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Monday, May 8, 2006
Great moments, great TV

By Jeff Merron
Page 2

"Everyone has a purpose in life," David Letterman once quipped. "Perhaps yours is watching television." Perhaps. If so, it's been a great (sporting) life.

We've picked 20 of the greatest moments in sports television history. Perhaps others will soon be made -- Barbaro winning the Triple Crown or Steve Nash hitting a dramatic shot to lift the Suns to an NBA title or Albert Pujols hitting his 74th home run of the season (hey, we can dream, can't we?).

Vince Young
Where would you rank Vince Young's game-winning Rose Bowl TD?

For now, we have these 20. We listed them in chronological order -- but we want you to rank them. Click here to rank these 20 moments.

1. Colts win 1958 NFL title game in overtime (Dec. 28, 1958)
The first NFL championship game on national TV and a classic rivalry. The Colts tied the Giants on a last-second field goal. In OT, the Colts drove to the 1-yard line, and Johnny Unitas handed off to Alan Ameche for the winning TD plunge and a 23-17 Colts' win in the Greatest Game Ever Played.

The game was a watershed moment for the NFL, and 64,185 saw it in person at Yankee Stadium. But the game was blacked out in New York. Fans pressing onto the field during the winning drive also caused some technical trouble, loosening a power cable that blanked TV screens for 2 1/2 minutes. NBC was lucky, though -- the clock was stopped during most of that time.

2. Controversial U.S.-U.S.S.R Olympic basketball finish (Sept. 9, 1972)
The U.S. had never lost an Olympic basketball game, and the Soviet Union didn't seem a big threat to break that streak in the 1972 final in Munich.

The game was televised back to the States in prime time, thanks to an 11:45 p.m. start in Munich. The U.S.S.R. led by eight points with six minutes left and looked like it would break the streak when it had a 49-48 lead and the ball with 40 seconds remaining. But the Americans blocked a shot and Doug Collins sank two free throws with three seconds left to put the U.S. up 50-49. The Soviets were then handed three tries to sink the winning bucket, finally succeeding.

The Americans declined their silver medals.

3. Franco Harris catches the Immaculate Reception (Dec. 23, 1972)
It was a play that had to be seen over, and over, and over again to be believed, and thanks to instant replay, a correct call was made on a truly unique play. Terry Bradshaw's pass, intended for Frenchy Fuqua, caromed off Raiders safety Jack Tatum at the 35 and into the waiting hands of Harris, who scooted 42 yards for the winning TD.

Though instant replay wasn't officially part of an NFL ref's tools back in '72, it existed, and it was used to confirm that the ball had hit Tatum, reported the New York Times. Referee Fred Swearingen made his call, then "was summoned to a field telephone by Art McNally, the National Football League's supervisor of officials, who was in the press box. McNally had access to the instant replay on television. 'How do you rule?' McNally asked. 'Touchdown,' replied Swearingen. 'That's right,' said McNally. ... The play was probably a first for football because of the confirmation by television."

4. Secretariat wins Belmont by 31 lengths (June 9, 1973)
The 1-10 favorite put on a stunning show, winning by 31 lengths while breaking the Belmont record by 2 3/5 seconds. Chic Anderson's tremendous call almost equaled Secretariat's run:

"Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine! Secretariat by 12, Secretariat by 14 lengths on the turn! ... Secretariat is all alone! He's out there almost a sixteenth of a mile away from the rest of the horses!"

5. Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs (Sept. 20, 1973)
The tennis was forgettable (6-4, 6-3, 6-3). The winner was not. The "Battle of the Sexes" circus in the Astrodome, brought to an enormous TV audience by Howard Cosell in black tie, might not have befit the quarreling Wimbledon champs, but that's the deal they made. The show left some, like New York Times TV critic John J. O'Connor, befuddled. "In the end," he wrote, "the manipulated event was full of sound and pictures, signifying something about our culture, but proving nothing."

6. Miracle on Ice (Feb. 22, 1980)
Memorable -- and often remembered incorrectly. U.S. over U.S.S.R. for the gold medal? Nope. It was a semifinal game. "Do you believe in miracles!" Of course, because you saw it with your own eyes -- live. Only you didn't, unless you were there, because the 5 p.m. game was shown on tape delay. Despite all this, sports, and sports TV, at its best.

7. Bjorn Borg beats John McEnroe in classic Wimbledon final (July 5, 1980)
"Breakfast at Wimbledon," the live broadcast of the men's final back to the States at 9 on Sunday morning, has never been tastier. The 22-minute fourth-set tiebreaker, an edge-of-the-seat faceoff finally won by McEnroe, would have been a fine final act in and of itself. But the last set stretched the match to an epic 3 hours, 53 minutes as Borg finally prevailed 8 games to 6. It was Borg's fifth straight Wimbledon victory, and the match might have been the best in Wimbledon history. McEnroe's self-critical cries of "C'mon!" and Borg's prayerful knee-drop after winning match point couldn't have been more powerful.

8. North Carolina State stuns Houston (1983)
NC State piled up the upsets to reach the NCAA hoops final, but as the final seconds ticked away it looked like its Cinderella run had come to an end. Top-ranked Houston, staring Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, led 52-46 with 3 minutes left, but the Cardiac Pack came back to set up for one final, desperate attempt. Dereck Whittenburg's 30-foot prayer fell short, but Lorenzo Charles grabbed the ball in midair and slammed it home at the buzzer for a 54-52 victory.

