What a perfect time for the end of the millennium or, if not that, the end of the century or, if not even that, then certainly the end of the 1900s and, ergo, the 90s. If there has ever been a time when Chicago sports fans wanted to reject the present and lose themselves in reverie over things past, it's now, with every major professional team suffering through a losing year. What's more, though even in losing eras Chicago has prided itself on its captivating players, its Bankses and Applings and Butkuses, with Frank Thomas on the outs the only captivating player now on the scene is Sammy Sosa. What a dearth there is of both quality and character! Thank the amateur sporting gods for Quentin Richardson and Cappie Pondexter.
So any reasonable excuse to escape into sports history will do. The question is, how much history? The millennium is a bit too expansive for sports. After one grants that cricketer Dr. W.G. Grace was the athlete of the 1800s, where does one go from there? Name Catherine the Great the athlete of the 1700s for her equestrian talents? Genghis Khan the same in the 1200s? Yachtsmen Christopher Columbus in the 1400s and Ferdinand Magellan in the 1500s? Likewise, even the century is a bit much--though I've admired all the attempts to place athletes in historical context and I side with those who choose Muhammad Ali over Michael Jordan as athlete of the 1900s. But Jordan brings one down to the 90s and there I'd like to stay for the time being, because that was the decade when Jordan established himself as the greatest athlete of the century in team sports. As the history of major team sports only goes back into the mid-1800s, he has fair claim to the title of greatest player of team sports of all time. And he was ours; we saw him. Twenty-five or 50 or, for the young and lucky among us, 75 years from now, we'll say the same, and I don't think anyone will be any less glowing about it.
Jordan is a category unto himself in the list of top Chicago sports moments of the decade. Not every one commanded universal attention, but it's amazing to consider how so many did--how so many rank among anyone's sporting events of the decade, and how the whole arc of Jordan's career followed a mythological trajectory. In the next millennium people are bound to wonder if any of this took place; surely time has embellished history.
To choose just ten moments:
(10) Jordan plays at Wrigley Field for the White Sox against the Cubs in a 1994 exhibition game. And drives in the tying runs too. The game would turn out to be the peak of his baseball career, which otherwise stalls at Double-A Birmingham. That is somehow appropriate; he was always at his best in the spotlight.
(9) Jordan takes part in the Dream Team Olympics of 1992. It was a wonderful decade for sheer greatness in sports (see Bonnie Blair, Michael Johnson, and Tiger Woods below). Yet here Jordan is the greatest of the great, the greatest single player among the greatest collection of basketball talent yet seen.
(8) Jordan holds forth with a long, self-analytical interview in the locker room following the Bulls' loss to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 National Basketball Association Eastern Conference finals. It's here that Jordan looks himself in the mirror, assesses his shortcomings, and steels himself for the three championships to come.
(7) At the buzzer, Jordan sinks the winning basket over Bryon Russell of the Utah Jazz in game one of the 1997 NBA finals.
(6) In the perfect bookend, a double-teamed Jordan passes to an open Steve Kerr for the championship-winning shot in game six of the 1997 finals.
(5) With the two-word release, "I'm back," Jordan returns to basketball and the Bulls in 1995. Will any Chicagoan who experienced it ever forget the giddy mood in the streets in the rumor-filled days leading up to the formal announcement? More even than the public response to any of the Bulls' championships--the riots and rallies--this moment displays the hold sports can have on a city.
(4) Jordan sets an NBA finals record for three-pointers in a half in 1992's first game and can only react with a shrug. Cliff Robinson and the rest of the Portland Trail Blazers are stunned and never recover their confidence.
(3) Jordan scores 38 points while suffering from the stomach flu in game five of the 1997 finals in Utah and sinks the clinching basket, setting up the Bulls' fifth championship back at the United Center (see moment 6).
(2) Knitting together the two sides of his game, power and grace, with his trademark creativity, Jordan goes up for a dunk in game two of the 1991 finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, is met by Sam Perkins, and converts his shot into a lefthanded lay-in with English off the backboard, in what remains the essential Jordan highlight.
(1) Jordan ends his career with a shot-steal-shot sequence to eliminate the Jazz in 1998. With the Bulls down three points and 40 seconds left in game six, Jordan takes an inbounds pass and immediately scores on a driving lay-in, then comes from Karl Malone's blind side to strip him of the ball at the other end, drives down, pulls up, and pops an open jumper to give the Bulls their sixth championship. Babe Ruth's called shot barely compares. This isn't myth; it's real.
Meaningless as the exercise is, it's a pleasure to rank those moments. Permit a biased Chicago fan to insist that the top four or five and maybe the top six or seven would have to rank among the most memorable sports moments of the decade, and that's even allowing that many of the decade's sports memories were not bright but bitter. Putting away the anal lists and going on a ramble, there was Tonya Harding at the very least conspiring to cover up her husband's involvement in a plot to injure her main competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, before the 1994 Winter Olympics--a competition eventually won by Oksana Baiul. There was Buster Douglas's upset of Mike Tyson in their 1990 heavyweight title fight, a bout that sent Tyson and his sport on a downward spiral that continues to this day. Seen from the end of the decade, Tyson-Douglas looks like the beginning of the end of boxing as a big-time sport.
