The New Orleans Saints. For most of their existence they were, by any measure, one of the worst teams in NFL History. They played 20 years before making the playoffs the first time, and they were such a sad sack franchise that their fans took to wearing paper bags over their heads out of mock-embarrassment of being seen at the games. Then, of course, came Hurricane Katrina. They were forced to play the entire 2005 season on the road, while their home stadium became a shelter for storm victims that news accounts were describing as a hell on earth (later shown to be exaggerated, but still). During that road season, the owner publicly flirted with the idea of permanently moving the team to Texas. After the return, the team made some successful hires and became a serious contender, ultimately culminating when New Orleans won the 2010 Super Bowl. And when we say "Happy Ending," we mean it. The Super Bowl fell two Sundays prior to Mardi Gras, and by all accounts, the continuous party was so epic that it would have made Emperor Caligula blush.
Much like the Saints, the famed Boston Red Sox. A franchise whose (in)ability to win became legendary. Over the course of 80 plus years, the Sox were constantly foiled in their attempts to win a World Series, either losing their division to the Yankees, or being beat in the Series, usually after having some sort of lead. Numerous star Sox players went their whole careers without a title (e.g. Williams, Yastrzemski, Fisk, et. al). As recently as 2003, the Sox, who were leading the Yankees in the 7th game of the ALCS, BLEW THE LEAD AGAIN, and were beaten. The VERY NEXT YEAR, Boston curb-stomped the entire American League, flipped the script on the New York Yankees, by BEATING THEM after THEY HAD TRAILED; and then SWEPT the vaunted St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Staunch Red Sox haters had to bow to the awesomeness, and stand and applaud the Sox finally winning a hard-earned title at last.
And not just any trailing in the ALCS. The Red Sox fell to an 0-3 deficit in a 7 game series and did something that no other baseball team had done before — come back and WIN from that. And it wasn't easy either. They were down 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th on the 1 year anniversary of that fateful 2003 ALCS game. But as Kevin Millar went up to bat, the clock struck midnight and somehow he managed a walk against probably the best closer of all time, Mariano Rivera. Then Millar was substituted for with Dave Roberts who stole second on an extremely close play. Then Bill Mueller hit a single that was just out of the reach of Rivera to score Roberts for the tying run. And that was just the beginning. Games 4, 5, and 6 were real tough battles throughout full of twists, turns, strange umpiring calls, and Keith Foulke basically sacrificing his career for the chance at glory. Needless to say, the Happy Ending was earned in a huge way.
For balance's sake.... even though the same Yankees that the Red Sox defeated have long been reviled because it seemed they simply waltzed to their titles, that particular Yankee team had to earn their happy ending. After the Yankees lost in the 1981 World Series, the team became a joke. For the next almost 15 years, the Yankees were either average or just plain lousy. They blew tons of money on stars like Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson and watched those players win titles, with other teams. Then comes 1993 and manager Buck Showalter has the Yankees in a tight 4-team race for the AL East Division, one of the closest finishes ever. The Yankees lose the division that year to Toronto (who would go on to win it all for the second time straight). Then comes 1994, the Yankees are in first place, almost from the first month of season....BUT THEN COMES THE '94 STRIKE!!! 1995, the Yankees blow a lead in the opening series and get eliminated in five games by the Seattle Mariners, crushing the Yankee fandom. And then to top it off, the manager who got them to that point leaves and is replaced by Joe Torre, a man of dubious managerial skill. Honestly, nobody had any idea that that same team was going to win 4 of the next five World Series (they lost in the ALDS in 1997).
Sports history is peppered with teams that have endured long droughts without a league championship. The moment they break these droughts are prime examples of this trope for the team and the region they represent. Notable examples:
The 1994 New York Rangers, enduring a nail-biter of a playoff season, Game 7 of the conference finals, vs. the New Jersey Devils, was tied up just seconds away from the end of regulation and took a second overtime before the Rangers broke through. Then there was the big one against the Canucks: another 7-game slog that wasn't decided until the final face-off, mere seconds from the end of the game. Only when the Rangers won the face-off in front of their net and ran out the clock one goal up could New York fans finally cheer the end of a 54-year drought.
