Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Top 25 Great Sports Stories

From the emergence of Tiger Woods to the end of the Jordan era, from steroids in baseball to subterfuge in skating, USA TODAY has chronicled the biggest stories and scandals in the sports world over the last 25 years. A look back at some of the headline stars and most controversial issues dominating the sports pages of USA TODAY in the last quarter century:

1 Red Sox Win World Series

It took 86 years, included insufferable losses to the hated New York Yankees and monumental gaffes seemingly replayed constantly, but the Fenway Park faithful finally danced in the streets when their beloved Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series in a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, et al., ended the agony that tormented Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Luis Tiant, et al. And who knows? This could be their year, too!


2 Ripken breaks record

On Sept. 6, 1995, with President Clinton in attendance, Oriole Park at Camden Yards rocked when native son Cal Ripken Jr. broke the ironman record of 2,130 consecutive games played set by the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig. With a home run for good measure, and a midgame romp around the field, Ripken helped restore luster to a sport torn apart by the 1994-95 players strike and subsequent owners lockout. The streak of 2.632 consecutive games played ran from May 30, 1982 to Sept. 19, 1998. Ripken enters the Hall of Fame on July 29.


3 Tiger wins first Masters

In the Deep South, at a club whose members do not look like him, on a hallowed course where legends Jones, Hogan, Nicklaus and Palmer carved out shots for history, Tiger Woods earned a victory “for the ages” in winning the green jacket in 1997 at The Masters in Augusta, Ga. The game of golf has not looked the same since.


4 Villanova upsets Georgetown

The No. 1-seeded Georgetown Hoyas were overwhelming favorites to successfully defend their 1984 NCAA men’s basketball title when they met No. 8-seeded Villanova on April Fools’ Day. The Hoyas’ senior superstar center, Patrick Ewing, only months later would become the first pick of the NBA draft. But Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain, Harold Pressley, Harold Jensen, Gary McLain and teammates hit 79% of their shots, including 90% in the second half, under the direction of animated coach Rollie Massimino. The Wildcats won 66-64 and remain the lowest-seeded NCAA men’s champion.


5 BALCO-steroids in baseball

The celebration of ballooning home -run figures from the last decade of the 20th century into the early years of the 21st gives way to the dirty little secret of untested ballplayers taking advantage of substances boosting their natural talents. The innocence of the nation’s pastime devolves into the steroid era.

Michael Madrid, USA TODAY

6 1998 home run chase

In hindsight, the world followed the mammoth marathon to immortality through rose-colored glasses. Mark McGwire, a playful giant of a man, and Sammy Sosa, whose hop out of the batter’s box signaled another long ball smacked, battled through the summer to surpass Roger Maris’ season record of 61 homers set in 1961. McGwire does it first and finishes as the leader with 70; Sosa hits 66.

7 N.C. State upsets Houston

Jim Valvano in a daze, trying to find someone to hug, is as unforgettable an image as Lorenzo Charles, moments earlier, dunking after grabbing Dereck Whittenburg’s desperation heave to give North Carolina State the 1983 NCAA men’s basketball title. How improbable was it? N.C. State was the first champion with 10 losses, had lost six of eight in one stretch of the regular season and only qualified for the NCAA tournament by winning the ACC tournament. But the Wolfpack never gave up.


8 Nicklaus, at 46, wins ’86 Masters

He had missed the cut in three of seven tournaments, withdrew from another and hadn’t won a tournament in two years. His last major title was in 1980. But with an 18th (and final) major in sight, the Golden Bear sank a 12-foot putt for eagle at No. 15 in the final round. That brought a smile even to the stoic Nicklaus, whose son Jack was his caddie. “It’s about the only television event (that) when I see it come on television, I actually stop and watch a little bit of it,” Nicklaus says.

