The Detroit Pistons will knock on the door of historic ineptitude Tuesday night. Losers of 26 straight games, the Pistons are one loss away from having their name etched in record books as the sole owners of the longest single-season losing streak in NBA history.
Detroit will take its last swing at preventing infamy as it hosts the Brooklyn Nets at Little Caesars Arena, mere miles from where the franchise hoisted Larry O’Brien trophies in three straight decades. While those tough-nosed teams earned the right to be circled on opponents’ calendars, the 2023-24 Pistons’ calendar has looked far different — the team hasn’t won a game since Oct. 28.
But Detroit hasn’t been an innovator of incredible incompetence. With tonight’s loss, they would join a pantheon of legendary losers from around the world. Here are the longest losing streaks in sports history. Take solace, Pistons faithful, bigger losers have been here before.
NFL: Chicago Cardinals, 29 games
If 27 basketball games in an 82-game schedule sounds bad, then how about 29 football games in an era of 10-game schedules? Before the AFL-NFL merger, the Chicago Cardinals started the 1942 season 3-2 when they fell to the Cleveland Rams in Week 6.
Chicago wouldn’t notch another win until Week 4 of the 1945 season. The Cardinals (who later became the St. Louis Cardinals, who later became the Phoenix Cardinals, who later became the Arizona Cardinals) then finished 1945 on a seven-game losing streak, going 1-9 and failing to make the playoffs for the 20th straight season.
In more recent history, the Jacksonville Jaguars reeled off a 20-game losing streak from 2020 to 2021. A 15-game losing streak to close the 2020 campaign positioned the Jags to draft franchise QB Trevor Lawrence but fed directly into the putrid Urban Meyer era.
Yes, the Pistons will receive the bulk of losing streak infamy if they fall tonight to set the single-season record, but they’d need to lose again Thursday to the Boston Celtics if they want to match the 76ers’ all-time mark. Philadelphia’s stretch spanned two seasons as the Sixers closed the 2014-15 campaign on a 10-game skid and then opened the next season 0-18 before securing their first win in December.
Those 2015-16 Sixers would go on to win only 10 games, the second-fewest of any team in an 82-game season. The record for the fewest wins was set by the 9-73 76ers in 1972-73, a team which set the then-NBA record with a 20-game losing streak.
As for the current single-season record, the Pistons are currently tied with the 2013-14 76ers and the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers at 26 losses.
WNBA: Tulsa Shock and Indiana Fever, 20 games
The Indiana Fever finished 2022 with 18 straight losses amid a 5-31 season, but got a chance to hit reset by winning the WNBA Lottery and selecting South Carolina legend Aliyah Boston, who had just finished one of the greatest NCAA women’s basketball runs in history.
But even with Boston — who was named an All-Star and won Rookie of the Year — the Fever’s losing streak continued, dropping their first two games of 2023 to match the Tulsa Shock’s losing streak record from 2011. While Boston’s presence led to an eight-win improvement, the Fever failed to make the playoffs for the seventh-straight season.
Back in 2011, the Shock finished 3-31 for an all-time WNBA-worst winning percentage of .088. With a mismatched roster that featured 40-year-old legend Sheryl Swoopes returning from retirement and a rookie 19-year-old future All-Star in Liz Cambage, Tulsa’s losing streak stretched from June 21 to Aug. 25.
NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres, 18 games
A COVID-shortened 2021 NHL season wasn’t short enough to prevent the Sabres from matching the 2003-04 Penguins’ mark. While the Pens went 0-17-1, Buffalo went 0-15-3, with its 18th defeat coming in a particularly painful fashion.
Holding a 3-0 lead entering the third period, the Sabres allowed three goals in the final frame before Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov scored 42 seconds into overtime to extend the skid.
“It’s embarrassing,” Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour said after that loss. “This whole stretch is embarrassing. Any team in the NHL, that’s a win.”
The streak is snapped!
The Buffalo Sabres finally get back in the win column with a 6-1 win over the Flyers 🏒
Before this win, Buffalo was on a 18-game losing streak (one away from breaking an NHL record). pic.twitter.com/UplXeiajzL
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) April 1, 2021
MLB: Louisville Colonels, 26 games
In the days of the Benjamin Harrison presidential administration, the 1889 Louisville Colonels finished with an impressively horrific 27-111 record, losing 26 straight games at one point.
