Several weeks ago, the global sports world collectively hit the pause button. As sports networks and websites quickly turned into “history of sports” networks and websites, we at Public Books decided to ask some of our favorite writers and scholars to tell us about the memorable games, matches, races, and more that they’d like to relive today. Their personal stories about how these events intersected with their lives get to the core of what it means to watch sports. With each entry, you’ll find a link where you can watch hours upon hours of some of the most memorable, gut-wrenching, or just downright remarkable moments in sports history over the past 40 years. Whether you’re new to sports or a seasoned vet, watching games with others is thrilling. These entries, in a small way, help us keep that collective spirit alive.
1993 World Series, Game 6: Toronto Blue Jays vs. Philadelphia Phillies
Kyla Wazana Tompkins
I didn’t really grow up with North American sports. First of all, I was a professional dancer from a pretty young age, so I thought I was better than sports (false). Second, the men in my family—all immigrants from North Africa, often via France—preferred soccer (le foot) and tennis. So I paid half attention to tennis and partied in the Toronto streets every four years with the World Cup. Otherwise, I ignored sports and skipped or was excused from gym class. I was an aesthete: no thank you. When I was about 20, I dated a guy from a baseball family, American expats all of them, and that’s when I fell in love with baseball.
October 23 marks the final game of the second World Series that the Toronto Blue Jays won, and it is famously the game in which Joe Carter struck the ball with a righteous pop, and then hopped, skipped, and ran his way into eternal Canadian love, apparently missing a few bases on his way. The sound of that pop, and the sound of the streets erupting in joy, from neighborhood to neighborhood, is burned into my brain as the very definition of ecstasy. But I think it’s those pictures of Carter—body twisted from his swing, eyes on the ball as it escapes the everyday into the historic—which most of all remind me that dance comes in many forms, and grace is not only the purview of the arts. Also, the Phillies suck.
1985 French Open Final: Chris Evert Lloyd vs. Martina Navratilova
I viewed a lot of tennis on television between 1976 and 1986, when the rivalry between Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova dominated the women’s game. I had every reason to root for Navratilova: her lesbian look, her athleticism, her dramatic flair as she rushed the net and made seemingly impossible points. Yet over and over again I found myself feeling even greater admiration for Evert’s trademark baseline game: the brief pause she would take just before placing her lethally accurate strokes, the ruthless consistency with which she returned the trickiest shots while barely varying her position at the back of the court. Navratilova was the more febrile and theatrical player, but Evert offered a lesson, more apt than ever right now, in the subtler pyrotechnics of tenacity.
Atlanta Braves vs. New York Mets, July 4–5, 1985
In a melodramatic time, there is solace in meandering summer everydayness. Playoffs and championships are, in any case, lies: neither life as it is or life at its best; and never more so than in baseball. So I present to you several hours of ridiculous midseason chaos, partly enacted by the mid-1980s Mets, that glorious band of assholes. The game lasted for over six hours—eight, if you include the rain delays—and 19 innings. The crowd had been promised July 4th fireworks at its end, and got them, at 3:55 a.m. the next morning. Its pleasures are novelistic: full of incident, boredom, human fallibility. The video quality is poor. The field is waterlogged. There is exasperation and occasional mastery and, above all, a giddy feeling of endlessness. And one famous moment of implausible goofy grace (starting at 2:52:43), when Braves pitcher Rick Camp, one of the most helpless hitters in the sport, comes to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the 18th, down a run. Just a little more time, please.
Formula One, 2000 Belgian Grand Prix
In 2000, Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher and McLaren driver Mika Häkkinen were the protagonists of one of the most thrilling overtakes in Formula 1 history. Häkkinen started the race first, but Schumacher took the lead on lap 13. Four laps until the checkered flag, and the two race leaders accelerate on the Raidillon and approach BAR-Honda driver Ricardo Zonta, who had been lapped. As they approach Les Combes, Schumacher moves to Zonta’s left, with Häkkinen to his right, closer to the entrance to the curve. Häkkinen manages to enter the curve first and will keep the lead to the end of the race. That year, though, Schumacher would win the first of five consecutive titles with Ferrari—the longest streak, so far, in Formula 1 history.
