And in Closing ...

December 30, 2013

No one cares about great beginnings. The phrase isn't "famous first words," and there's no Birth of a Salesman or First Tango in Paris. Who can forget the first at bat of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series (Pete Rose, flying out to left) or the opening goal of the U.S.-Soviet hockey Olympic semifinal at Lake Placid (Vladimir Krutov, steering one past Jim Craig)? Answer: Everyone, because sports, especially, are all about the end.

Sure, most games just peter out, the way a point guard dribbles out the clock. Every bounce-bounce-bounce is a dot-dot-dot, the game trailing off like a bad book, its last line fading out in an ellipsis....

But games can also end in endlessly entertaining ways: buzzer-beater, empty netter, checkmate, checkered flag, walk-off, knockout, shouts of Bingo! or Uno! or Gin! and the most drama-queen ending of them all: sudden death.

A glorious few run headlong into a wrought-iron fence of exclamation marks: The Giants win the pennant!!!!!!!!!!!!! The Iron Bowl was that game in 2013 (page 36). Auburn kick returner Chris Davis was still sprinting to glory long after the clock showed zeroes, providing the best argument yet for an afterlife: Time has expired, but I have not.

And so the end has become the only must-see moment in sports. My only friend, the end. This has nothing to do with attention spans getting shorter and games getting longer. On the contrary, the Olympic 100-meter dash is the rare spectacle that gets fractionally briefer over time, but our enduring image is always of the final instant: Eight men leaning forward at the finish line as if italicized—likethis.

It doesn't always deliver, but the end always promises a treat, which is why you can arrive late but can never in good conscience leave early. We're conditioned to think of the end as dessert, the dismissal bell, the lollipop on the way out of the doctor's office. On New Year's Eve we count down the end of the year as we count down the end of the game: "Three, two, one....", then confetti. The best sports endings mean a Gatorade shower, a human pig pile, a bicycle ride up the Champs-Élysées, a foil blanket at the marathon finish line, a hug from the wife on the 18th green.

The end is always near, and doesn't always come at the end. Ask those of us who were descending in the Yankee Stadium elevator during the eighth inning of the decisive Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, with the Marlins beating the Yankees 2--0 and Josh Beckett dominating the Bombers. The elevator doors slid open and a hush descended as Yogi Berra stepped on: The man who uttered, "It ain't over till it's over," was acknowledging, with a let's-beat-the-traffic pragmatism, that it had just gotten late early out there.

And good for Yogi. We all have places to be. So much of life (and art and religion) is informed by this awareness of our own mortality. My uncle John Burns went to his eternal rest prepared for multiple overtimes, a pair of Xavier basketball tickets tucked into his suit and a can of Cincinnati's finest low-calorie beer—Hudy Delight—by his side. Uncle John had a hunch that when the fat lady sang, she'd be singing the national anthem, and the game, as it were, would just be tipping off.

Soccer surely has the best ending, because the end isn't really the end at all, thanks to the stoppage time added on after 90 minutes of regulation. And who wouldn't want that at the end of life, a fourth official at your bedside, holding an electronic signboard with a lit 7, indicating seven years tacked-on to compensate for all the time wasting you did in the previous 90?

It is perhaps for the better that most of us don't receive a two-minute warning, don't really see the end coming, even though we know it's looming, a gateway to the great unknown. So we just let it arrive, both expected and yet catching us unaware, like the end of another column, at the end of another magazine, at the end of another year, beyond which lies a mystery.

As another year ends, remember the lessons of Death of a Salesman, Lake Placid and the Iron Bowl: It's not how you start but how you finish.

What's the best sports ending you've seen?

Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)