by Paul Knepper
Ever see footage or hear a sports fan waxing poetic about a classic sporting event and find yourself wishing you could have been there in person, taking in the sights and sounds, riding the emotions of the crowd? Suspend belief with me for a moment and assume you could travel space and time to sit in the stands for any legendary contest or remarkable individual achievement. Which event would you choose? Here’s my list of the top 20 sporting events I wish I had attended.
20) The Ball Goes Through Buckner’s Legs
It wasn’t just the Buckner play that made the game so fantastic. People forget that the Mets rallied from two runs down, with two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the tenth inning, an elimination game for them, before Mookie Wilson’s grounder rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs. Shea Stadium was rocking.
19) Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals
League MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went down with an ankle injury in Game 5 and though the Lakers went on to win the game and take a 3-2 lead over the 76ers, the situation looked bleak without their captain. Magic Johnson was just a 20-year-old rookie, but he was fearless. The point guard started at center for the Lakers in Game 6 and erupted for 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists.
18) Don Larsen’s Perfect Game
You know the quiet tension in a stadium when a pitcher is working on a no-hitter late in a game? Imagine the final innings of a perfect game in Game 5 of the World Series between crosstown rivals the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers. The man affectionately known as Gooney Bird remains the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the World Series, never mind a perfect game.
17) Brazil Wins Its Third Consecutive World Cup
Brazil’s defeat of Italy in the 1970 World Cup Final in Mexico may have been the pinnacle of the greatest soccer team ever assembled. Pele, Clodoaldo, Rivelino and Tostao played with a fluidity and improvisation that was beautiful to watch. The highlight of the game was Carlos Alberto’s “wonder goal,” considered by some historians to be the greatest goal ever.
16) Connors Outlasts Krickstein
The way that Jimmy Connors and the crowd fed off of each others energy during his remarkable run to the 1991 U.S. Open Semi-finals was simply magical. I could have picked the 39-year-old Connors first round comeback against Patrick McEnroe or his epic battle against Paul Haarhuis, but his marathon victory over Aaron Krickstein in a fifth-set tie-breaker was the most unlikely and impressive of the bunch.
15) Louis Knocks Out Schmeling
Joe Louis lost his first bout with Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1936, but two years later he avenged the loss with a first round knockout in Yankee Stadium. The fight lasted just two minutes and four seconds, but the Brown Bomber’s knockout was a blow to the theory of Aryan superiority and invoked a sense of pride in Americans of all colors.
14) Wilt Scores 100
The date was March 2, 1962. The incomparable Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors scored an even 100 points against the New York Knicks. That’s without the benefit of a three point line. It’s considered among the most dominant performances in any sport.
13) Jackie Robinson Breaks the Color Barrier
I would love to have been in attendance when Jackie took the field for the first time as a Brooklyn Dodger, preferably sitting among the 14,ooo black fans who attended the game at Ebbets Field. The game itself was unremarkable, but the demise of the color barrier was an historic moment for baseball and our nation.
12) The Rumble in the Jungle
George Foreman had won the Heavyweight belt by pummeling Joe Frazier and was a heavy favorite when he stepped into the ring against Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire on October 30, 1974. Foreman went on the attack and appeared to be winning the fight, but Ali tired him out using the now famous rope-a-dope and chopped the champion down in the eight round, to the delight of the African crowd.
11) The Shot Heard Round the World
“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” There’s nothing like the animosity that comes with an intra-city rivalry, especially when the teams are in the same division. The National League pennant came down to the final day of the season between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants and Bobby Thompson’s home run off Ralph Branca capped off one of the greatest baseball games ever played.
10) Secretariat Moving Like a Tremendous Machine
I’m not a horse racing fan, but when I hear sports fans talk about Secretariat with such awe and reverence it makes me wish I was there to see the Thoroughbred cap off the Triple Crown in dazzling fashion at the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
9) Hank Aaron Becomes the All-Time Home Run King
The record has since been sullied by Barry Bonds, but at one time, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs was the most esteemed record in sports. Aaron endured unspeakable racism with remarkable grace in pursuit of the milestone and on April 8, 1974 his resilience paid off when he smacked number 715 off of Dodgers pitcher Al Downing.
