The 30 Most Shocking Sports Trades and Moves in History
There are few better ways for sports fans to rep their favorite teams and athletes than by rocking their jersey. In many ways, the names and numbers that adorn those jerseys often become synonymous with the players who wear them.
When it comes to certain iconic athletes across various professional leagues – NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL – even the most devoted fan bases have felt blindsided. Seeing superstars wearing a new team name (or even number) can really cause a rift between a city and a player, no matter how great.
From shorter-than-a-pit-stop stays in new cities, to long-lasting stints with a bitter rival – these jarring jersey changes are have resulted in more than their fair share of double takes.
1. Kevin Garnett: Timberwolves – Celtics
Since Minnesota selected Kevin Garnett with the fifth overall pick out of high school, basketball fans have known KG as the face of the Timberwolves. From 1996 until 2004, Garnett led the T-Wolves to the playoffs, though he was never able to push them beyond the Western Conference Finals. Then one of the most shocking sports trades in history happened.
After 12 years with the team, “The Big Ticket” was traded to the Boston Celtics. It was a bizarre sight – one of Minnesota’s most loyal players in the league now suiting up in a new city’s colors. Not only did fans have to accept the odd sight of Garnett in Green, they had to adjust rather quickly too. In his first year with the new team, Garnett and the Celtics won the NBA Finals.
2. Babe Ruth: Red Sox – Yankees
When the legendary Babe Ruth first entered the MLB, it was to play for the Boston Red Sox. Ruth’s first six seasons were spent dominating the game in Boston. From 1914-19, Ruth and the Sox raked in four World Series pennants. Then, just like that, the Sox traded their star player away.
In one of the most infamous (at least from Boston’s POV) and shocking sports trades ever, Ruth was sent to the New York Yankees. This move effectively ushered in Boston’s curse of the Bambino. After leading the Sox to the top, Ruth became a Yankee and enjoyed more success.
Ruth wore the famous pinstripes from 1920-34, winning another four World Series titles. Meanwhile the BoSox unknowingly began their longstanding curse.
3. Brett Favre: Packers – Vikings
In a 1992 trade, the Green Bay Packers got quarterback Brett Favre. He had just finished his rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons. After coming in to play the second game of the ’92 NFL season, Favre would go on to play in every single game for 16 seasons with the Pack.
In his Hall of Fame career, Favre earned 11 Pro Bowl selections, three First-Team All Pro selections and won a Super Bowl with Green Bay. Then it was time for a youth movement, and Aaron Rodgers took over. So Favre continued his QB career as a member of the New York Jets.
His move to the Jets was bearable, but it was a different story when Favre signed with bitter Packers rival Minnesota Vikings. Seeing the living embodiment of Green Bay wearing purple was not an easy pill to swallow for the Cheeseheads.
4. Michael Jordan: Bulls – Wizards
Michael Jordan was, and still is, the ultimate sports celebrity. Jordan’s popularity has transcended the sport of basketball. He made the NBA a global sensation and put the Chicago Bulls on the map as one of the world’s most beloved sports teams. Jordan was the Bulls.
After MJ’s second retirement, he still couldn’t stay away from the game he loved – so he came back for one last final hurrah. Three years removed from his last game in a Bulls jersey, basketball fans recoiled at Jordan’s new, Washington Wizards jersey.
No longer wearing red, Jordan’s new team also no longer dominated. Air Jordan could still torch any opponent in his path, but he couldn’t say the same for the rest of his Washington, D.C. squad. Still, many of Jordan’s Wizards teammates would go on to enjoy great careers of their own.
Fans never quite took to MJ’s jarring jersey change. Even Jordan himself has said his only regret is “putting on another uniform.”
5. Wayne Gretzky: Oilers – Kings
What Michael Jordan is to basketball, Wayne Gretzky is to hockey. The Canadian-born center shattered NHL records, setting the precedent for greatness across professional sports. Adding to Gretzky’s legendary career was the fact that he was repping his home country. Gretzky played for the Canada-based Edmonton Oilers from 1979-88. That is, until he crossed the border.
