In creating last week’s list of the 20 greatest moments in modern sports history, I quite obviously shortchanged several major categories or sports — all for reasons that make sense to me — but they do merit acknowledgement nonetheless.
(I write this, by the way, before reading any reader comments or letters, so as not to be affected by the tenor of those responses.)
The first category is women’s sports. Of 30 moments (including honorable mentions), the single women’s entry was Nadia Comaneci’s series of perfect “10s.” The problem is that, aside from tennis, women’s sports just haven’t been consistently high profile — and that the ones that do grab attention every four years, namely gymnastics and figure skating, I just have a strong distaste for sports whose scores themselves (not the rules, but the actual scores) are determined by judges.
Nonetheless, women’s tennis probably deserved more attention. The problem with the great Evert-Navratilova “rivalry” was that the contest really was rarely close: when Navratilova was pudgy, Evert won almost every match; after Navratilova suddenly used whatever means she did to get fit virtually overnight, she completely dominated Evert.
The start of the great era of women’s tennis as a major public sport was probably Margaret Court’s epic 14-12, 11-9 victory over Billie Jean King at Wimbledon in 1970; Court’s Grand Slam that year, and Steffi Graf’s Grand Slam in 1988, probably merit inclusion on any list of all-time great sports achievements.
The other great women’s event that most people would include is the 1999 Women’s World Cup victory by the USA in a shootout with China. It was riveting theatre. Sorry I couldn’t find room for it on my original list.
The second shortchanged category is team dynasties. The Montreal Canadiens in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s; the Boston Celtics of the 1960s; the UCLA Bruins of John Wooden; the New York Yankees of the 1920s and 1950s; the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s and Chicago Bulls of the 1990s; and probably the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s-90s all have good reason to complain. The problem is, it’s hard to fit dynasties into the category of sports “moment.” Clearly, Michael Jordan’s last-second, championship-winning shot in 1998 was better than the best of fairy-tales — but then he went and sort of ruined the effect by coming out of retirement and ending his career with a slow fade.
(Speaking of career-ending high notes, John Elway finishing his career with two straight Super Bowl titles is as good as it gets. Now that was an extended “moment” that is hard to top.)
In general, basketball was under-included on my list. Yes, Hondo stole the ball. Yes, David Thompson’s extraordinary performance in the 1974 Final Four, breaking up Wooden’s string of titles, was about as good as individual performances ever get in team sports. Yes, Bobby Knight’s undefeated 1976 team of Quinn Buckner, Kent Benson, Scott May, Tom Abernethy, and others was astonishingly good (although its very dominance robbed its championship games of pulse-pounding drama). Yes, Magic and Bird had some great match-ups. Yes, Lorenzo Charles stuffing it home over Phi Slamma Jamma to send Jimmy V racing around the court was as dramatic as sports can get. I have no good excuse for not including such events, other than that they just didn’t “stick” in my memory with the vividness that other great contests did.
Next, non-championship events were deliberately excluded from my list, specifically because they weren’t ultimately definitive. Mind-boggling NFL playoff games such as the Steelers “Immaculate Reception” win in 1972, the Raiders “Sea of Hands” win over Miami in 1974, the Chargers’ “Epic in Miami” (also known as the “Kellen Winslow game”) in 1982, the 49ers takedown of the Saints earlier this year, and of course “The Catch” by Dwight Clark in 1981 all created lasting memories. (I did include the Ice Bowl on my list even though it was followed by a Super Bowl because, before the Jets’ win in SB III, the NFL championship really was the bigger deal.) Similarly in baseball, the Red Sox over the Angels in 1986, the Mets over the Astros that same year, and the “Greatest Night in Baseball History” last September (the final day of the regular season, with its multi-stage dramas), all were wonderful showcases of sport.
Baseball, in general, fared less well than it should have, considering that it is America’s Pastime. I wasn’t alive yet for Bill Mazeroski’s blast to beat the Yankees in game 7 in 1960; Joe Carter’s walk-off homer in the 1993 World Series, Tug McGraw’s infectious enthusiasm and last-out save in 1980, and the Miracle Mets of 1969 all deserve a place in the sun as well. Ditto Cal Ripken’s homer as he broke the consecutive-games streak. Oh, well….
