Above all, 1996 was the year Denver wore the Scarlet Letter--that big red "A" at once symbolizing the city's first professional sports championship and its shameless dalliance with the new kid in town. All hail immediate gratification: Marc Crawford's beautifully coached, deeply talented Colorado Avalanche had scarcely forgotten the taste of onion soup back home in Quebec when it handed the Mile High City a Stanley Cup in its debut year on local ice. The key to the mint in the Avs' 4-0 sweep of the Florida Panthers? L'homme with two first names (Patrick and Whaaaa) but only one identity (impenetrable).

So guess what? Two minutes after the club hoisted the storied trophy aloft, local yuppie hockey experts who only last year didn't know a puck from a duck started shouting "dynasty." Reportedly, 400,000 souls (some of them still baffled at the speed of it all) turned out to cheer at the Avs' downtown victory parade.

No such comic ironies attend the city's other run at destiny. For 37 seasons, the Denver Broncos have been a work in progress, and as the calendar year ends, they remain one: Their season record is 13-3, but only a long-overdue Super Bowl win in New Orleans come January 26 would cast off the old burdens borne by the team and its brilliant, tough, aging quarterback, John Elway. After absorbing four losses in the Big Game over two decades--and jokes you also hear in chilly Buffalo--Denver would, with justification, be even happier to drape itself in winning orange and blue on Super Bowl night than it was to wear the "A" last spring.

Besides, the cops are getting pretty good at working parades.
If there's another one in early February, Pat Bowlen will probably get better at working his constituents. The Broncos' owner insists that Mile High Stadium is outdated and decrepit (translation: not enough lucrative luxury boxes) and will take his plea for a new ballpark to the people in a fall 1997 referendum. What'll you bet it passes if Elway passes his mates to a win in New Orleans? Ascent Entertainment, which owns both the Avalanche and--let's see here, what is the name of that local basketball team?--also wants new digs. But plans for the Pepsi Center keep going awry despite the owners' rare pledge to pay for the thing themselves. Will Denver's hockey and basketball teams suddenly find themselves banished to the suburbs? Who knows?

In the meantime, NBA evaluators have found the toilets in the locker rooms at McNichols Arena to be substandard. That's probably because they're all clogged up with current Nuggets players. After unloading Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (who was suspended last season for refusing to stand during the national anthem), everyone named Williams and center Dikembe Mutombo (who speaks more languages than he scores points), Bernie Bickerstaff hasn't been able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. So here's the gluepot, Mr. Motta. Knock yourself out.

Now let's get out of town for a minute, shall we?
The 1996 sports year got under way with the resignation of Dolphins coach Don Shula after 43 years on the sidelines; later in the season, his son David was canned by Cincinnati after 43 minutes on the sidelines. The Dallas Cowboys beat Pittsburgh 27-17 in the Super Bowl, then started to self-destruct with free-agent trades and a drug scandal involving star wideout Michael Irvin. Still, don't count the 'Boys out as the Broncs' possible opponent in the Big Easy.

Slugger Dave Winfield (465 home runs, 3,110 hits) retired at 44, before he could play even one game in homer-happy Coors Field, and 49er legend Ronnie Lott hung 'em up. Because of heart problems, Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda had to quit, but antsy second-sacker Ryne Sandberg unretired and returned to the Cubs. For a brief spell there at the end of January, tedious Magic Johnson rejoined the Lakers. Again. Put a thirty on it, willya, pal?

In the wonderful world of boxing, veteran tomato can Tommy Morrison, age 27, tested positive for HIV--sending his last opponent, Lennox Lewis, scurrying to the doctor's office. While leading on points, Andrew Golota was disqualified for low blows in his summer bout with Riddick Bowe, prompting a cold-cocking, chair-throwing melee inside Madison Square Garden that ended with seventeen arrests, forty injuries and the purse being held up. In December, the two fighters met in a rematch. Once again, Golota was leading when he was DQ'd for low blows. Right here in Denver, Peter McNeeley, who once fought Mike Tyson, was knocked cold by a Denver martial-arts practitioner. For his part, Leg-Iron Mike lost his title to lightly regarded ex-champ Evander Holyfield, whose long-shot odds dropped mysteriously from 25-1 to 5-1 the day before the fight. And only last week, fat George Foreman signed to fight ancient Larry Holmes--together they are 94 years old.

Absurdity and tragedy afflicted some other sports, too. Baseball Hall of Fame voters saw fit to induct no one in 1996--leaving worthies Don Sutton, Tony Perez and Phil Niekro on the doorstep for another year, probably forever. Baltimore's Robby Alomar spit in the face of umpire John Hirshbeck. Billionaire lunatic John E. DuPont killed wrestling champion Dave Schultz, throwing the future of American Olympic wrestling into doubt, and on Opening Day in Cincinnati, 325-pound National League umpire John McSherry dropped dead of a heart attack, prompting postponement of the game. Responded meddlesome Reds owner Marge Schott: "I feel cheated." Later in the year, Schott was suspended after her dazzling historical observation that Hitler wasn't really such a bad guy after all.

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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