Look back on 1991. You'll notice that this century's only palindromic year appears the same from the back as it did from the front, looks no different receding in the rearview mirror than it did when traveling toward us. The number 1991 is reversible, not like a cheap vest but like the surname Seles or the fortunes of worst-to-first World Series participants. Without a calendar, it is difficult to say whether 1991 is coming or going, much the way the numbers 23 and 32 look when colliding, as they did when Michael and Magic bumped heads in June.
You can read 1991 right to left, as we do now in hindsight, or you can read it left to right, as Buffalo Bills placekicker Scott Norwood will always scan the year—his errant effort at a game-winning field goal drifting forever to the right with eight seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXV. Because the year appears no different from either end, the big Nine-One was already being recalled, in a manner of speaking, on Jan. 1. On New Year's Day in the Orange Bowl, Rocket Ismail of Notre Dame returned a punt for an apparent last-minute game-winning touchdown against Colorado. Alas, the runback was recalled, all 91 yards of it, because ND's Greg Davis had clipped CU's Tim James on the play. Or was it the hirsute Don Mattingly, clipped by Gene Michael? Hard to say. There are so many clippings in our 1991 scrapbook.
In any event, the Buffaloes were named co-national champions, along with unbeaten Georgia Tech. A-tisket, a-tasket, they never lost, the Yellow Jackets. In a year in which the nation's biggest hero was not an athlete but a Scud stud called Stormin' Norman, so many of the memorable stories could be rendered in little rhymelets. Twins Win. Stop the Chop. Be Like Mike. Olympic Dream Team. Shaquille O'Neal. Skins Win....
Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub. UNLV basketball players Anderson Hunt, Moses Scurry and David Butler, to be specific, were photographed in a hot tub with convicted game-rigger Richard (the Fixer) Perry. (Surely he was just there to fix the faucet.) In other bath-related news: Wearing a lovely maillot jaune, Miguel Induràin of Spain bathed mainly in champagne after winning the Tour de France.
Grip it and rip it. That was the brute mantra of long-driving PGA rookie John Daly, who described himself as "kind of a loner" and confessed to concentrating on the word Kill! in midswing. Hmmmmm. Sounds more like Hannibal the Cannibal, no?
Yo, Bo: You were maimed in football, told by doctors you would never play sports again, released by the Kansas City Royals, signed by the Chicago White Sox, welcomed back to the diamond and obliged to retire from football. Indeed, after years without much more than a Bo peep, the last 12 months saw Bo Schembechler serve Ernie Harwell his walking papers, Jimbo Connors return serve after serve for winners, Steve Bono turn into Joe Montana, Bobby Bo sign for $29 million, and Bo Yeltsin preside over communism's Great Leap Backward. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, there was Mike Powell's Great Leap Forward, which made it all the more difficult to tell whether 1991 was coming or going.
U.S. soccer? A comer. In fact, it may have arrived in November when the U.S. women's team won the world championship in China. Sugar Ray Leonard? Definitely going. He announced his fourth and presumably final retirement after losing a 12-round decision to Terry Norris in February. "It is no longer my time," said Sugar. "I am not of the '90s." Please pass it on. Mark Spitz, you're not of the '90s. Bjorn Borg, not of the '90s. Jim Palmer? To judge by the readouts on the radar gun, you weren't even of the low 80's.
Then again, why would these aging gentlemen want to be of the '90s, if it means joining a generation of punk athletes who think the Cooz is the Fixer's Jacuzzi? Has the sophomore year of any other decade been this chockablock with athletes acting so...sophomoric? Lionel Simmons of the Sacramento Kings missed two games with Nintendinitis in his right wrist, the result of playing too many video games. Rob Dibble of the Cincinnati Reds and Albert Belle of the Cleveland Indians drilled spectators with baseballs. The spit hit the fan in New Jersey, where Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers hawked a loogie on an eight-year-old girl. Even Jimmy Connors, who turned 39 and played tennis like a 21-year-old, whined to chair umpires at the U.S. Open as though he were still wearing Huggies.
Most disturbing, though, is that the '90s have become one big Madonnarama, and in 1991, sport was no exception. At 17, Monica Seles won all three Grand Slam events she entered and became the youngest player to achieve a No. 1 ranking in tennis. But she also skipped Wimbledon, played braless, modeled No Excuses jeans and unabashedly emulated her pop-diva idol. Oakland A's slugger Jose Canseco also skipped Wimbledon, played braless, had a monster year at the plate and no excuses for the way he played in the field nor any excuse for the way he played the field—which included an after-hours tryst at Madonna's New York City apartment. There we can only hope he asked the singer to Justify My Glove, because Tony La Russa no longer can.
Fortunately, '91 spotted us the first two digits of the emergency phone number. Sadly, we needed it. Labeled a "serial buttocks fondler" in one lawsuit, Mike Tyson was indicted in another on rape charges. Lenny Dykstra of the Phillies survived wrapping his car around a tree in Pennsylvania. Bill Shoemaker was paralyzed in an auto accident in California. Mike Utley of the Lions was paralyzed in a football game in Detroit. Lyle Alzado was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, which he linked to his longtime use of anabolic steroids. Umpire Steve Palermo was shot while thwarting a robbery attempt in Dallas....
