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The Greek Olympic basketball team, en route to Atlanta, was nearly put off the plane when every player insisted on lighting up a cigarette. Later, the reckoning: U.S.A. 128, Greece 62.

Dodgers stalwart Brett Butler was diagnosed with throat cancer, and on May 26 ex-Dodger Mike Sharperson was killed in a car accident--while en route to the airport after being called up from Las Vegas to the San Diego parent club. Longtime Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen died--before he could witness the Bombers' astonishing four-straight comeback against the Braves in the scintillating 1996 World Series.

Meanwhile, your Colorado Rockies--still a sellout every game!--had baseball's best record at home and its worst on the road, en route to a slumbering third-place finish in the National League West. But, hey: For the first time since 1929, four N.L. teammates--Burks, Galarraga, Bichette and Castilla--had 100-plus RBI each, and the club finally unloaded an overpriced, badly damaged albatross named Bret Saberhagen to the Boston Red Sox. Is the Rockies' honeymoon finally over? Ask the fans, and the overworked pitching staff, come this August.

At least they'll play in August. After voting down a long-overdue labor contract hammered out by their own negotiator, baseball owners finally turned the gun on the sternest of their own, the White Sox's Jerry Reinsdorf--who had the nerve to sign up Cleveland slugger Albert Belle for $50 million.

Why can't we seem to get away from the bad news? At Boston College, thirteen football players were suspended for gambling: Two of them bet against their own side in the Syracuse game. Two dozen coaches, including Notre Dame's Lou Holtz and Alabama's Gene Stallings, hit the highway. Half of Nebraska's team was down at the police station.

After a nasty corporate tiff that split Indy car racing right down the middle, there were suddenly two races on Memorial Day--the Indianapolis 500 and the competing Michigan 500. Vail's own Buddy Lazier won the former. Pole-sitter Scott Brayton never got the chance: He was killed in practice on May 17. In July rookie driver Jeff Krisnoff and a course worker, Gary Avrin, lost their lives in Toronto.

Once again, Colorado's Buffs couldn't beat the Cornhuskers--although Arizona State and Texas did. And after a superb season witnessed by too few fans in Laramie, Wyoming, coach Joe Tiller took off for Purdue. Aussie Greg Norman blew a six-shot lead in the final round of the Masters. And don't forget that bomb thing down at the Olympics.

Enough. On the bright side, Kentucky beat Syracuse in NCAA men's hoops, Dale Jarrett again won the Daytona 500 while his proud dad, TV color man Ned Jarrett, made the call on the tube. Damon Hill, son of legendary driver Graham Hill, won his first Formula One crown, and the greatest to ever lace up sneakers, Michael Jordan, led the Chicago Bulls to another NBA title, against Seattle. In Frostproof, Florida, a high-school running back named Travis Henry racked up 4,087 yards--in one season. And Gabe Lane, the brave, slightly retarded kid who wanted to play a little high-school football in Greeley, finally got into a game after state bureaucrats saw the light. Across town, the homegrown University of Northern Colorado Bears won the NCAA Division II National Football Championship.

There's more. Tiger Woods--young, gifted and black--gave a shot in the arm to golf, and became an instant role model, by turning pro. At Wimbledon, Malivai Washington became tennis's first African-American Grand Slam finalist since Arthur Ashe. Perky swimmer Amy Van Dyken, Denver's own, won four gold medals in Atlanta, and U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson scored a rare double in the 200 and 400 meters.

And then there was Cigar. The finest racehorse of his time--perhaps of all time--continued his amazing global winning streak in 1996 with victories in the Donn Handicap and the $4 million Dubai Cup. On July 13 he equaled the great Citation's record of sixteen consecutive wins at Chicago's Arlington Park. That he was plumb tuckered out and couldn't hold up in the Pacific Classic and the Breeders' Cup Classic came as no surprise: Carrying $10 million to the bank is hard work.

So is just being Ricks Natural Star. A $3,500 claiming horse from New Mexico who hadn't run in almost two years (or won in four), he was nominated last fall to the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf. That gave hope to underdogs everywhere. And when a pair of European champions scratched out of the big race at Woodbine, the peasant actually got to run with royalty, much to the delight of his owner, a feisty veterinarian named William Livingston.

Where did Ricks Natural Star finish? Hmmm. Let's not spoil the story in this, the holiday season, as the year draws to a close.

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