5 Memorable Athlete Departures that Left People Devastated

There’s no doubt that the professional sports world is a business, and with that said, feelings do get hurt. Ending insurmountable chapters and devastating cities, the departures of both Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade are just the most recent examples of how that statement holds true. With that said, let’s take a look back at some other athlete departures that left fans grieving.

Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders is third on the all-time rushing yards list. To make things more impressive, Sanders played just ten seasons in the NFL; the two players in front of him on the yardage list played thirteen and fourteen seasons respectively. One would often be impressed, and they should be, but Barry Sanders’ retirement surprised the football world and devastated Detroit Lions fans.

Sanders never once failed to rush for 1,000 yards in a season over his ten-year career; something you just don’t see that often. Even in 1993, Sanders only played 11 games due to injury and still managed to tally 1,115 yards. In 1997, Sanders’ second-to-last year in the league, he became the third player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, and now nineteen years later, Sanders is just one of seven players to accomplish the feat. His 2,053 yards that year are the fourth highest single-season total ever.

After another great season in 1998, Sanders suddenly decided to call it quits. Not only did his decision surprise many, but it also caused a great deal of questioning. Not only did he show no signs of decline, but just two years before his retirement, Sanders signed a six-year, $35.4 million extension with an $11 million signing bonus to remain with the Lions.

His retirement then turned into a mess, as the Lions demanded that Sanders return $5.5 million of the $11 million bonus, to which he refused, prompting the team to sue. Nevertheless, Sanders’ retirement put the Lions and their fans into a lasting period of misery, for Detroit has had just three winning seasons in their sixteen without Sanders. The franchise also remains one of the most underachieving in sports history, having never reached a Super Bowl.

Shaquille O’Neal 

Since the moment his size-22 shoe (21.5 in the U.K.) stepped foot onto an NBA court, opposing players were fiercely overpowered. Shaq was drafted by the Orlando Magic in 1992 and spent four seasons with the team.

In his first year, ‘The Diesel’ became the first rookie since Michael Jordan to start in an NBA All-Star Game. He would then go on to win the 1993 NBA Rookie of the Year Award.

In his second year with Orlando, O’Neal, along with fellow star Penny Hardaway, guided the Magic to the playoffs for the first time in the team’s history, but it was Shaq’s third season with the team where a whole new level was reached.

In the 1994-1995 season, O’Neal led the league in scoring finished second in MVP voting, but he wasn’t done. Back in the postseason, Shaq, this time, led the Magic to the Finals, defeating Michael Jordan’s Bulls (sort of) and Reggie Miller’s Pacers to get there.

After failing to reach the Finals in the 1995-1996 season, O’Neal became a free agent primed for a lucrative contract, and for a number of different reasons, things did not end well between him and the team: one of which was escalated tension between Shaq and Magic head coach, Brian Hill. Continuous disrespect of O’Neal by the Orlando media probably did not entice him to stick around either. Nevertheless, Shaq departed for the Los Angeles Lakers, insisting that it wasn’t for the money, saying, “I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.” Such a Shaq thing to do.

The Diesel would go on to win four championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, as well as an array of personal accolades. For the Magic, however, it took them fourteen years to get back to the NBA Finals, and the franchise is still yet to win one.

Luis Figo

Often revered as one of the greatest wingers of his time, Figo’s creativity guided him past countless defenders. His decorated trophy case includes a Ballon d’Or from 2000 and the 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year award. His 106 La Liga assists also rank second in the league’s history.

Figo arrived at FC Barcelona from Sporting CP on a £2.25 million fee in 1995. While at Camp Nou, Figo helped Barcelona win a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and back-to-back La Liga titles. Ultimately appearing in a total of 172 games for Barça, Figo became a beloved figure not just in the city of Barcelona, but throughout the entire region of Catalonia as well. However, despite a wonderful tenure with Blaugrana, things came to a nasty end.

In 2000, Figo did not just leave Barcelona for any other team; he departed for their bitter rivals, Real Madrid, in the most expensive transfer the world had ever seen. The £37 million move left Barcelona fans devastated and completely betrayed. Over his five years with Barça, Figo had arguably turned into the face of the entire club, and his departure for Los Blancos will always be a monumental episode in a very hostile rivalry.

When Figo returned to Camp Nou in 2002 for an El Clásico showdown, the unfathomable occurred. While taking a corner kick, Barcelona fans were fiercely berating Figo and throwing debris in his direction, when a pig’s head was thrown onto the pitch. The head, which landed just a few feet away from Figo, will forever be remembered in a tale of betrayal and devastation.

