A Year of Games

First and last, 1997 marked the golden anniversary of Jackie Robinson, hero.
Otherwise, the sublime and the ridiculous kept bumping into each other. Tiger Woods, age 21, chewed up the Masters field by a record twelve strokes, while Mike Tyson chewed on Evander Holyfield's ear. Jeff Gordon dominated the Winston Cup Series, but the most-discussed race driver on the planet was a drunk pointing a loaded Mercedes-Benz at a Paris tunnel. In early 1997, the Lombardi Trophy returned to Lombardi Boulevard. Later, Barry Sanders rushed for 2,053 regular-season yards--fifty more than a runaway named O.J. Simpson. Knuckleballer Phil Niekro went to Cooperstown, Cowboys coach Barry Switzer went to the airport with a gun in his carry-on, and The Bigs went interleague. Down in New Orleans, Mike Ditka went ballistic.

Because there's still justice in the world, our own Larry Walker was named National League MVP. The Florida Marlins, expansion-mates to the Rockies, won the World Series; days later, the owner put his star players on the auction block. The Detroit Red Wings took the Stanley Cup; days later, star Vladimir Konstantinov and two others were gravely injured in the year's second-most notorious car crash.

Ricardo Patton and Chauncey Billups catapulted the lowly Colorado Buffaloes into the NCAA Basketball Tournament for the first time since the Nixon administration, and they promptly beat legend Bobby Knight and Indiana. While Latrell Sprewell strangled his coach, the Denver Nuggets tried to strangle their franchise. Three sports broadcasters got caught with their pants down. Some college coaching giants--North Carolina hoops king Dean Smith, Nebraska footballer Tom Osborne, Grambling grid monument Eddie Robinson and DU baseball's Jack Rose--called it a day. Joe Sakic re-signed with the Avs, and premier Penguin Mario Lemieux skated his last.

It was the best and worst of times, 1997. First, some highlights:
His Airness: In an age dominated by greed and tantrums, Michael Jordan remains the greatest basketball player in history and the model of professional behavior. Amid what is likely his last season, even the NBA's master marketeers are wondering aloud which new star--or which six new stars--can replace his grace on and off the floor. Jordan's greatest recent moment? Last June, in game five of the NBA finals against Utah, No. 23 went into battle with a 103-degree fever and led his Chicago Bulls to a crucial win with 38 points--15 of them in the fourth quarter. He was named the finals MVP for a record fifth time as the Bulls won their fifth title in seven years. We shall not see his like again.

Order on the Court: If there's a sport in sore need of resuscitation, it's pro tennis. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were supposed to pull off that trick, but their rivalry fizzled when newlywed Agassi's game went south. Instead, seventeen-year-old Martina Hingis emerged, winning every major women's title but the French Open, where she suffered from a gimpy knee. But the "Smiling Assassin" is not quite alone in the racquet racket: Venus Williams, also seventeen, comes armed with a 120-mile-per-hour serve and uncommon poise; Anna Kournikova, just sixteen, owns a blistering backhand that got her to the semi-finals at Wimbledon. Are these the kids who will save the game? Maybe.

Walk, Junior and the Rocket: After consecutive seasons in which Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks were dissed by voters because of Coors Field's homer-happy thin air, left-fielder Larry Walker finally won an MVP for the Colorado Rockies--by dominating the National League in every offensive category but RBI and by hitting more dingers on the road than at home. In the American League, it was the same glorious old story: The Mariners' peerless Ken Griffey Jr. batted .304, hit 56 homers (five fewer than Roger Maris's record) and drove in a league-high 147 runs. And let's hear it for the old guy: Traded to the mediocre Toronto Blue Jays, 35-year-old Roger Clemens, supposedly washed up, won 21 games, with an awesome 2.04 earned-run average. He made his old keepers in Boston look like, well, the Bostonians who traded Babe Ruth.

Tiger on the Loose: Young Mr. Woods not only scorched Augusta National (where the members are white and the caddies are black) with a record-setting minus 18, but he was the PGA Tour's leading money winner, thanks to three more tournament wins. He also amassed endorsement deals worth $100 million and literally changed the face of golf: Minority kids now swing seven-irons, exclusionary country clubs are rethinking their policies, and Jack Nicklaus's records are all in jeopardy. But the golf world's stubborn bigotry, subtle and flagrant, still keeps him "on his toes," he says. That's one reason the Tiger stands so tall.

Speed Merchants: On the fierce, fast pavements of big-time stock-car racing, a charismatic 26-year-old with coverboy looks, Jeff Gordon, streaked to an amazing ten wins in his first 25 starts this season, en route to his second Winston Cup driving title. Gordon raced go-carts as a fourth-grader and sprint cars as a teenager; now he's the first man since Darrell Waltrip (1981-82) to win ten races in back-to-back campaigns. Elsewhere in horsepower, thoroughbred racing's economic troubles deepened as Chicago's lavish Arlington Park closed its doors this fall. But a gorgeous three-year-old named Silver Charm warmed the hearts of aging railbirds everywhere: Charm won the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness before coming up a length short (to Touch Gold) in the Belmont Stakes. Thus, the last Triple Crown winner is still Affirmed--way back in 1978.

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