A Sporting Chance

Colorado sports went on a downhill slide in '99.

Also in January: Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer was ousted after going 7-9, Georgetown hoops coach John Thompson retired after 27 years on the job, and Mike Holmgren, mastermind of the Green Bay Packers' recent Super Bowl runs, moved on to the Seattle Seahawks -- another headache for Broncos fans.

Meanwhile, none but the most fervent basketball junkies seemed to give a hoop last January when a lockout threatened the entire NBA season. As it happened, the players' union caved, the tall guys played a fifty-game slate and, without much ceremony, the San Antonio Spurs won the first championship of the post-Jordan era. Quick now: Who did the Spurs take out in the finals? If you answered "New York Knicks," you are a fan of no mean stature and win a pair of size-sixteen Nikes.

The more compelling basketball story of last winter -- at least in these parts -- was the unprecedented rise of the CSU women's team, led by a pair of brilliant seniors, Becky Hammon and Katie Cronin. By the time March Madness rolled around, the twice-beaten Rams were ranked behind only Purdue, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, and the sharpshooting Hammon had broken Keith Van Horn's Western Athletic Conference scoring record. Alas, Tom Collen's troops fell in the NCAA Tournament to UCLA, 77-68, bringing to an end the best season ever (33-3) by a Colorado collegiate basketball team.

Less noticed: The unsung Metropolitan State Roadrunners got all the way to the NCAA Division II title game before Kentucky Wesleyan knocked them out of the hunt.

A hoopster of another sort, the cross-dressing, coiffure-obsessed defensive specialist Dennis Rodman, left the dismantled Chicago Bulls for the Los Angeles Lakers. Seven weeks later The Worm was fired, having shown up late for practices, misplaced his socks and sneakers and inflicted upon teammates the ongoing soap opera of his marriage to someone who calls herself Carmen Electra.

On March 8, the great DiMaggio died after working extra innings against cancer. Ever graceful in the outfield and beautifully tailored in the saloon, the Yankee Clipper set one record that will never be broken -- the 56-game hitting streak of 1941. But baseball aficionados love him for another set of numbers: He hit 361 home runs in his career while striking out only 369 times. Club management couldn't get Joltin' Joe's bronze plaque erected in Yankee Stadium's monument park fast enough. He joined select company: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Miller Huggins.

The 1999 baseball season would eventually belong to the Yankees, who won their 25th championship of the waning twentieth century. But first it would belong to Yankee ace David Cone, who pitched a no-hitter. And it would belong to the almighty Home Run. This year, the Cubs' Sammy Sosa and the Cards' Mark McGwire resumed the assault on the record book they started so memorably in 1998, and on one astounding Friday night, McGwire teammate Fernando Tatis did something no major-leaguer had ever done: He hit two grand-slam home runs (eight RBI!) in one inning, both of them off unfortunate Los Angeles pitcher Chan Ho Park. In July, the national pastime belonged to three sublime Hall of Fame inductees -- Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount.

Here in Denver, the game fell on hard times, and those inflated Coors Field attendance claims began to look a little phony as the season and the fans slipped away. The Rockies' new skipper, World Series winner Jim Leyland, found managing (and losing, losing, losing) at altitude so unnerving that he took to sleeping on a cot in his office at the ballpark. Then he quit. The Rox's last-place season in a nutshell? On May 19, the Cincinnati Reds knocked out 28 hits at Coors Field and defeated the locals 24-12.

The 2000 edition of the club, under new manager Buddy Bell and new general manager Dealin' Dan O'Dowd, will feature at least seventeen new players, and the Blake Street Bombers are no more. Andres Galarraga sat out the season in Atlanta with cancer, left-fielder Dante Bichette is now a Red, and third-sacker Vinny Castilla has gone to Tampa. That leaves two-time league batting champ Larry Walker to carry all the water.

On April 20 and in the weeks that followed, no mere sport was worthy of our attention. Once disaffected Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on their classmates, then themselves, the life and culture of an entire city were profoundly changed. In token of the massacre, which took fifteen lives, the Rockies postponed two home games against the Expos, the Avs delayed their playoff series against San Jose, and the Nuggets canceled a home game. In the stunned aftermath, all Denver pro teams affixed commemorative patches to their 1999 uniforms.

Those looking for scant comfort in the face of tragedy at last had this: On December 4, the Columbine Rebels beat favored Cherry Creek 21-14 to win the state 5A football championship. Fittingly, the winning players gave the trophy to Adam Kechter, the thirteen-year-old brother of slain Columbine player Matt Kechter.

Still, life went on after April 20 because it had to. The feel-good stories of the summer included American Lance Armstrong's victory in the Tour de France (he'd come back from testicular cancer) and the U.S. women's soccer team's thrilling World Cup win -- via a nail-biting shootout against China before 91,000 fans at the Rose Bowl. Superstar Mia Hamm and a few other players were already major heroes to thousands of little girls who play soccer, but the World Cup win represented nothing less than a milestone in the history of women's sports. When Brandi Chastain, who scored the winning goal, tore off her jersey in ecstasy, the manufacturers of Nike sports bras were the immediate beneficiaries, but the long-term effects of the victory could be felt for years to come. First priority: an American professional league for women.

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