The sports moments have stopped, for the moment. In the absence of fresh ones, the memorable ones stir.
Maybe you’ve rewatched them, or reread them, with the help of YouTube or your friendly neighborhood newspaper person. I’ve covered Detroit sports — plus Michigan and Michigan State — at The News since 1989. Don’t do the math. I was a child prodigy.
I’ve chronicled every major event, from multiple Stanley Cup Finals to infamous Hail Marys. My goal here is to reminisce, not tick you off, and perhaps provide a nostalgic breather while more important people try to fix the world. Based on my own criteria, I’ve come up with the 20 Most Memorable Moments in Detroit-area sports in the past 31 years. I’m calling it “memorable” moments, not “greatest” moments, which means you’ll have to endure a healthy dose of memorably “crushing” moments.
I tried to focus on you-remember-where-you-were moments, especially if part of a championship run. And I limited the list to stuff that happened at actual sporting events. That keeps me — and saves you — from rehashing tragic incidents such as the Red Wings’ limo crash. It also eliminates Barry Sanders’ sudden retirement, Matt Millen’s fateful hiring and any unforgettable (or unforgiveable) trade, draft pick or firing.
The volume of candidates since 1989 was staggering, so have mercy on me. We’ll count down 20 through 11 here, then come back the next day for 10 to 1. Then we can debate in a civil manner that does not involve name-calling or hair-pulling.
►20. April 5, 1993: The timeout to top all timeouts
One of the iconic, and ironic, images in college basketball history — Chris Webber pressed one hand into the palm of the other, and the ensuing technical-foul free throws ended Michigan’s chances in the NCAA championship game.
In the title game for a second straight year, the Wolverines trailed North Carolina 73-71 when Webber grabbed a rebound, dribbled upcourt, got trapped in the corner and frantically signaled for a timeout with 11 seconds left. Steve Fisher and his team were out of timeouts, and ultimately out of time. As the Tar Heels celebrated a 77-71 victory, Webber stalked down a hallway, towel over his head, sobbing uncontrollably. He turned pro shortly thereafter, and the Fab Five era ended without a title.
►19. Oct. 13, 2013: Big Fly from Big Papi
It should’ve been the year, truth be told. The Tigers were dominating the Red Sox in the 2013 ALCS with what might’ve been their best team yet. Then David Ortiz stepped to the plate in the eighth inning of Game 2, trailing 5-1, and slugged a grand slam for the ages, completely turning the game and the series.
Anibal Sanchez and four relievers had nearly no-hit the Red Sox in Game 1, and Max Scherzer took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of Game 2. The Fenway Park crowd was booing as the Boston hitters kept whiffing. Then the Red Sox loaded the bases and Jim Leyland sent in closer Joaquin Benoit. Ortiz blasted the first pitch over the rightfield fence, past the legs of a diving, upside-down Torii Hunter, past the outstretched arms of a celebrating Boston police officer. I’ve never witnessed a crowd’s mood shift so dramatically, from mausoleum to bedlam.
►18. Dec. 5, 2015 — A lunge for a championship
Michigan State’s 2015 football team was a punishing force, 11-1 entering the Big Ten championship game against Iowa. In a slugfest, the Spartans trailed 13-9 early in the fourth quarter. Then they launched the drive that displayed all their winning traits, covering 82 yards in 22 plays that consumed 9:04.
The moment? On third-and-goal from the 1, LJ Scott took a handoff, ran to his right, appeared trapped, then appeared stopped, then lunged and somehow reached the ball across the goal line with 27 seconds left. The 16-13 victory sent Mark Dantonio’s squad to the playoff, the centerpiece of an incredible three-year run.
17. Jan. 8, 1994: How did Sterling Sharpe get wide open?
It was ridiculously raucous in the Silverdome as the Lions held a late 24-21 lead in the NFC wildcard playoff game. And then, sudden, complete silence. With 55 seconds left, Packers receiver Sterling Sharpe slipped past cornerback Kevin Scott and easily caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from Brett Favre.
