25 most infamous breakups in sports history

With Tuesday’s news of a blockbuster trade that will send star point guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics, it marks the end of the LeBron James-Irving duo that won a championship together a little more than a year ago. Now, the two are going their separate ways. This isn’t the first time a breakup of this magnitude has played out in the sports world.

We look back at some of the most shocking sports splits of all time.

Most infamous sports breakups

Kyrie Irving’s trade to the Celtics on Tuesday breaks up the Cavaliers’ championship-winning duo of LeBron James and Irving, but it’s not the first time we’ve seen an A-list sports celebrity relationship fall apart at the peak of its power.

Shaq and Kobe

The tension between Shaq and Kobe started almost immediately when they joined forces on the Lakers in 1996 and it never stopped until the day Shaq was traded to Miami in 2004. Shaq thought Kobe was a young, selfish player while Kobe didn’t like Shaq’s joking and prodding of the then-young star. The two of them provided an undeniably lethal combination on the court, which is a big reason they led the Lakers to three straight NBA titles from 2000-2002. But the two continued to butt heads over who was the alpha dog of the team, and eventually their clashing egos came to a head with Shaq’s trade to the Heat following L.A.’s stunning loss to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals.

Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones

It’s hard to believe that the power struggle between the Dallas Cowboys’ owner and former head coach got so bad that Johnson was cut out of one of the greatest dynasties in football history right at the pinnacle. Mere months after Dallas secured its second straight Super Bowl victory in 1994, Johnson was ousted as the coach due to an ongoing battle with Jones over control of football personnel decisions. Johnson and Jones were once great friends, which is a big reason why Johnson was hired to coach the team in the first place. And the feud has continued for year, with Jones declaring as in 2014 that Johnson will never be included in the team’s Ring of Honor. However, Jones spoke glowingly of Johnson when the owner was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this month.

Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren

From the late 1990s to the late 2000s, Tiger Woods was golf. But the golfing world was shattered, along with the back window of Woods’ Cadillac Escalade, on Thanksgiving weekend 2009, when Nordegren reportedly smashed the window of the vehicle after Woods crashed it near his Florida home. It later came out that the incident was tied to Woods’ repeated infidelity and it led to a swift downward spiral in his personal life. The two divorced a few months later and Woods has been unable to regain his footing on the golf course, He has not won another major championship after winning 14 prior to the divorce, his public image was forever tarnished and his seemingly invincible status as a golfer never quite returned.

Brett Favre and the Packers

Favre won a Super Bowl and three MVPs with the Packers and broke several major records along the way. But things got very uncomfortable in 2008 when he announced his retirement, then decided to un-retire after the Packers had already committed to the young Aaron Rodgers as the new franchise quarterback. Favre demanded the Packers let him sign with another team but the team refused his request, leading to a decayed relationship between the two sides. Favre was finally traded to the Jets prior to the 2008 season. It wasn’t until 2015 (five years after he retired) that things were patched up enough for the Packers to welcome Favre back for his jersey retirement.

Terrell Owens and 49ers/Eagles/Cowboys

Owens was certainly good at burning bridges. The outspoken receiver became a star player in his years with the 49ers, but also made enemies along the way with his demands for a bigger contract. After eight successful seasons in San Francisco, the team was left with no choice by to trade him to the Eagles in 2004.

Owens played just one full season in Philadelphia, helping the team get to the Super Bowl. After reported tension between T.O. and quarterback Donovan McNabb mounted, among other things, Owens was eventually shut down for the season after just seven games in 2005. The Eagles released him after that, paving the way for his stint in Dallas.

Though his wild celebrations and antics continued with the Cowboys, so did his on-field production. Despite three straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards and 10 TD catches apiece, Dallas released him to improve a perceived division in the locker room.

Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers

All Gretzky did was completely change the game, re-write the NHL record books and win the Oilers four Stanley Cup titles. So forgive Oilers fans for being in utter disbelief when Edmonton traded him to the L.A. Kings after negotiations over a potential Gretzky contract extension went south. Fans were so upset about the Canadian-born legend being dealt away, a Canadian politician went as far as to ask the country’s government to block the trade. No such luck. Just one season later, the Oilers erected a bronze statue of Gretzky outside the team’s arena.

LeBron James and Cleveland

LeBron’s “The Decision” is still one of the defining moments of his career and the NBA landscape in the last decade. When he decided to take his talents to South Beach, he not only left the team he’d led back to prominence, he also broke the heart of the city and community where he grew up. Fortunately for Cavaliers fans, four years later he returned to the team that originally drafted him and brought home the franchise’s first NBA championship in 2016.

Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers

From 1971-2000, Knight’s Indiana basketball team won three national championships, appeared in five Final Fours and amassed 11 Big Ten crowns. At its peak, the team was one of the most dominant college basketball programs in the nation. Even so, it all came crumbling down quickly when Knight was accused of choking a former player, leading to an additional abuse accusation by an ex-player. The university president at the time fired Knight later that year when he refused to resign, prompting a large student demonstration in protest of the firing.

George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin/Dave Winfield

Billy Martin
Martin’s relationship with the longtime Yankees owner Steinbrenner was so hot and cold as manager, he was fired or forced to resign five separate times in the 1970s and ‘80s. Martin was consistently involved in altercations with Steinbrenner or his players.

Dave Winfield
Winfield played on some of those same Yankees teams in the ‘80s, and was under constant siege by Steinbrenner for his perceived lack of production given that he was MLB’s highest-paid player. Steinbrenner was later suspended from all team management activities for reportedly paying a man to try to tarnish Winfield’s reputation. The Yankees traded Winfield midway through the 1990 season. Despite playing most of his career for the Yankees, Winfield went into the Hall of Fame as a San Diego Padre, citing the animosity with Steinbrenner as the reason.

Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers

Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco in 2011 and immediately turned around a franchise that had struggled for the better part of a decade. In his first three seasons, Harbaugh’s 49ers appeared in three straight NFC championship games and a Super Bowl before things went downhill in 2014, when the team finished 8-8. Despite his success, tensions with the 49ers’ front office led to his ouster following the 2014 campaign.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant

Durant and Westbrook quickly became one of the best tandems in the NBA after the two were drafted in back-to-back seasons by Sonics (now the Thunder). They led the Thunder to a sustained run of success and advanced as far as the NBA Finals in 2012, losing to the Miami Heat. But Durant made the highly criticized decision to leave Oklahoma City during 2016 free agency for the greener pastures of the Golden State Warriors. There was noticeable tension between Durant and Westbrook when the two teams played this past season.

Joe Montana and the 49ers

Though both Montana and Steve Young are beloved by 49ers fans, it’s easy to forget that the transition from one to the other was very awkward. Young played very well in place of the injured Montana in 1991 and 1992, proving worthy of the starting job. But when Montana came back healthy in the 1993 offseason, he expected to be given the starting job once again under center. The 49ers showed they were committed to Young as the future QB, so Montana demanded a trade. He was obliged when he was dealt to the Chiefs in 1993.

Pete Rose and MLB

He still stands as baseball’s hit king and was undoubtedly one of the greatest hitters of all time, but it appears Rose will never taste the Hall of Fame. While he was a manager for the Reds, in 1989, he received a lifetime ban from all things MLB due to evidence that he bet on baseball games. Though he’s applied for reinstatement many times since then, he’s always been denied.

Lane Kiffin and Al Davis/Tennessee/Nick Saban/USC

Al Davis
Kiffin lasted just 20 games as Raiders head coach before owner Al Davis lost patience and fired him over the phone. In the press conference announcing the firing, Davis called Kiffin a “flat-out liar” and said he would refuse to pay the rest of the coach’s contract.

Kiffin coached just one season for the Volunteers (7-6 record in 2009) before leaving to coach USC. His sudden departure sparked anger and student riots at the Knoxville campus.

Though Kiffin coached the Trojans to a 10-2 season in 2011 despite the program being hampered by NCAA sanctions, things quickly went south. USC began the 2012 season ranked No. 1 but wound up 7-6 and unranked by season’s end. Just five games into the 2013 season, following a 62-41 loss to Arizona State, Kiffin was reportedly fired at the airport when the team plane arrived back in Los Angeles.

Nick Saban
While Kiffin’s three-year tenure as Alabama’s offensive coordinator was seen as a success, there was always reported tension between he and head coach Nick Saban. After Kiffin accepted the head-coaching job at Florida Atlantic, he was relieved of his duties at Alabama just days before the Crimson Tide was set to play in the national championship game.

Jason Kidd and Jimmy Jackson

The trio of Kidd, Jackson and Jamal Mashburn was supposed to make the Mavericks a major contender for years to come in the mid-1990s. But all three players were in their early 20s and had plenty of egos to go around. Kidd and Jackson especially butted heads while Mashburn went down with an injury in 1995. It became clear the team needed to be split up, starting with the trading of Kidd to the Suns in late 1996. Jackson and Mashburn were traded later that season.