Barry Bonds

Despite a great deal of speculation over whether or not he played by the rules, Barry Bonds is still baseball’s all-time home run leader. He very well might have the most captivating résumé in MLB history, with seven MVPs, eight gold gloves, twelve silver sluggers, three Hank Aaron Awards and fourteen all-star game appearances, all over the course of a 22-year career. While San Francisco Giants fans remember Bonds for iconic moments and broken records, Pittsburgh Pirates fans will remember him as the one that got away.

When the Pirates called up some scrawny kid in 1986, the team was simply horrible. They had the worst record in baseball the previous year, and would repeat that feat again the next year. But the Bucs’ last-place finish in 1986 did, in fact, come with some silver lining: Bonds had just been in the majors for four months of the season, but he gave the team a spark. Also, despite the team’s poor end result, they did happen to win thirteen more games than the previous season.

With the exception of a down year in 1989, Bonds and the Pirates continuously improved. After slumping his way through that ‘89 season, Bonds bounced back dramatically, winning his first NL MVP award in 1990, and leading the Pirates to the top of their division. In 1992, Bonds won his second NL MVP award with Pittsburgh, helping the team win their third consecutive division title. As great as this was for the Pirates, devastation was soon to follow.

Bonds became a free agent after his MVP season in 1992, and was set for a payday that the Pirates could not afford. After seven seasons in Pittsburgh, Pirate fans were given one tough pill to swallow, as Bonds signed a six-year, $43.75 million contract with the San Francisco Giants. The deal made Bonds the highest paid player the game had ever seen (obviously A LOT has changed). The two sides went in opposite directions, for Bonds prospered as Pittsburgh plummeted.

Bonds won another MVP award in his first year in San Fran and began hitting home runs at a pace that no one had ever seen before. He undisputedly became the most feared hitter in baseball, as teams would often intentionally walk him with no one on base, and even sometimes with the bases loaded. He ended his career holding all kinds of records, but the one that stands out the most is certainly his all-time home runs record. Bonds hit a record 762 home runs in his career, 586 of them as a member of the San Francisco Giants.

For the Pirates, it took twenty years filled with several horrible seasons, to return to baseball relevance. At the time of his Pittsburgh departure, Bonds might not have been the player he turned out to be in San Francisco; regardless, the Buccos surely missed out on a great player, and it undoubtedly wounded the franchise.

LeBron James

Ah yes, it is perhaps the most talked-about betrayal in sports history. Fortunately enough though, this one has a happy ending for both sides.

LeBron James has been the greatest basketball player on the planet for the greater part of a decade now. People have been talking about his unworldly talent since his freshman year of high school back in 2000, and in 2003, James was picked first overall by his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It took LeBron no time to adjust to the pros, literally. He had 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in his first career game. He would then go on to have a historically great rookie season, leading Cleveland to an 18-game turnaround from the previous season and becoming the first Cavaliers player to ever win the Rookie of the Year award. James was already a star by the end of his first year, but it was clear that his rise to superstardom was imminent.

What James had done not just for the Cavaliers, but the entire city of Cleveland was truly incomparable. Cleveland had gone decades without a championship in any major sport, but they felt that with James, the drought was destined to end. He took a completely lamented city and gave it a reason to believe. It was more than just being the best player in the game; he was a symbol of hope and furthermore, he was one of their own.

Before anyone ever knew who LeBron James was, he was just a kid from Akron, Ohio. When LeBron James became a phenom at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, he was still just a kid from Akron, Ohio. With that said, when LeBron James was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, he became the face of his hometown team, making everything he accomplished in Cleveland extra special. And because Cleveland was Cleveland, a city in dire need of a white knight, any LeBron James achievement there would be most special. None of that was enough to keep James in town however, for after seven years and no ring with the Cavaliers, LeBron would seize the opportunity to play with Dwyane and Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

In perhaps the most disrespectful way possible, LeBron revealed his exit from Cleveland as part of an entire TV show titled, “The Decision.” Crushed by James’ decision and insulted by how it was announced, many Cleveland fans immediately burnt LeBron James jerseys, keenly aware of what a LeBron-less future looked like. As for that future, the Cavs finished dead last in the Eastern Conference and only slightly improved after drafting Kyrie Irving. Watching James win two championships with the Heat presumably just made matters worse.

Unlike most devastating athlete departures however, everybody in this story gets a happy ending. Following the Spurs’ Finals victory over the Heat in 2014, rumors regarding LeBron returning to Cleveland picked up some serious steam. Speculation became reality, as Cleveland welcomed James back home with wide-open arms. With a far better supporting cast than he ever had during his first reign in Cleveland, ‘The King’ guided the Cavs to victory in this past year’s Finals. The championship in James’ second-year back was the first in franchise history, and the city of Cleveland’s first in any major sport in the last 52 years.

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