Gretzky won four Stanley Cup trophies with the Oilers. After winning the fourth in ’88, one of the most shocking sports trades in hockey history went down. Gretzky was gone, traded away to the Los Angeles Kings. The pride and joy of Canada was torn away before Edmonton fans even had the chance to finish celebrating the championship.
From orange and blue to black – in the eyes of Canada, Gretzky may as well have turned heel.
6. Drew Brees: Chargers – Saints
Drew Brees has been the pride and joy of the New Orleans Saints for over a decade. Before Brees arrived in 2006, New Orleans endured years of struggle, only making the playoffs once in 13 years. Since Brees’ arrival, the Saints have flourished. Their 2009 Super Bowl victory in the wake of Hurricane Katrina will forever seal Brees’ importance to the city of New Orleans. But it was a twist of fate that actually brought Brees to the Saints.
It’s a trip to look back and realize that the Saints’ turnaround most likely wouldn’t have happened had Brees not suffered a severe shoulder injury in a meaningless final game of the 2005 season with the San Diego Chargers.
It’s remarkable to compare the unending playoff woes of the Chargers (now in Los Angeles) and the dramatic turnaround of the Saints. It’s even more remarkable to think how that one meaningless game led these two teams, and one star quarterback, on such different paths.
7. Pete Rose: Reds – Expos
In 1963, Pete Rose first stepped up to the plate as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds’ new Rookie of the Year led Cincinnati to four World Series appearances, winning two of them. Rose racked up countless awards and honors in his time with the Reds, where he stayed until 1978. Afterwards, he also enjoyed a great deal of success with the Philadelphia Phillies from 1979-83. But that wasn’t Rose’s only jersey change.
Before Rose returned to Cincinnati to finish his outstanding career with the Reds, he first made a quick pitstop. For 95 games of the 1984 season, Rose played for the Montreal Expos. Red and gray to red and white is one thing, but Rose in the blue ‘Spos uni just looks wrong.
8. James Harrison: Steelers – Patriots
The Pittsburgh Steelers have long embraced their image as a tough, gritty team that isn’t afraid to play rough. The Steelers’ style is fitting and popular among a fan base that takes pride in their scrappy play. James Harrison exemplified this grit and grind.
Harrison is one of the hardest working, scariest linebackers in the NFL, and there’s really never been a close second. With a body of Zeus that’s the result of essentially living in the gym, Harrison putting the fear of god into any and every opposing offense was just a microcosm of the Steelers’ secondary as a whole. But near the end of the 2017-18 season, something major happened.
After playing almost the entirety of his NFL career in black and yellow, Harrison was cut near the end of his career. Not quite ready to retire, Harrison made an even more bizarre decision: to join the Steelers’ despised rival, the New England Patriots. Harrison even tweeted a shoutout to his new teammate, New England idol Tom Brady.
Harrison’s face may have been hidden under his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles super villain Shredder mask, but seeing the Pats logo on his helmet was no less shocking than if TMNT’s archenemy had decided to don a halfshell.
9. Blake Griffin: Clippers – Pistons
Things never quite panned out for All-Star power forward Blake Griffin in his time with the Los Angeles Clippers. Injuries, whether Griffin’s or his star teammates’, continually plagued the team. Ultimately, this left Griffin as a top tier player with no postseason success to show for it.
Still, the Clippers stuck with the oft-injured Griffin after drafting him out of Oklahoma in 2009. Then, just prior to the 2017-18 season trade deadline, the Clips traded their star away to the Detroit Pistons.
In the NBA, trading big-name players is not exactly commonplace. However, it’s an increasingly popular trend in the league, so the news of Griffin’s trade was not the craziest thing in the world. Rather, it’s seeing Griffin – the face of the Clippers organization for nearly a decade – in an extremely similar uniform that’s truly off-putting.
Take a quick, unthinking glance at Griffin’s chest… “Pistons” still registers as “Clippers.”
10. Bobby Orr: Bruins – Blackhawks
Bobby Orr spent the first decade of his illustrious professional hockey career with the Boston Bruins. Orr set numerous NHL records in his time with the Bruins and brought two Stanley Cups to Boston. A statue of Orr now sits outside the Boston Garden, but though he made his name there, the city’s hockey hero retired in another city.