9 Magic Johnson retires with HIV

The stunning revelation at a hastily called news conference in November 1991 saddened sports fans worldwide, for this was a man whose enjoyment of the game was so genuine, so uplifting. At the time, it was presumed to be a death sentence. Today, the former Los Angeles Laker, who at 6-9 redefined the point guard position with his exquisite passing, is doing quite well as a part-time analyst on TNT and in partnership with such business giants as Starbucks, Burger King and Cadbury Schweppes as well as running movie theaters, health clubs and real estate development.

10 Pete Rose banned

Baseball’s all-time hits leader (4,256) bet on the game while managing the Cincinnati Reds and accepted a lifetime ban from then-commissioner Bart Giamatti in August 1989. Rose became a pariah, reduced to autograph shows at any and all venues — except inside a major league park. The player excluded even from consideration for the Hall of Fame denied for almost 15 years that he bet on baseball, then acknowledged it in his January 2004 autobiography.

11 Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass

Six seconds to go. Forty-eight yards to a touchdown. Team trailing 45-41 at Miami’s Orange Bowl. That’s what faced the 5-9 quarterback for Boston College on Nov. 23, 1984, when he scrambled and tossed up a prayer. Three receivers and three defenders begin converging toward the end zone, with BC’s Gerard Phelan snagging the catch, cradling the ball as if it were “my firstborn.” Flutie won the Heisman Trophy, and played professionally in the USFL, CFL and NFL until retiring a year ago.


12 Dale Earnhardt’s death

The Intimidator won seven NASCAR championships, had career earnings in excess of $40 million and after 20 attempts captured the Daytona 500 in February 1998. But three years later at Daytona International Speedway, racing in his black No. 3 Chevrolet, gunning it in the final lap and probably realizing teammate Michael Waltrip would finally win his first Daytona 500, Earnhardt slammed into the wall on the final turn while fighting for position. Rescuers had to cut Earnhardt out of the car, but doctors said he had died instantly from head injuries. He was 49.

13 Kirk Gibson walk-off homer

Two outs, bottom of the ninth, man on first for the Los Angeles Dodgers, future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley on the mound for the Oakland Athletics. Gibson, soon to be named NL MVP, is summoned to pinch-hit despite hamstring and knee problems. He works the count to 3-2. Jack Buck makes the TV call: “Gibson swings, and a fly ball to deep right field. This is gonna be a home run! Unbelievable! A home run for Gibson! And the Dodgers have won the game 5-4. I don’t believe what I just saw. I don’t believe what I just saw.” Gibson’s only at-bat of the Series sends the Dodgers on their way to winning the championship.

14 U.S. women win ’99 World Cup

Before 90,185 at the Rose Bowl, the largest crowd to witness a women’s sporting event, Brandi Chastain beats China goalkeeper Gao Hong for a 5-4 edge in penalty kicks to break the overtime tie and give the USA the soccer title after two hours of play under a broiling sun. Chastain flings off her white uniform jersey, sparkling confetti envelops the field, U.S. players hug and dance and the Chinese graciously applaud the victors. TV ratings were 2 points higher than for the ’99 NBA Finals.

15 Bill Buckner error

If only Boston relievers could have held the 5-3 advantage with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6, the 1986 World Series would have been over and the Red Sox would have had their first title since 1918. But Calvin Schiraldi gave up three consecutive singles to make it 5-4. Bob Stanley relieved and threw a wild pitch, allowing in the tying run. Few remember all that. What is remembered: Mookie Wilson’s soft grounder down the first-base line that went underneath the glove and through the legs of sore-ankled Buckner, allowing Ray Knight to score the winning run for the New York Mets, who go on to win and take Game 7. Thus are born endless references to having a “Bill Buckner moment.”

16 Christian Laettner jumper sends Duke into ’92 NCAA Final Four

Grant Hill throws the ball three-quarters of the way upcourt. Laettner, at the free throw line, makes the catch, pivots, takes one dribble, fakes right to clear his defender, spins left and shoots the fadeaway — all in less than 2.1 seconds to beat the final buzzer. The 17-foot jumper caps an overtime thriller as Duke beats Kentucky 104-103 in the East Regional final and goes on to successfully defend its ’91 NCAA title.