Yet on the whole it was a good decade for sports, especially locally. The 90s weren't all Jordan and weren't even all Bulls, though they certainly deserve recognition beyond Jordan's top moments. There was their championship-winning final possession of 1993, in which all five Bulls touched the ball--a lasting and justifiable source of pride for coach Phil Jackson--on the way to John Paxson's final shot. There was their comeback from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of the final game against the Blazers in 1992, a comeback begun by bench players (notably Bobby Hansen). There was Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen, and the rest of the team swarming on Charles Smith to preserve the victory over the New York Knicks in the 1993 Eastern Conference finals. For pure emotional catharsis, it's hard to think of a better moment than the Bulls humiliating the Detroit Pistons into storming off the court just before the conclusion of the Bulls' four-game sweep in 1991; for Bulls fans who remember how bitter it was losing to the Pistons in 1989 and 1990, there was no better moment in this whole sweet decade. Finally, where does one put the Bulls' 72-10 season of 1995-'96, in which Dennis Rodman was rehabilitated from his "Bad Boy" Pistons days and became an essential part of the winningest team in NBA history?
The Bulls aside, all the city's sports triumphs were more measured successes in the 90s. The Blackhawks went to the National Hockey League finals in 1992, but then were dismissed in a four-game sweep by the vastly superior Pittsburgh Penguins, proving that they were never really all that close to winning the Stanley Cup. Northwestern and coach Gary Barnett shocked all of college football by going to the 1996 Rose Bowl, but there its weakness in team speed was exploited by Southern Cal and Keyshawn Johnson. Barnett would outlast his Blackhawks counterpart, Mike Keenan, but not by much. We had Kevin Garnett for a year at Farragut High School, but then he was gone to the pros. Likewise, Greg Maddux won a Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the National League for the Cubs, only to abandon the team that winter and sign with the Atlanta Braves.
Yet in that sour event in Cubs history, Maddux also offered an essential lesson on sports in the 90s. In this decade--more opulent by far than even the 80s, especially where athletes were concerned--the true test of greatness wasn't what an athlete did to earn a huge salary but what he or she did after getting it. Maddux went on to win the next three Cy Youngs and, along the way, a championship. Likewise, Jordan's astronomical endorsement contracts never tempered his competitive spirit, an example followed by Tiger Woods. Woods's three straight U.S. Amateur titles--beginning with his dramatic comeback against Trip Kuehne in 1994--announced his arrival as a great golfer; but after turning pro and signing a $50 million endorsement deal with Nike he only got better, winning the Masters in 1997, the Western Open at Cog Hill in Lemont the same year and again this year and adding his second major as a professional with the PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club, fighting off Spanish teenager Sergio Garcia. Woods went on to win a series of tournaments down the stretch and put together the best year enjoyed by a golfer in more than 25 years.
Woods's achievements, against what has to be considered the greatest array of competitive talent ever on the PGA tour, were for the ages. The same could be said of Michael Johnson's record-setting 200-meter dash in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta; after all, the clock doesn't lie and never varies from year to year. Yet it wasn't just what Woods and Johnson did, it was how they did it, Woods with his dedication and sense of drama, Johnson with his head held back and his legs and arms churning, looking like a human locomotive.
Personally, I don't think Sammy Sosa belongs with those two as a great athlete. His 60 homers, even in back-to-back seasons, came against diluted competition and with the help of a juiced ball that diminished even Mark McGwire's gargantuan 70 homers in 1998. Yet there was no denying Sosa's 61st and 62nd homers that year as a great Chicago moment, in a game capped by Mark Grace's homer in the tenth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers that sent the Cubs toward their one and only playoff appearance of the decade. Earlier that year, Kerry Wood announced his arrival by striking out 20 men in a game. Not all memorable moments were pleasant for the Cubs that season, however. There was Brant Brown's muffed fly ball against those same Brewers, only days after Grace and Sosa's heroics, that put the Cubs' playoff appearance in jeopardy. After a mildly ecstatic win over the San Francisco Giants in the wild-card playoff game, the Cubs were exposed as pretenders by the Braves in a three-game sweep, and before the next season even began Wood was out with a career-threatening elbow injury. The Sox, however, fell even farther, if only because they were closer to the top. After Bo Jackson's parabolic homer clinched a playoff spot for them in 1993, they lost to the eventual champions, the Toronto Blue Jays. The next year they were genuine World Series contenders, but the baseball strike turned owner Jerry Reinsdorf into a self-proclaimed hawk. The end of the season was canceled, disgruntled Sox players (especially pitchers) left for greener pastures at the first opportunity, and the Sox had lost their best chance at a championship. It took the signing of Albert Belle to end the labor dispute, and thus the Sox poisoned their clubhouse and their fan base in exchange for overall labor peace--a Pyrrhic victory.
It was a great decade for women in sports, but not to the point where one could cease talking about women in sports and just talk about great athletes, some of whom happened to be women. Kerri Strug in gymnastics and Picabo Street in skiing both provided great Olympic moments. Bonnie Blair in speed skating might have been the best of the bunch. Yet if there is a moment that stands out, it's still Brandi Chastain scoring the winning goal in a shootout against China in the Women's World Cup soccer final earlier this year and stripping off her shirt in the manner of a male player. It's a moment that still confounds, in the way it tangles up the warped attitude toward sex in this country with the warped attitude toward athletics, in the way a country that still denies women full equality with men in so many ways has nevertheless managed to create the greatest women's soccer and basketball teams in the world thanks to Title IX. I think people will be studying Chastain's baring of her sports bra well into the next decade, if not century, for what that moment said about U.S. sports.
Of course, there were moments of pure emotion unique to sports. Strug's gold-medal-winning vault in 1996 was one of those. Dan Jansen's breaking through for an elusive gold medal with a world-record run in 1,000-meter speed skating in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, was another. There might have been no sweeter moment for football fans (outside Green Bay, anyway) than John Elway finally winning a Super Bowl in 1998, then coming back to repeat the next year.
In short, arbitrary delineations such as the end of decades or centuries act in an artificial way to do what a bad sports year does naturally: they encourage us to review the past and treasure those rare moments of greatness. We'll not see Michael Jordan's like again, no matter how long we live, so it should be a long time--perhaps forever--before Chicago sports sees another decade like the 90s.