Bill Belichick and the New York Jets

Belichick’s rivalry with the Jets goes far beyond the on-field competition against his New England Patriots. After spending three years as the Jets’ assistant head coach from 1997-99, Belichick was set to take over as the team’s head coach. In what was advertised as his introductory press conference, Belichick shocked the football world and announced his resignation because he was taking the coaching job with the Patriots. And the rest is history.

Reggie Bush and USC

Bush was in many ways the face of one of the most successful runs in USC football history, but that entire era is now a black mark on the program. In 2010, an NCAA ruling placed major sanctions on the program after finding that Bush had received inappropriate gifts while playing in college. Because of that, the school had to forever distance itself from him. In the wake of the NCAA sanctions, Bush surrendered his 2005 Heisman Trophy five years after winning it.

Marcus Allen and the Raiders

After just four years with the Raiders, Allen was already a Super Bowl MVP and a perennial superstar running back. Yet when Bo Jackson came along in 1986, Allen had to take on a reduced role, which caused tension between he and owner Al Davis. After accusing Davis of deliberately trying to devalue him, Allen left the Raiders and signed with the Chiefs.

Mike Tyson and Robin Givens

Tyson was right around the peak of his boxing career when he married actress Robin Givens in 1988. He was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and undefeated in the ring. But his personal and professional life began to unravel in the years that followed, starting with his divorce from Givens in 1989. Tyson lost his first fight just months later in a massive upset to Buster Douglas.

Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees

A-Rod had one very strange finish to his playing career considering he’ll go down as one of the great hitters in MLB history. Though Rodriguez had a lot of success early in his tenure with the Yankees, he became a nuisance for the team in his latter years due to his massive contract ($27.5 million per year) and a strained relationship with management, partly due to his involvement in performance enhancing drugs.

Robert Griffin III and the Redskins

The Redskins traded a boatload of picks to move up and draft Griffin second overall in 2012, and at first it looked like a genius move. Griffin was electric in his first NFL season, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowl nod. But a serious knee injury ended his season in the playoffs and he never returned to his incredible rookie form. By the start of the 2015 season, Washington coach Jay Gruden was publicly criticizing Griffin and reports were surfacing that the team was trying to trade him. In the end, the quarterback was benched that year and cut after the season.

Rory McIlroy and Caroline Wozniacki

They were practically the Beyonce and Jay Z of sports. They were each among the top stars in their respective sports, McIlroy a former No. 1-ranked golfer in the world and Wozniacki the world’s No. 1 women’s tennis player. After three years of dating, the two were engaged in late 2013. But months later, McIlroy suddenly broke off the engagement and ended the relationship.

Frank and Jamie McCourt

As the Los Angeles Dodgers struggled financially, so did the marriage of team owners Frank and Jamie McCourt. The two filed for divorce in 2009, launching a years-long dispute over how to settle the ownership of the Dodgers. Things got so messy, Major League Baseball actually took over day-to-day operations of the team in 2011 before the McCourts finally reached a settlement, thus allowing Frank to gain sole ownership and sell the franchise in 2012.

Bobby Petrino and Falcons/Arkansas

Petrino was hired by Atlanta in 2007 with the idea that he could develop the dual-threat quarterback Michael Vick into a better pocket passer. But just before the start of the season, Vick was suspended (and later jailed) for his involvement in an illegal dog-fighting ring. With Vick out, the Falcons struggled and Petrino quit just 13 games into his first season as coach. He reportedly resigned by taping a short note on the locker of each player.

After four years and a lot of on-field success with the Razorbacks, everything came crashing down for Petrino when he crashed his motorcycle while riding with a woman with whom he was having an affair. He was fired shortly after the incident when it was revealed that Petrino used his influence to hire the woman as a university staffer and gave her a $20,000 gift.

Vince Carter and the Raptors

So often the most painful and bitter exits begin with such spectacular heights. Carter was highly embraced by Toronto fans upon his arrival in 1998. He was the face of the franchise and he brought the team its first semblance of success with three straight playoff appearances in the early 2000s. Carter’s relationship with the front office began to sour as he questioned the team’s commitment to winning. Following a stretch riddled by injuries during which the Raptors struggled, Carter was dealt away to the Nets during the 2004 season, and was booed mercilessly every time he made return trips to Toronto.

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