Great moments in memory’s eye.
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11) The 1975 World Series, won in the ninth inning of game seven on a Joe Morgan single, erasing the heroics of Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning home run in game six. It was the greatest World Series, ever. Bar none. Momentum shifts in almost every game. Controversies galore. And, as in the 1970 NBA Championships, it featured more Hall of Famers and near Hall of Famers than any two-team match-up has a right to. Rose, Bench, Morgan, Perez, Sparky Anderson, Yaz, Fisk. An injured Rice. Fred Lynn, Dave Concepcion, George Foster, Ken Griffey, Cecil Cooper, Dwight Evans, and Luis Tiant. Plus all-world characters like Bernie Carbo and Spaceman Bill Lee. Amazing.
12) The 1982 NCAA basketball championship game, won by North Carolina over Georgetown when Freddie Brown threw that pass away. Nip and tuck throughout, played brilliantly, with controversy (the goal-tending calls on Patrick Ewing) and, for some, the social significance of the “first black coach” thing. And, of course, the introduction to most of the world of one Michael Jordan. Again, an all-world cast participated. Ewing, Jordan, Sleepy Floyd, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty. If you want to see the best in college hoops, go back to that game. And again and again.
13) Michael Jordan’s final championship shot, in Game Six of the 1998 NBA finals, to nail down his second three-peat. Yeah, he pushed off Bryon Russell. It still was outrageously good theatre. If Jordan had stayed true to his retirement after that game, and left on that outrageous high note, this would be higher on the list.
14) John Elway did retire on a high note, by winning the Super Bowl in each of his last two seasons after a storied career, while nabbing the MVP award in his last game. And to see him hurdle (or is it hurtle?) into the end zone, hellbent for leather, at age 38 was really something to behold.
15) Justin Leonard’s 45-foot putt to win the 1999 Ryder Cup to cap the largest last-day comeback in Cup history. It was preceded by Ben Crenshaw’s steely insistence that his squad would win to end eight years of Ryder frustration — and it touched off what must be the wildest celebration ever seen on a golf course. Great stuff.
There. On other nights I might re-order those events. Or I might add to them any of the following: the 1975 Masters with Nicklaus over Weiskopf and Miller; the 1986 Masters with Jack beating Ballesteros, Norman, Kite, and Watson; Tom Watson breaking Nicklaus’ heart at Turnberry in 1977 and Pebble Beach in 1982; the Santonio Holmes toe-dragging catch to win the Super Bowl in 2009; the one-yard-line, game-saving tackle by St. Louis Rams linebacker Mike Jones to save Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000; the Wimbledon finals in 2009 (Federer over Andy Roddick, 16-14 in set five) and in 1980 (Borg over McEnroe in five after the 18-16 fourth-set tie-breaker); the 1991 Jimmy Connors five-setter at the U.S. Open on his 39th birthday en route to the semi-finals; the Thrilla in Manila (the greatest heavyweight fight ever — but I HATE boxing) in which Muhammad Ali beat Joe Frazier; Eric Heiden’s five gold medals in speed skating in the 1980 Olympics (four of them in Olympic-record time); Carl Lewis’ four golds in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles; the Dec. 31, 1973 Sugar Bowl in which Notre Dame won the national championship, 24-23, over Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide (and broke my heart: I was a Bear fan); the 1983 NCAA hoops title game where Jimmy V’s NC State Wolfpack shocked Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma on the game’s last play (okay, okay, and the 1985 Villanova upset over my GU Hoyas by shooting 90% from the field in the last half); Nadia Comaneci’s “perfect 10” in the 1976 summer Olympics gymnastics; the American victory (Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, Briana Scurry) in the 1999 women’s World Cup (soccer); and Indiana basketball’s completion of its never-again-matched perfect season in 1976.
There, by my count that’s 33 events overall. I included only sports where the action is propelled by the muscle of man, which excludes auto racing and thoroughbred racing. (Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes in 1973 and the Affirmed-Alydar battles in 1978 otherwise clearly would be on my list.) And it leaves out some of my favorites of lesser significance: the Epic in Miami (Chargers over Dolphins) in 1982 and the Clarence Davis “Sea of Hands” catch in 1974 (Oakland over Miami); Nolan Ryan’s nine-inning, two-hit, 12-strikeout no-decision on a hairline-fractured leg in Game 5 of the 1986 National League championship series; Crenshaw’s aforementioned 1995 Masters title; and — glory be!!!!! — the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl win this year.
And if Tom Watson’s ball had taken one less roll in the 2009 British Open, and he had won that major title at age 59, that would have been the greatest sports story ever told. But it didn’t, and it wasn’t. And when you come to think about it, sometimes the near-misses in sports are as inspirational as the victories. Inspirational, and transcendent….
Eagle eyes, though, will complain that I left out one obvious event, one that seems almost mythic because it has so thoroughly become an archetype — the archetype — for the heroic battle of men vs. men in brutal elements. It was the Ice Bowl on Lambeau Field on New Year’s Eve at the end of 1967. Lombardi. Landry. Kramer. Pugh. The time-out with 16 seconds left. Actual temperature of negative-20. It was a day of pain and a day of quiet, breathless triumph. It was an evening when Starrs fell into frozen end zones, and legends were born.
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