The 2005 Chicago White Sox. One year after the Red Sox had snapped their legendary drought (see above), it was the White Sox' turn to get the monkey off their back, sweeping the Astros and breaking an 88-year drought.
Oftentimes, an expansion team has to earn their happy ending; struggling to establish an identity and a fanbase and respect among more established teams. Some teams do it and succeed, big time. Two New York sports teams exemplify this trope. The New York Mets in baseball and the New York Islanders hockey team were both expansion clubs that were considered pale imitators of their more established and storied rivals, the Yankees and Rangers respectively. Predictably they both began their first few seasons actually being dismal and finishing at or near last place. But patience from the fans and the executives with these teams led to them surviving. The Mets staged a Crowning Season of Awesome by winning the World Series in 1969, 8 years after they came to be (The fastest team to date: the Florida Marlins; they won it in 1997, in only their fifth season). The Islanders pulled off something greater; a Crowning DYNASTY of Awesome. Beginning in 1980, the Islanders won FOUR STRAIGHT Stanley Cup Championships, one of the most impressive eras of dominance in North American sports. They too, won a little over 8 years after their inception. In a side note, it was William Shea, he who also brought the Mets to New York, who played a role in bringing the Islanders to Long Island.
Some expansion teams take longer than usual to earn their ending, like the 2012 Los Angeles Kings. In their 45-year history to that point, they'd only been to the Stanley Cup Finals once (and that was with the help of NHL great Wayne Gretzky). While some happy endings only come at the last minute, Kings fans had plenty of time to celebrate as the clinching game wasn't even close: four unanswered goals before the streak was broken just once and then two more after that. As the final minutes ticked away, the atmosphere was such that some of the commentators minimized their talking to let the cheering be heard instead.
Two years later, they win it again, but not without a fight, as they had to go seven games three straight times just to make the Stanley Cup finals. The first round, against the Sharks, they were down 0-3 and had to win four straight to advance. The conference finals, against the Blackhawks, had the additional agony of a game sevenovertime. The Stanley Cup Finals themselves only went five games, but it took two overtimes for the Kings to seal the deal at home. The CBC commentator put it this way: "They did it the hard way. They did it the long way."
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were, much like the New Orleans Saints, a franchise born under a bad sign. Their history opened with the longest losing streak in pro football history (26 consecutive losses across the 1976 and 1977 seasons) before beating the Saints(!) to end the skid. After a brief flirtation with the playoffs between 1979 and 1982, the Bucs slid back down into mediocrity with 15 straight years of losing seasons replete with terrible coaches, horrible draft picks, and penny-pinching ownership. By 1997, with new ownership, a decent head coach in Tony Dungy, and after a series of pretty smart drafting, the Bucs earned a winning season and a re-appearance in the playoffs. Although Dungy would get kicked out by 2001, it was still pretty much his lineup that won the 2002 Super Bowl under Jon Gruden.
The 1991 World Series as a whole, played between the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves: The 1990 Twins and Braves finished at the bottom of their respective divisions. The '90 Twins in particular suffered the ignominious distinction of losing a game AFTER setting a historical first during that game: Turning two triple plays. The '91 teams played the longest (in number of innings) seven-game World Series to date, drawing four of its contests into extra frames, including a marathon 12-inning Game 3, decided when Twins manager Tom Kelly ran out of pitchers in the bottom of the 12th, and the decisive, 1-0 Game 7, which was won in the bottom of the 10th inning by a Texas league single hit by Gene Larkin over the heads of a drawn-in infield, scoring Dan Gladden from third base, capping starter Jack Morris' heroic ten-inning three-hit complete game shutout. Morris earned the World Series MVP award; teammate Kirby Puckett had made Game 7 possible the previous night by launching a Charlie Liebrandt pitch into the left-center-field seats. Sports Illustrated named the 1991 World Series the greatest of all time.
Manchester United were red hot favourites for the 1958 European Cup (and everything else besides) - until the Munich disaster killed eight players, left two so injured they never played again, and the manager so close to death he was read the Last Rites twice during his stay in hospital. Somehow they still managed to make the FA Cup Final that year (losing to Bolton); they next won the FA Cup in 1963, the League in 1965 and finally, with only two of the surviving players still present, the European Cup in 1968.
