Sports leapt onto the front pages in 1997, provided fodder for profound pontifications on race, violence and kinky sex, and gave Jay Leno and David Letterman a year’s worth of one-liners.
Eras ended and started. Moments were transcendent - utterly sublime, utterly vulgar, utterly idiotic. And some victories crossed the threshold from sensational to seminal.
For four days at the Masters in April, Tiger Woods transfixed the nation. His 12-stroke triumph had an airy, feel-good quality that elevated it above IMPORTANT, made it something people wanted to witness and share even if they despised golf.
His victory, in so many ways monumental, was voted the Associated Press Sports Story of the Year.
There was the socially historic element, Woods becoming the first non-white to win the Masters, an event that symbolizes more than all others the game’s racial polarity. And it happened, neatly enough, the same week as the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut for the Dodgers.
There was the business side of it, the 21-year-old Woods with his youth and cute smile and cuddly name attracting a new demographic of fans and players; Woods as the wholesome Pied Piper pop star, followed by black kids, white kids, boys and girls, the future of the game. Maybe.
But most of all there was the sports side of Woods’ strolls around Augusta National, the view of an athlete in complete command, playing his game the way Michael Jordan shoots hoops and the way Carl Lewis ran in his prime. It was a thrill to savor, made all the more poignant at the end by his tearful embrace of his father.
Yet, what would a year be without a villain? And who better to play that role than Mike Tyson?
Tyson’s bite of the century and the way he spat a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear on the canvas had to be one of the most disgusting acts in sports history. It was so disgusting people watched it over and over on television and couldn’t stop talking about it.
And, of course, there was Marv Albert. His love bites and the image of him frolicking in pink panties lingers in the public consciousness as a reminder not to take anyone in the sports business too seriously.
Vulgarity and violence have long been hot themes in sports. Tyson elevated the debate to savagery. Albert lowered the bar on humiliation. Early in December, Latrell Sprewell broadened the discussion by choking and threatening to kill Golden State coach P.J. Carlesimo for suggesting that he pass better in practice. At least Sprewell didn’t leave teeth marks.
Johnnie Cochran Jr., no longer defending O.J. Simpson and now trying to wedge into the Jerry Maguire world of morally driven agents, popped up beside Sprewell carrying the race card in his back pocket. Charles Barkley briefly floated the idea of a player boycott over Sprewell’s one-year ban. Big Labor, in the form of the NBA Players Association, voiced outrage. And all manner of pundits dutifully weighed in on the social significance of the whole thing, finding perhaps more than was really there.
Of everyone involved, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown distinguished himself with this observation: “Maybe the coach deserved choking.”
Sometimes, as the white guy’s girlfriend in “White Men Can’t Jump” noted, you really lose when you win. Sprewell won the fight, lost his job and had 25 million reasons to be sorry, regrets he expressed so earnestly in a nationally televised, smoothly orchestrated news conference.
Arizona State lost when it won by shaving points, an admission that might once have shaken up the sports world but in these jaded and corrupt times barely registered on the outrage meter.
But the prize for losing while winning this year has to go to the Florida Marlins. They spent $89 million to win the World Series faster than any team in history, just five years, then held a fire sale. By owner Wayne Huizenga’s reckoning, the Marlins lost $34 million.
That footnote aside, baseball nudged closer to recovering from the 1994 strike by staging a season of milestones and memorable performances.
Mark McGwire hit 58 homers, Ken Griffey notched 56, Roger Clemens won a fourth Cy Young Award, and Tony Gwynn tied Honus Wagner by winning an eighth N.L. batting title.
As far as eras went, the Marlins’ ended with the first trades in November. The Dean Smith era at North Carolina, the Eddie Robinson era at Grambling and the Tom Osborne era at Nebraska ended after much, much longer runs. Those three leaders had in common a devotion to their players as fierce as their drive to win, and they left legacies that will not soon be surpassed.
They’re all retiring in financial comfort, though nowhere near as wealthy as many young coaches who have won much less. Rick Pitino, Larry Brown and rookie coach Larry Bird hit the NBA jackpot in this age of boundless, TV-inflated salaries.
Yet, even they were poor relations to players like 21-year-old Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He turned down a $100 million contract to sign a deal for $126 million.
If some athletes and some events seemed out of control, there was at least something warm and fuzzy and right about the Green Bay Packers winning the Lombardi Trophy at the Super Bowl; Michael Jordan taking the Chicago Bulls to a fifth NBA title; Pete Sampras adding two more Grand Slam trophies to his sterling collection; and Martina Hingis having an outstanding year.
There was something nice about the rise of the baby champs, from Hingis to petite skater Tara Lipinksi, and the emergence of Venus Williams in all her red, white and blue-beaded glory.
Trouble was, those were just sports stories. No scandals, no big issues.
No doubt the next great sports story is out there waiting to take over our lives. Then again, as Leno said, if it turns out that John Madden wears lacy lingerie, maybe we really don’t want to know.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Story of the year voting Story Pts Tiger Woods wins Masters 987 Tyson bites Holyfield 759 Marlins win Series-team dismantled 585 Dean Smith retires 526.5 Packers win Super Bowl 478 Red Wings win Cup; players hurt 402 Bulls win fifth championship 384 McGwire and Griffey chase Maris 316 Interleague Play 311 Marv Albert sex scandal 298 Eddie Robinson retires 152 Sprewell attacks Carlesimo 147 Parcells leaves Patriots-improves Jets 111 Martina Hingis wins three majors 100.5 Jeff Gordon wins Winston Cup title 94 The ABL grows, WNBA is launched 90 Arizona wins NCAA Tournament 73 Baseball signs collective bargaining pact 71 Brewers move to NL 67 Fuzzy Zoeller makes racist comments 61