Injuries piled up throughout Orr’s career, but none as devastating as those his knees endured. That reality forced Orr to finish the final two years of his playing days with the Chicago Blackhawks in the same way he spent his last season with Boston – watching from the bench.
Even though Orr barely saw any time on the ice with the Blackhawks, simply seeing Orr in that Blackhawks jersey was borderline sacrilege in the eyes of Bostonians.
11. Patrick Ewing: Knicks – Sonics
Patrick Ewing is one of the greatest players to ever step on the NBA hardwood. Even though the perennial All-Star never won a championship for the New York Knicks, his impact on the game established him as an all-time great.
Ewing’s numbers dwindled late in his career, but the legendary Knick put up an ungodly 20-and-10 for the vast majority of his time in New York. It’s easy to forget how his dominant career took a nosedive when then-38-year-old Ewing flew across the country to play for the Seattle Supersonics.
The following year, the legendary big wrapped up his career in a diminished role with the Orlando Magic. Still, it was Ewing’s initial switch from blue and orange to green and gold that was truly unsettling.
12. Gordie Howe: Red Wings – Whalers
For 25 years, Gordie Howe represented the pinnacle of success in hockey as the face of the Detroit Red Wings. 25 awe-inspiring years. From ages 18 to 42, Howe won four Stanley Cups and earned six Hart Trophies as the league MVP before retiring from the NHL.
After a two-year hiatus, Howe returned to hockey, though this time playing in the now-defunct WHA league. Not only was Howe giving it a second run in the WHA, he was playing alongside his two sons.
Through trades, the Howe family went from the Houston Aeros to the New England Whalers. Then, in the 1979-80 season, New England joined the NHL with the Hartford Whalers team. Howe played one final season with the new Whalers NHL team.
Even though the 51-year-old hockey star may as well have been an entirely different person at this late stage, it was still a jarring sight to see the lifetime Red Wing in a new uniform.
13. Kevin Durant: Thunder – Warriors
Kevin Durant was the Seattle Supersonics’ great new hope when he was selected with the second pick of the 2007 NBA draft. Then, Seattle lost their team and became the Oklahoma City Thunder. KD was immediately cemented as not only a legend, but a keystone in the rise of a brand new organization.
Durant spent eight years in OKC, leading the Thunder’s rise to prominence as one of the toughest teams in the west. When the MVP forward hit free agency in 2016, he stunned fans with the decision to go to the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
Seeing Durant in a GSW uniform is far beyond strange. This is an athlete whose NBA Finals dream was shattered by the Warriors, but still he crossed that line… As the proverb suggests: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
14. Roger Clemens: Red Sox – Yankees
Roger Clemens spent the first 13 years of a remarkably successful career with the Boston Red Sox. Clemens was a monster in Boston, earning five All-Star selections in his time with the team (1984-96). Despite all his success with the BoSox, Clemens never secured a pennant with the team.
After two years in Toronto, Clemens made Red Sox fans sick with the decision to join the New York Yankees. Starting in 1999, Boston’s former ace was now making a living striking out its lineup – all while wearing the hated pinstripes.
From losing to the Mets in the infamous Bill Buckner 1986 World Series with the Sox, to beating the Mets in the 2001 Subway Series with the Yanks, Clemens’ transition from Boston to New York was not a pleasant sight to many.
15. Karl Malone: Jazz – Lakers
Karl “The Mailman” Malone was a force of nature in the NBA. Yet another victim of playing in the Michael Jordan era, Malone was never able to secure a title in his 19-year career. The two-time MVP spent 18 of those 19 years with the Utah Jazz. Then came one of basketball’s most shocking sports trades.
In one final attempt to win it all, a 40-year-old Malone left his longtime Utah team for the Los Angeles Lakers. After nearly two decades of blood, sweat and tears with the Jazz, Malone suited up in a very different uniform. It was not an easy reality for faithful Jazz fans to stomach… nor any NBA fan hesitant to accept that Laker Nation had stolen another legend.
