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Kevin Gorman

Kevin Gorman: For 'Burgh blunders, does anyone top J.R.?

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, June 1, 2018, 9:06 p.m.
Pitt Nasir Robinson is consoled at his locker after Pitt lost to Butler in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at the Verizon Center March 19, 2011. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
Pitt Nasir Robinson is consoled at his locker after Pitt lost to Butler in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at the Verizon Center March 19, 2011. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Watching Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith dribble to midcourt in the final 4.7 seconds of regulation in a tied Game 1 in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors was the talk of the sports world Friday.

Smith joined Chris Webber, whose timeout drew Michigan a technical foul in the 1993 NCAA championship game, and Merkle's Boner for the N.Y. Giants as all-time boneheaded sports moments.

Andrew Filliponi turned the topic into a question on 93.7 The Fan: What's the biggest mental mistake in Pittsburgh sports history?

“We're not in a city that has a default answer,” he said, “but you get a sense of what plays people carry with them. They talk about something that happened 30 years ago like it was yesterday.”

For 'Burgh blunders, here's five mental mistakes we simply can't shake:

5. Pierre don't care: The Penguins were trying to clinch their first winning season in nine years and a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs at the end of the 1987-88 season.

First-year coach Pierre Creamer, who had no previous NHL experience, apparently was unaware until late in overtime that the Penguins needed to beat the Washington Capitals in their penultimate game to keep those hopes alive. Creamer wouldn't listen to his players or pull goalie Steve Guenette to add an extra attacker during a 6-6 tie until after talking on a headset with general manager Eddie Johnston and assistant coach Rick Kehoe in the press box. As Guenette started to skate off, Mario Lemieux scored the winning goal with 58 seconds.

The Penguins beat the Hartford Whalers, 4-2, in the finale for a 36-35-9 record but still finished sixth in the Patrick Division, one point behind the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers.

Creamer, mercifully, was fired after one season.

4. Strong salutes USF: Pitt started Dave Wannstedt's second season 6-1 and appeared to be on its way to a bowl bid before visiting Raymond James Stadium in November 2006.

The Panthers were trailing by 16 when Tyler Palko connected with tight end Darrell Strong for a 19-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to cut Pitt's deficit to 10, with a chance to cut it to eight on a 2-point conversion. But Strong celebrated by making an obscene gesture to the USF student section, giving the middle finger and drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

The Panthers went for two from the 18, and Palko's pass intended for Marcel Pestano fell incomplete in the 22-12 loss. Wannstedt suspended Strong, saying, “We expect our players to act with class and will accept nothing less.”

But it was the second of five consecutive losses for Pitt, which finished 6-6.

Strong's salute flushed the Panthers' bowl bid.

3. MNF's most famous fumble: The Steelers have so many numbskull plays to choose from, even in their modern era, that it made this one difficult to decide.

Rookie running back Barry Foster let a kickoff bounce into the 49ers' hands to set up a touchdown in a 27-7 loss in 1990. Jerome Bettis botched the heads-tails coin-flip call in overtime in a Thanksgiving Day 1998 loss to Detroit. Plaxico Burress famously spiked a live ball after a catch for a turnover at Jacksonville in 2000. Troy Edwards was flagged for continuing to cover a punt after running out of bounds against the Patriots, a penalty that allowed Troy Brown to return the ensuing punt 55 yards for a touchdown in the 2002 AFC championship game.

But that was early, and not the only poor special teams play in that 24-17 loss.

The biggest bonehead play came courtesy of another receiver, Dave Smith, who caught a 50-yard pass from Terry Bradshaw against the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football in October 1971. Smith started to celebrate before he crossed the goal line, holding the ball high over his head. Then he lost control and the ball hit the ground and bounced through the end zone for a touchback instead of a touchdown in the 38-16 loss.

The Steelers traded Smith the next season.

2. Eddie's got it!: The most heartbreaking loss involves the Pirates.

While the 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS — aka, The Slide game — involves several ninth-inning blunders: Gold Glove second baseman Jose Lind had a fielding error, Doug Drabek walked Sid Bream, and Barry Bonds ignored center fielder Andy Van Slyke's instructions on where to position himself to play Francisco Cabrera on his winning hit to left.

But they weren't mental mistakes, even if they still seem stupid 26 years later.

Instead, I give you a story that supposedly happened in the early 1950s: Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bill Nicholson hit a high popup that looked like it would land near the pitcher's mound. Pirates pitcher Bill Werle called out, “Eddie's got it! Eddie's got it!”

The ball dropped in the grass, right in front of Pirates catcher Eddie Fitzgerald, first baseman Eddie Stevens and third baseman Eddie Bockman.

There would be no, um, edification.

1. Butler did it: The No. 1 seed for the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Pitt was on the verge of being upset by Butler when the Panthers got a big break.

Ashton Gibbs drew a shot-clock violation with 10 seconds left, allowing Butler's Andrew Smith to give Butler a 70-69 lead on a layup with 2.2 seconds left. Then Butler guard Shelvin Mack was whistled for a foul with 1.4 seconds left, sending Gilbert Brown to the foul line for two shots and a chance to score the go-ahead points.

“I had probably the worst foul in Butler history,” Mack said, “but the dude from Pittsburgh made up for it.”

That dude was Pitt forward Nasir Robinson, who fouled Matt Howard on the rebound after Brown missed the second shot, 94 feet away from Butler's basket. Howard made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second for a 71-70 victory to send Butler to the Sweet 16.

Robinson, to his credit, took total blame for what he called a “dumb play.”

It wasn't the dumbest this city has seen, but one of the most devastating defeats. Cleveland knows all about those, the one place it puts Pittsburgh to shame.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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