Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Best Play of Sportscenter Era?

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.


  1. #1 SLC
    February 12, 2007

    How about the Willy Mays circus catch of Vic Wertzs’ drive to dead center field in the 1954 World Series?

  2. #2 Jeff Hebert
    February 12, 2007

    SLC, I think the ESPN poll was only for plays during the “ESPN Era” — since they debuted in 1979.

  3. #3 David Heddle
    February 12, 2007

    How could they ignore the amazing last two laps and photo finish between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003?


    They locked cars at the end, and Craven later said he only won because his car was an inch longer. I was watching at the airport, and almost missed my flight because I refused to board until I saw the ending.

    More chauvinism in favor of girly sports like football and against NASCAR!

    Speaking of which: six days until the Daytona 500–yeah man.

  4. #4 doctorgoo
    February 12, 2007

    Sorry DH, but NASCAR doesn’t qualify as a sport. Only in car racing are the drivers encouraged to pee on themselves if they can’t hold it in until the ‘game’ is over.

    I don’t think Gibson, Laettner or Flutie ever lost bodily control like that during a game, do you?


  5. #5 carlsonjok
    February 12, 2007

    1979? How convenient. The greatest play of the last 30 years was, obviously, Bucky Dent’s homerun over the Green Monster in the one game playoff between the Yankees and the Red Sox in 1978.

  6. #7 Henry Clay
    February 12, 2007

    The Laettner shot is a bitter memory in my mind. I was 10 and we were playing in a regional peewee league tournament. In between sessions there was a cheerleading competition so we all were packed outside the gym watching the game on a 13 in. screen. All I remember after the shot is my coach saying, “Let’s win this one for the Wildcats.” At 10 that’s pretty powerful stuff.

  7. #8 Sanjiv Sarwate
    February 12, 2007

    Conveniently, the 1979 cut-off excludes the Immaculate Reception.

  8. #9 rrf
    February 12, 2007

    I’m not sure it qualifies as one of the all-time greats, but the end of this year’s Fiesta Bowl was sure memorable.

  9. #10 Miguelito
    February 12, 2007

    The list does not include Joe Carter’s homerun off of Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams to win the World Series in the bottom of the ninth inning in game 6. Pretty dramatic.

  10. #11 Matthew
    February 12, 2007

    Laettner shot was 100% Pitino’s fault, even he admits that. All they had to do was put someone in front of Hill on the inbound pass and that shot becomes 10x more difficult. That’s still one of the low moments of my childhood, but we got revenge in 98.

  11. #12 TomMil
    February 12, 2007

    It really doesn’t belong with the list of plays ESPN has as choices but does anyone remember the Pittsburgh Steeler fan jumping out of the stands to catch a field goal. he was like 20 feet up when he snatched the ball and came crashing down while holding on. I’ve searched YouTube to no avail. I’ll keep looking. I will post it if I find it. It was amazing…stupid too.

  12. #13 Prup aka Jim Benton
    February 12, 2007

    Minor point, but I don’t think you can say LaSorda ‘decided’ to pinch hit Gibson — my choice, but I have a minor allergy to basketball. If I remember the game, LaSorda had been over-substituting like crazy — and like usual — and Gibson was the only non-pitcher left.

  13. #14 Jeff Hebert
    February 12, 2007

    Conveniently, the 1979 cut-off excludes the Immaculate Reception.

    1979? How convenient. The greatest play of the last 30 years was, obviously, Bucky Dent’s homerun over the Green Monster in the one game playoff between the Yankees and the Red Sox in 1978.

    “Convenient”? I scarcely think the decision to found ESPN in 1979 was somehow deliberately tailored to leave your favorite team off a list to be invented 28 years later … I mean, come on, I know Steeler and Yankee/Red Sox fans are extraordinarily self-centered, but this seems like a stretch even for you guys. Do you really think the people who started ESPN were sitting around in 1978 saying “Gosh, I’d love to start an all-sports cable network, but we need to wait a year so we don’t have to include the Steelers or Red Sox or Yankees on a ‘Best Plays Since We Started The Company’ compilation”?

    Ah, hubris, thy name is “Sports Fan”.

