ESPN had the 30,000th Sportscenter show last night and they had a poll on the greatest play in sports since they debuted in 1979. The five choices were:
1. Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit walkoff home run in the 1988 World Series
2. Doug Flutie’s hail mary pass against Miami
3. The Music City Miracle
4. The infamous Stanford band play between Cal and Stanford
5. The Christian Laettner shot against Kentucky in 1992
That’s a great list, all plays that will be remembered as long as anyone watches sports. For me, the Laettner shot is naturally the one that sticks out in my mind. I remember that entire game clear as a bell, like it happened yesterday. I was doing comedy at the time and that night I was hosting a benefit show so I had to go up on stage every 10 minutes or so to introduce the next comic. But while they were on stage, I was at the bar watching the game and practically going insane.
Everyone remembers the shot, but even without that shot the game would have ranked up there among the all-time great games in college basketball. Duke was the defending champion and Kentucky was a huge underdog, completely outgunned with a team full of walk ons and local boys who had stuck with the program during its NCAA probation of the late 80s and early 90s. That they had managed to get to the regional final was a miracle; that they managed to push Duke to overtime was all but unthinkable.
Without the Laettner shot, the game would have ended with Kentucky guard Sean Woods making a bank shot with 2 seconds left to give Kentucky a one point lead and all but end the game and Duke’s hopes of repeating as champion. Instead, we had the all-time great ending of Grant Hill’s 3/4 court pass to Laettner and his turnaround jumper from the free throw line to win the game. Even without that shot, Laettner may have had the greatest game ever played in the tournament, a perfect 10 for 10 from the field and 10 for 10 from the line. Truly an incredible game. It ended just before I had to go up and close the show and I told the audience to go home and turn on ESPN because they had just missed one of the greatest basketball games ever played.
The only other play on the list that I think can stand up to that play is the Gibson home run. The other three plays all required a fair amount of luck or weirdness, and while they’re entertaining and were big news, only the Laettner shot and the Gibson home run involved a player stepping up under the most extreme pressure and coming through (I guess you could say the Flutie pass fits, but that pass is just as easily picked off; there was a great deal of luck required, players bumping in to one another so that it happens to land in just the right place, for it to be in the league of these two plays).
The thing that may elevate the Gibson play to the top is the fact that Gibby was hurt. He had badly hurt his leg in the LCS and was not expected to play at all. In fact, that was his only appearance in the entire World Series. In fact, he had spent most of the game in the clubhouse getting therapy on his knee and wasn’t on the bench for most of the game.
Lo and behold, it’s the bottom of the 9th, the Dodgers are down 4-3 with a man on base and two out and Lasorda decides to pinch hit Gibson. He hobbles out to the plate and had to face only the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball in Dennis Eckersley. He goes down 0-2, fights his way back to a full count, then the runner steals second. And on the next pitch, Gibson smacks it over the right field fence to win the game, then limps around the bases and doesn’t play again in the series. Absolutely incredible.
But here’s why I don’t think it wins out over the Laettner shot for the greatest play of the Sportscenter era: because it was only one game of a 7 game series and it was game one to boot. That play didn’t win the series, which wasn’t close (the Dodgers beat the A’s in 5 games). The Duke/Kentucky game, on the other hand, was one and done (this is also what makes the NCAA tournament so much more exciting than baseball; one loss and you’re out). As heroic as Gibby’s homerun was – and who is ever going to forget the site of him pumping his fist as he limped around third base? – it wasn’t for all the marbles. It wasn’t the difference between winning and losing a championship. The context elevates the Laettner shot above the rest as the greatest play in sports over the last 28 years.