17 Harding-Kerrigan skating scandal

As if women’s figure skating needed more drama, the stage was set for just that at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships a month before the 1994 Winter Olympics. An attack on Kerrigan at practice, masterminded by Harding’s former husband to benefit his wife’s chances of making the team and done with Harding’s knowledge, gripped even the non-sports fan. Kerrigan was awarded a spot on the Olympic team despite being unable to compete in the U.S. championships. She recovered enough to earn the Olympic silver medal and went on to a lucrative career in skating shows. Harding, eighth at the Olympics, served court-ordered community service, dabbled in boxing and became a punch line for comics.

18 Jordan ends first part of NBA career with winning shot vs. Utah

What a wonderful parting shot Jordan left us, hitting the championship-winning basket in June 1998 in presumably his final NBA game. Jordan scored 16 of his 45 points in the fourth quarter of Game 6 as Chicago beat Utah 87-86 for its sixth title in eight years. Only that wasn’t his final shot. Jordan took over management of the Washington Wizards in January 2000, took back the uniform two seasons later as a Wizard — and took a drive out of Washington in May 2003 when he was fired. He’s back in the NBA again, as managing member of basketball operations for Charlotte.

19 Postponed by earthquake

Four minutes into ABC’s setup of Game 3 of the ’89 Bay Area World Series at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Al Michaels interrupts analyst Tim McCarver. “I’ll tell you what, we’re having an earth---!” he says before the signal gets knocked off the air. More than 60,000 fans and the rest of the city were rocked by the 7.1 earthquake, which collapsed part of the Bay Bridge. Michaels won a News Emmy for his coverage of the earthquake, which left 67 dead and did an estimated $6 billion in property damage. The World Series resumed 10 days later, won in a sweep by Oakland.

20 Ashe has AIDS

On April 8, 1992, in response to a story USA TODAY was preparing, tennis legend and humanitarian Arthur Ashe announced he had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. Tennis made Ashe famous, but his work to end apartheid in South Africa and racial injustice around the world is his greater legacy. He died Feb. 6, 1993, after raising awareness of AIDS and the need for research. He was 49.

21 Armstrong wins seven consecutive Tours de France

In 1996, Lance Armstrong was the top-ranked cyclist in the world when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. Aggressive chemotherapy worked, and in 1999 he began his Tour de France title run that ended in 2005 only by retirement.


22 O.J. Simpson trial

A Heisman Trophy-winning running back from Southern California. A Hall of Fame career with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. TV spokesman for Hertz, football analyst for ABC and NBC. As popular an athlete as there was, O.J. Simpson lives in infamy after the 1994 slayings of his ex-wife and her friend. Simpson was found not guilty in the 1995 criminal trial but liable in the subsequent civil trial for $8.5 million in compensatory damages.

23 ’94 World Series canceled

The most high-profile strike in professional sports, beginning Aug. 12, 1994, cost baseball fans the ultimate enjoyment to any season — but cost the sport more in lost prestige, trust and adulation. The 232-day strike over issues regarding a salary cap, spanning the 1994 and ’95 seasons, was baseball’s eighth work stoppage but the first to wipe out the postseason.

24 Pervasiveness of ESPN

SportsCenter. ESPN2. ESPNews. ESPN Deportes. ESPN Classic. ESPNU. ESPN Radio. ESPN The Magazine. ESPN.com. ESPN Zone. Live NFL draft coverage. Sunday night baseball. ESPYs. Chris Berman. Dick Vitale. Dan Patrick. Stuart Scott. Da-da-da, da-da-da.

25 Gretzky sets NHL scoring record

The Great One, who holds virtually every major offensive record in the NHL, became the all-time leading scorer Oct. 15, 1989, passing Gordie Howe’s 1,850 points as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. Gretzky played nine more seasons, ending with 2,857 points in a 20-year NHL playing career. Gretzky was the leading scorer in 10 seasons, nine times was the MVP and twice the playoff MVP and made 18 consecutive All-Star Game appearances.

USA TODAY porting and writing by Rachel Shuster