  14. #15 carlsonjok
    February 12, 2007

    Mr. Herbert, how do you know? Were you there?

  15. #16 Richard
    February 12, 2007

    > (this is also what makes the NCAA tournament so much more
    > exciting than baseball; one loss and you’re out)

    This is one of my pet-peeves around sports.

    Single elimination formats trivialize true talent and vastly increase the random factor. Do you think that Duke really was a “better team” than Kentucky because they won by one point with a last-ditch lucky shot? Turn the situation around and if that one shot hadn’t been made, would Kentucky suddenly be the “better team” because it had won by one point with 2 seconds left?

    At least with MLB, they recognize that individual games may sometimes go one way or the other, but over a series of games, the better team should win more games.

    Of course, you did say more “exciting”, not more “fair” or more “rational”… 🙂


    PS: For the same reason, I find it silly when Olympic downhill skiing separates 1st from 4th place by 0.02 seconds (out of a 1 minute run) and people think that that really reflects that the “best skiier” won…

  16. #17 doyle
    February 12, 2007

    Many (I can think of three off the top of my head) NCAA tournament/NBA playoff/Olympic basketball games have ended with last second pass and shoot miracles. Other World Series games incuding a clincher have ended with home runs. Flutie’s Hail Mary wasn’t even the best Hail Mary of the eighties (Ask Kordell Stewart and Colorado). The Jeter play against the A’s stands alone as it was both crucial and unprecedented. You’d never seen it before. What he did isn’t taught. It embodied all that we cheer in sport – physical and mental grace under pressure. It is mindboggling that that play is not on the list.

  17. #18 doctorgoo
    February 12, 2007

    IMO, the best play, for the purely entertainment value, is the home run ball that bounced off Jose Canseco’s head and bounced into the stands.

    This, by far, was the funniest sports blooper ever, and has only gotten better with age.

    Forget about Gibson’s walk-off, Jose’s walk-of-shame was a million times more memorable.

  18. #19 Ed Brayton
    February 12, 2007

    I agree, the Colorado hail mary was actually more interesting because it went off one player and in to another player’s hands. And as far as basketball games with last second shots in the tournament, how about Bryce Drew’s hook and ladder shot as time ran out for Valparaiso? An amazing play that may actually be more impressive than the Duke play, though not as significant historically. Laettner himself had already had one last second miracle shot, to beat UConn in 1990 in the NCAA tournament. The shot here stands out not just because it was a last second shot to win but because it capped off such an incredible game with so much historical significance.

  19. #20 tacitus
    February 12, 2007

    The only one I was in the US for was the Kirk Gibson home run. I was on assignment from the UK and that summer was my first taste of baseball. And I think my parents were over visiting at the time since I seem to remember trying to explain how amazing the play was.

    Seems like an age away these days.

  20. #21 RJW
    February 12, 2007

    This list is simply incomplete without “The Catch.”

  21. #22 Chris F.
    February 12, 2007

    Who cares about the best plays? I’m still trying to find an unauthorized Ed Brayton stand-up routine on YouTube. No luck so far. Hmmm.

    Anyway, I vote for Laettner. What a crybaby in college, but he was definitely one of the best college players of the 1990’s.

  22. #23 Sanjiv Sarwate
    February 13, 2007

    Heh. Actually, I’m not really a Steelers fan – I just think “Immaculate Reception” is the best named football play of all time.

    As a White Sox fan, however, I think the best play of the ESPN era has to be Steve Bartman reaching out to knock the ball away from Moises Alou in the 2003 NLCS. 🙂

  23. #24 doctorgoo
    February 13, 2007

    And as a Cardinals fan, I completely agree with Sanjiv!

  24. #25 Ben
    February 15, 2007

    It’s not even the greatest game ending pass and shoot in NCAA history.

    As a UConn fan I’m obligated to post the 1990 NCAA game winning pass, from Scott Burrel and shot, from Tate George.


    1.0 seconds on the clock.

    Do yourself a favor if you’re interested at all in watching UConn propaganda and just go to 4:30 in the video.

    Of course Duke beat UConn in the next game in the Elite 8 on a Laettner game winning shot in OT. *sigh*

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