The 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s all were under-included; TV either wasn’t existent or wasn’t as ubiquitous then, so fewer people experienced the thrills first-hand. Ted Williams, Johnny Unitas, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, the Palmer-Nicklaus-Hogan battle at Cherry Hills in 1960, the Bob Gibson masterpieces in the mid-’60s, the Bob Mathias decathlons, Rocky Marciano’s undefeated career, and Bob Beamon’s long jump all suffered exclusion because of it. (For that matter, the Babe’s prodigious feats in the 1920s and the great feats in the 1930s by Joe Louis and Babe Didrickson Zaharias belong in any all-time sports compendium.)
Non-human-powered racing lost out, big-time. NASCAR and Indy racing may be hugely entertaining, but I just don’t know how to rank a sport where the power is all mechanical. And while I just couldn’t fail to include Secretariat’s Triple-Crown-winning Belmont run, my pro-human bias led me to exclude what otherwise were three of the most thrilling sports events imaginable: the astonishing Affirmed-Alydar duals in 1978 and the extreme near-misses for the Triple Crown by Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998.
Finally, I admit to a U.S. bias. For the rest of the globe, the World Cup in soccer equals or even exceeds the Olympics in interest and importance. Bah, humbug. I loved playing soccer, but watching it (unless played by cute little kids whose enthusiasm is entertaining) just isn’t my thing. No can do. Too little scoring, too little chance for arm-chair strategizing. And without a strong U.S. interest, it just doesn’t rate. Likewise for other sports like cricket, and likewise for whatever Olympic victories other nations may consider as epics but which made no impression on yours jingoistically truly.
So there. I’m sure there are other things I’ve forgotten. Sports are almost infinitely able to produce excitement, highlight great human effort, and capture the imagination.
I exit with a bonus. In the end, it meant net to nothing — er, I mean next to nothing. It not only produced no championship, but not even an appearance in a tournament final. It wasn’t a match at the absolute highest level of its sport at the time (just shy of the highest level, but still a small step below). And it wasn’t even the defining victory of the main protagonist’s career. But for sheer, delightful, ultra-fun entertainment value, if I on my death-bed 65 years hence am allowed to re-watch just one single sporting event, the odds are I would ask again to watch the Labor Day 1991 U.S. Open tennis match, on Jimmy Connors’ 39th birthday, in which Jimbo won his fourth-round match (he later won in the quarter-finals, too, before being dominated in the semis) in a fifth-set tie-breaker over Aaron Krickstein. It wasn’t just the scrappy tennis. It wasn’t just the long rallies, nor the acrobatic displays, nor the improbably multiple comebacks from the dead. And it wasn’t just Connors’ showmanship — mugging for the camera, showing more humor this time rather than his famous crassness, talking through the camera to the TV audience to say “This is what they come for. This is what they want.” Instead, it was all of these things wrapped together in one supposedly over-the-hill package, coming off of wrist surgery, in his personal play-yard in Flushing Meadow, with the crowd absolutely going bonkers.
Watching it on TV as Jimbo fell behind 2-5 in the final set, I literally found myself reciting Dylan Thomas. “C’mon, Jimbo,” I heard myself saying, semi-aloud. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, Jimbo. Rage against the dying of the light.”
Any sports event that can inspire recitations of poetry while it is still occurring is an event not just for the aged but for the ages.
Jimbo did not go gentle. Jimbo raged — and joked, and clowned, and hustled, and raged some more. Raged, in the most likable way rage has ever been presented. This was that unique sort of rage that grows not from hate but from sheer love of the game, a healthy rage, indeed a joyful rage (if such a thing can be). James Scott Connors was not the greatest tennis player ever. But, despite all his faults, he was by far the most fun to watch. And if sports isn’t fun, well, forget it.
But don’t forget this match. Remember it, and marvel.