8) Namath Backs Up His Guarantee
A few years after the NFL-AFL merger most Americans didn’t take the AFL seriously. The Jets were 18-point underdogs to the Baltimore Colts heading into Super Bowl III. Three days before the big game, Broadway Joe Namath proclaimed, “We’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it.” Then he backed it up winning the MVP Award for the Jets 16-7 victory.
7) The Willis Reed Game
I must disclose that I’m a die hard Knicks fan and there’s nothing I would rather see than the Knicks win a championship. Add in the hysteria that overtook Madison Square Garden when an injured Willis Reed walked out of that tunnel in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals and I would have been in a state of bliss. Reed provided the inspiration, but Walt Frazier paced the Knicks past the Lakers with 36 points, 19 assists, seven rebounds and five steals.
6) Nadal and Federer’s Epic Battle at Wimbledon
The 2009 Wimbledon Final was an epic battle between two of the All-Time champions at the height of their powers on the grandest stage in the sport. Federer was playing for a record sixth straight Wimbledon title and fought desperately to keep his crown, but ultimately Nadal broke through at the All England Club in a five-set thriller considered by many to be the greatest tennis ever played.
5) Jesse Owens Outruns Fascism
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin was supposed to be Hitler’s platform to showcase the superiority of the Aryan race. I wish I could have been sitting in old Adolph’s box and seen look on his face as African-American Jesse Owens ran circles around the Germans on his way to four gold medals in track and field.
4) The Thrilla in Manilla
The third installment of the celebrated trilogy between Ali and Frazier may have been the most devastating. In the later rounds Frazier’s eyes had swollen shut and he could no longer see Ali’s punches coming. His trainer Eddie Futch stopped the fight after the 14th round against his fighter’s wishes. Unknown to Frazier’s corner, Ali had walked backed to his own corner after the 14th and instructed Dundee to cut his gloves off. Ali later said it was the closest he had ever come to death.
3) The Miracle on Ice
America was reeling in the winter of 1980. The specter of Watergate still hung of the country, the Iran hostage crisis was fresh in peoples minds, Cold War rhetoric was escalating and the economy was in the toilet. That backdrop led to an outpouring of patriotism when the U.S. hockey team miraculously defeated Cold War foe, the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Games. That it occurred on American soil in Lake Placid, New York was the icing on the cake.
2) Game 6 of the 1996 World Series
Nobody will argue that it was the greatest game ever played, but as a 19-year-old Yankee fan I had never seen my Yankees win the World Series. To this day watching Charlie Hayes secure that final out remains one of the happiest moments of my life. I would have given anything to have been in Yankee Stadium that night trotting around the outfield on a horse alongside Wade Boggs.
1) The Fight of the Century
It was the most anticipated sporting event of the 20th century and did not disappoint. Ali’s title was vacated four years earlier when he refused induction into the U.S. Army and Frazier was the current champ. Both were undefeated. The contest was framed as a battle of ideologies because of Ali’s stance on the Vietnam War and he upped the ante with his relentless trash talking. Frazier broke Ali’s jaw and knocked him down in the 15th round on his way to victory by decision. After the fight Frazier was reportedly close to death and spent several days in the hospital. And he was the winner.
1982 NCAA Tournament Final between Georgetown and UNC
Gibson Wins Game 1 of the 1988 World Series
Flutie’s Hail Mary against Miami
The “Hand of God” game in the 1986 World Cup
Borg vs. McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon Final
Reggie Jackson hitting home runs on three consecutive pitches in Game 6 of the 1977 series.
The Immaculate Reception
Hagler vs. Hearns
Christian Laettner’s game winner against Kentucky
Cal-Stanford football game – “The Band is on the Field”
Jordan drops 55 on the Knicks after coming out of retirement