It took NFL Hall of Famer John Elway nearly his entire 15-year career to win a Super Bowl. He took the Denver Broncos to three Super Bowls between 1987-1990 (XXI, XXII, & XXIV), and was blown-out every time, in addition to suffering jarring playoff exits (including being defeated by the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars in the '96-'97 playoffs after a 13-3 regular season). Finally, in 1998, with the help of running back Terrell Davis, the Broncos defeated the heavily favored Green Bay Packers (led by 3-time NFL MVP Brett Favre) in Super Bowl XXXII, giving Elway his elusive Super Bowl ring, a day many thought would never come for the veteran. The following year, the Broncos won Super Bowl XXXIII over the Atlanta Falcons; Elway was the MVP of the game, and it proved to be a fitting end to a long journey, as he retired shortly afterward.
How about Jerome Bettis? Plays the first 12 years of his career without getting so much as a sniff at the Super Bowl, and by his final season, he was practically a cripple (he was in pain just from walking), and then the Steelers have to play the vaunted Indianapolis Colts, led by future HOFer Peyton Manning, in the divisional round of the playoffs. When the Steelers got the ball at the Colts 2 yard line with a 21-18 lead, and only 1:20 left in the game, they hand it off to Bettis, who hadn't fumbled once that year to seal the lead. He fumbles. Then cornerback Nick Harper scoops up the loose ball, and starts running for the Colts endzone, with only quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the only Steeler between him and a go ahead touchdown. Somehow, Roethlisberger makes the open field shoelace tackle to save the game, and a few minutes later, after a missed field goal, the Steelers win and advance to the AFC championship game. After beating the Denver Broncos, the Steelers advance to the Super Bowl, being played in Bettis's home town of Detroit, Michigan. And then after the Steelers win the Super Bowl, Bettis announces his retirement.
Ray Bourque, who set several team, position and league records in his 21 years for the Boston Bruins...including one for NOT having his name on the Stanley Cup despite his lengthy career of 1,826 regular and playoff games. A secret trade to the Colorado Avalanche in 2000 put him exactly where he needed to be for the 2001 Finals. After trailing 3 games to 2 against the New Jersey Devils, Colorado came back to win in Game 7. Avs captain, one of the greatest players in recent memory, and all-around great guy Joe Sakic violated tradition by handing Bourque the Cup to take the first victory lap rather than himself. And it was sweet.
Sachin Tendulkar, the India cricket legend, made his international debut at the age of 16 and over the course of a career spanning 21 years and counting has come to be recognised by many as the best batsman to ever play the game, setting individual records that may never be broken and leading the team to victory in many matches single-handedly. For most of this time, he was part of a below average team which failed to progress much at major international events. In 2003, the team made it to the finals of the World Cup in South Africa only to be hopelessly outclassed in the first half of the game by Australia, leaving no chance for victory by the time Sachin came in to bat. And when in the next world cup the team crashed out in the first round, many felt that that's one trophy he'd never have. And then, the 2011 world cup, his 6th as a player, where he was playing as a 38 year old, with many of his teammates being toddlers when he started his international career and who had repeatedly stated their desire to win the cup for their childhood hero Sachin. With Sachin playing an instrumental part in their progress, that is exactly what they did! Manly tears were shed aplenty on that beautiful night... none more so than when after giving Sachin a lap of honour on their shoulders, a young member of the team said: "He (Sachin) has carried the burden of the country for more than 20 years, it's time we carried him".
The story continues. One of the hallmark achievements of his career is his recording 100 centuries in international competition (between Test and ODI cricket). For some time, Sachin was stuck on 99 centuries. To use cricket lingo, he was caught in a unique version of the "nervous 90's"...for a whole year. And Indian cricket took a bit of a skid at that time as well (including a notable whitewash by England). Finally, he breaks the drought and scores his 100th and last international century in 2012. He then hangs on to compete in a total 200 Tests before retiring to much appreciation; everyone present applauded the man who had became a symbol of his nation and a credit to his sport.
