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Monday, March 3, 2003
Updated: April 30, 11:06 AM ET
The List: Basketball shockers

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Basketball, especially in the past two decades, has had more than its share of tragic moments. They've shocked and saddened us. Magic's announcement, which tops this list, transcended basketball and touched the entire country in ways that still reverberate.

When we talk about a sport's "shocking" moments, we prefer to discuss what happens on the field, or on the court, or on the ice. The upsets, the thrillers, the incredible come-from-behind wins, the Cinderella stories. Basketball has had plenty of those, and as we move into March Madness and then, in May and June, the NBA playoffs, wešll be rolling out some of the sport's bests, worsts, and firsts.

Magic Johnson
Magic's retirement 11 years ago shocked the world.
1. Magic announces he has AIDS
On Nov. 7, 1991, Magic Johnson held a press conference in L.A. First of all, let me say good after good late afternoon, he began. Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers.

The Magic smile, the Magic who instantly made life better when he came to play, had been taken away from the sports world. We didn't know what would happen next. We didn't know. We heard "AIDS," and most of us were pretty sure that Magic would whither and be dead within a few years. That's how it happened.

People were saying they'd remember forever where they were when they heard the news. Just like people did when they heard about JFK.

Wrote Jim Reeves in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram:

"AIDS came home to our neighborhood today. Mine and yours."

"It pulled up a chair, sat down in our midst and began shaking hands, as if it belonged there, as if it wasn't wearing the dark hood and death mask of the grim reaper. As if -- and this is the scary part -- it was an old friend, come to pay its respects."

2. 1951 Point shaving scandal
The many instances of point shaving uncovered in 1951 together remain the biggest scandal in college basketball history. The numbers tell some of the story:

  • 35 active and former college players were accused of fixing games.
  • Between 1947 and 1951, at least 86 games were fixed.
  • 20 players were indicted and convicted in the scandal.
  • 14 gamblers were indicted and convicted.
  • The careers and reputations of many players and coaches were ruined.

    In 1999, New York Newsday listed the scandal as the worst event in New York sports history. Worse, even, than the Giants and Dodgers leaving town.

    "That was the last time I really believed in pure idealism," said Maury Allen, a 1953 CCNY graduate. "For these guys to sell out their schools and themselves and their careers for $ 800 was just such an emotional blow. You never really recover from something like that. It is a wound to your psyche for the rest of your life."

    3. Hank Gathers dies during game
    Six minutes and 26 seconds into an early-round WCC tournament game against Portland in 1990, Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount superstar, slammed down a dunk, bringing the home crowd to its feet. Then Gathers turned, headed upcourt, collapsed and went into seizures. Less than two hours later, he was pronounced dead.

    Gathers, 23, had led the NCAA in scoring (32.7 ppg) and rebounds (13.7) his junior season, becoming only the second Division I player to achieve that feat. He was also among the leaders his senior year -- along with his teammate since high school in Philly, Bo Kimble. The two led the most powerful offense in college basketball history.

    Just a few months earlier, Gathers had fainted while standing at the foul line, and was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. After missing a few weeks, he was back in action, taking medication for his condition.

    After Gathers collapsed officials suspended the game, and then the rest of the tournament. Loyola, the regular-season conference winners, went on to the NCAA tourney and made it to the Sweet Sixteen while setting records for most points scored in a tournament game (149, in a win over Michigan) and highest average for the tourney (105.8).

    Gathers planned to eventually become a sportscaster, and worked as an intern at KTLA (Channel 5) in L.A. Ed Arnold, KTLA's sports anchor, struggled to keep his composure when contacted by the L.A. Times after Gathers' death. "You'll have to pardon me," he said. "I'm supposed to talk about this on the air tonight, and I don't know if I'll be able to. Hank Gathers was simply the sweetest, nicest young man I'd ever met."

    Len Bias
    Has anyone ever looked happier than Len Bias on Draft Day 1986?
    4. Len Bias dies of overdose
    two days after NBA draft

    In 1986, the Celtics selected Maryland star Len Bias as the second overall pick in the NBA draft. Two days after, he collapsed in his dorm, and within hours was pronounced dead. Maryland's medical examiner said the 22-year-old had succumbed to cocaine intoxication.

