The List: Best dead zone events
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

It's the "dead zone" of sports -- between the end of the Super Bowl and the start of March Madness, there's just not much to do except count down the days until pitchers and catchers report. Or so it seems. But some of the greatest sports events of the past XXXVII years have occurred in these dog days. Sorry, Pro Bowl fans, no list entry for you!

Miracle on Ice
Everyone believed in miracles in the winter of 1980.
1. U.S. hockey team wins Olympic gold (Feb 22 & 24, 1980)
Forget the jingoism. Forget the "Do you believe ..." stuff. Just think, for a moment, about the upsets themselves. To win the gold at Lake Placid, the seventh-seeded U.S. team had to first beat the Soviets, as they did when captain Mike Eruzione scored the game-winner midway through the final period. Then they had to beat Finland two days later, which, of course, they did. (A loss to Finland would have resulted in a gold for the USSR.) Before all this, U.S. hockey coach Herb Brooks told his charges, "Gentlemen, you don't have enough talent to win on talent alone." But, notably, he didn't say they couldn't win. This was pure sports grittiness, triumphant.

2. Joe Frazier beats Muhammad Ali (March 8, 1971)
The hypemeisters called it the "Fight of the Century." Could a bout ever live up to that billing? Let's look at the ingredients: 1) Muhammad Ali, on the comeback trail after being banned from boxing and stripped of his crown four years earlier; 2) Smokin' Joe Frazier, the reigning undefeated heavyweight champ; 3) Madison Square Garden. Stir and bake for 15 rounds -- 45 full minutes of fast-fisted punching. And what you've got, in the end, is a bruised and battered Joe Frazier beating Ali on a unanimous decision in the first of their great triplet of 1970s fights.

3. Buster Douglas knocks out Mike Tyson (Feb. 10, 1990)
"There's no way he can beat me," Tyson said before meeting mega-longshot Buster Douglas at the Tokyo Dome. "There's no way I can lose." Unwarranted braggadocio? Not if you were laying odds, which were 42-1 against Douglas. If anything, this would just be Advanced Sparring for Iron Mike, the heavyweight champ who boasted 33 KOs and 37 wins in 37 pro bouts.

But Douglas won in what was rightfully called the upset of the century, surviving an eighth-round knockdown and knocking out Tyson (and the champ's mouthpiece) in the 10th round to claim the title. There was some controversy: Douglas was down for 12 or 13 seconds in the eighth round. But it wasn't called, and most folks had Douglas ahead on points even before he sent Tyson to the floor in the 10th.

"I wasn't afraid of the man," Douglas told reporters. "I'm only afraid of God."

4. Magic Johnson wins All-Star MVP three months after retiring (Feb. 9, 1992)
We now know that this was only one of the many "endings" to the Magic Johnson-HIV story, but that didn't matter when it happened. Johnson, who had retired from basketball three months earlier because he had tested positive for HIV, was voted an All-Star starter by fans even though he hadn't played a regular-season game.

Magic rewarded the fans with a tremendous, emotional show in Orlando. He scored 25 points and dished nine assists in 29 minutes. Late in the game, he D-ed up and stopped both Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan, then took and sunk the final shot -- a 25-foot three-pointer. Of course, Magic took home the MVP trophy as the West beat the East, 153-113.

But there was more. At the time, many were very afraid of being near, much less playing a contact sport with, someone with HIV. Others thought the virus was a sure death sentence. But players on both teams hugged and high-fived Magic, despite the fears they might have had. "The game will educate everybody," said Magic. "That's the important thing. The message is that people with this virus can live on and be productive and run and jump and do things. The second part is that you can't get it from kissing or hugging or high-fives or anything The message is the most important thing."

5. Notre Dame ends UCLA's 88-game winning streak (Jan. 19, 1974)
It was only fitting that the Bruins' winning streak, the longest in college basketball history, was bookended by losses at archrival Notre Dame's Athletic and Convocation Center. UCLA's streak began the game after a Jan. 23, 1971 loss to the Irish, and it ended almost exactly three years later on the same floor.

