Eight times from 1987-88 to 1998-99, Malone led the NBA in free throws made, demonstrating what a nightmare he was to defend. His 9,787 free throws made remain first all-time in NBA history and 1,200 more than second place Moses Malone.
The Jazz would suffer three losses in the WCF before finally reaching the NBA Finals back to back in 1997 and 1998. The Bulls would win each series in six games, with Malone suffering a third Finals loss as a member of the Lakers in 2004 during his final NBA season.
5. Ty Cobb
Ty Cobb brought a mean streak to the game of baseball that few have been able to replicate since. Some would describe him as a fierce competitor willing to do whatever it took to win. Others would say he bordered or completely crossed the line in becoming a “dirty” player. A consensus from many players that played against him was that there was a mutual level of fear and respect for how Cobb played the game. Often lost in today’s game where everybody is friends, Cobb was out to win and was somebody you would want on your side in a game or a fight.
Cobb still holds the MLB record for highest career batting average at .366. He also finished his career as the all-time leader in hits (4,189), only later topped by Pete Rose. In an era with few home runs, Cobb still hit 117 during his career. In 1909, Cobb won the Triple Crown and remains the only player to win the award while also leading his league in stolen bases. His best season came in 1911 where he won AL MVP, hitting .419 with 127 RBI and 83 stolen bases. Cobb hit over .320 for 22 consecutive seasons, winning nine consecutive AL batting titles (11 total) along the way. The Tigers won three consecutive AL pennants with Cobb from 1907-1909 but lost in the World Series each year.
4. Elgin Baylor
Victim of one of the best dynasties in the history of sports, the Boston Celtics won ten championships during Baylor’s first eleven seasons in the NBA. A staggering seven of Baylor’s NBA Finals defeats came against Boston, while the eighth and last came against the Knicks in 1970. Baylor was voted one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Perhaps no player on this list was as well positioned or more deserving of a ring than Baylor.
Baylor averaged over 34 PPG for three consecutive years from 1960-61 through 1962-63, also averaging 19.8, 18.6, and 14.3 RPG respectively. In Game 5 of the 1962 Finals, Baylor put up a still standing NBA playoff record of 61 points in a victory that gave the Lakers a 3-2 series lead. Baylor averaged over 40 PPG and nearly 18 RPG during that series, despite the Celtics coming back to win in seven games. Knee problems slowed down Baylor before he ultimately retired in the beginning of the 1971-72 season. The Lakers went on to win the NBA Finals that year, beating the Knicks in five, and awarded Baylor a ring anyway.
3. Barry Sanders
Sanders is one of the greatest running backs in football history and had little help during his ten-year career with the Detroit Lions. While still in the prime of his career, Sanders retired early at the age of 30. He finished his career with 15,269 career rushing yards, good for fourth all-time behind only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and Frank Gore. Sanders led the NFL in rushing during four of his seasons, including 1997 where he became just the third running back in NFL history (now 8) to surpass the 2,000 yard mark.
It is a shame that Sanders never had the opportunity to play on a legitimate contender or with a franchise QB at any point in his career. Of everybody on this list, Sanders may have been the most fun and electric to watch even while defenses keyed on him. A lot of great running backs have played the game and none moved quite like Sanders did. The highlight reel runs of him cutting across the entire field while making multiple defenders tackle air was always special. No question Sanders is one of the most unique talents in NFL history.
2. Ken Griffey Jr.
It was hard to find a wiffle ball game in the 90s where kids didn’t emulate Griffey’s bat drop and strut after hitting a bomb. “The Kid” did it with the sweetest swing in all of baseball, bringing a quiet swag to the plate that made him one of the most popular players of his era. One thing that separated Griffey from many of the elite home run hitters that he played with is that he never had an accusation of using steroids hovering over his accomplishments.
Griffey would hit five home runs in his first postseason series to help the Mariners defeat the Yankees in five games, but would lose his only three other series and never reach a World Series. Griffey still finished his career with 630 career home runs (7th all-time) in spite of missing significant time in almost every season after the age of 30. Easily one of the best five-tool players to play the game, Griffey won ten consecutive Gold Gloves, seven Silver Slugger awards, and a 1997 AL MVP. Griffey also led the AL in homers four out of six seasons from 1994-1999 and is the only player to win the Home Run Derby on three separate occasions.
1. Ted Williams
Any discussion involving the greatest hitters in baseball history usually includes Ted Williams somewhere near the top. A 19-time All-Star, two-time AL MVP, and six-time batting champion, Williams’ combination of power and plate discipline was unmatched. Williams remains the all-time MLB leader in on-base percentage (.482) yet still hit 521 home runs and won two Triple Crowns (1942 and 1947) during his career.