16. Emmitt Smith: Cowboys – Cardinals
If you weren’t watching the Dallas Cowboys torch the competition throughout the ’90s, you might as well not have bothered watching the NFL at all. Part of the trifecta that brought three Super Bowl championships to Dallas was perennial Pro Bowl running back Emmitt Smith.
Smith’s Hall of Fame career helped put them Boys on the map and make them “America’s Team.”
One year removed from setting the NFL rushing record in 2002, no amount of eye-rubbing could make it easier to see (and accept) Smith in an Arizona Cardinals uniform. Even in his second season with the team, Smith playing for the Cards looked flat out wrong to Cowboys fans.
17. Martin Brodeur: Devils – Blues
Much like Gordie Howe belonged with the Red Wings, goalie Martin Brodeur was a lifer with the New Jersey Devils. Brodeur is widely considered one of, if not the greatest goalie in NHL history. Nine All-Star selections and three Stanley Cup championships in 21 years made the HOFer a Jersey legend.
However, like Howe, Brodeur didn’t hang up his skates in the city he spent the overwhelming majority of his career in. Still wanting to compete, Brodeur got his chance when the St. Louis Blues’ starting goalie went down with injury.
Brodeur suited up with the Blues for seven games in the 2014-15 season. That’s one week’s worth of NHL existence the state of New Jersey would still like to pretend never happened.
18. Hank Aaron: Braves – Brewers
Hank Aaron was one of the most influential baseball players to ever play in the MLB, and the entire time he did it as a Brave. In 1954, the 25x All-Star began his illustrious career with the Milwaukee Braves. The Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1965, which is where Aaron remained until 1975.
Okay, so technically Aarons entire career wasn’t with the Braves. However, he stayed about as close to a true single-team athlete as possible.
In 1976, a 42-year-old Aaron returned to the city he spent the first half of his career in. This time, he was a member of the Milwaukee Brewers. It was a bizarre sight to see Aaron play as anything other than a Brave. But at least it happened in the city that cheered him on throughout the first half of his career.
19. Peyton Manning: Colts – Broncos
The Colts left Baltimore, MD after the 1983 NFL season for a new home in Indianapolis, IN. To make a long story short, the Colts sucked in Indiana. Bad. Then, new hope came in 1998 when the Colts selected quarterback Peyton Manning with the No. 1 overall pick.
Manning was every bit the savior Indy prayed he would be. He broke records, earned multiple MVP awards, and brought a Super Bowl title to the city.
When neck surgery forced Manning to sit out the 2011 NFL season, the Colts understandably did not want to risk the future of the franchise on a player who had just endured such a risky procedure. They took advantage of their lost season and another No. 1 pick, selecting QB Andrew Luck and parting ways with Manning.
Rather than call it a career, Manning signed with the Denver Broncos. His comeback was a marvel to players and fans alike, who watched the Colts legend revive his career in a new city. Manning flaunted age-defying numbers and claimed another Super Bowl victory in a fraction of the time he spent in Indy – it was almost impossible to process.
It was a wild ride for both sides, but the split between this Manning and fans of his former city doesn’t hold a candle to what happened after another star player’s shocking decision.
20. LeBron James: Cavaliers – Heat
The GOAT. For NBA fans, that title belongs to only one of two people in the basketball world: Michael Jordan or LeBron James. King James has had an exceptional career since 2003, when he was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers straight out of high school. Even more special, James, who was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, was playing for his home team.
James was an MVP in Cleveland, but after carrying the team on his back for the first seven seasons of his NBA career, he’d had enough.
James announced his choice in “The Decision” – he was leaving Cleveland to play for the Miami Heat. In the blink of an eye, James went from the city’s savior to public enemy number one.
Fast forward four years, and fans are no longer burning James Cleveland jerseys. In fact, they’re buying them again. James decided to return home to win a chip for the city, which is exactly what he did in 2016.
21. Alex Rodriguez: Rangers – Yankees
Alex Rodriguez will forever be remembered as one of the most polarizing figures in baseball history. A-Rod is a superior talent whose career was marred by steroid use.
