What Could Have Been / Sports

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    Multiple Sports 
  • Injuries generate their fair share of this trope: From players like Gale Sayers (NFL) and Bill Walton (NBA) - who were Hall-of-Famers despite chronic injuries that cut short their careers to players like Billy Sims (NFL) and Larry "Grandmama" Johnson (NBA) - who showed flashes of brilliance before injuries kept them from reaching HOF levels.
    • In particular, one Vincent "Bo" Jackson. Bo Jackson was arguably the most famous athlete on the planet in the late 1980s. A two-sport superstar (football and baseball) with an unmatched combination of strength and speed. He was the first player to play in two sports' all-star games (NFL and MLB). He might have re-written the record books in both sports if not for a freak hip injury suffered in an NFL playoff game 1991.
    • Had he remained uninjured, Gale Sayers would have been unquestionably the greatest running back in NFL history. He already routinely makes the top five on numerous lists, despite playing less than five seasons.
    • Cooper Manning, the eldest son of Archie Manning, was diagnosed with spinal stenosis at the age of 18. At the time he was an All-State wide receiver and considered a hot prospect for the University of Mississippi. What would the NFL look like with all three Manning brothers as active players (or better yet—Cooper as part of the same offense as either Peyton or Eli?) Archie might have made the Hall of Fame just on his genetic contribution to the game alone!
    • What kind of numbers would Mickey Mantle have put up if he didn't spend half his career on the disabled list?
  • "What-ifs" that surround Cleveland sports could fill their own sub-page. What if Art Modell decided to keep the team in Cleveland after the city passed the last-minute ordinance? What if José Mesa had learned to just throw the damn ball in the 1997 World Series? What if Jim Brown decided to stay in football during the height of his career? What if LeBron James never decided on "taking his talents to South Beach"?... Then again, as of Father's Day 2016, that last could be considered a Necessary Fail.note  There's a reason people once said "God hates Cleveland".
  • You could make a whole page from potential relocations:
    • NHL:
      • During the 1995 season, the New Jersey Devils may have gone to Nashville, but they won the Stanley Cup that season, preventing the move.
      • Before moving to Phoenix, the original Winnipeg Jets thought of going to Minnesota instead.
      • The St. Louis Blues almost made it to Saskatoon.
      • The Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Islanders and the Phoenix Coyotes were all considered to move to Kansas City. However, the Penguins got a new arena which prevented the first one from happening while the Coyotes' planned new owner filed for bankruptcy. At this point, Kansas City is being considered more likely to get an NBA franchise (due to the state already having the Blues on the other side selling out almost every night).
    • NBA:
      • The Utah Jazz almost moved to Miami (in 1985) and Minneapolis (in 1986). In the Miami situation, Utah car dealership owner Larry Miller bought a 50% stake in the team to keep them in Utah, and for Minnesota he bought the remaining share. He owned the team until his death in 2009.
      • The Minnesota Timberwolves almost moved to New Orleans during 1994.
      • The Sacramento Kings came within an eyelash of returning the NBA to Seattle in 2013.
    • NFL:
      • From 1994note  through 2015, the NFL didn't have a team in Los Angeles. Several teams were rumored to make the move to LA, and several teams used the threat of moving there to get concessions from their cities. Several prime candidates included the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Minnesota Vikings, the Buffalo Bills, and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Vikings, in particular, were unhappy with the Metrodome and threatened to move without a proposal for a new stadium, which the state legislature passed after initially rejecting it. What if the Minnesota Legislature had stuck to their guns?
      • It's considered fact by most fans and experts that the 32nd NFL franchise would've been awarded to Los Angeles in 2000. All they really needed was a plan for an upgraded NFL-level stadium note  But disagreements over what plan to approve (a new stadium and where to put it or renovation of the L.A. Coliseum), caused the city to miss several NFL mandated deadlines for submitting a plan. Eventually, the NFL gave up on the L.A. bid and accepted the bid of Houston's Bob McNair (Houston having lost the Oilers to Nashville, two years previous). The continued lack of a stadium plan was a major reason none of the above-mentioned teams had relocated to L.A.
      • After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, owner Tom Benson was this close to moving the New Orleans Saints permanently to San Antonio (where they played their home games in the 2005 season). Then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped in to say the league would fight the move, then eventually talked Benson into staying in New Orleans.
      • Robert Kraft twice blocked moves that would've seen the New England Patriots relocated: In 1992, when new owner Victor Kiam tried to sell out to interests in Jacksonville, FL, and in 1994, when Kiam's successor, James Orthwein, wanted to move to his native St. Louis, and in the process, renaming them the St. Louis Stallions. Kraft, as lease holder to the Patriots' home stadium, Foxboro Stadiumnote , refused both times to release the team from it's lease agreement. When Orthwein sold the team, Kraft used that existing leverage to buy the team himself.
      • In the end, the Rams wound up returning to L.A. in 2016, after owner Stan Kroenke finally got a stadium deal through in suburban Inglewood. They'll play in their original L.A. home of the Coliseumnote  until the new stadium is ready in 2019.
    • MLB:
      • Walter O'Malley, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, envisioned what would have been the first domed stadium for his team to replace the aging Ebbets Field. Despite his willingness for the Dodgers to remain in Brooklyn, his public feud with New York City's planning supremo Robert Moses led to the denial of every new stadium site he proposed. Moses offered land in Queens that would eventually become Shea Stadium but O'Malley sought land elsewhere and moved the club to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.
      • While the O'Malley–Moses feud was going on, Horace Stoneham, owner of the New York Giants, was seeking a new home to replace the even older Polo Grounds. Stoneham was having the same difficulties finding a new stadium site in NYC as O'Malley, though without the public feud. He originally sought to move the Giants to Minneapolis, where they had their top farm team, but O'Malley intervened. He needed another team to move to California with himnote , so he arranged a meeting with San Francisco's mayor. Within days, it was official—the Giants would move to San Francisco.
      • Calvin Griffith, who acquired the Washington Senators after his father Clark Griffith's death in 1955, briefly considered moving the team to San Francisco in 1957. The Giants beat them to the punch, and the Senators eventually relocated to Minneapolis-St. Paul after the 1960 season, where they would become the Minnesota Twins.
  • Baseball used to be all there was in terms of team sports in the US. For a long time, it was not just the national pastime, it was the only thing there was. College Football started to eat into this dominance early on, but professional Football, Ice Hockey or Basketball had a hard time coming even close to the popularity of Baseball. However, in the 1950s and into the 1960s when the NFL and even more so the rivalry of NFL and AFL (1960-1969) exploded onto the scene, Baseball was undergoing something of a Dork Age outside of the New York city area. Competitive balance was hard to find and most games interested a local audience at best. Football on the other hand, soon took advantage of the new medium TV and through innovations like Monday Night Football (professional sport in prime time! On a weeknight!) became the sport of the TV age. What if Baseball had read the signs of the time? Could Baseball have grown to a league with an average of 60 000 people at each game? The NFL has. And NFL tickets are much more expensive than even the most expensive Major League Baseball tickets. Or would Baseball have changed so much to adapt to TV that old style fans would have turned away in disgust?

    American Football 
  • The NFL started out in a lot of small towns in the industrial Northeast and Midwest. Green Bay, Wisconsin just happens to be the only of those towns that could hold on to its team. What if Green Bay too had lost its team? What if more towns had kept their teams? What if the great depression had not killed most small town teams that were still around?
  • The American Football League's (AFL) ten-year history was full of What Might Have Beens, starting literally before there was an AFL:
    • Related to the AFL: The last team ever to cease operations entirely (neither being relocated or "reactivated" later on) were the Dallas Texans in 1952. Would Dallas based oil heir Lamar Hunt have felt the need (or ability) to buy and move a team to Dallas if there had already been a team there? Would he have been able to buy his way into the Dallas team? Would the "foolish club" have formed without Lamar Hunt and his deep pockets?
    • What would the NFL look like today if the owners had actually let Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams buy franchises? Would it have stayed the same "Three yards and a cloud of dust" conservative brand of football without the AFL to show that the fans would flock to a more wide-open style (both on and off the field)?
      • More pressingly: Would the NFL have continued to drag its feet on expansion and franchise movement, had the AFL not existed to provide a competitive reason?note 
    • For that matter, what would've become of the AFL if Hunt and Adams had accepted the NFL's offer of expansion teams if they backed out the new league?
      • Or if Joe Namath - the league's first true superstar - had signed with the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals instead of the AFL's New York Jets.
      • Rumor is that the Cardinals were merely a beard for the New York Giants. Joe had made it clear that he wanted to play in New York.