The 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks are a prototype example. For the first 20 plus years of their existence, they were either mediocre, or they were great...right up until the playoffs. On top of that, every period of Mavericks excellence coincided with another team's dominance; i.e. the Lakers in the 80's, the Rockets in the 90's, and of course, their hated rivals the Spurs in the early 2000's. It never helped that while the the Mavericks couldn't make to the Finals, their rival Texas teams managed to win multiple championships. But then....the Mavs finally make it to the NBA Championship in 2006 against the Miami Heat..and even managed to take a commanding 2-0 lead. The Miami Heat behind the phenomenal play of Dwayne Wade beat the Mavs 4-2. Also, the Golden State Warriors eliminate the heavily favored Mavs the following year in the first round, making them the best regular season team ousted in the first round in NBA history. Beyond that, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry wind up being the only two guys from that '06 squad to remain with the team over the next few years. By the time the '10 - '11 season rolls around, the Mavs are largely forgotten. But they win 57 games to clinch a spot in the playoffs, they then outlast the Trailblazers in a tense 6-game series. They then take on the vaunted superstar-packed LA Lakers AND SWEEP THEM. After beating a talented OKC Thunder team, they make it to the NBA Finals and face.......that's right, the same Miami Heat team that defeated them five years ago, only now instead of Shaquille O'Neal, Dwayne Wade is joined by LeBron James and Chris Bosh, two of the NBA's biggest stars. It certainly seems like history will repeat itself when Miami goes up 2-1 on Dallas. But, Dallas, led by Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd (another guy who earned his happy ending), Terry, Chandler, et. al. pull it out and wind up beating the mega-team of the Miami Heat. Well earned, indeed.
Speaking of the Miami Heat, Lebron James would earn his happy ending in the following year of 2012. At the beginning of his career, Lebron was seen as a basketball prodigy that would take Cleveland to multiple championships the minute he put on the Cavalier trunks. Jokes were often made about how the city of Cleveland was spending all the city's money on Lebron James himself. Unfortunately for Cleveland, Lebron James wouldn't be able to give them a championship, despite taking them to the finals and many playoff appearances. Rumors began to spread that Lebron James didn't have the "clutch gene" to make crucial plays when needed to win the big games. There were also doubts about his mental ability to handle real pressure during games, as he would seem to wear down in the 4th quarter. James often complained that he couldn't win the big games himself and needed the right roll-players, but sports commentators saw that as an excuse and more proof he wasn't on the level of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant - never mind the fact that both men did have the right roll-players on their teams when they won championships. If that wasn't bad enough, his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami to join his friends Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to create a mini-dream team was met with a huge backlash by both basketball fans and the sports media. Lebron was the most hated man in sports in 2011 and many cheered when the Miami Heat lost the finals to the Dallas Mavericks. However, in 2012, Lebron would finally prove himself by playing some of the best basketball anyone has ever seen. He would show up during the big games and make crucial shots even while he was injured during the finals. He would earn the respect of both the basketball fans and the sports critics in the media. He finally won his NBA championship ring and proved himself as one of the greats. To add icing on the cake, he would win the finals MVP and lead the London Olympics Dream Team to a gold medal victory. However, some critics still doubted Lebron's 2012 championship victory, because it happened during the lockout year and not during a full season. He silenced the critics again by winning the regular season MVP award for the fourth time, and lead the Miami Heat to back-to-back championships against a very tough San Antonio Spurs team. He won the Finals MVP award again for scoring 37 points in Game 7, tying Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the third player in NBA history to win the Finals MVP awards in back-to-back championship runs.
Le Bron would then return to Cleveland after four years in Miami, and while the city is still waiting for that championship, his homecoming is a happy ending, if not an outright fairy tale one.
Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula One World Champion probably counts. It was his tenth season, he'd only won one race and had most recently endured two years in absolutely hopeless Honda cars and few people believed he really had what it takes any more. Then to cap it off, Honda pulled out of the sport after the 2008 season - leaving Button possibly without a drive for the next season, which he had sacrificed a strong performance in 2008 in anticipation of. Then, Honda Racing F1 Team Principal and co-architect of Michael Schumacher's string of successes at Ferrari, Ross Brawn took over the team with Honda's blessing (They even supplied some funds to help pay off debts & get through the season - they felt it was the honourable thing to do) & Button seized the day - winning six of the first seven races (Including four in a row and the the first three races ever won with a single F1 engine) becoming the first man to win the Championship before its final round since Fernando Alonso did it in 2005. He has since gone on to success at the prestigious McLaren team (Britain's answer to Ferrari), including becoming the first man to ever beat Lewis Hamilton whilst driving the same F1 car as him in 2011 - a season in which he was also pretty much the only driver able to consistently challenge the dominant Sebastian Vettel (Who is often called the Baby Schumacher with good reason). All this after his career had at one point looked like it had run its course without him fulfilling his early promise.