    It's "the cruelest thing I've ever heard," said Larry Bird after hearing the news. The event devastated Landover, MD and D.C. "Bias had never left the embrace of his friends and community and seemed to draw strength from them as his success and fame grew," wrote Ed Bruske and Patrice Gaines-Carter in the Washington Post.

    And the game lost a player who could have been one of the all-time greats. As Mike Wilbon wrote, "See Len Bias play once, love him forever."

    5. Reggie Lewis dies at 27
    Three months after he collapsed in a 1993 playoff game against the Hornets, Lewis, one of the most beloved players in Boston Celtics history, crumbled to the court again, this time while just shooting around.

    He never got up. Reggie Lewis, dead at 27.

    After the 1993 season had ended, a team of prominent cardiologists had diagnosed a serious heart condition. But another cardiologist, Dr. Gilbert Mudge, offered an alternative diagnosis that would allow Lewis to play. The ensuing public dispute, which involved the Celtics, Lewis and his family, doctors, insurance companies, and, of course, fans, centered on a basic question: can this man play basketball without risking his life?

    That question was still hanging in the air just a few weeks before Lewis died on July 27. "He is progressing along perfectly and he is right where he should be," Mudge said earlier in the month. "When he starts playing, we suspect he will be fine. From my point of view, he could not be better." But Lewis had not joined in any of the Celtics unofficial training sessions.

    Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, trying to capture the grief of a city that had seen too much in recent years, wrote, "This wasn't just a case of a generic Athlete Dying Young. This was case of a Very Special Athlete Dying Young. Reggie Lewis was acclaimed and admired not solely because he was obviously very good at what he did, but because of the way he did it. In an age of frightful hype, Reggie was an unintrusive personality who made people like him because he was straightforward and without guile, both on and off the court."

    6. Sprewell chokes
    Some people said they had seen it coming. The Warriors' Latrell Sprewell and head coach P.J. Carlesimo had been at each other for a long time. Sprewell, during a Nov. 9 game against the Lakers, called his coach "a f------ joke" in front of teammates.

    But nobody could recall any player vs. coach incident that matched the violent nature and ferocity of Sprewell's choking and punching attacks on Carlesimo during a practice on Dec. 1.

    Reggie Lewis
    Reggie was a case of a very special athlete dying young.
    "He committed one of the most outrageous acts on the court or field of play that American professional sports in the modern era has known," wrote Phil Taylor in Sports Illustrated.

    Sprewell's one-year suspension from the NBA was by far the longest, and even though five years have passed, it's almost impossible think about Spree without recalling what happened that December day.

    7. The Punch
    When the face of Rudy Tomjanovich collided with the roundhouse fist of Kermit Washington during a Rockets - Lakers game on Dec. 9, 1977, the lights went out. "It sounded something like a watermelon being dropped on a concrete floor,'' said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was involved in the melee that preceded the punch. It was "the hardest punch in the history of mankind," said Lakers assistant coach Jack McCloskey. "I thought Rudy was dead," Don Chaney, Washingtonšs teammate, recalled 25 years later. "It was very scary."

    "The next thing I remember was lying on the floor," Tomjanovich later testified. "There was a buzzing in my ears. I remember thinking that the scoreboard must have fallen on me."

    It may as well have. Rudy T had a broken nose, a broken jaw, a fractured skull, and was leaking spinal fluid. Tomjanovich was told he might not survive. He did, after reconstructive surgery, but missed the rest of the season. Washington served a 60-day suspension.

    Washington, the prototypical 1970s power forward, was almost immediately traded to Boston, and he became "Public enemy number one," as he himself put it. "It was scary and nerve wracking."

    Decades later, the incident still puzzled Washington, who said he acted out of instinct. "Rudy was just a blur. Why did he have to run at me? I felt like I was walking out to my car and somebody tried to mug me. I couldn't sleep for the longest time."

    A ground-breaking trial followed and Tomjanovich eventually received several million dollars in a settlement with the Lakers. After a few more years as a player -- in Boston, San Diego, Portland, and finally a last-ditch comeback attempt with Golden State, Washington, though eventually forgiven by Tomjanovich, was virtually blackballed from the NBA.