It seemed UCLA had secured win No. 89, as they led 70-59 with 3 1/2 minutes left. But then the Bruins collapsed. Notre Dame ran off 12 unanswered points, including Dwight Clay's cord-hugging game-winner from the corner with 29 ticks remaining. UCLA had plenty of time to come back, but they missed five shots in the last 10 seconds, including a Bill Walton 12-footer.

6. Dale Earnhardt wins Daytona 500 (Feb. 15. 1998)
Checkered flag. Black car. No. 3. In his 20th Daytona 500, Earnhardt finally won. Said the teary-eyed Intimidator: "This year was my year. It was my time." Nobody argued, not even his opponents' crews on pit road. When he got out of his car, they were waiting for him, and he shook every hand.

Lew Alcindor, Elvin Hayes
Before this game, college hoops were only seen at the arena.
7. Elvin Hayes vs. Lew Alcindor (January 20, 1968)
If you could isolate one game in which college basketball went from being a sport to a Major Sport, this would be the one. Consider: UCLA, led by the tall, lanky Lew Alcindor, had a 47-game winning streak going, and was ranked No. 1 in the country. Houston, featuring forward Elvin Hayes, was undefeated and ranked second. The Cougars also had their own streak going, having won 48 straight at home.

The Astrodome was jammed with 52,693 fans, more than had ever gathered indoors to watch college hoops. Millions more watched the first regular-season college basketball contest to be televised nationally.

Everyone got a game. Houston never trailed after the first few minutes, but UCLA didn't quit. Hayes dominated, scoring 39 points (29 in the first half) and grabbing 15 rebounds. He blocked three of Alcindor's shots. He also sank the game-winning free throws with 28 seconds remaining as the Cougars won, 71-69. Alcindor, suffering from an eye injury, scored only 15 points.

8. Foreman floors Frazier (Jan. 22, 1973)
Five minutes and 35 seconds. Six knockdowns. One new heavyweight champ. Foreman: 38-0. Frazier: 29-1. Soon to come: The Rumble in the Jungle.

9. Eric Heiden wins fifth gold (Feb. 23, 1980)
After a long night of celebrating the U.S. hockey team's win over the Soviets, Heiden shattered the 10,000 meter speed skating world record by 6.2 seconds, and captured his fifth gold medal of the 1980 Lake Placid Games. He became the first athlete ever to win five individual golds in an Olympics.

Heiden was the rare overdog it was fun to root for. At Lake Placid, he was favored to win all the men's speedskating events -- the 500, 1,000, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and he did. "Eric Heiden was from another world," Bud Greenspan told Page 2 last year. "You have sprinters and long-distance people and they don't win both. But he did. It's like Owens winning the 100 and the marathon. It can't happen."

10. Tara Lipinski wins figure skating gold (Feb. 20, 1998)
Tara Lipinski. 15 years old. 82 pounds. At Nagano, she trailed Michelle Kwan, who had beaten her in the U.S. Nationals just a month earlier, after the short program. But then Lipinski nailed a flawless freestyle performance to become the youngest to win an Olympic gold in her sport, and the youngest individual gold medalist in any Winter Olympics.

"When I got on the ice, it was like, I knew what the Olympics are about," said Lipinski. "I had that feeling of just like pure joy." Lots of folkswatching in the White Ring arena and around the world had a pretty good idea what she was talking about.

Also receiving votes:

  • Dennis Conner wins America's Cup (Feb. 4, 1987)
  • The NHL is first among all major pro sports, allowing female reporters into locker rooms at the All-Star game (Jan. 21, 1975)
  • Lisa Leslie scores 101 points in first half of high school game (Feb. 7, 1990)
  • Bonnie Blair wins her third consecutive Olympic 500 meter title (Feb. 19, 1994)
  • Gretzky scores 77th goal, setting single-season record (Feb. 24, 1982)



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