"On the positive tip," as '90s nuisance Arsenio Hall is fond of saying, there was greater cause for celebration than for consternation in 1991. Bills came due, and we don't mean Buffalo, which lost the Super Bowl 20-19 to the New York Giants. No, it was payback time for others: those brash, allegedly unbeatable, hot-water-runnin' Rebels of UNLV? Jugger-not! Duke avenged its 1990 Final Four loss to Vegas, beating UNLV by a deuce in the semifinals before canning Kansas 72-65 for the Blue Devils' and coach Mike Krzyzewski's first national championship.
Payday came on May Day for Rickey Henderson of the A's. Just after he stole his career-record 939th base, and just before he had himself bronzed, the leftfielder declared, "Today, I'm the greatest of all time." Approximately nine seconds later, 44-year-old Nolan Ryan threw his seventh no-hitter, and Rickey's record ran somewhere near Tank McNamara in the next day's sports section.
Like Ryan—or Henderson's speech writer—Connors didn't know when to quit once he'd warmed up at the Open. Nightline host Ted Koppel claimed Jimbo won "a victory over mortality" in Flushing Meadow. Mortality? Talk about a tough draw. As Connors raged all the way to the semifinals before succumbing to age and Jim Courier, Ilie Nastase noted, "What Jimmy has is what we all would kill for: just one more time."
Forty-two-year-old George Foreman had it: He fought once more, this time with feeling. In losing an intense 12-round decision to Evander Holyfield, the Fatman finally won respect. And, yes, "a victory over mortality."
But mortality is no palooka. After all, Red Grange died. So did Paul Brown, James (Cool Papa) Bell and Leo (the Lip) Durocher. Bob Johnson coached the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first-ever Stanley Cup championship in May, was found to have a brain tumor in August and died in November, a sad, swift year that still accommodated just one more joyous time.
Isn't it a shame that in recalling the year, we cannot...recall the year and replace its defective parts the way an automaker can? Magic Johnson's Nov. 7 announcement that he had tested positive for the AIDS virus raised awareness of the disease and lowered all spirits but his own indomitable one. He, too, had given us Just One More before retiring, appearing in June in the ninth and final Finals of his 12-year NBA career.
"Me going against Michael Jordan in the Finals," Magic marveled on the eve of the championship series. "It's what you live for, right?" Averaging the same 31-plus points that he had in the regular season, Jordan and the Bulls beat Johnson and the Lakers in five games. When it was over, Jordan gathered the gold trophy in his arms as if it were a lost child returned to him. In fact, it was MJ's first championship. "I think people will now feel it's O.K. to put me in the category of players like Magic," said Michael, no longer envious of anyone. With the possible exception of....
John Daly. On the eve of the PGA Championship in August, the 25-year-old ninth alternate drove all the way from Memphis to Crooked Stick in Indiana, using either a car or a three-wood, it's not clear which. Added to the field when Nick Price withdrew, and without having played so much as a practice round, Daly spanked his first drive 364 yards, for which he requested a mulligan. Not really, but that was how ridiculous his romp through the field to three-stroke tournament win was. Said the native of Dardanelle, Ark., "This is like a miracle."
Which is precisely how we would describe the 88th World Series. What else to call it? The Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves, two erstwhile cellar-dwellers, made the nation's knuckle-hair stand on end for seven nights. In Game 7 at the Metrodome, Minnesota's 36-year-old Jack Morris petulantly refused to stop pitching until the Twins had won the damn thing, 1-0 in 10 innings. By then, the damage had already been done to central nervous systems everywhere. "I can't sleep at night," Braves second baseman Mark Lemke confessed to Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett earlier in the Series. "Take a number, kid," replied Puck. "Who can?"
Take a number, kid. 29'4½"? Mike Powell leaped that chasm in breaking Bob Beamon's 23-year-old long jump record at the World Championships. For perspective, Powell's distance was exactly 24 feet longer than Masters champion Ian Woosnam, who is 5'4½". 9.86? Carl Lewis's new record in the 100 meters. Four? Rick Mears now has that many Indy 500 victories. 21? That's the blackjack number worn by Michigan's Desmond Howard who, appropriately, didn't take a hit all year en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.
All of them unforgettable figures from 1991, which is a set of digits worth remembering in its own right: The 99 in the center recalls the great Gretzky at center for the L.A. Kings. The 1 on either flank evokes raised index fingers. If 1991 could speak, it might say, "Today, I'm the greatest of all time." And, as you've probably heard, numbers don't lie.
After years with not much more an a Bo peep, 1991 was a real Bo-nanza.
Much of '91 was rendered in rhyme: Twins win, Dream Team, Shaquille O'Neal....
The year saw cause for joyful celebration, but also for much consternation.