The season began with team owner Mordecai Davidson replacing himself as manager with Dude Esterbrook, but Esterbrook was fired after just 10 games. Outfielder Jimmy “Chicken” Wolf stepped into the role of player-manager, but Davidson later hired local bouncer Buck McKinney as team manager amid the losing streak out of concern for players’ behavior.
In later years, the Colonels employed eventual Hall of Famers such as Rube Waddell and Honus Wagner, but the franchise folded in 1899. In modern history, the record has been challenged by the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies, who lost 23 straight, and the 1988 Baltimore Orioles, who lost 21 straight.
Norwich’s yo-yo between the Premier League and the second-tier EFL spanned five seasons from 2018 to 2022, featuring two EFL championships and two Premier League relegations thanks to last-place finishes.
In the Premier League, Norwich closed its cellar-dwelling 2019-20 campaign with 10 straight defeats. After getting booted to the EFL and then promoted back to the top-tier league in 2021-22, Norwich opened that season with six more consecutive league losses to set the dreadful mark. The streak was finally snapped with a 0-0 draw in the team’s seventh match, but Norwich’s first win didn’t come until its 11th contest amid another last-place season.
NCAA football: Northwestern, 34 games
A winless season of football is brutal. But how about three in four years? The 1970s and ’80s weren’t kind to Northwestern football, which had four winless seasons from 1976 to 1989 and three one-win seasons in that span. From their third game of 1979 to their fourth game of the 1982 season, the Wildcats failed to record a single victory for 34 games.
When the Wildcats lost their 29th straight game to break the losing streak record, Northwestern fans sarcastically stormed the field and chanted “We’re the worst!” When the losing streak was snapped in 1982, fans stormed the field again, ripped out the team’s goalposts and threw them in Lake Michigan.
That losing streak cost coach Rick Venturi his job, as he finished his stint with a 1-31-1 record in three seasons. Venturi’s replacement, Dennis Green, had a winless first year of his own before turning the Wildcats around in 1982. Green’s work in squeezing three wins out of that Northwestern team was so impressive he was named Big Ten Coach of the Year, despite the team’s eight losses.
Below the FBS level, FCS Prairie View A&M holds an even more depressing record, losing an astounding 80 straight games starting in 1989. The 1998 Panthers snapped that streak with just 15 scholarship players.
NCAA basketball: Chicago State Lady Cougars, 59 games
Chicago State women’s basketball experienced as steep a fall in the 2010s as any program could imagine. After notching three winning seasons in four years, capped by a program-best 24-win season in 2010-11, the Lady Cougars would only win 25 games for the rest of the decade. The rock bottom came in 2018, when the winless Cougars lost their 59th straight game.
The losing streak began in 2015-16 with a seven-game skid to close the season, then was magnified by a winless 2016-17 season before the streak was snapped in the team’s 25th game of the 2017-18 season, the Lady Cougars’ only win of the season.
On the men’s side, Towson owns the longest Division I losing streak with a 41-game stretch that spanned 2011-12 to 2012-13. But since snapping that streak, the team has had eight winning seasons in the past decade and were crowned co-champions of the CAA in 2021-22.
Exhibition basketball: Washington Generals, 2,495 games
The Washington Generals exist to lose. They play the roles of punching bag and straight man to the Harlem Globetrotters’ high-flying basketball comedy. Throughout their history and many different aliases, the Generals have employed competitive basketball players, but nearly every single one of their 200-plus annual games ends in defeat.
That was until Jan. 5, 1971. The Generals — who were playing under the name and jerseys of the New Jersey Reds that night — and the Globetrotters played an unusual game that night, with Harlem pulling fewer stunts and fewer comedic gags than usual. Globetrotters captain and team legend Curly Neal sat out the exhibition, and it turned into more of a classic basketball game than most Globetrotter events.
Washington raced out to a lead, which wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was the Globetrotters losing track of the score and failing to complete their usual dramatic comeback. Generals owner and founder Red Klotz checked himself into the game in the final seconds and hit the go-ahead basket to put Washington back up 100-99.
Even after the timekeeper inexplicably stopped the clock to give Harlem one last shot, the Globetrotters couldn’t continue their winning streak as the crowd sat there dumbfounded. Some children reportedly cried in the stands.
“They look at us like we killed Santa Claus,” Klotz later said.
The 1971 win may have been one of multiple victories for the Generals, but the exhibitionists aren’t known for their record-keeping skills. While some argue they’ve won as many as six games, the 1971 streak-snapper is by far the most famous. It’s been estimated that the Generals have lost over 19,000 other times.
In their heyday, the Harlem Globetrotters were also made for TV
(Top photo: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)