      • For that matter, what would the Super Bowl era have evolved into if Namath and the Jets had lost Super Bowl III? The NFL was already looking into altering the AFL vs NFL format, as they (the NFL) thought the AFL teams simply weren't up to par yet.
    • Without a $400K loan from Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, the Oakland Raiders would've moved to Seattle or New Orleans after the 1963 season. He gave a similar, smaller loan to the Boston Patriots to keep them afloat.
    • Al Davis' merger plan was more along the lines of a Major League Baseball type setup: With the AFL continuing as a separate entity with its own rules, but with a combined NFL/AFL championship game and All-Star game. It's widely believed that much of Davis' iconoclastic behavior was partly fueled by a grudge against NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm and Lamar Hunt for going "behind his back" to hash out the eventual merger.
    • If the merger deal hadn't put a stop to the talent raids between AFL and NFL teamsnote , the Houston Oilers would've made San Francisco QB John Brodie pro sports' first $1 million man, and had him throwing passes to future Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka.
    • Had things gone according to plan, the original AFL cities would've been New York City, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Miami. The ownership group in Minneapolis accepted the NFL offer Adams and Hunt turned down, leading the AFL to switch to Plan B: Oakland. Ralph Wilson wanted to locate his franchise in Miami, but a lukewarm reception to the unproven league caused him to look elsewhere, eventually deciding on Buffalo, NY.
  • The United States Football League started off to rave reviews and a decent fan base. Instead of following the AFL model of building on that fan base and establishing franchise stability, the USFL (on Donald Trump's urging) instead went for immediate expansion (from 12 to 18 teams by year two) and later (again at Trump's urging) moving its season from the Spring to the Fall for a head-to-head battle with the larger, more established NFL. Who knows how long the league would've lasted had they stuck with being an alternative to the NFL instead of a direct competitor, considering the amount of talent they had already been able to buy away from the NFL in such a short time.
    • Trump quite simply had no comprehension of fan loyalty being something akin to family loyalty, in terms of head-to-head competition. Football fans that already rooted for a given NFL team had little reason to care about the USFL, while the NFL was playing. The same is just as true today, after the fall of the most recent would-be "rival," the XFL.
    • Actually Trump an interview he gave to Rick Reilly in his book "Who's Your Caddy?", Trump's plan was to use the USFL as a way to sue the NFL on antitrust laws, and he hoped to use the leverage of the court battle to force the NFL into acquiescing to give him a franchise, which the NFL had no interest in doing (and still doesn't, derailing his attempt to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014).
    • Ultimately, the USFL won the case — but the jury ruled that the league's mis-management, more than anti-trust viloations, caused the USFL's problems, so the USFL were only awarded a figurehead sum of $3. With much of its talent having moved to the NFL during the time spent in litigation, and the deep pockets of its franchise owners exhausted, the league folded soon after.
  • Speaking of the XFL, Vince's original plan was to buy out the Canadian Football League and move the clubs south!
    • Which, in true Vince McMahon style, ignored the fact that the CFL itself tried an American expansion starting in 1995. It failed epically in three of the five cities of the CFL's "Southern Division" (Shreveport, Memphis and Birmingham, plus earlier failures in Sacramento and Las Vegas). Baltimore (who actually won the Grey Cup in '95) fled to Canada to become the current version of the Montreal Alouettes virtually the moment the NFL's Ravens arrived. The remaining American CFL franchise (San Antonio) disbanded immediately thereafter.
      • And there's another what if right there: Baltimore was the only place where CFL USA really worked. The team was moved out mostly because of the creation of the Ravens. What if the Browns had never been moved or if they had been moved to some entirely different place? Would we now talk about the CFL dynasty from Baltimore?
  • Want to infuriate a long-time New York Jets fan? Ask him "What Might Have Been" if the Jets had drafted Hall of Famer Warren Sapp in 1995 - as everyone expected (and whom they desperately needed as their defense at the time was horrid) instead of TE Kyle Brady? (To be fair, Brady had a good NFL career - most of it with the Jacksonville Jaguars.)
    • A collection of Jets draft blunders.
    • Pretty much every team in every major sports league in America (if not Earth) has at least one "Why did we pass on/cut that guy?". The more famous ones like Sapp could take up their own page.
    • This is why the "first round bust" exists.
    • Special mention must be made of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the late 50s, who drafted Johnny Unitas - considered by many the best quarterback of all time - in 1955, and cut after stashing him on the practice squad for the entire season. Then they had both Len Dawson (another future Hall of Famer) and Jack Kemp (who won two championships and an MVP in the AFL) on their roster in 1957. To be fair, Dawson and Kemp were behind Earl Morrall (a future NFL MVP)... whom they traded in 1958 after trading for future Hall of Famer Bobby Layne. Layne retired after the 1962 season. All four men previously mentioned played into the 1970s.
  • Considering the Cleveland Browns already had the greatest NFL running back of all time on their roster, what would the Browns have been like had they had a backfield of Jim Brown and Ernie Davis (the latter of whom died from leukemia without playing a down in the NFL)?
    • Would Art Modell have had the need to move the team to Baltimore if either The Drive or The Fumble never happened?
  • The 1970 NFL draft. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears had to flip a coin to determine who got the #1 overall pick that year. The Steelers won the flip and chose Terry Bradshaw. The Bears ended up trading their #2 pick to the Packers and didn't choose a player until round 2. Bradshaw led the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories in the next ten years and the franchise went from joke to juggernaut. The Bears had to wait another sixteen years to win their first and only Super Bowl victory.
  • In 1969, his one and only season as head coach of the Washington Redskins, the legendary Vince Lombardi snapped a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons for the 'Skins, whipped notorious slacker Sonny Jurgensen into shape, instilled a winning attitude into the 'Skins (and the entire Washington DC sports world, really) that had been absent (not to mention switching the 'Skins logo to the stylish "Circle R" design they wore throughout The '70s). Despite the success his successor, George Allen had, longtime 'Skins fans wonder how far Lombardi could've taken them had he not died of colon cancer.
  • Super Bowl XXVII was originally set to take place in Tempe, Arizona, but the NFL decided to relocate the game to Los Angeles after Arizona's government refused to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday. They were eventually given their chance to host the Super Bowl in Super Bowl XXX.
  • An interesting NFL game example would be from the 1993 playoffs. The Houston Oilers were only 10-6 but well known for their explosive run-and-shoot offense. They were playing a team, the Buffalo Bills, that they had literally beaten the week before 27 to 3. The Oilers got out to a 35-3 lead in the third quarter and ended up losing the game 41-38 in overtime, mostly due to their poor defensive play and poor special teams play. Buffalo would eventually go on to lose their third of four straight Super Bowl appearances. Houston would hire defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, a vocal critic of the run-and-shoot offense, in 1993 where they would again lose in the playoffs. Midway through the 1994 season, Houston would fire head coach Jack Pardee and abandon the run-and-shoot offense while Buffalo would mostly struggle to capture the glory they had in the early part of the decade.
    • If Houston had won, they would have likely gone on to play a Pittsburgh Steelers team that they had lost two games to by a combined 6 points during the season. Houston very well could have had a chance at going as far as the AFC Championship Game and maybe Buddy Ryan never would have been hired as their new defensive coordinator. This also may have resulted in Jeff Fisher never becoming the head coach of the Houston Oilers (and maybe even gone so far as to keep the team from moving to Tennessee to become the Tennessee Titans).
    • If either of those scenarios had come to pass; there would have been no need for Oilers owner Bud Adams to threaten to break the team up (which after the 1993 season ended with a playoff loss to Kansas City and comeback specialist Joe Montana, Adams made good on).
  • The 1958 NFL championship ("The Greatest Game Ever Played") put the NFL on the national map, with Baltimore QB Johnny Unitas running the 2-minute drill to perfection (before the term had even been coined, let alone codified as a strategy). But would the NFL have gained that boost if the New York Giants had stopped the Colts in regulation time? Or if the game hadn't had the extra drama of being the NFL's first ever sudden death overtime game? Or if that drama had not happened in the NFL's first nationwide (as in "Every station in NBC's network was getting this broadcast") telecast?
    • One Yard Short. If it didn't happen, then Super Bowl XXXIV could have been the first Super Bowl to go to overtime.
  • This is one of the things college football experts debate on when it comes to the 1984 Orange Bowl: How would the college football landscape have changed had Nebraska coach Tom Osborne decided to kick the extra point and settle for a tie (overtime would be another two decades away, and the tie would've probably given Nebraska the national championship). The Miami Hurricanes won the game when they stopped the two-point try. Not only did this cement Miami's place among the college football elite, but sounded the death knell for using wishbone and other run-oriented option offenses on the elite level (Miami exposed it as having a severe vulnerability to defensive speed). Would the status quo have remained if Nebraska tied (or made the conversion)? Would Miami still have risen to the elite with a loss/tie?