9. Doug Flutie's Hail Mary (Nov. 23, 1984)
"Flood Tip," 63 yards in the air, Boston College down 45-41 with one last play. Everyone was watching because it was the only college game on the tube the day after Thanksgiving, and it was the Flutie-led Eagles vs. the defending national champs, Miami. Flutie's perfect heave to Gerard Phelan stunned CBS booth man Brent Musburger, who couldn't ID the receiver right away, and screamed, "Caught by Boston College! I don't believe it!"

10. The ball rolls through Buckner's legs (Oct. 25, 1986)
Vin Scully's call: "Two out. Three-and-two to Mookie Wilson. Little roller up along first. Behind the bag. It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight and the Mets win it!" Joy and sorrow might have never been juxtaposed with such poignancy.

11. Kirk Gibson's home run (Oct. 15, 1988)
Kirk Gibson
You probably remember the announcer's disbelief more than the home run.
The dinger was a muse. "I don't believe what I just saw!" You've heard Jack Buck's radio call a thousand times, and you'll never forget it. But do you remember Vin Scully's words when you watched the gimpy Gibson's blast on TV? There were three: "She is gone." Then just crowd noise for 1 minute and 7 seconds. And finally, "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!"

12. Scott Norwood's Super Bowl miss (Jan. 27, 1991)
A great game, played with the first Gulf War in the forefront. Always remembered for the final "wide right" call, but as the Bills drove toward that final, desperate attempt, ABC did the viewers right, catching Norwood nervously pacing the sidelines and interspersing a clip of Jim O'Brien's Super Bowl V game winner. Shots of the Giants' joy also were terrific, but the New York Times' Joe LaPointe could have done without the postgame commentary. "As all those emotional scenes flowed across the screen," he wrote, "wouldn't it have been better if Gifford, Dierdorf and Michaels had stopped their incessant chatter and let the viewers hear instead the shouts of the players and the roar of the crowd beneath Sinatra's version of 'New York, New York' as it rang from the stadium speakers?"

13. Dan Jansen finally wins Olympic gold (Feb. 18, 1994)
Jansen had had the worst of Olympic times. A heavy gold-medal favorite in the 500 and 1000 at the 1988 Winter Games, his spirit and hopes were crushed when his sister died, after a long illness, just before he took the ice. No medals that year, and in 1992, a near miss in the 500 was followed by a terrible 26th-place finish in the 1,000.

It looked like 1994 would be a repeat, as Jansen stumbled in the 500 and failed to medal. But in the 1,000, he skated a blistering world record 1:12.43 at Hamar's Vikingskipet Skating Hall in Lillehammer, Norway, to win the gold. As he took his victory lap, Jansen carried his baby daughter, Jane -- named after his sister. The crowd of 10,000 shared Jansen's joy and relief as he cried on the podium.

14. Tonya Harding cries after missing jump, breaking shoelace (Feb. 25, 1994)
The Goddess of schadenfreude was alive and well in Lillehammer. The buildup to the Harding-Nancy Kerrigan duel helped created some of the highest TV ratings in sports history. Do you remember that Harding was given another chance? She skated again 20 minutes after asking for a reprieve and ended up finishing eighth.

15. Cal Ripken breaks Lou Gehrig's record (Sept. 6, 1995)
President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were there -- Clinton even made an appearance in the ESPN broadcast booth in the fourth inning, when Ripken homered. The record became official when the Angels' Damion Easley popped out to second at the end of the fifth, with the Orioles leading 3-1. For 22 minutes, the world belonged to Ripken. He finally took a victory lap just to stop the endless curtain call calls. No. 2,131 was in the books.

16. Ali lights torch at Atlanta Olympics (1996)
Cal Ripken
Cal got a standing ovation from the President and Vice President.
The final torch bearer remained a closely guarded secret, and as Ali stood with torch aloft, shaking, we shook with him.

17. Michael Jordan beats Jazz for sixth NBA title (June 14, 1998)
Almost a ho-hum jumper from 17 feet out. But still un-for-gettable. The shot, which gave Jordan 45 points for the night, put the Bulls up by one but still left the Jazz five seconds for one last shot. Ron Harper's tenacious D -- he was all over John Stockton when he let loose his possible game-winner -- secured the win and Jordan's final title.

18. Mark McGwire passes Roger Maris (Sept. 8, 1998)
A made-for-TV moment. Nineteen million were watching -- the highest-rated regular-season game since 1982 -- when McGwire's fourth-inning dinger just eclipsed the left-field wall at Busch Stadium. He almost missed first -- "Touch first, Mark!" said Joe Buck. "You are the new single-season home run king." Sammy Sosa left his right-field post to give his friendly rival a hug. Young Matt McGwire got the big boost when dad touched home. The family of Roger Maris got a visit in the stands. And the Cards gifted the slugger a 1962 Corvette.

19. Brandi Chastain's World Cup-winning goal (July 10, 1999)
If, in 1995, you had bet someone that 40 million Americans would tune in to a women's soccer game before the end of the millennium, you would have been laughed at -- and you would have cleaned up. Because that's how many were watching at home when Brandi Chastain pounded the game-winning penalty kick home after a grueling 90 minutes of regular time and 30 minutes of overtime against China. The ensuing sports bra moment might remain iconic, but the enormous Rose Bowl crowd and the intense, thrilling competition made for memorable television.

20. Vince Young's scramble wins Rose Bowl (Jan. 4, 2006)
A beautiful ending to arguably college football's greatest game ever played.