Forgive, please, the escape into sports again. It’s just so much more fun to write about than politics in the age of Obama. Last September I wrote that the baseball and football halls of fame had unfairly excluded Andre Dawson and Rickey Jackson, respectively. Two weeks ago, Dawson was inducted at Cooperstown, and this weekend, Jackson will be inducted in Canton. I am still almost giddy that Jackson got in after never even being a semi-finalist before. Oh, all the weeks I watched from the Superdome’s upper deck as Jackson led the Saints; oh, all the weeks I watched as he talked straight after the game rather than giving some sort of namby-pamby spin. So there’s my excuse for my mind turning to sports this week: The best all-around linebacker I ever saw, one who happened to play for my beloved hometown team, is finally becoming an NFL immortal. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! He chortled in his joy.
It makes me want to celebrate all of sport, or at least all of its great moments. Sports images have a way of implanting themselves into one’s mind that few other events ever do. In no particular order I see Canton’s Dave Wottle flying through a finishing kick in the 800-meter run with his golf cap on; I see Brett Favre getting up laughing after being knocked on his butt by Warren Sapp and patting Sapp on the head in homage to the play; I see Willie Mays, crumpled on the ground after a vicious outfield collision with Bobby Bonds, slowly raising his glove in the air from his prone position to show he did make the catch. There is Ben Crenshaw weeping, head in hands and elbows on knees, after winning the Masters in honor of Harvey Penick. There is Paul Azinger finishing a eulogy for Payne Stewart by rolling up his pants leg to show off his argyle socks. Over there, the little-remembered defensive genius Gene Smith is eating Dicky Beal’s lunch again and again as Georgetown holds Kentucky scoreless for the first 9:58 of the second half in the Final Four semi-finals in Seattle in 1984 — and then hobbling off the court with a sprained ankle that would keep him out of the victorious championship game two days later, but with his warrior’s pride still intact.
Your snippets of flashbacks of course will be different. Perhaps it’s Walt Frazier epitomizing “cool” while scoring 36 points with 19 assists in Game Seven of the NBA Finals in 1970. Maybe it’s Hank Aaron warding off two fans as he took his 715th home run trot. Or maybe it’s Cowboys backup Clint Longley hitting Drew Pearson in the Thanksgiving Miracle victory over the Redskins.
Whatever those moments are for you, they are special in a way words can hardly capture. They are moments when you get carried away and allow sports to transcend ordinary existence, taking on far more importance than by rights they should. But nobody of any decency would or should deny another’s experience of the transcendent, even if those moments are poor substitute’s for the transcendence of our God.
In that spirit of celebrating the best of sport, herewith my nominees (completely from memory except for minor details edited in afterwards) for the greatest sports moments or events since, oh, about 1960, with judgments made based on a combination of momentousness, athletic spectacularity (to coin a word), and pure entertainment value of emotional resonance:
1) David Tyree’s ball-to-the-helmet catch of Eli Manning’s heave, after Manning seemingly miraculously avoided a sack, to set up the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII in 2008. Considering the circumstances — opponent New England was undefeated — and the almost unfathomable physics of the play, and the phenomenal excitement of the whole game, this might be the single greatest moment in modern sports history. (Tyree, by the way, retired last week.)
2) The U.S. Olympic Hockey Team’s gold medal in Lake Placid in 1980. Yes, Al Michaels, we do believe in miracles.
3) Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins after nearly dying from cancer. (This assumes that he didn’t cheat with steroids.) For sheer willpower, for the brute force of his attacks while on the steepest climbs, and for the way he used his own success to help a worthy cause, the significance of Armstrong’s achievements should never be underestimated. Yes, live strong.
4) The completion of the Tiger Slam in 2001. Yeah, I don’t like Tiger very much. And yeah, it wasn’t an absolutely pure, single-calendar-year Grand Slam. So what? Woods’ apparently effortless brilliance made people under-appreciate how almost im-freaking-possible it is to win all four golf majors in a row — and on courses like Augusta National, Pebble Beach, and St. Andrew’s, and by 15 strokes (Pebble), 8 strokes (St. Andrew’s), a gut-wrenching playoff by making an amazingly clutch putt in the PGA on a course Jack Nicklaus built; and over the next two best players in the world (Phil Mickelson and David Duval) in the momentous stretch run at Augusta.
5) Woods winning the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines while on torn ligaments and a broken leg, in a 19-hole playoff, making amazingly clutch, mid-length putts twice to force extra holes, after holing bizarre shots from off the green all week.
6) Rafael Nadal beating Roger Federer in the Wimbledon gloaming in 2008, in the greatest tennis match, EVER. I watched the game with three generations of people who weren’t even tennis fans, and I swear that everybody watching from age 10 to 79 had a few moments where they literally forgot to breathe because the tension and athleticism were so phenomenal.
7) Willis Reed hobbling onto the court in the aforementioned Game Seven of the 1970 NBA Finals. No surprise entrance was ever more electrifying, or more significant. And think of the Hall of Famers on the court: Reed, Frazier, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Bradley, Elgin Baylor, Phil Jackson, Jerry West, Dave DeBusschere. Simply amazing stuff.
8) Michael Phelps’ 1/100th of a second victory over Milorad Cavic in the 100m butterfly en route to his record eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics. It had to be seen in slow motion and in stop-action Sports Illustrated photos, frame by frame, again and again and again, before it could really be believed.
9) Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal to win Super Bowl XXXVI for the New England Patriots over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams. The whole game was superb. And people forget what a huge upset it was. And it started a dynasty. And it was in a game held under stifling security, a week later than scheduled, because it was the first Super Bowl following 9/11. Sorry for the cliché, but by game’s end the tension really was almost unbearable.
10) The Bloody Sock. No “jinx” in sports history has ever been so celebrated, so romanticized and poeticized, and so subject to so many near-misses as the Red Sox 86-year Curse of the Bambino. Bucky Dent. Bill Buckner (but DON’T blame him, please; he was a pro’s pro playing on a bum leg). Aaron Boone. And for the Red Sox to be saved by a guy in a red-blood-soaked sock was just too eerie to be believed — except that it, and Curt Schilling’s courageous mastery, really did happen.
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.