  • The documentary The Best That Never Was is all about this trope, regarding Marcus Dupree - who in 1981 was the most heavily recruited high school football player ever. He lived up to the hype as a freshman running back, setting school records and making highlights with every game. But a combination of bad attitude (his reliance on physical gifts over practice and work infuriated his college coaches, leading to an ultimate split), bad luck (injuries marred his sophomore year and derailed his pro career), bad decisions (leaving Oklahoma, then quitting college altogether), and bad advice (leaving all his USFL money in the hands of his de facto agent, never getting a second opinion when his first doctors advised him to give up football) led to his being a washed-up burn-out by age 24. A brief comeback with the Los Angeles Rams from 1991 to 1992 showed some of what could have been had he toughed things out or had better advisers: Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer called his handling of Dupree - riding him hard out of both frustration for Dupree's lack of drive outside of game day and not quite knowing how to handle someone that young with that much talent - his most regrettable move as a head coach).
    • A side-note the documentary never addresses: Had Dupree transferred to a lower-division (I-AA or lower) he would've been eligible after his aborted sophomore season. And had he gone to nearby (to Mississippi native Dupree) I-AA Mississippi Valley State, he would've been paired with the record-setting duo of receiver Jerry Rice and quarterback Willie Totten. The mind boggles at the kind of numbers that trio could've put up.
  • The Buffalo Bills are known as the team that lost 4 Super Bowls in a row. The first of the loss was a very narrow loss by 1 point where Bills kicker Scott Norwood missed a last minute field goal that would've won the game for the Bills. However, what if the kick was good and the Bills won their first Super Bowl? Would the Bills made it back again and again for the next 3 seasons? If they did, would they be soundly defeated like they did?
  • In 2009, ESPN's College Football Live asked "What If" to many of the most notable moments in college football history, wondering what would happen if they went the other way. Among the moments they checked out were (along with some of what they suspect would've happened):
    • What if Tom Osborne had settled for the extra point instead of going for 2 in the 1984 Orange Bowl against Miami (making Nebraska the national champs instead of Miami)?
      • If Miami didn't win the national championship that year, Howard Schnellenberger would've stayed (instead of leaving for the USFL) with Miami and cemented the late 80s/early 90s Hurricanes dynasty even sooner. The 83 Cornhuskers would go down as possibly the greatest college football team of all time, on the flip side, with Osborne going down as possibly the greatest college football coach of all time.
    • What if Florida State's first Wide Right had gone the other way?
      • The Miami Hurricanes' dynasty (they were mentioned a lot in this series) would've been cut short as FSU would've won the '91 national championship. The momentum from that would've overturned the numerous Wide Rights that followed, possibly cementing FSU as the undisputed team of the 90s and early 00s. (The Cornhuskers also have a claim to that title having won one more national championship than the Seminoles.)
    • What if Boise State's series of trick plays leading to their Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma had failed?
      • A Boise State loss would've caused a huge dent in the various mid-major conferences' efforts to gain the respect of college football fans, possibly redeeming the BCS in the eyes of the fans a little bit.
      • In another Boise State example, what if Auburn hadn't been able to come back from their 24-point deficit against Alabama, and Boise State's Kyle Brotzman hadn't missed the field goal against Nevada that sent the game into overtime?
    • Several years ago, the SEC proposed a four-team playoff for the national championship, it was shot down.
      • But it didn't stay dead—in 2014, the College Football Playoff began, featuring four teams picked by a Final Four-style committee.
    • What if Teddy Roosevelt had not called for college football to institute rule changes to make the game safer in 1906 (which among other things, led to the forward pass)? Would the perceived violence of the sport have led more colleges to eliminate it? And what might have replaced it? A few West Coast colleges switched to Rugby Union around that time, but gave it up after about a decade when no other schools bothered to join them.
    • Several proposed conferences came very close to becoming a reality, which would have led to huge changes in the college football landscape before the big realignments of the last two decades. Most notable are the "airplane conference" that several prominent schools note discussed forming around 1959; Joe Paterno's long-standing idea for an Eastern-based conference note ; and the 1990 proposal by the Metro Conference note  to add 8 more schools note  and start playing football. The Metro proposal stalled because many of the presidents of the smaller schools were put off by the scale of the proposed changes this could bring to both their schools and the college sports landscape. The Metro broke apart in 1991, with burgeoning football powers Florida State and South Carolina bolting for football-playing conferences and Memphis St. and Cincinnati leaving to form the basketball-centric Great Midwest conference. The Metro folded in 1995, when it and the Great Midwest merged to form Conference USA (which did include football).
  • The March 8, 2004 issue of Sporting News explored several "what if" scenarios, complete with projected alternate histories.
  • What if Nebraska faced Florida State for the 1997 national championship, instead of the somewhat baffling choice of having them play Tennessee? (FSU and UT both had one loss, and it was to the same team, Florida. The difference was that the Volunteers were shut out at home. On the other hand the Seminoles lost by 3 points on the road in what is still called the best game ever played in The Swampnote )
  • How would the 2013 Super Bowl have turned out if the power hadn't gone out in the Superdome for 34 minutes after halftime? Baltimore was on the way to a rout of the San Francisco 49ers, leading 21-3 at the half. The 49ers managed to rally to within a field goal of the Ravens by the end of the game (though they still lost). Would the 49ers have been able to rally even without the break in Baltimore's momentum?
  • What if legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had accepted that job with the New England Patriots in 1972? The Nittany Lions might have never rose the to level of dominance they achieved in the 1980's, winning two national titles.
    • Three years earlier, JoePa was the first choice of the Rooney family to coach the Pittsburgh Steelers. When he said no, they went to Plan B: Baltimore Colts defensive coordinator Chuck Noll. Noll helped turn the Steelers from the NFL's Butt Monkey to the dominant team of the 1970s. Would JoePa have had similar success? We'll never know.
    • Another Paterno-related situation, with maybe some broader implications: what if Jerry Sandusky had been hired as the head coach at Toledo in 1977? (He was one of the two finalists, but UT went with Michigan assistant Chuck Stobart instead.)
  • The 1942 Chicago Bears: 11-0 in the regular season, winning with an average score of 34-8, 10 All-Stars, led by future Hall-Of-Fame QB Sid Luckman. Then coach George Halas left to serve in the Army, and the Bears lost the championship game to Washington. Most NFL historians take it as fact that had Halas stayed to coach the championship game, the Bears complete the perfect season.
  • The 2007 New England Patriots: Won all 16 of their regular season games and went onto defeat the Jaguars and the Chargers in the playoffs. Only the New York Giants stood in their quest for a perfect season. With the Patriots ahead 14-10, the Giants faced 2nd and 5 on their 44-yard line with just over a minute left in the game. Eli Manning threw a pass that Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel nearly grabbed for an interception. On the next play, Manning completed the "Helmet Catch" to David Tyree and the Giants would eventually score a touchdown, winning Super Bowl XLII with a final score of 17-14. Fans are left wondering what would have happened if Samuel completed the interception...
  • The infamous Herschel Walker trade, which helped turn the Dallas Cowboys from a doormat to three championships in five years, was almost the "Michael Irvin trade." In 1989, Jimmy Johnson, newly-hired coach of the Cowboys, thought that the only way the Cowboys were going turn things around with any sort of speed would be to acquire all the draft picks he could, then either flip those for other players or higher picks or simply stockpile players and turn over the not-very-good roster that way. He only had two bankable assets to use as trade bait: Second-year receiver Irvin or two-time All-Pro halfback Walker. He offered Irvin to the Los Angeles Raiders and asked what they'd be willing to hand over for him. Raiders Owner/General Manager Al Davis talked Johnson out of the deal, pointing out that if he traded Irvin, newly-drafted QB Troy Aikman would have no one to throw to. Johnson took Davis' advice and offered Walker to the Minnesota Vikings. The rest is history. Though one wonders what could have been if Davis hadn't been feeling honorable that day, as Irvin could've been paired with fellow future Hall-of-Fame receiver Tim Brown and speedster Willie Gault. That trio could've terrorized the AFC for years.
