Not every game is the concentration of crisis or the management
of miracle we'd wished it would be. Lots of games are boring.
Have no importance, little elegance. Offer scant entertainment.
We can get pretty puffed up about our sports, what they mean in
our culture, what they mean in our lives, but--timeout!--not
every game teaches us a lesson. Sometimes a game is just an
afternoon at the park, the lazy languor of watching people at
play, so that all we might remember is the sunshine, the
company, the small brushfire beyond center field in Chavez Ravine.
The real fan argues that it takes a season for a team to fully
reveal its poetry (puffing up now), and that any particular game
is just a piece of the puzzle. It would be unfair, given how
many games there actually are, to expect thrills and chills on a
daily basis. Most games are the dues we pay for membership in
this sports club to which we are so devoted.
Of course there are games, and there are games. These, our
favorites, are aberrations, so beyond the normal experience that
they become spikes in personal time lines. They have drives,
comebacks, fades, muffed kicks, a slow grounder right between
the ankles. Heroism that can't possibly be repeated, gaffes that
will not necessarily be redeemed. Maybe it was 40 minutes of
sustained brilliance, or an explosion of spirit that four
quarters simply couldn't confine. Or maybe it was an occurrence
of such improbability--a Hail Mary pass or a kickoff return that
threaded through a marching band--that the role of fate in human
affairs must be reexamined. Or maybe it was the pure expression
of personality: Michael Jordan's competitive drive as a
tantalizing glimpse of man's outer limits.
These are games no dramatist dare schedule. They are unlikely
events, and it's only after we've seen and considered them
against the backdrop of the more humdrum season that they allow
complete understanding. These are the games that set the
threshold of possibility (puffing up) and serve as useful and
eye-widening instruction. These are the games that (fully
puffed) teach us a lesson: You never know.
JANUARY 2, 1982
Chargers 41, Dolphins 38 (OT)
You didn't need years of hindsight to appreciate this game--you
knew it was a classic while it was still before your eyes. The
AFC playoff game between the San Diego Chargers and the Miami
Dolphins was such a test of will, courage, guts, legs, wind,
strength, resolve, skills, patience and brains that it was
MARCH 23, 1957
UNC 54, Kansas 53 (3 OT)
The '57 Carolina Blue needed back-to-back triple overtime wins
to become NCAA champions, but high drama aside, this was the
most significant basketball team ever: Frank McGuire's all-New
York starting team of four Catholics and a Jew brought
basketball to the Bible Belt and built the Hoop House of Chapel
Hill. The Yankee Tar Heels beat Kansas--starring Wilt
Chamberlain--in the final. Up a point with four seconds to go,
Carolina's playmaker, Tommy Kearns, who had been sent out to
jump the opening tip against the Stilt, hurled the ball
heavenward. When it came down, Carolina was the NCAA champion,
and college basketball was a true national sport.
NOVEMBER 23, 1984
Boston College 47, Miami 45
Miami's fatal error: They scored too quickly. The touchdown that
put them ahead 45-41 came with 28 seconds to play, and Eagles
quarterback Doug Flutie needed only six seconds to become a
hero. Taking the snap at the Miami 48, Flutie threw a sodden
ball 64 yards--in the rain, into the wind, into a crowd--and it
was caught by BC receiver Gerard Phelan in the end zone. That
throw won the Heisman Trophy for Flutie and a Cotton Bowl bid
for BC. Poor Bernie Kosar of Miami. He threw for 447 yards, and
no one noticed.
DECEMBER 28, 1958
Colts 23, Giants 17 (OT)
The Greatest NFL Game Ever Played? Maybe. The Most Important NFL
Game Ever Played? Indisputably, because it changed the way
America looked at pro football. In the gloomy fourth-quarter
shadows of Yankee Stadium, after the Colts' legendary defensive
end Gino Marchetti broke his ankle while stopping Frank Gifford
on a third-down sweep, Johnny Unitas himself became a legend,
passing (mostly to Raymond Berry) on the drive that tied the
game on a last-second field goal. Then Johnny U won it with
another long drive in overtime, as the Colts band struck up the
fight song: "For Baltimore and Marylannnd, you will march on to
vic-to-reeee!" Which is exactly what the NFL did.
OCTOBER 3, 1947
Dodgers 3, Yankees 2
With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Bill Bevens, an
undistinguished fourth starter with a 7-13 record for the
Yankees, had a 2-1 lead and a chance to put his team up three
games to one in the '47 World Series. More important, he was one
out from the first no-hitter in Series history. When the Dodgers
got two runners on with walks, their fate was left to a
34-year-old journeyman pinch hitter named Cookie Lavagetto. Here
was the very essence of the national pastime: two very ordinary
Americans playing at history. Lavagetto doubled off the
rightfield wall to drive in two runs. Brooklyn won 3-2. Of
course, the Yankees won the Series anyway, and nine years later
another Yankee righthander, Don Larsen, would throw the first
Series no-hitter...against the Dodgers.
JULY 5, 1980
John McEnroe 18, Bjorn Borg 16
The 13th game of the fourth set of the '80 Wimbledon final was
the most excruciatingly sustained display of brilliance ever
seen on a tennis court. McEnroe survived five championship
points, while Borg escaped seven set points before he muffed a
drop volley off a wicked forehand return of serve. It was almost
the only bad shot in the 22-minute tiebreaker. Incredibly, Borg
regrouped to play almost as flawlessly in the fifth set to win
8-6 for his fifth straight Wimbledon title. Johnny Mac, who had
entered the stadium to boos, a villain, departed to cheers.
JUNE 11, 1997
Bulls 90, Jazz 88
Michael Jordan should have played this one in a cape and tights.