An 18-year-old Rodriguez began his career with the Seattle Mariners. Seven years later, he signed a record 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers.
After an MVP season in 2003, the Rangers attempted to trade A-Rod to the Red Sox, but the deal was vetoed. After a failed trade attempt with Boston, an injury to New York Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone presented the opportunity for a new trade.
Rodriguez went from the struggling Rangers to almost joining the Red Sox before ultimately landing with the powerhouse Yankees. The emotional rollercoaster made the always-controversial A-Rod even easier to despise in the eyes of so many baseball fans.
22. Jaromir Jagr: Penguins – Capitals
Since entering the NHL in 1990, Jaromir Jagr has worn his iconic No. 68 for nine different teams. Before Jagr began his career as a journeyman, he was a cornerstone of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. Jagr was a perennial All-Star with the Pens and brought two Stanley Cup championships to Pittsburgh.
After 11 seasons with his first team, Jagr signed a then-record deal with the Washington Capitals for $77 million over seven years. Jagr did not write the same success story with the Caps as he had with the Pens. Midway through his third season, Washington traded Jagr to the New York Rangers.
Jagr went from spending a decade as one of the most dominant hockey players in the game decade to a star unable to live up to expectations. His new jersey wasn’t the only thing hard to process for hockey fans.
23. Adrian Peterson: Vikings – New Orleans
Running back Adrian Peterson began his NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings as if he was shot out of a cannon. Pretty much the only things that could stop Peterson or slow him down were injuries and a suspension. Otherwise, Minnesota’s No. 28 was a high-speed purple and gold bulldozer for a decade.
Not wanting to risk a hefty contract on their former MVP, Minnesota allowed the 32-year-old running back to test free agency.
Peterson saw a future in New Orleans and promptly signed a two-year deal with the Saints.
Not only did Peterson enter the 2017 NFL season wearing black and gold, he and the Saints faced the Vikings in Minnesota for the season opener. Even more bizarre, the 3x NFL rushing leader barely played a role on his new team. The veteran was forced to share playing time with an extremely talented committee of tailbacks including Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.
After just six games, New Orleans traded Peterson to Arizona. At least with the Cardinals, Peterson was able to finish the season in his rightful role as lead back.
24. Hakeem Olajuwon: Rockets – Raptors
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon is one of the most talented centers and arguably the greatest defender in NBA history. Olajuwon was born and raised in Nigeria. He emigrated to the U.S. to play college ball at the University of Houston. The city quickly became Olajuwon’s second home when the Houston Rockets selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1984 draft.
In 17 seasons with the Rockets, Olajuwon racked up accolades and records. He became a 2x NBA champion, 12x All-Star, and 2x Defensive Player of the Year.
For 17 years, Olajuwon and his trademark “Dream Shake” torched opponents. Then, a shocking sports trade went down and suddenly “The Dream” was gone. The rebuilding Rockets team and their Hall of Fame center parted ways. Olajuwon signed with the Toronto Raptors, cooling off for a mediocre 2001-02 season to close out an otherwise unforgettable career.
At least wearing the purple Toronto jersey made Olajuwon as unrecognizable as his diminished game did.
25. Ichiro Suzuki: Mariners – Marlins
By the time Ichiro Suzuki reached the MLB, the stud hitter from Japan already had a career’s worth of play under his belt. When the 27-year-old arrived in Seattle after playing for years in his home country, he proved there was a whole lot left in the tank for the Mariners.
The impact Ichiro had on the Mariners organization is indescribable. Then, during his 12th MLB season, Ichiro requested a trade and landed with the Yankees. Ichiro had good intentions behind his trade request, though – at 38, he wanted to make room for younger talent.
Since the Yankees are always ready and willing to break the bank, seeing a star in a Yanks outfit is, well… we’ve been through this. After two full seasons, the Yankees traded Ichiro. This was a more shocking move and seeing the star (again) in a non-Seattle uniform really got weird.