  • This story from Sports Illustrated asks whether the massive NCAA Division I conference realignment of the 2010s, not to mention prior waves of conference expansion and realignment, would ever have happened if not for a seemingly minor change in a then-obscure piece of NCAA legislation passed in 1987. The rule allowed any NCAA football conference with at least 12 members to split into divisions and play a conference championship game between the division winners, with said game not counting against the limit of regular-season games for any team. The legislation was originally drafted by a Division II athletic director to benefit his conference, at the time the only conference in any NCAA division with 14 football members (no conference playing Division I-A, now FBS, football then had more than 10 members). Before the legislation was formally put up for a vote, a second Division II conference that had 12 football members offered to co-sponsor the legislation if the membership requirement were reduced to 12, and the drafter agreed to do so.
    • Postscript: In 2016, Division I approved a change that partially deregulated conference football championship games. Conferences no longer have to have 12 members, as long as the conference championship game involves (1) two division winners or (2) the top two teams in the conference standings after a full round-robin schedule.

    Auto Racing 
  • In the IndyCar series, Dan Wheldon died in a crash in the last race of the year. Before the race, he was interviewed about having a full time ride in 2013. And this was after the season in which he won the Indy 500 for the second time.
  • Also, Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, killed at roughly the peak of his career driving what was one of the best cars on the circuit.
  • In MotoGP: What would happen if Daijiro Kato and/or Marco Simoncelli didn't die? How much their presence would shake up the competition if they are still alive?
  • One has to wonder how much different mid-Sixties Grand National racing might have been if Curtis Turner, the legendary racer/bootlegger/timber speculator/party animal hadn't been banned from the sport in 1961 for trying to unionize the NASCAR drivers.

    NASCAR 
  • There have been many times in NASCAR's history where this trope has been in effect.
  • With his 23 years as a fulltime Cup driver, Jeff Gordon had many times where this trope could've happened to him.
    • He had originally planned to race in the Indy Car Series.
    • Gordon originally broke onto the Xfinity Series circuit with Bill Davis Racing, and was even set to jump into the Sprint Cup Series driving Davis' #22. However, after watching Gordon take a noticeably ill-handling racecar to Victory Lane at Atlanta in 1992, Rick Hendrick decided to do whatever he could in his power to sign Gordon for his team, which resulted in Gordon taking the 24 and Davis picking up Bobby Labonte to drive the 22 instead. For Gordon, of course, the rest is history. For Davis, although he later had a few solid years fielding the #22 for Ward Burton,note  including a Daytona 500 win in 2002, he eventually fell well behind the big multi-car teams,note  and sold his team to Penske after the 2008 season (the owner points were assigned to the now-dormant #77 of Sam Hornish, and Penske changed his second team's car number to #22 in 2011, which is now Joey Logano's car).
    • This NASCAR.com article, written shortly after Gordon's 700th start at Darlington in May 2013 (and his 300th top five, making him the fourth driver in Sprint Cup history to reach that mark. He passed David Pearson for third on that list later that season.), details the string of chance encounters and fortuitous friendships which led to Rick Hendrick being able to contact Gordon and offer him the #24.
    • In January 2015, Ray Evernham revealed that Gordon was actually offered the #46note , only to have that be stopped by licensing issues surrounding Days of Thunder (incidentally or not, the cars used in the movie were provided by Hendrick Motorsports). This article provides more details, along with pictures from Evernham's Twitter account. There was at least one race where HMS ran a #46 car with DuPont colors, earlier in 1992 before Gordon's series debut. The #24, meanwhile, was chosen because it was of very little significance to NASCAR history at the time, having only been used regularly in the '70s by the unrelated Cecil Gordon, who had a handful of top ten points runs but never broke into victory lane.
    • Gordon's retirement announcement later that month brought forth two more - the first was the history of Gordon's iconic "Rainbow Warriors" paint scheme. Ray Evernham had commissioned famed NASCAR artist Sam Bass to do a program cover for Gordon's 21st birthday, which was delivered free of charge on the condition that Bass also be allowed a crack at designing the paint scheme for Gordon's future Cup car. Evernham eventually got approval for Bass to present three schemes to DuPont. The first two were done several days in advance of the meeting. The third was done on the fly the morning of the meeting, after Bass was inspired by DuPont's efforts to portray their automotive finish division as offering "a rainbow of colors". That third and last-minute scheme ended up being chosen ahead of Bass' two other submissions, and another forty from other artists, to be the official scheme of Gordon's car.
    • There was also the story, from Gordon's stepfather and former manager John Bickford, of the time Jack Roush tried to recruit Gordon to his team. This originated because Bill Davis had been fielding Fords for Gordon during his Xfinity tenure, and Ford's racing division was very interested in keeping him in house. They therefore referred Roush to Bickford to hammer out terms for Gordon to join Roush Racing. However, a phone call to set the initial terms stalled when Roush rejected Bickford's condition that he also recruit Evernham, with whom Gordon already had a very strong rapport, stating "My drivers don't pick their crew chiefs. I do that." Bickford promptly hung up the call, and when Roush called back and learned that the phone hadn't disconnected accidentally, he went on to explain that picking the crew chief gave him a degree of comfort in the potentially risky move of picking up a young, unproven talent. After Roush explained that he had no plans of making an exception for Gordon, or for any driver at any point, Bickford hung up again and officially ended the negotiation.
    • It was later revealed that Gordon had originally wanted to use the number #16 in the Sprint Cup Series, but that number was (and still is) in use with Roush Fenway Racing.
  • Chase Elliott, son of the legendary Bill Elliott, and Jeff Gordon's tapped successor for the #24, already has a couple of his own.
    • One: What would have happened if Spingate hadn't occurred? Elliott's 2013 part-time runs in ARCA and the Trucks was sponsored by Aaron's, whom Hendrick was presumably trying to lure away from Michael Waltrip Racing. However, this was at the same time that Brian Vickers was in the middle of his second Career Resurrection, and after his win at New Hampshire that July, Aaron's decided to re-sign with Waltrip and Vickers for two more years, which also led to them canceling any plans they had to sponsor Elliott after 2013. Thus, Hendrick had no money to be able to run any significant program for him in 2014, until that January, when NAPA, who had dumped MWR and Martin Truex, Jr. in the wake of Spingate, reversed course on their decision to abandon NASCAR completely, approached Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and asked about renewing their association with him (as Dale Jr. had been paired with Waltrip on NAPA's ad campaigns at DEI in the early-to-mid-2000s). Dale Jr. agreed and NAPA thus sponsored a new entry in the Xfinity Series for Elliott. Elliott would go on to become the first driver to win a Championship in his Rookie year, which led Hendrick to officially declare him the benefactor to the #24 when Gordon announced his retirement in January 2015. NAPA continued their sponsorship of Chase through his Sprint Cup debut in 2015 as a part time driver, and a 24 race sponsorship for 2016 with Elliott's move to the #24.
    • Two: Elliott, like Gordon, might have been a Ford driver...had any Ford teams had shown interest in him. In 2010, Bill Elliott had been sending out feelers to various Ford teams concerning Chase, hoping to extend his association with the blue oval down to his son, but ultimately, no Ford team of any stature showed significant interest. Indeed, the only owner of note in any camp who was interested in Elliott was Rick Hendrick, which led to Chase signing a development contract with the team in early 2011.
  • Tim Richmond won six races in 1986 driving for Rick Hendrick but contracted AIDS and fell ill and eventually died from complications of the disease in 1989. Richmond was notable for being an outsider to the then-prevalent Southern good-ol'-boy crowd, lived a playboy lifestyle and was considered a James Dean-like heartthrob figure who largely inspired the Cole Trickle character in Days of Thunder. Long time fans speculate that Richmond could have had a great rivalry with Dale Earnhardt years before Jeff Gordon showed up and did the same thing, albeit without Richmond's charismatic personality.
  • In the space of a few months in 1993 both the defending Winston Cup champion and the defending Daytona 500 winner both died in aviation incidents:
    • Alan Kulwicki died in April 1993 in a plane crash months after winning the Winston Cup championship in 1992. He was the last owner/driver to win a Cup championship until Tony Stewart in 2011, and his one car team could have become much more powerful during the 1990s. Kulwicki's championship was a Bookends case as it came in between Dale Earnhardt's 1991 and 1993 championships.
    • A few months after Kulwicki died, 1992 Daytona 500 winner Davey Allison, and son of Cup champion Bobby Allison, died after crashing his helicopter in the infield at Talladega. Allison had won 19 Cup races in his career and was only 32, and many believe that had he lived, he would've cut into the win and championship totals of both Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.
  • Adam Petty's death at Loudon in 2000 aged only 19 has echoes of that of Davey Allison as Petty was the next generation of a famous racing dynasty, although he had yet to begin his Cup-level career in earnest so his full potential will never be known. He only started one Cup race, the DirecTV 500, in which he finished 40th (and more people remember that race for being Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s first career Cup win, not for being Adam Petty's sole start).