Nauseated and feverish, he lay in a darkened room with a bucket
at the ready until an hour before tipoff. When he wobbled onto
the court for Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Utah, you could almost
see one of those comic-book thought bubbles above his head:
Must...play. Dynasty in danger.... Like a superhero, he rescued
the Bulls, scoring 38 points, including the game-winning
three-pointer, after which he collapsed into the arms of his
OCTOBER 25, 1986
Mets 6, Red Sox 5
Boston was leading the series, three games to two, and were up
5-3 in Game 6. Two outs, bottom of the 10th. The words flashed
briefly across Shea Stadium's message board--CONGRATULATIONS,
RED SOX--and then they were gone. Minutes later, so were the Red
Sox, when an inoffensive squibber off the bat of Mookie Wilson
found the slightest of holes under Bill Buckner's glove at first.
MAY 2, 1917
Reds 1, Cubs 0
Who else but the Cubs could have a pitcher toss nine no-hit
innings...and lose? Such was the fate of poor Hippo Vaughn, who
happened to pitch his best game--doh!--on the same day former
Cub Fred Toney threw 10 no-hit innings for the Reds. Vaughn
cracked in the top of the 10th, when Larry Kopf scored on a
dribbler by Jim Thorpe (yes, that Jim Thorpe). Ah, the Cubs. The
more things change....
DECEMBER 31, 1975
Canadiens 3, Red Army 3
The game showcased two distinct systems: not capitalism versus
communism, but the determined, linear play of a Montreal team on
the cusp of a dynasty versus the swooping, circular style of the
Soviets--the one now prevalent in the NHL. The Canadiens outshot
the Red Army 38-13, but Boris Aleksandrov beat Montreal goalie
Ken Dryden on a three-on-one late in the third period to secure
the tie. After the game Montreal defenseman Serge Savard said,
"God was Russian tonight."
NOVEMBER 1, 1913
Notre Dame 35, Army 13
Of all the echoes bouncing around South Bend, this one
reverberates loudest. It wasn't just that the unknown Irish
whipped the undefeated Cadet juggernaut, it was how they did
it--with what had heretofore been a gimmick, the forward pass.
Notre Dame's Gus Dorais went 14 for 17 for 243 yards and two
touchdowns. One went to halfback Joe Pliska, the other to Knute
Rockne (above). Army was so bewitched, bothered and bewildered
by the aerial antics that it surely didn't even matter that one
of their halfbacks, Dwight David Eisenhower, was out with an
APRIL 1, 1985
Villanova 66, Georgetown 64
The greatest shooting display in Final Four history enabled
lightly regarded Villanova to humble Patrick Ewing and the
top-ranked Hoyas; they shot 78.6% from the field and refused to
be intimidated by the roughhousing Hoyas. Ewing, unable to
accept that he had been outplayed by Ed Pinckney and beaten by a
team that had lost 10 regular-season games, thrust his finger in
the air at the awards ceremony. "I still think we're Number 1,"
JANUARY 11, 1987
Broncos 23, Browns 20 (OT)
Cleveland led Denver 20-13 in the AFC Championship game with
just over five minutes left. Broncos ball at their own two. John
Elway did it all--even converting a third-and-18--on the way to
the tying touchdown. The field goal in overtime was merely a
JUNE 4, 1976
Celtics 128, Suns 126 (3 OT)
Game 5, NBA Finals, second overtime. The Celtics think they've
won on John Havlicek's runner at :01. Clock runs out. Fans run
onto Boston Garden floor. Fan punches referee Richie Powers.
Powers staggers to feet, clears floor, puts one second back on
clock. Suns get ball at halfcourt. Garfield Heard hits 22-foot
turnaround. Whew! On to the third OT....
JANUARY 12, 1969
Jets 16, Colts 7
Despite being a 17-point underdog, Joe Namath predicts victory,
then backs it up with an MVP performance that shocks the world.
Baltimore's only score is engineered by ailing idol Johnny
Unitas. By game's end Unitas's crewcut has been replaced in the
national consciousness by Broadway Joe's long locks.
OCTOBER 21, 1975
Red Sox 7, Reds 6
Even the casual fan remembers Carlton Fisk's 12th-inning,
body-English homer off the foul pole to win Game 6 of the '75
Series. The Red Sox fan, alas, also remembers Cincinnati's 4-3
victory the next day to win the Series.
DECEMBER 8, 1961
Lakers 151, Warriors 147 (3 OT)
Wilt Chamberlain's career can be encapsulated in this game. He
scored a then record 78 points but lost, thereby enhancing the
reputation of his rival--in this case Lakers forward Elgin
Baylor, who scored 63.
JULY 16-17, 1972
Bobby Fischer 1, Boris Spassky 0
The eccentric Fischer met the dour champion, Spassky, for the
chess world championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. The capitalist
rook made a bold early move in Game 3--his knight to the edge of
the board--that confounded the Communist pawn. The eventual win,
Fischer's first, spurred him to a victory in the series.
MARCH 28, 1992
Duke 104, Kentucky 103 (OT)
With two ticks on the clock Duke's Grant Hill inbounded the ball
from the far baseline. Christian Laettner leaped high for the
catch, then nailed a 16-foot turnaround jumper for the win. Duke
coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward, "Did that really happen?"
NOVEMBER 20, 1982
Cal 25, Stanford 20
Cal's down 20-19, four seconds left. Kevin Moen picks up
Stanford's squib kick and pitches to Richard Rodgers...who
laterals to Dwight Garner, who pitches back to Rodgers...back to
Mariet Ford...the Stanford band marches onto the field!...Ford's
toss is caught by Moen, who goes into the end zone, where he
slams into a Stanford trombonist...and puts the Bears up 25-20.
There is no extra point.