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THE GAME HURTS

Times Staff Writer

The Lakers’ stunning collapse Thursday night against the Boston Celtics remained the talk of the town Friday. And the language employed by Lakers fans, in Internet postings and on the airwaves, often included the word “choke,” or synonyms for it.

The Lakers had led in Game 4 of the NBA Finals by 24 points, only to lose 97-91 -- at home -- allowing Boston to grab a three-games-to-one lead in the series.

But if it’s any consolation, the Lakers’ meltdown was hardly the first time a local team had so memorably collapsed. Southland teams have a history of crashing and burning.

You could write sonnets on Lakers miseries just against the Celtics, dating to the franchise’s days in Minneapolis.

Although the Lakers have won nine NBA championships since 1972, and trail the Celtics only 16-14 in the number of titles won, they suffered eight NBA finals losses to Boston before finally cracking the Beantown code in 1985.

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The New York Knicks caused their share of Lakers pain too, in 1970, with Willis Reed hobbling to the rescue, and then again in 1973.

But it goes beyond the Lakers. The Rams, who played in town for nearly 50 years, could almost match the Lakers with sad stories. Cold-storage losses to the Minnesota Vikings -- dashing Super Bowl hopes -- are still frozen in memory.

The Dodgers have mixed 50 years of Southland success with accents of heartbreak. The Angels, before winning it all in 2002, almost seemed a franchise bathing in melancholy.

No one has been immune except for, perhaps, the Clippers, who have yet to reach a level where the tough losses really hurt.

Here’s a look, in no particular order of calamity, at some infamous moments involving Southland teams.

Who’ll stop the rain?

After three bitterly cold playoff defeats at Minnesota in 1969, 1974 and 1976, the Rams finally got the Vikings at the Coliseum for a playoff game on Dec. 26, 1977. Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota’s star quarterback, was out with a broken leg. Mother Nature had other ideas, though, opening the skies with a torrential downpour. Defensive end Jack Youngblood remembered it as the “100-year rain.” Rams quarterback Pat Haden had trouble gripping the wet football. Minnesota won, 14-7, and it would be another year without a Super Bowl for the long-suffering Rams fans.

Knocking Dodgers out

On Oct. 3, 1982, the final day of the regular season, Joe Morgan of the San Francisco Giants tore the heart out of the Dodgers when he ripped a three-run home run to right field off Terry Forster at Candlestick Park, eliminating Los Angeles from the National League West playoff race.

The Giants thought it was only fair, seeing as how the Dodgers had eliminated the Giants the day before. Dodgers outfielder Dusty Baker later called it the most devastating loss of his career.

While the Dodgers and Giants were bashing it out, Atlanta won the NL West.

Stick it to them

The Kings had a 1-0 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 Stanley Cup finals and a 2-1 edge in the third period of Game 2. That’s when Kings defenseman Marty McSorely was caught using an illegally curved stick, prompting a penalty. Montreal scored on the ensuing power play to make it a 2-2 tie, went on to win in overtime and ended up taking the Stanley Cup. The Kings haven’t come that close since.

Cue the balloons

Lakers fans with AARP cards still grieve over the Game 7 loss to Boston in 1969.

The Lakers were finally poised for victory after six NBA Finals losses to the Celtics, who finished fourth in 1969 and were at the end of their Bill Russell-led dynasty run.

Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was so sure his team would prevail in Game 7 at the Forum he ordered balloons to be placed in the rafters. The USC band was poised to play “Happy Days Are Here Again,” but it wasn’t a happy ending. Boston won, 108-106, helped by a shot by Don Nelson that hit the back of the rim, bounced in the air and fell through the net. “It was probably the luckiest shot in the world,” Nelson would concede.

No lead is safe

On Aug. 21, 1990, the Dodgers led the Philadelphia Phillies, 11-1, when the Phillies scored two runs in the eighth to cut the lead to 11-3.

The Dodgers were still up by eight. The game was so over that Manager Tom Lasorda even allowed pitcher Fernando Valenzuela to pinch-hit.

Philadelphia scored nine runs in the ninth and won, 12-11.

The rally was possible thanks in part to two ninth-inning errors by Dodgers shortstop Jose Offerman. John Kruk tied the game with a three-run homer.

“I’m in shock,” Lasorda said, over and over.

Times columnist Mike Downey offered the postmortem.

“Chavez,” he wrote, “something horrible happened in your ravine.”

No lead is safe, part II

The California Angels had an 11-game lead in the American League West on Aug. 10, 1995, and ended up losing the title in a one-game playoff against the Seattle Mariners. It was one of the worst collapses in baseball history. Two nine-game losing streaks, one in August, one in September, contributed to the derailment. The Angels recovered to tie Seattle for the division title, but Mariners starter Randy Johnson bested Angels starter Mark Langston, 9-1, in a one-game playoff.

Backdoor exit

UCLA’s basketball team was defending national champion in 1996 when it suffered an almost unthinkable 43-41 first-round NCAA tournament loss to Ivy League champion Princeton. UCLA, coached by Jim Harrick, became the first defending champion to lose in the opening round since 1988. Pete Carril, then the Princeton coach, became a cult hero.

It became a brains vs. brawn victory, with Princeton’s methodical offense blunting UCLA’s more talented lineup. It was fitting that the Tigers capped the victory with a textbook “backdoor” layup, by Gabe Lewullis, with 3.9 seconds left.

One pitch changed it all

The Angels of 1986 were playing at home and within one strike of going to their first World Series when Boston’s Dave Henderson changed direction on a Donnie Moore pitch to win Game 5 of the American League championship. Henderson’s two-run home run gave the Red Sox a 6-5 lead. The Angels tied the score in the bottom of the ninth, but lost in extra innings, then lost the next two games in Boston. The defeat would linger for years.

That’s not a wrap

It was December 1998 on a muggy Saturday in South Florida. UCLA’s ragtag defense needed one tackle against Miami tailback Edgerrin James to seal victory and advance to the national title game in the Fiesta Bowl. The Bruins led, 38-21, at one point in the third quarter but a porous defense let the season slip away. James gained 299 rushing yards and scored with 50 seconds left to cinch a 49-45 upset. It was the first year of the Bowl Championship Series format and, interestingly, one of the most bitter defeats in school history forced UCLA to accept a bid to the . . . Rose Bowl. UCLA lost that one too, to Wisconsin.

Call it a worst of three

The Dodgers and Giants were tied for the National League lead on the final day of the 1962 season and forced to play a three-game playoff. Game 1 was played at Candlestick Park, where the Dodgers accused the Giants of soaking the field to slow down top base-stealer Maury Wills. The teams split the first two games, with the Giants winning the third, 6-4, at Dodger Stadium, by scoring four runs in the ninth.

Here’s the pitch

It’s the question Dodgers fans have been asking for years: Should Manager Tom Lasorda have allowed St. Louis slugger Jack Clark to hit in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 1985 National League championship series?

The Dodgers led by a run. The Cardinals had runners at second and third. First base was open, but Lasorda allowed reliever Tom Niedenfuer to pitch to Clark. Clark hit a three-run homer. St. Louis won the pennant.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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