  • In a living example many people wonder what David Pearson could have done in more seasons (Pearson never raced a full season except the years he won the championships but still won 105 races).
  • There are websites that have analyzed the scoring point systems and calculated who would have been the NASCAR champion of the Chase for the Sprint Cup seasons (2004-present) had the Chase formula not been used. For instance, Jeff Gordon would have won the championships in 2004 and 2007 under the old points system (as he scored the most points overall, but struggles he had in the Chase, after the points reseeding, were what allowed Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson to take those trophies), while Carl Edwards would have won the titles in 2008 and 2011 (Chase reseeding and at least one DNF at Talladega caused him to lose to Jimmie Johnson in 2008, while the title in 2011 would not have been lost to Tony Stewart due to a points tie). Jimmie Johnson would have won regardless in 2006, 2009 and 2013, Tony Stewart would have won regardless in 2005, and Brad Keselowski would have won regardless in 2012. However, it should be noted that these sites don't take into account that had the Chase not been in place, drivers' approach to these races would be much different due to the different stakes.
  • Elliott Sadler was originally picked to drive the MWR #55 at Bristol in March 2012. However, because he drove for Richard Childress Racing in the Nationwide Series at the time, he was ultimately forced to back out of the car due to a conflict of interest between the manufacturers, leading Waltrip to pick Brian Vickers instead. Ironically, the next year, Sadler moved to Joe Gibbs Racing's Nationwide program, which not only put him in a Toyota, but also made him a teammate to Vickers after the latter was also picked up for Gibbs' Nationwide team.
  • There are at least two cases of Cup drivers whose careers would've been much different if they hadn't been promoted to fulltime Cup status ahead of schedule to replace an injured or a deceased driver:
    • Kevin Harvick debuted in the Busch Series in October 1999, then went on to drive the full Busch season in 2000 for Richard Childress Racing, winning Rookie of the Year honors there. For 2001, Richard Childress planned to run Harvick in the Busch Series full-time again, while developing him into the Sprint Cup Series with up to seven races in the #30 AOL Chevrolet, then promote Harvick to a fulltime Sprint Cup schedule in the #30 for 2002. But then Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500, and as a result, Harvick was brought in to fill Earnhardt's ride for the rest of the season, in addition to his Busch ride. Despite the early promotion, Harvick proved an instant success, winning two races (a memorable photo-finish at Atlanta over Jeff Gordon by inches; and the inaugural Chicagoland race), six Top 5 finishes, and 16 Top 10 finishes, the Rookie of the Year Award, and a ninth-place finish in the 2001 points standings. He still won the Busch Series championship, becoming the first driver to win the Busch Series championship while also driving full-time in the Cup Series with a Top 10 finish. He would stay in the #29 up until the end of 2013, after which he moved to Stewart-Haas Racing, where he won his first Sprint Cup championship.
    • Jamie McMurray was originally scheduled to drive a limited schedule for Chip Ganassi Racing in the #42 Dodge for 2002, in preparation for a full-time 2003 Rookie of the Year campaign in the #42 with new sponsors Texaco and Havoline. However, Sterling Marlin fractured a vertebra in a crash at Kansas Speedway, causing Ganassi to immediately promote McMurray to the #40 Coors Light Dodge to replace Marlin. McMurray thus made his Cup debut at the fall Talladega race. One week later, at Charlotte, in just his second career Cup and first non-restrictor plate start, McMurray outraced the Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiacs of Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, in one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history. He set a modern era record for fewest starts before a win (which has been tied by Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500, although a difference is that Bayne's win was on a restrictor plate track where upsets are frequent due to the plates equalizing the cars, while Charlotte, where Mc Murray won, is a track that requires more driver skill), and it was also the first time a driver won in their first start at a 1.5-mile track; the most common type of track used in the sport. McMurray drove for six of the remaining seven races, except for Martinsville, where Mike Bliss was already scheduled to drive the #40, which ostensibly allowed McMurray to win Rookie of the Year honors for 2003 for a fulltime Cup schedule.

    Baseball 
  • The 1994-1995 MLB Strike put a halt to baseball from August 12th till April 2nd. The strike not only canceled the World Series and prematurely ended the summers of many baseball fans, it also put a halt to some great seasons. Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants was on pace to break Roger Maris' single season homerun record, Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres had a very real chance to be the first player to hit .400 since 1941, Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox and Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros had career years that they didn't get to finish, but the most tragic of all of these has to be the Montreal Expos. The Expos had the best record in baseball with a 74-40 record. They were favorites to win the World Series despite having a very low payroll. The strike put an end to all of this and is considered one of the main reasons why the Expos were never the same again and eventually moved down to Washington D.C.
    • Also to mention when baseball resumed, it put a giant Reset Button on everything meaning that if you signed a free agent during that time period, the contract was void. For example, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette signed Kevin Appier, Sammy Sosa, and John Wetteland to play for the Red Sox. The strike wiped all of that away.
      • The Fan Revolt following the strike has become a non-issue in the United States, but in Canada, the game never recovered. Aside from the Expos fans walking away entirely, the Toronto Blue Jays average home game attendance dropped sharply after 1994 and hasn't been above 30,000 since 1998. They averaged 50,000 in 1993 and 1994.
      • Does it matter that the Blue Jays haven't been contenders since 1993?
      • No - the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs haven't been contenders for most of the last deacde and still manage to get a pretty decent following, despite the fact that pound-for-pound in the last couple of years, the Blue Jays are the better team.
      • Also, when you're a smaller payroll team sharing a division with Boston, Tampa (who also has a very low payroll), and the Yankees, you've got your work cut out for you. 2010's season as a case in point: most teams with a record of 85-77 would finish higher than 4th out of 5 in their division.
    • The strike was also one of the reasons Michael Jordan went back to basketball. Imagine what could have happened.
  • On that same vein, what if the Montreal Expos had moved to Washington a few years prior to 2005, while Vladimir Guerrero was still on the team?
    • Similarly, what would have happened if the Expos had moved to the other leading contender for relocation: Monterrey, Mexico?
  • What if Major League Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamattinote  not died of a heart attack during his first year in office (and about a week after he banned Pete Rose for his gambling activities) in 1989? Could Giamatti had been able to successfully mediate between the owners and players union in light of the eventual the 1994-95 strike? When Giamatti was first hired to be the President of the National League in 1986, his deft dealings with unions while at Yale had been cited as one of his strongest assets.
  • What if the color barrier in Major League Baseball been broken earlier than 1947 (when Jackie Robinson debuted)? Therefore, the exploits Negro League legends like Josh Gibson (considered to be the "Black Babe Ruth") and Satchel Page (during his prime as opposed to when he finally did make the majors while in his late 40s) would've most likely had been wider known.
    • It actually was. There were a few black players in the immediate post-Reconstruction period before Jim Crow really ramped into gear.
  • The New York Yankees were actually Plan B for George Steinbrenner in the early 70s. He wanted to, and was rebuffed in his efforts to, buy his hometown team, the Cleveland Indians. Baseball in general and Indians fans in particular are left wondering if The Boss would've effected the dramatic reversal of fortune for Cleveland as he did with the Yankees.
  • In 2003, we could have had a World Series featuring the Boston Red Sox and(/or) the Chicago Cubs. The Sox had not won a World Series in 85 years or even competed in 17 years (they would finally win it all the following year). The Cubs hadn't won it in 95 years (they STILL haven't won it since, giving them a drought of 107 years and counting, the longest in American sports history) and hadn't even attended the championship in 58 years (70 nowadays, longer than many competing teams have been in existence). Both teams were involved in controversial Division Series.
    • The Sox had a pretty straightforward one. Extra innings in Game 7, with the New York Yankees firing off a solo home run in the 11th. Stung like a bitch to any diehard Sox fans hoping to see their first World Series appearance in almost two decades.
      • You can't talk about 2003 Game 7 without mentioning how they got into Extra Innings in the first place. Going into the 8th inning, the Red Sox were leading by 4 runs. Pedro Martínez had thrown impeccably well and had hit 100 pitches at the end of the 7th inning. Everybody knew he was done except for the one person who mattered — manager Grady Little. Pedro would be back out for the 8th inning and after one loud out, Pedro unraveled just as predicted and the lead disintegrated.