The week before, the Lions had won their only division title in the past 30 years by beating Green Bay 30-20 in the Silverdome. That earned them homefield advantage, and they seemed poised to advance behind Wayne Fontes and quarterback Erik Kramer. The gasp from Lions fans as the ball traveled through the air still echoes where the ol’ Dome once stood.
►16. May 16, 1996: The Captain calls his shot
It might have been the tensest atmosphere in the history of Joe Louis Arena. The mighty Red Wings were locked in a 0-0 tussle with the Blues in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. Then in the second overtime, Steve Yzerman picked up a Wayne Gretzky turnover, skated in, took one stride across the blueline and fired a shot that pinged just under the crossbar and past Jon Casey’s right shoulder.
As Yzerman leapt in celebration, the Joe Louis crowd was as loud as I’d ever heard. Of course as the years went on, it got louder. The Wings advanced to the conference finals against Colorado, lost in six, and launched the defining rivalry of a generation.
►15. April 3, 1989 — Rumeal clinches improbable championship
Michigan had taken a bizarre path to Seattle’s Kingdome, rolling to the NCAA championship game against Seton Hall behind historic shooting by Glen Rice. Steve Fisher had replaced Bill Frieder just days before the Tournament, at Bo Schembechler’s demand, and Fisher was the calming force for an erratic team.
With three seconds left in overtime, Rumeal Robinson was fouled on a controversial call. A 65-percent free-throw shooter, he hit both to put Michigan on top 80-79. Seton Hall missed a deep shot at the buzzer and the Wolverines had their title, Fisher had the job and Robinson had his place in history.
►14. Dec. 21, 1997 — Run Barry run
Safe to say, no Lions game ever featured such diverse drama as the 1997 finale against the Jets. The Lions needed a victory to make the playoffs and got it, 13-10. But before the stirring finish, tragedy intervened, as linebacker Reggie Brown made a tackle and fell to the Silverdome turf, gasping for his life. He was revived but his career was over with a spinal contusion.
From utter horror to sheer joy, the crowd erupted with 2:15 left when Barry Sanders plowed for a 2-yard gain that put him over 2,000. Just for fun, he clinched it on the next play with a 53-yard dash. He rushed for 184 yards against the Jets, 2,053 for the season and was carried off the field by teammates.
►13. May 24, 2004 — Pistons’ Prince throws a block party
It was the play that defined the Goin’ To Work Pistons, a defensive gem in a physical clash. The Pistons had dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Indiana, prompting Rasheed Wallace to utter his Guaransheed — “We will win Game 2.” Bold, brash, and then the Block.
The Pistons led 69-67 late in the fourth quarter when Reggie Miller took a pass and raced downcourt virtually alone. Cutting diagonally across the floor, Tayshaun Prince swept in and swatted the ball just as Miller was about to lay it in with 18 seconds left. The Pistons won the game 72-67, won the series in six and went on to stomp the Lakers for an NBA championship that no one saw coming — just as no one saw Prince coming.
►12. Nov. 22, 1997 — Woodson’s run for the Roses
Michigan’s undefeated season hung in the balance, leading Ohio State 7-0 late in the first half in the Big House. And then Charles Woodson backpedaled to catch a punt, headed upfield, and 78 yards later, scored a touchdown that energized the stadium and symbolized the team. Michigan led 13-0 at the half, held on to beat Ohio State 20-14 and won a share of the national championship by edging Washington State 21-16 in the Rose Bowl.
The image of the season for Michigan fans was Woodson clutching a rose in his teeth. He won the Heisman, the Wolverines went 12-0 and Lloyd Carr snapped the program’s title drought.
►11. June 14, 1990 — At 00:7, it was Johnson, Vinnie Johnson
The Pistons were a machine, merciless in their intensity. They headed to Portland tied 1-1 in the NBA Finals and the Trail Blazers were gaining confidence. The Bad Boys crushed it, winning three straight on the road, the final one in the final second. With the score tied, Vinnie Johnson, the Microwave, muscled up his classic jumper to win it 92-90 with :00.7 left.
It was a second consecutive championship for Chuck Daly, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and the Bad Boys, an exclamation point and a period at the same time. It was their last trip to the Finals.
►Tomorrow: The Top 10 Momentous Moments, with Cups spilling over.