    8. Wilt scores and scores and scores
    Maybe "shocking" isnšt the right word to describe Wilt's revelations about his sex life in "A View from Above," his 1991 autobiography. "Sensational" is a good word. It works in a couple of ways. "Perplexing" also works. As in, was it really possible?

    Wilt Chamberlain
    Hmm ... 100 what, Wilt?
    "If I had to count my sexual encounters I would be closing in on twenty thousand different ladies," Chamberlain wrote. "At my age (fifty something), that equals out to having sex with 1.2 women a day, every day, since I was 15 years old."

    Of course, even Wilt had to take days (and nights) off. So he made up for it at other times: one week, on "vacation" in Hawaii, he bedded 30 women. At one birthday party, attendance 16, there were 15 women, and one Wilt. "I got all but one before the rising of the sun. I wasn't able to enjoy the 15th birthday girl, but I did muster enough strength to sing her Happy Birthday.'"

    There were plenty of good late-night talk show jokes, sure. But Chamberlain's revelation came at a particularly bad time, as Magic Johnson would announce a few months later that he had AIDS. Johnson also openly admits his promiscuous behavior.

    "I felt more pity than sorrow for Wilt as his macho accounting backfired on him in the form of a wave of public criticism," wrote Arthur Ashe in "Days of Grace," his 1993 memoir. "African Americans have spent decades denying that we are sexual primitives by nature, as racists have argued since the days of slavery. These two college-trained black men of international fame and immense personal wealth do their best to reinforce the stereotype."

    9. U.S. men "lose" in Munich
    Here's some of the play-by-play call of the last few seconds of the 1972 Olympic finals, beginning right after Doug Collins sunk two free throws with three seconds remaining to put the U.S. ahead, 50-49:

    Doug Collins has perhaps won the game. Bedlam has taken over here at the basketball hall. There's one second showing on the clock. Everybody trying to calm everybody else down. And it would appear ... Now you have me totally confused ... We'll have to speculate ... It's all over! Wow, what a finish the United States winning ... people are going crazy. The United States wins it, 50-49 ... Now wešre being told that the scoreboard is not correct. And theyšre running the clock down. The horn has sounded, but apparently they're going to run the clock down to three seconds. Well, confusion reigns ... Now the clock shows three seconds ... Aleksandr Belov! Between two American defenders ... and the Russian team has mobbed Aleksandr Belov! Now it really is over! That looks like the final score although there is a big rhubarb going on in front of the scorekeepers table ..."

    Shocking? Let's just say that it is still literally unbelievable that the Soviets won.

    10. Chaminade tops Virginia in the "upset of the century"
    On Dec. 23, 1982, Chaminade, a Honolulu college with a student body of 800, defeated No. 1 ranked Virginia -- complete with the nationšs best player, Ralph Sampson -- 77-72.

    How big of an upset was it? So big that most news outlets didnšt run the story without an unusual amount of scrutiny for a straightforward game report.

    "We were dumbfounded," said the late Tom Mees, who sat at ESPN's SportsCenter desk when the news came over the wire. "Nobody had heard of Chaminade then. I asked them to double-check it." With the broadcast near an end, Mees explained, "Usually I would bolt for the door to go home and get some sleep, but that night I went back upstairs and called someone in Honolulu. If I was going to read something this momentous to the country, I wanted to at least make sure I'd been right."

    The score was right. Only 3,383 fans were on hand to witness the event in Honolulušs Blaisdell Arena. There have been more important upsets, of course, but none as unlikely as this one. Said Chaminadešs part-time head coach, Merv Lopes, "It was like a girls park league team playing a men's varsity team."

    New York Times columnist Dave Anderson called it "one of the most astonishing upsets in college sports."

    Just 12 days before, Virginia had defeated Georgetown and Patrick Ewing. Said Virginia guard Rick Carlisle, "We went from the game of the decade to the upset of the century."

    Also Receiving Votes

  • Maurice Stokes career comes to an early, tragic end
  • Pete Maravich dies at 40 of heart attack while playing pickup ball
  • Dennis Rodman cross-dresses, marries self
  • Dennis Rodman kicks courtside cameraman for no reason at all
  • Marv Albert puts on lingerie, scratches, pleads guilty, says he innocent
  • Chris Webber calls time-out
  • Oshkosh player Frank Andresko dribbles overinflated basketball, which explodes and hurls him into gym wall (1929)