    • The Cubs, however, were stuck with a wholly demoralizing Game 6, while leading the series 3-2. In the eighth inning, Luis Castillo fired off a long, foulwards shot should have been caught by left fielder Moisés Alou. If it weren't for spectator Steve Bartman, that is. Desperate for a foul ball to call his own, he reached into where Alou's glove was headed and screwed up catching it. For both him and Alou. The ball was ruled foul (what would have been a painfully easy catch, too). What followed was the Florida Marlins turning it around from losing 3-0 (in a game that would have taken them out of the series) to winning 8-3. That inning.
      • The kicker? Steve Bartman was a Cubs fan.
      • There's always 2015...
      • 2012?
      • 2012 turned out to be false, and in many ways, the exact opposite, with the Cubs suffering one of their worst seasons in years. 2015 went much better, with the Cubs having one of their best seasons in years and making it all the way to the National League Championship Series...where they proceeded to get utterly demolished by the New York Mets. However, in 2016, the Cubs finally won the NL pennant and advanced to the World Series.
  • The Philadelphia Phillies are, statistically speaking, the worst franchise in the history of sports, with more losses than any other sports franchise and more last-place finishes than any other baseball team. According to master baseball showman Bill Veeck, he tried to buy the team in 1943, when the Phillies were at a nadir both financially and on the field. His intent, he said, was to replace the entire roster with Negro League stars and bust the color line years before Branch Rickey did. He claimed the baseball commissioner and league president heard of his plans and, wanting to keep the sport segregated, quickly arranged for a sale to another buyer. Veeck's story has been vehemently disputed by baseball historians, but if true and if it had come to pass, he not only would have revolutionized baseball, he would have changed the history of race relations in the U.S.

    Basketball 
  • The breaking of the color barrier in the NBA didn't have the nation-altering drama of Jackie Robinson when the first few black players were drafted in 1950 (for several different reasons, perhaps the biggest being that basketball wasn't central to American life the way baseball was at the time), but the barrier was there, as was the racism at the heart of it. Even after it was broken, there was an unspoken quota that generally limited teams to three or four black players until the mid-Sixties. (The league was still in its unstable infancy, with teams folding frequently, and there was a perception that white fans would turn away from the sport if there were too many black players.) A lot of skilled black players therefore never got a chance to play, or found their abilities hindered by the accepted style of the game (or even by their coaches, who sometimes pushed inferior white players into starring roles) at the time.
  • One of the most tragic "What might have been" stories in sports is that of Len Bias. Drafted second overall in the 1986 NBA draft by the defending champion Boston Celtics (they got the number two selection due to a previous trade), Bias was considered a can't miss prospect. He died of a cocaine overdose two days after the draft. Celtics fans point to Bias' death as the start of their decade-long descent into mediocrity (hitting rock bottom with the untimely death of star Reggie Lewis in 1993).
    • A clean and alive Len Bias on the Celtics quite possibly, would've helped give the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons and the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls a run for their money. Bias was suppose to become the new focal point/franchise player/anchor of the Celtics once Larry Bird (who finally had to retire in 1992 due to back issues) finally stepped aside. Bias coming off the bench would've also helped lighten the load of the already battered and aging Celtics (like during the 1987 Finals against the Lakers).
  • On Draft Day 1986 the 76ers traded away Moses Malone and the #1 draft pick (which everyone agreed would be Brad Daugherty). The players they got in exchange never amounted to much, particularly Jeff Ruland, who had been a powerful force for the Washington Bullets but had played in just 67 games in the previous two years due to injuries. He would play only five games for the 76ers before injuries essentially ended his career. Charles Barkley particularly lamented those trades, both because he lost Malone, his friend and mentor, and because a front-court of him, 3-time MVP Malone, and (eventual) 5-time All-Star Daugherty would have been a title contender for years to come.
  • The basketball scandal masterminded by Jack Molinas in the early 1960s led to the banning of several players, probably the two most notable being Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown (neither of whom were ever proved of wrongdoing). Both would eventually find some measure of redemption years later in the ABA. Hawkins won the ABA's first MVP and led the Pittsburgh Pipers to the first ABA championship, then went over to the Phoenix Suns and became a four-time All-Star when the NBA lifted his ban; Brown played his whole career in the ABA and was a key player in the Indiana Pacers' three championships (winning the playoff MVP for the first in 1970). But if they had been able to develop their skills properly in college, and then play in their primes against some of the Sixties superstars of the NBA, there's no telling how high they might have risen in the basketball pantheon.
  • For Phoenix Suns fans would be what if the coin flip ended up giving the Suns the number 1 draft pick in 1969? In 1969, both the Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks had the worst records in the NBA, and they decided on who gets pick #1 by a coin toss, and then-President Jerry Colangelo would decide on heads or tails. Unfortunately, he chose incorrectly, and the Suns had to get pick #2, which ended up being Neal Walk. The #1 pick of that year? A prospect known as Lew Alcindor (better known now as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).note 
    • Another Alcindor story: The ABA, knowing he was the kind of player that could give their entire league legitimacy, was desperate to sign him, to the point that they hired private investigators to help them figure out the best way to approach him. Alcindor told both leagues that he wasn't interested in a lot of negotiating, so they should just present him with their best offer and he would make his decision. The ABA's research told them this was true, so they wrote a million-dollar check out to him to show how serious they were. But ABA commissioner George Mikan, for some reason, didn't give him the check and instead gave him a lower offer, believing he would come back after hearing Milwaukee's offer for further negotiating. He didn't. Some of the ABA guys actually chased Alcindor and his parents down at the airport to show him the check, but he had made his commitment to Milwaukee and wouldn't go back on his word (something else their research told them would be the case). The whole debacle was enough to finally convince the ABA owners that they needed to get rid of George Mikan. The ABA probably still would have eventually been absorbed by the NBA (that was the ABA owners' goal from the start) anyway, but it's anyone's guess how different it might have been if Alcindor had gone with them.
  • When the foundering American Basketball Association (ABA) merged with the NBA in 1976, the original four teams tabbed for the merger were the San Antonio Spurs (the ABA's attendance leader) and the ABA's strongest remaining teams: the Denver Nuggets, the New York Nets... and the (Louisville) Kentucky Colonels. The Chicago Bulls protested the possible inclusion of the Colonels; mostly because they coveted Kentucky's star player, center Artis Gilmore (for whom they owned the NBA draft rights). The NBA, not wanting a fight with one of one of its biggest franchises (despite the Colonels being one of the most profitable franchises in either league), chose the Indiana Pacers as the fourth team (the only other surviving ABA team, the Spirits of St. Louis, were never seriously considered for the mergernote  ).
    • Speaking of the ABA, the Denver Nuggets (then the Denver Rockets) were to have originally been based in Kansas City. However, the original owner of that franchise couldn't find a suitable arena there and Kansas City moved to Denver.
  • Still more ABA craziness: After his junior year in college, Julius "Dr. J" Erving signed with the Virginia Squires of the ABA. He had a stellar rookie season, then signed with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. A couple of days later, he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. All three teams went to court to fight for him. In the meantime he went to the Hawks' training camp and even played a couple of exhibition games with the team... alongside "Pistol" Pete Maravich. It was eventually ruled that he had to return to the Squires (who traded him a year later to the Nets, who then sold him to the 76ers at the merger to raise the money to pay off the Knicks (see below)), but it's mind-boggling to imagine what would have happened if he'd stayed with the Hawks (or for that matter, gone to Milwaukee, where he would have been playing with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
    • And even more craziness: When the New York Nets joined the NBA, they had to pay the entrance fee and pay a fine to the New York Knicks for invading their "territory." One of the Nets' proposals was to simply give Dr. J to the Knicks, but the Knicks rejected it. Thus, Dr. J went to the 76ers, who instantly became a title contender, while the Knicks, two-time champions in the 70s, descended into mediocrity, frequently missing the playoffs altogether and not making it past the second round until 1993. In retrospect, they probably should've taken Doc.
  • Greg Oden has basically been a "What Could Have Been" story since he went pro. Drafted first overall in 2007 (ahead of superstar phenom Kevin Durant) his career has been one long string of injury problems, and bench warming.
    • This is the third Portland Trail Blazers first-round pick WCHB, behind Bill Walton (who at least got to showcase his talent for a few years before injuries set him down) and Sam Bowie. Billed as the 2nd-best big man in the draft behind Hakeem Olajuwan (then still known as "Akeem", who went first overall to the Houston Rockets), the Blazers picked him number 2. The Chicago Bulls drafted next and picked a guard from North Carolina named Michael Jordan. Would anyone be ridiculing the Blazers for that pick had Bowie been healthy enough to live up to his potential? (Especially since they passed on Jordan because they had drafted a pretty good guard of their own in Clyde Drexler the previous year.)