The salvaged team Ross Brawn put together to do all this probably counts as well. They were essentially founded as British American Racing in 1999 (British American Tobacco having acquired the once-proud Tyrrell as that outfit floundered) as, what amounted to "Team Jacques Villeneuve". Management claimed they'd win a race their fist season. Cue them scoring no points and Villeneuve retiring from the first 11 races. They then spent several years bumbling around the midfield before Button joined in 2003 (Eventually outperforming Villeneuve enough that season to see the Canadian former Champion ejected before the last race for Japan's Takuma Sato to get a shot). Button led the team in a fairly successful 2004 campaign (They came second, him third) and a hit & miss 2005 season before Honda acquired the team. In 2006, they managed their first win and Button had a fairly successful second half to the season. Unfortunately, the team was screwed by Executive Meddling, resulting in the loss of star aerodynamicist Geoff Willis right before that win. This led to two years propping up the grid with the disastrously slow Honda RA107 and the better, but fundamentally flawed enough to scrap further development on long before halfway through the season, Honda RA108 before the rug was pulled out from under them by Honda's abrupt departure. Suffice it to say, the team that became Brawn GP (And is now Mercedes GP) had been around the bend a bit before becoming the only team in history to win every championship it contested (Those being the 2009 World Constructors' Championship & the 2009 World Drivers' Championship with Button).
Any driver who survived the late 60s/70s in F1 has to count, although special mention should go to Sir Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda. Stewart raced at a time when a Formula One driver was twice as likely to die at a race than finish it, and lost his mentor (Graham Hill), his best friend (Jim Clark), and his protégé (François Cevert) among many others during his racing career. Niki Lauda suffered from a similar problem as well as nearly burning to death in a horrific crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix, only to come back to racing less than three months later. Both of them achieved hard earned peace with the advancement of safety measures (Stewart), and returning to win even more world championships as well as rising through the media to become an important media personality and later govern a team into winning races again (Lauda).
In 2005 Gymnast Nastia Liukin lost the world all around title by less than one hundredth of a point. She was poised to defend her title in 2006 but had a major ankle sprain that left her unable to compete any event except bars at Worlds. Liukin's ankle injury required surgery and did not heal properly. The recovery period kept her out of both national and international competition for much of the year. Her supbar performances in 2007 led many to believe her prospects as an all around competitor were greatly diminished, especially in light of the rise of teammate Shawn Johnson, who had won every all around competition she competed in during 2007. In 2008, Nastia won an early match over Shawn due to her falling on a vault, but after that Shawn beat Nastia in ever all around meet, and was touted as the favorite to win the all around competition at the 2008 Olympics. At the Olympics, Nastia performed at peak performance and won the all around competition.
A similar story goes back to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The U.S. women's gymnastics team (dubbed "The Magnificent Seven") were up against the usually-stiff challenge and under incredible pressure to win their first-ever gold medal, and everyone there had to give their all, but perhaps none as much as Kerri Strug. It had been a tight contest throughout, and it would be down to her, on the Vault, to decide it all. But then, she flubs the first vault and lands badly, twisting her ankle. Meaning the gold medal would come down to her pulling off a good second vault on a bad ankle. In theMoment of Awesome of the 1996 games, Strug bit the bullet, ran, leapt, and stuck the landing on one foot, winning Team USA its first-ever team gymnastics gold: a story worthy of a Hollywood movie, only played out for real.
Bayern Munich FC, after being pipped to the title by Borussia Dortmund in 2011 and 2012, finally claimed the 2013 Bundesliga title, winning it by a massive 25 points. The Champions League also heralded success, after losing both the 2010 and 2012 finals.
An individual example would also be Bayern Munich midfielder Arjen Robben, whose missed penalty possibly cost Bayern the Champions League trophy in 2012. In the 2013 Champions League final, he ended up scoring the winning goal, which earned Bayern their 5th Champions League trophy in the history of the club.