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.
Sunday School: That wasn't the Comet Hale-Bopp, that was Detroit's amazing Barry Sanders--shredding another defense, winning another NFL rushing title--for a Lions club that rarely makes the playoffs. On his very last carry of the season, the modest star with the faultless balance outflanked the bewildered New York Jets secondary for 53 yards, giving him 2,053 for the regular season, second only to Eric Dickerson's 1984 mark of 2,105. Meanwhile, Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre (3,867 yards passing, 35 touchdowns) seemed destined to be the league's MVP for the third consecutive year; if anything, he's had a better season than in 1995 or 1996, and the Packers look poised for a return trip to the Super Bowl. But for another great QB, Bronco John Elway (3,635 yards, 27 TDs), time is running out: Like his 1983 classmate Dan Marino (3,780, 16), he probably won't get another shot at the big one.
Have You Met Ms. Jones? Except in Olympic summers, American sports fans pay as much attention to track and field as they do to curling or water polo. Unfortunately, the biggest news of the year in this noble and ancient sport came out of a bitter, brag-filled match race between rival sprinters Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey: When the yapping was done, Bailey flashed from the blocks and blasted into the turn; that's where Johnson suddenly (and suspiciously) came up with a pulled hamstring, casting an ugly pall over the affair. Thank Mercury, then, for Marion Jones. A former University of North Carolina point guard, she competed for the first time last summer on the world-class track circuit and simply blew away the competition, winning the Zurich 200 in 21.76, fastest clocking of the year, and coming home from Europe as the 100-meter world champion. The usual irony prevails: Jones remains the finest American athlete no one's ever heard of.
And now...the inevitable goofballs:
On the Ropes: The unholy spectacle of what used to be professional boxing continued apace in 1997, lowlighted by that big chunk of earlobe Leg-Iron Mike removed from Holyfield in Las Vegas. But Tyson wasn't the only miscreant prowling Don's Kingdom. In February, heavyweight Oliver McCall suddenly dropped his gloves and burst into tears in the middle of a bout with Lennox Lewis; his $3 million purse was snatched away. Riddick Bowe made a showboat play to join the U.S. Marine Corps--and promptly washed out of basic training. Sugar Ray Leonard attempted his fourth (and most pathetic) comeback, and Andrew Golota (quickly dubbed "The Foul Pole") was twice disqualified for low blows in bouts against the aforementioned Mr. Bowe. And let's not forget the three blind mice who "judged" the Oscar De La Hoya-Pernell Whitaker fight a De La Hoya rout, or hamburger-fueled George Foreman, whose latest vow is to box once more on his fiftieth birthday and then retire forever.
The bell tolls for thee, fight game.
Bush Leaguers: When Alexander Pope, English poetry's perennial all-star, made his mordant observation about "the right divine of kings to govern wrong," he probably wasn't thinking about baseball's majordomos. But in 1997, why not? While contending in a close divisional race with the Indians, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf dumped three key pitchers onto the market (to pay Michael Jordan's salary?) and washed his hands of the season. Baltimore's Peter Angelos, disgusted that his Orioles didn't get to the World Series, forced out manager Davey Johnson--five minutes before Johnson was named American League manager of the year. In Seattle, GM Woody Woodward cut the phenomenal Jose Cruz Jr. loose for two relievers you've never heard of (Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric), and Wayne Huizenga started dismantling his world-champion Florida Marlins before the ice in the champagne buckets even melted.
The Rockies' Bob Gebhard? In the wake of the Swift/Saberhagen Double Debacle, he traded Craig Counsell (now sporting a championship ring) for Mark Hutton (now looking for work again).
And we thought the players' strike marked baseball's low tide.
Tube Boobs: As television, the world's most influential medium, marches boldly into the 21st century, need we recount the gruesome details of basketball announcer Marv Albert's twin tastes for backbiting and ladies' lingerie? How about self-appointed marriage counselor Frank Gifford's tryst with a woman-who-was-not-his-wife up in that hotel room? Wonder what Kathy Lee put under the tree for ol' Frank this year. And let's not forget ESPN's Gary Miller, who pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct after peeing out of a second-floor window in Cleveland onto the street below.
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Slam Punks: Just for fun last year, all-star hairdresser Dennis Rodman kicked a photographer in the groin and pledged to play his last NBA game in the nude. Shaquille O'Neal blindsided clueless Greg Ostertag, Charles Barkley tossed a drunk through a window, Nick Van Exel shoved a ref into the expensive seats, and Allen Iverson added to his extensive rap sheet. Ex-CU star Michael Westbrook beat the hell out of Washington Redskins teammate Stephen Davis; then his coach, Norv Turner, had the nerve to ask the media not to air the incriminating footage. Last June, the Colorado Silver Bullets, the professional women's baseball team, engaged in the first-ever coed brawl with a men's team. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, troubled running back Lawrence Phillips...oh, forget it.
Some Final Signs That Rome Is Falling: In the middle of the Women's Handball World Championships at Max Schmeling Stadium in Berlin, a drunken German lurched into the stands and fatally stabbed two Danish fans, ages 34 and 39. Father of the Year O.J. Simpson told reporters that his fondest wish in life is "to play golf with my children." Researchers at Pennsylvania State University reported that because athletic scholarships for females are more plentiful and pro sports careers for women are opening up, an increasing number of high-school girls are experimenting with anabolic steroids.
And this: In Elyria, Ohio, golfer Peter McNamara, growing ever more impatient with the slow play of the foursome in front of him, teed off into the group, which included a pregnant woman. Came a confrontation on the fairway, and McNamara punched out the husband of the expectant mother, breaking his nose. After being convicted of assault, McNamara is now practicing his short game in prison--for two years.
My, oh my, what would the late Jackie Robinson think of it all?