2006 Men’s World Cup Final: France vs. Italy
The moments that obsess me, in sports as in life, are the moments I can’t understand. In 2006, I was madly in love with the French captain Zinedine Zidane: his sublime, controlled footwork; his sharp, calculating eyes; and especially, in a sport for hair, his virile bald head. He was going to win it all for France, a nation I suddenly felt great passion for. Then, for apparently no reason at all, he threw it all away, bringing that exquisite head to the chest of Marco Materazzi with the match tied 1–1 in extra time. He was ejected and Italy won on penalty kicks. Why did it happen—why? We later learned that Materazzi had insulted Zidane’s sister, an explanation too banal for what I’d seen. I rewatched the headbutt (2:12:50) again and again, memorizing its form, seeking its sense, knowing with a perverse satisfaction that I’d never, ever find it.
2009 US Open Semifinal: Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic
An unbelievable match. It climaxes in the greatest shot in tennis history, which also turned out to be the turning point in Federer’s career—the moment when he went from being virtually unbeatable to being only astoundingly good. Perhaps the gods were envious. The next day he lost the final, in five sets, to an upstart, and he has seemed mortal ever since. But here you can see Federer in his absolute prime: facing another of the all-time greats, in a close match whose outcome nevertheless never seems in doubt, and doing things that just don’t seem possible.
Sevilla FC vs. Real Betis, January 6, 2018
After a decade in which Sevilla FC joined European soccer’s elite and Real Betis had only managed to defeat their fierce crosstown rivals three times in nineteen matches, Betis surprised most with a remarkable away victory. Fabián (Betis) scored after only 22 seconds, but Sevilla came back twice to go into halftime 2–2. By the time the match finished, it tied the record for highest goal total of the teams’ long rivalry. I watched the game on spotty Wi-Fi on an Amtrak train between DC and North Carolina and celebrated, via WhatsApp, with fellow béticos in Spain. We say, “Viva el Betis manque pierda.” This time, they didn’t.
2015 Final Four, National Semifinal: Wisconsin vs. Kentucky
Can you pack any more narrative into a March Madness game? Two teams having a peak year, aiming at the national title. Wisconsin’s out for revenge against the team that knocked them out of the tournament in a heartbreaker just a year earlier. Kentucky’s on a historic undefeated run. Badgers coach Bo Ryan, known for turning overlooked prospects into four-year stars, brings a team of lovable, goofy, degree-earning social-justice advocates. Wildcats coach John Calipari, known for his one-and-done NBA machine (among other controversies), brings a team of freshman and sophomore superstars about to go pro. Have I convinced you to root for Wisconsin? Even if, unlike me, you hadn’t just left UW–Madison after eight incredible years, didn’t still feel connected to the community spilling out of the State Street bars and cheering on Frank the Tank … it’s still just a great game, one that goes down to the wire in classic March Madness style. (Just don’t watch the title game.)
2018 Olympic Women’s Figure Skating Long Program
According to Twitter, the primary Pyeongchang Olympics revelation for most people who watch little figure skating was Adam Rippon’s butt. But the tightest, most operatic—and, depending on your allegiances, possibly most devastating—competition was the Evgenia Medvedeva–Alina Zagitova long program showdown. Both skaters far outpaced the rest of the field in athleticism, but the countrywomen’s duel was also semiotically loaded. This was the music of Anna Karenina against that of Don Quixote, mournful grace against panache, the reigning champion against the young gun, and choreographic balance against point-harvesting technical strategy. When I think of this Olympics, I think of how there has never been a more stunning silver medal performance, which is to say more excellence pooling in a single competition.
2006 FA Cup Final: Liverpool vs. West Ham United
In a season where only a pandemic could halt Liverpool’s success, I am reminded of the greatest FA Cup of the last 30 years, if not of all time. It was a David and Goliath affair: Liverpool—winners of the Champions League—against newly promoted West Ham. In truth, most cup finals are boring affairs, with both sides playing not to lose; but a touch of Merseyside overconfidence and an East London underdog that only knew how to attack made for an exception to prove the rule. Sometimes called “the Gerrard final,” Liverpool’s young captain sealed his place in fans’ hearts, whatever stumbles his future might bring.