It is worth noting that Williams also lost several prime years in his career, serving in World War II from 1943 to 1945. Williams lost additional time during the 1952 and 1953 seasons while serving in the Korean War, playing in only 43 games and registering 122 at bats combined for both seasons.
One can only wonder what additional accolades Williams may have accomplished with those years back. He won the AL MVP award in his first season back from WW2 in 1946, then again in 1949. Williams checks every box for greatness including leadership and character, choosing to play in a double header on the last day of the 1941 season with his average sitting at .400. Williams went 6 for 8 to boost his average to .406 and is still the last player to bat .400 in a single season (1941). Unfortunately, the Red Sox only made the postseason once during Williams’ career, losing the 1946 World Series to the Cardinals in seven games.
Ichiro Suzuki - After accumulating 1,278 hits over nine seasons in Japan, Ichiro began his MLB career at age 27 and still topped the 3,000 hit mark. In his rookie season, Ichiro took home Rookie of the Year, MVP, a Glove Glove, a Silver Slugger award, and the AL batting title.
John Stockton - All-time NBA leader in steals (3,265) and assists (15,806), Stockton is 3,715 assists ahead of the second place Jason Kidd. Like Malone, Stockton never missed the playoffs during his 19-year NBA career all with the Jazz.
Ernie Banks - “Mr. Cub” was a 14x All-Star and finished his career with 512 home runs. One of the good guys in baseball history, Banks was named to MLB’s All-Century Team along with Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken Jr. as the only shortstops.
Colin Montgomerie - Arguably the best golfer never to win a major, Montgomerie has five second-place finishes in majors.
Dick Butkus - Still considered one of the best middle linebackers to ever play in the NFL, Butkus brought a physical and violent nature to every snap that struck fear in his opponents. A five-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowl selection during his nine-year career with the Bears, Butkus played with a mean streak that may never be seen again, or allowed, in today’s NFL.
Willie McCovey - 1969 NL MVP and six-time All-Star, McCovey was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986. He finished his 22-year career with 521 home runs but only appeared in the postseason twice. In Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, McCovey lined out to second with runners on second and third for the final out with the Giants trailing 1-0.
Harmon Killebrew - Killebrew finished eight seasons with 40+ home runs (trailing only Babe Ruth) including six seasons as league leader. Killebrew would win the 1969 AL MVP award and finish his career as a 13-time All-Star with 573 career home runs.
LaDanian Tomlinson - Tomlinson sits 7th all-time in rushing (13,684) and 3rd all-time in touchdowns (162) behind only Jerry Rice (202) and Emmit Smith (175). Tomlinson was a three-time first-team All-Pro, including 2006 when he finished with 2,323 yards from scrimmage and 31 touchdowns, good for MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.
Anna Kournikova - While Kournikova only ranked as high as 8th (2000), her impact and lasting legacy on women’s tennis cannot be questioned from a popularity and marketing perspective. Kournikova made millions in endorsements during her career, finishing with 16 career doubles titles, but only appeared in four singles finals, losing all four, with none in a Grand Slam event.
Randy Moss - One of the greatest vertical threats in the history of the NFL and single season touchdown leader (23) set in 2007 with the Patriots. Moss remains second all-time behind Jerry Rice with 156 career touchdown receptions.
Henrik Lundqvist - Possibly the best goaltender in NHL history without hoisting a Stanley Cup. Lundqvist finished his career 6th on the all-time wins list (459) and helped Sweden bring home a gold medal during the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Marcel Dionne - The highest scoring player in NHL history to never win a Stanley Cup, Dionne finished his career with 1,771 points (6th all-time).
Jim Kelly - Kelly led the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowls during the early 90s. Currently 28th on the all-time list for passing yards and 29th all-time in passing touchdowns.
Bruce Smith - NFL career leader in sacks (200) Smith was an 11x Pro Bowl selection and eight-time first-team All-Pro. During an 11-year stretch, Smith finished in the top 10 for Defensive Player of the Year nine times, winning it in both 1990 and 1996.
Fran Tarkenton - Over an 18-year career, Tarkenton threw for 342 TDs (11th) and 47,003 yards (13th). In his second stint with Minnesota, Tarkenton helped lead the Vikings to three Super Bowl appearances. The Vikings managed only 27 points combined in all three Super Bowl losses to Don Shula (Dolphins), Chuck Noll (Steelers), and John Madden (Raiders).
Nap Lajoie - Since 1900, no player in baseball has put up a higher batting average in a single season than Lajoie, finishing his 1901 campaign hitting .426 over 544 at bats. Lajoie finished his career with 3,243 hits and remains tied with Tony Gwynn for 16th all-time in career batting average at .338