  • When the Charlotte Bobcats were first created in the early 2000s (following the Charlotte Hornets relocating to New Orleans), the runner-ups for the team name were "Charlotte Flight" and "Charlotte Dragons". "Charlotte Flight" was actually the most popular name in a poll given to Charlotte residents, but its results were disregarded by the original majority owner, Bob Johnson, who may have liked the idea of naming the team after himself ("Bob's Cats" was indeed an early Fan Nickname).
    • Though now, with the New Orleans franchise vacating "Hornets" for "Pelicans", the team was granted permission to change its name back to the Charlotte Hornets for the 2014-15 season. And, as part of the deal, also got back the pre-relocation history of the original Charlotte Hornets.
  • An injury story where the injury was the good part: The San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson missed virtually the entire 1996-1997 with a back injury. Without Robinson the Spurs' record cratered to 20-62, third-worst in the league. They won the #1 pick in the subsequent draft lottery, which contained star Wake Forest center Tim Duncan. And the previous year's bad record spurred GM Gregg Popovich to fire head coach Bob Hill and take the reins himself. With Duncan and a healthy Robinson, the Spurs won the 1999 championship and went on to win four more after Robinson's retirement. What would've happened had Robinson remained healthy and the Spurs hadn't had their massive shakeup?
  • Shortly before starting his college career; Patrick Ewing was leaning toward signing with the University of North Carolina...until seeing a Ku Klux Klan rally not far from the hotel he was staying in; choosing instead to sign with Georgetown, and no doubt leaving plenty of what if's about a potential UNC Tar Heels team with Ewing playing alongside Michael Jordan and (during his freshman year) James Worthy.
  • One of the great missed opportunities of recent basketball history is that LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, probably the two most celebrated players of the post-Jordan era, never faced each other in the NBA Finals.
  • When the Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis, TN in 2002, Memphis-based FedEx offered $120 million to the NBA to grant them naming rights to the team itself. They planned to rename the Grizzlies, the "Memphis Express" and switch the team colors to FedEx's trademark white, purple and orange. The NBA rejected the proposal, and the team settled for a new Grizzlies logo and color scheme and giving FedEx naming rights to the new stadium (now known as FedEx Forum).

    Hockey 
  • After a round of expansion and franchise moves in the early 90s, the National Hockey League was looking at unprecedented exposure and popularity. Then the league went through an ill-advised second round of expansion in the late '90s, expanding to the southern US and moving smaller franchises to the western US. This is considered an ongoing disaster, with the league having to fight keep the Phoenix Coyotes from moving back to Canada being the biggest example of the mostly apathetic fanbases the league expanded to. With the perception (in America) of a bloated, watered-down and lackluster product with no recognizable names, the league is at it's lowest point in decades (part of the Stanley Cup finals have been broadcast on NBC Sports Network {formerly Versus}, a second-tier cable sports net, since 2011). The cancellation of the entire 2004-2005 season due to labor strife did not help the cause of fan disillusionment.
    • To expand, with the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment and the subsequent relocation of the team to Winnipeg, it's become clear what the future is for those troubled southern franchises. Even though Winnipeg lost it's team 15 years previous due to economic conditions and the arena for the new Jets being the smallest in the league, the NHL had to swallow it's pride and sell the team to the ONLY interested buyers. With Phoenix in such dire straits (the City of Glendale bailed them out for one more season) and NO prospective owners looking to keep the team in the desert. The sale of the Thrashers has been seen as an omen for the Coyotes.
      • To expand even further the league has just had ANOTHER lockout that caused part of the 2012-2013 season to be missed and threatened to wipe the entire season out. This is after the NHL was finally recovering from the disillusionment from the last lockout, and was finally getting back on national TV with its deal with NBC. The implications can only be imagined, but the loss of a season may only hasten the backpedaling of the leagues 90s southern expansion with teams migrating north to Seattle, Quebec City, and Toronto just to name a few. So the big what could of been is what if the league was run by competent business men who allowed their on ice product to flourish instead of shooting it in the foot constantly.
  • George Pelawa, drafted early in the 1st round selections by the Calgary Flames, was considered to be a top notch player (with a very bright future in the league). A short time after the draft, he was killed in a car crash.
  • Before Mario Lemieux bought the Penguins to keep them in Pittsburgh, it was heavily rumored that billionaire Paul Allen was in the running to buy the then cash-strapped team and relocate them to Portland.
  • Two years before the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets moved from the defunct World Hockey Association to the NHL, there was a proposal to move six of the eight WHA teams to the NHL: The eventual four teams, plus the Cincinnati Stingers and Houston Aeros. Cincinnati and Houston were left out mainly due to the WHL's insistence that the merger include all of their Canadian teams (New England being the strongest of the American WHL teams).
  • Despite the aforementioned issues with the now renamed Arizona Coyotes, expansion talks recently resumed during 2015, with the NHL demanding a $500 million application fee for prospective buyers— excessive even by sports standards as these fee did not guarantee a franchise. Only two applications were filed, one being from Quebec City (the other Las Vegas) in what was intended to be a means of further expanding into American markets.

    Other 
  • In the 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event (it airs on ESPN, it counts as a sport), a field of almost 6500 entrants was down to 26 when Phil Ivey, widely considered the greatest poker player in the world, mucked the winning hand after calling on the river and forfeited a pot of 2.18 million chips. Ivey was favored to win the event, which would have made him the first established pro to take the Main Event bracelet since the early 2000's poker boom, after which a string of previously unknown amateur players won the event. Ivey did make the final table, but it was ultimately another unknown, Joe Cada, who took the bracelet. Whether Ivey would have taken the bracelet, which would have been his first Main Event win, with the extra 2.18 million in his stack is something we'll never know.
  • The ill-fated International Fight League was actually Plan B for MyNetworkTV. They originally wanted to net the rights to UFC, but Zuffa decided to keep UFC on Spike TV. With the UFC appearing on other Fox channels as of 2012, there may be hope for the long-suffering MyNetworkTV to get some UFC action!
  • Speaking of MMA, the career of Fedor Emelianenko is a big WCHB. In the years of PRIDE Fighting Championship he was undisputed #1 heavyweight in MMA and pound-for-pound leader. At the time UFC was going through a major Dork Age and top heavyweights were all in PRIDE. After it fell aparat and was bought out by UFC, Fedor decided to stay in Japan, before finally arriving in the USA to fight for Strikeforce. At the time UFC heavyweight division gained some steam thanks to Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar, which left fans clamoring for either one of them to fight Fedor. Contract disagreements prevented the dream match from happening and Fedors' career sharply declined (3 straight losses after over 30 fight winning streak). Fans still wonder how prime Fedor would have fared against UFC heavyweights.
    • Speaking of Lesnar. It's widely accepted that his athleticism alone made him a top contender. His late move to MMA and suffering from diverticulitis meant he was Unskilled, but Strong and ended up losing to more well-rounded fighters who could withstand his brute force. What if he went to MMA straight from college? His raw physicality combined with proper training would make for a VERY scary fighter.
      • At the very least, what if his UFC career wasn't stopped twice by diverticulitis.
    • Lesnar's MMA Arch-Enemy, Frank Mir, burst onto the scene in the early 2000s and in 2004 won the Heavyweight Championship from Tim Sylvia. Soon after that he was injured in a motorcycle accident which sidelined him for two years and led to middling performances for another two. In the meantime UFC Heavyweight division fell into a Dork Age that lasted until 2007 (when PRIDE disbanded and Couture won the title). Could a healthy Mir keep the division interesting? Could UFC build it around him and steal some of PRIDE fighters?
    • In 2003 Chuck Liddell (arguably the biggest name in the UFC at the time) entered PRIDE middleweight Grand Prix in hopes of getting a dream match with WanderleiSilva. Unfortunately he was upset by Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson who knocked him out in the semifinal. Although the two finally met four years later in the UFC and had a Fight of the Year contender it's pretty clear that both were past their primes (notably it was Liddell's last win, he later retired after being KO'd in his three next fights). Fans still wonder how would their fight look when they were two best 205 lbs fighters on the planet.
  • How many golds would the US have won in Moscow? For that matter, how many golds would Soviet Bloc countries have won in Los Angeles?note 
  • The second weekend of June 2012 had a pair of WCHBs:
    • In the month of May, the toast of America was the horse I'll Have Another. Having beaten well-heeled Bodemeister with well-timed charges on the home strech, in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, IHA was the favorite for the Belmont Stakes, the third and final leg of the Triple Crown. Sadly, however, he developed tendonitis and was scratched the day before the race, extending the 34-year-long drought since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978.