From the 2015-17 MLB seasons, Ichiro suited up for the Miami Marlins. Given Ichiro’s age, it was difficult to accept that this was the same athlete and not just an amazing doppelganger. Then again, it was inspiring to see an athlete perform at such a high level at that age.
26. Zdeno Chara: Islanders – Bruins
Though at 6’9″ he towers above his competition, Zdeno Chara remained surprisingly obscure for his first four years in the NHL. Then again, Chara’s game was right on par with the rest of his team, the New York Islanders. The Islanders spent Chara’s time with the team (1997-2001) doing a whole lot of losing.
After leaving the Islanders, Chara saw success spending four years with the Ottawa Senators and blossoming into an All-Star defenseman. Chara really hit his stride after joining the Boston Bruins in the 2007-08 season. Once an awkwardly tall and rather anonymous Islander, Chara became known as one of the premier defenders in the NHL. He helped lead the way to over a decade of winning seasons.
27. Dikembe Mutombo: Nuggets – Hawks
The Denver Nuggets hit the jackpot when they selected Dikembe Mutombo with the fourth pick of the 1991 NBA draft. Before selecting Mutombo, the Nuggets were a complete disaster.
The team still struggled mightily during Mutombo’s first year, but his rare feat of earning an All-Star selection as a rookie ensured great things were to come. The shot-blocking, finger-wagging big man delivered, earning his first Defensive Player of the Year award in ’95.
Mutombo wanted to remain in Denver, but only if the Nuggets would sign him to a 10-year deal. To Nuggets fans’ horror, such a deal wasn’t going to happen. So, in his sixth NBA season, Mutombo took his talents to the Atlanta Hawks.
After Denver said “No, no, no” to the 10-year contract, the city watched in horror as Mutombo raked in another three DPOY awards. He won two in the city that knew what Denver unfathomably did not.
The only confusing thing about seeing Mutombo in a Hawks jersey was wondering why the Nuggets willingly let such a sure thing go.
28. Ray Bourque: Bruins – Avalanche
Being the longest-serving captain of any NHL team is a remarkable accomplishment. But for legendary defenseman Ray Bourque to do so on a storied franchise like the Boston Bruins is another level.
Bourque played 21 seasons with the Bruins (1979-00), serving as captain for 14 of those years. Nobody expected one of hockey’s most shocking sports trades to involve Bourque.
65 games into the 1999-00 season, the Bruins traded a 39-year-old Bourque to the Colorado Avalanche. In the blink of an eye, the lifeblood of the organization was playing for a team some 2,000 miles away.
The following year, Bourque’s illustrious career drew to a fitting close when he finally captured the Stanley Cup.
In a one-of-a-kind celebration, Boston’s hockey hero returned to celebrate his championship with the city he called home for so many years.
29. Jerry Rice: 49ers – Raiders
Anyone who manages to last more than a few years in the NFL can consider their career a success. Yet Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice did more than survive, he thrived for an unbelievable 20 seasons.
Rice spent his first 16 stellar seasons in San Francisco. There, Rice won three Super Bowls amongst a laundry list of individual awards while playing with the 49ers.
Following two losing seasons (1999, 2000), the Niners were ready to rebuild and had a new breakout star receiver in Terrell Owens. Rice parted ways with the team, but did not leave the Bay Area.
Rice found a new home with the Raiders, then based in nearby Oakland. Not only was the NFL all-time receiving leader (receptions, yards, touchdowns) suiting up with a new team, he was doing it a stone’s throw away.
30. Yogi Berra: Yankees – Mets
When it comes to the MLB, no team possesses a more stunning array of all-time greats than the New York Yankees. Amongst those legends is catcher Yogi Berra, who retired a 3x MVP, 18x All-Star, and 13x World Series champion.
Berra’s playing days came to a close after the 1963 season, or so fans thought. In 1964, Berra led the Yankees to the World Series as manager – only to be fired. Afterwards, a nearly 40-year-old Berra joined the New York Mets as a coach.
Like a true legend, Berra stepped up when needed, playing in four games for the Mets. Seeing a retired legendary player turned coach step up to bat for their cross-town rivals sure messed with Yankees fans’ heads.