2000 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 6: Dallas Stars vs. New Jersey Devils
There’s nothing in sports quite like overtime playoff hockey. Where other sports will turn to penalty kicks, walk-offs, or dressed-up coin tosses to decide their most meaningful moments, overtime playoff hockey thrillingly blends the familiar form of the rest of the game with one dramatic moment of greatness for its climactic ending. This game, which has not one but two overtime periods, came after a game with three of them. Even in Alaska, I remember having to staying up well past my bedtime to watch both games. Martin Brodeur, the veteran goaltender, was my favorite player; Scotty Gomez, the rookie, was my hometown hero. Both played for the Devils. This was their first Stanley Cup win together. Twelve-year-old me was in heaven.
2008 NBA Finals, Game 4: Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers
In 2008, an NBA rivalry got new life when the Celtics faced off against the Lakers in the Finals. This is the series that began with Paul Pierce being carried off the court with what looked like a debilitating injury (he was fine) and ended with a jubilant Kevin Garnett screaming, “Anything is possible!” Game Four shows the Celtics recovering from a 24-point deficit in the first half to get a win on the road. Pierce does his underrated star thing, and Ray Allen, one of the greatest shooters of all time, plays the entire game. But some of the biggest shots were hit by players most of us now forget: James Posey, Eddie House, Leon Powe. As time runs out, the Celtics start celebrating, and the late Kobe Bryant, scowling, heads to the locker room. My boyfriend, watching this recent history, remarked, “It looks like another era.”
1989 World Gymnastics Championships, Women’s All-Around Final
The 1989 world championships in Stuttgart are considered by many to be one of the best showcases of women’s gymnastics ever. And the all-around competition featured several of the all-time greats. There was Svetlana Boguinskaia, one of the best dancers to ever compete in the sport, who took the gold medal with a signature floor routine. The Soviet women swept the medals in the competition: Natalia Laschenova took the silver medal with her pristine technique and Olga Strazheva the bronze with one of the most daring routines (choreographically speaking) performed to Igor Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring. This competition marked the debut of Yang Bo, who is generally considered one of the greatest beamers ever. And it was the final world championships for Romanian legend Daniela Silivas. Let’s not forget, this is all happening in the ’80s, so the bangs were really feathered, and the East German leotards had a strong Olivia Newton-John “Physical” vibe.
1992 AFC Wildcard Game: Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Oilers
After back-to-back winning seasons capped by losing trips to the Super Bowl, the Buffalo Bills hobbled into the 1992 wildcard playoff game against the Houston Oilers, who had just defeated Buffalo the previous week and injured the team’s star quarterback, Jim Kelly. Accustomed by now to winning divisional and AFC Championships, Bills fans were not excited about the prospect of a wildcard loss featuring the backup quarterback, Frank Reich, in the January rain. Down by 32 points, the Bills’ amazing three-season run seemed over. But at least two important things happened at halftime.
First, my dad asked my brother and 11-year-old me if we’d like to leave and get out of the cold and rain. I said no. Second, Bills coach Marv Levy—WWII vet, Phi Beta Kappa member, and MA in history from Harvard—gave a talk. (Perhaps it was something like his address to the team after their last-second loss in Super Bowl XXV, during which he recited Victorian poetry from memory.) Then, midway through the third quarter, Reich began throwing long completions and touchdowns, one after another. The Bills recovered multiple onside kicks. Fans who had left in disgust climbed security fences to get back in. You felt like you were witnessing the unlikeliest of shifts, from impossibility to inevitability. When the Bills kicked the game-winning field goal, the scene in the stadium could only be described, using the coinage of legendary radio man Van Miller, as “fandemonium.”
1997 NBA Finals, Game 5: Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz
In sports mythology, it’s known as The Michael Jordan Flu Game, even as there’s still hubbub over whether Michael was really sick with the flu, nursing a hangover, or suffering from a bad (poisoned?) slice of pizza. But the best reason to rewatch the game isn’t to try to figure out what kind of sick Michael was; it’s to see if you can find the exact moment in the second quarter when he decides—as he did in so many games over his career—to win no matter what.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
Featured image: 2015 Final Four, National Semifinal: Wisconsin vs. Kentucky