    • A quarter of the way around the globe, the Men's Finals of the French Open came down to defending Champion & King of Clay (#2) Rafael Nadal and #1 in the world Novak Djokovic, who was 1 match away from both a career Grand Slam and a non-calendar Grand Slam (with Maria Sharapova having gained the former the previous day). Nadal took a quick lead 6-4, 6-3, but started to become vulnerable, losing set 3 2-6.
      Then the rain came. Play was suspended with Nadal down in Set 4: 1-2. When play resumed the following afternoon, it's as though a Reset Button was hit for the match, with the Spaniard going 6-3 for the only set of the day (officially making the tally 7-5). Granted, Djokovic made quite a few unforced errors, including a double-fault on break-match-point in that fateful 4th set, but it makes one wonder: could Nadal have come back on his own in a 5th set had the rain never come to the plain? Alternatively, could the Serbian, Djokovic, have rallied mid-match under fair skies?
  • While we're on the subject of Tennis, Juan Martín del Potro has both the honor of being the only man other than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic who won a Grand Slam title from 2005 to 2011 (the 2009 US Open, to be exact) and the heartbreak of suffering a severe wrist injury shortly after that sidelined his career for two years. It's hard to not wonder if del Potro would have been able to turn the Big Two of tennis into a Big Three long before Djokovic did it in 2011 if he hadn't received that injury, especially considering that he won his lone Grand Slam title by legitimately beating both Federer and Nadal in head-to-head combat and has only recently managed to claw his way back to No. 8, four ranking spots below his 2010 best of No. 4.
    • An even more haunting "what if this tennis player hadn't been injured?" question hangs over the career of Monica Seles. She dethroned Steffi Graf as the World No. 1 and dominated the Grand Slams as a teenager for two years before she was stabbed by a crazed Graf fan, an incident that she never fully recovered from. Many people believe that if Seles hadn't been stabbed, she could have staked her claim as the greatest female tennis player of all time instead of Graf. Would she really have? Or would Graf have eventually figured out how to reclaim her No. 1 throne like she did in regards to Arantxa Sánchez Vicario?
  • Probably the most foregone sports what-if, at least in horse racing-what if Samuel Riddle had not thought the first Saturday in May was too early for a colt to run a mile and a quarter and had entered Man o' War in the Kentucky Derby? (Notably, Riddle had changed his mind by the time Man o' War's best son War Admiral was a three-year-old...)
    • Would Barbaro had taken the Triple Crown had he not broken his leg in the Preakness?
  • 2008 all-around gymnastics gold medalist Nastia Liukin was born in the Soviet Union to two well-known Soviet gymnasts. When Nastia was two, the family moved to the United States. However, if her family had stayed past the breakup of the USSR and Nastia was still interested in being a gymnast, she would have competed for Russia, which has a vastly different training style and system. Would she still have made it to the Olympics? What would her gymnastics have looked like?
  • Rugby Union: Jonah Lomu, former New Zealand winger, suffered from a kidney disease which interfered with his performance throughout his career (and ultimately contributed to his premature death in 2015). Despite this, he is still considered one of the best rugby players of all time. Just how good would he have been without his condition? Would he have been able to help New Zealand to a World Cup victory in 1995?
  • Former Brazillian international Assis, as his career was winding down in the mid 90s, was playing in Portugal. He brought his 15-year-old little brother for a trial at small Portuguese club Estrela da Amadora. The club considered the youngster quite good, but not good enough to pay him the required salary of 750€ per month. A pittance for any player, but something they considered excessive for a kid in the youth teams. Thirteen years later the club were languishing in the netherworld of the fourth tier while the youngster, now known as Ronaldinho, had starred for Grêmio, PSG and Barcelona and twice been named World Player of the Year.
  • Augusta National Golf Club is the site of the Masters Tournament, the first major on the men's golf season. But one of its co-designers, the legendary Bobby Jones, pitched it to the United States Golf Association as a US Open venue. When the USGA rejected the pitch, Jones helped create a new event in its place, the Augusta National Invitational, which would be renamed the Masters Tournament after a few years. Since then, Augusta National has morphed into a wide-open, colorful and ultra-groomed course which often yields many dramatic birdies and eagles every year. On the other hand, the US Open and its venues are better known for thick, punishing rough with ragged bunkers and many winning scores at or over par.
    • Actually, Augusta National was intended to be more similar to venues of The Open Championship (also known as the British Open). Jones and his co-designer Alister MacKenzie were heavily influenced by the most famous Open Championship venue, the Old Course at St Andrews, and sought to emphasize the ground game (approaching the green with low-trajectory shots, often running along the ground for considerable distance). However, Augusta National chairman Clifford Roberts didn't fancy the ground game, and sought to make changes to minimize it almost from the course's opening. MacKenzie died a year after the club opened, and Jones went into inactivity, first due to World War II and then to a crippling neurological condition. Roberts would then get his changes—but with the ground game gone, the course became highly vulnerable to changing golf technology, bringing about countless changes from at least 15 designers. This piece argues that the course would have been better off if Roberts hadn't gotten his hands on it.
  • What if Elena Mukhina, 1978 World AA Champion, hadn't endured the career-ending leg fracture that kept her out of the 1979 world championships and the 1980 Olympic Games? It's entirely possible that, without the trauma of multiple surgeries and a brutal, rushed recovery, her cataclysmic accident wouldn't have happened — and who knows what she might have accomplished in Moscow?
  • As a result of his refusal to be drafted into military service, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title and effectively banned from the sport from March 1967 to October 1970. That was three and a half years in the prime of Ali's career wasted. In Ali's absence, other heavyweights came to prominence; most notably Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton. With Ali's return, the four fighters formed the core of what came to be known as the Golden Age for the heavyweight division. If Ali had not been unfairly stripped of his title, who knows how things would've shaken out. The "Golden Age" may have started four years earlier or Ali could've snuffed the three others before they could develop into the formidable champions they became.
     Soccer 
  • What would have happened if the heavily favored Hungary had beaten Germany in the final of the 1954 FIFA World Cup? That World Cup was the first one anybody in Europe took seriously and it is the Trope Codifier of many things still associated with that competition. Afterwards, Germany went from "that crappy team everybody beats in the preliminary round" to "Holy freakin' cow, we have to play Germany" while Hungary went from "undefeated in four years" to "wait, Hungary has a soccer team?" in almost no time. Many Hungarian players either dared not return to Hungary or were disgraced as losers upon coming back. Thus what could have been a generation of successful Hungarian football (with the best players becoming coaches and scouts or role models for the next generation) turned into one of the great what ifs of the sport. All that despite the fact that in the 1920s, Hungarian coaches were sought after in Germany and German club teams regularly got beatdowns from the best in Hungarian soccer. To say nothing of the political implications - many Germans today consider the 1954 world cup triumph one of the most important events in the 1950s.
  • What could have happened during the editions of the Olympic Games and The World Cup that World War II cancelled in the 1940s? (for the latter, the champion of 34-38, Italy, could win its third title and bring home the Jules Rimet cupnote )
  • There are several examples in the Danish Superliga
    • Odense Boldklub were scouting a 19-year old striker from Poland, and thought he would never break through in Denmark. His name: Robert Lewandowski.
    • FC Midtjylland had, at different times, Edin Džeko and Michael Essien on trials. Neither got the play for the Danish club.
    • Brøndby IF was offered Luca Modrić for €1.3M, when he played in Croatia. They said no thanks.
      • Which was the second time Brøndby was offered this player. In his youth years, he was offered to Odense, Midtjylland and Brøndby, and neither could use him.
    • And a subversion: Danish international handball goalkeeper Jannick Green was the reserve centre back for FC Midtjylland at youth level, and decided to go for a career in handball. His rivals: Winston Reid and Simon Kjær.
  • Perhaps the most pivotal year in the history of the Bundesliga was 1969. In that year, reigning champions 1. FC Nürnberg (after just winning their record ninth championship the season prior) were relegated and FC Bayern München won their second championship overall and first since 1932. Ever since, Bayern has been the dominant force in German soccer with other top teams usually referred to as "Bayern-Jäger" (Bayern hunters). Not only was the 1969 collapse of Nuremberg precipitated by some truly stupid roster moves (trading the league leading scorer Franz Brungs against his wishes for instance) they - along with the best team in Munich at the time 1860 München - passed over a small stout goalgetter by the name "Gerd Müller", who instead went to Bayern and is without a shred of a doubt one of the most pivotal players in both their 1970s dynasty and the dominant German national team of that era.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/WhatCouldHaveBeen/Sports