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THOMPSON: Remembering epic sports triumphs, upsets

March 26, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Epic triumphs. Those few-and-far-between times when - against all odds - a team or an athlete rises up and does the impossible…burns in your memory.

In my lifetime - nearly seven decades - only a handful of athletic events standout…and one of them was last week in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Men’s Basketball Championship.

They call it March Madness…and this year the hyperbole actually paled alongside reality. An undersized team from UMBC - that’s University of Maryland, Baltimore County - did the heretofore impossible.

You see, each year, America’s Division I colleges and universities - big and small - compete for entry into one of the 68 slots in this single-elimination tournament held simultaneously in four regions. I’m convinced the actual process of selecting, seeding and bracketing the teams requires a late night with a room full of professors - each holding a Ph.D. in quantum mechanics - and a few bottles of Jack Daniel’s. There might be a dartboard, as well.

Suffice it to say that usually the best 68 college basketball teams play until only one remains. Anyway, UMBC was a last-to-make-it-in 16th seed. There are four 16th seed teams…and they play the four 1st seed teams…the acknowledged weakest teams playing the strongest. And for 135 consecutive times - ever since 1939 when this tournament formula started - the 16th seed team lost…most often overwhelmingly.

As I said…we remember epic triumphs…those unimaginable upsets in sports. I recall the United States ice hockey team beating the Russians in the “Miracle on Ice” and going on to win the Gold Medal in 1980. I remember Buster Douglas wresting the heavyweight boxing championship from Mike Tyson ten years later in Japan. Las Vegas casinos - except for The Mirage - wouldn’t even give odds on the bout. The Mirage had Douglas as a 42-1 long shot at fight time. Truth is…only a mother would have bet on either of those underdogs.

And so it was on March 16, when 16th seeded UMBC beat number 1 seeded University of Virginia in basketball. Did I say beat? No, it was a thrashing…74-54. One online better won US $16,000 on his US $800 wager on UMBC to win. I love an underdog…but you know that guy - even if he was an UMBC grad - might have been drinking.

So, besides the aforementioned “Miracle on Ice” and Douglas knocking out Tyson, I recall a few other events that I personally witnessed…some made me happy…some not so much.

Staying with college basketball, in 1983, North Carolina State - a decided underdog - beat University of Houston 54-52 with a last-second pass that ended in a dunk. Houston had future NBA legends Clyde Drexel and Hakeem Olajuwon…but I’ll never forget the no-time-remaining dunk by Lorenzo Charles, and coach Jim Valvano running around the court like a sprayed roach. How big was the upset? Well, Olajuwon won the tourney’s Most Valuable Player award…the last time a player on a non-championship team captured the honour.

Sometimes you don’t even need to be an aficionado to appreciate the underdog effort. That was the case in 2000, when I watched the Olympic Gold Medal Greco-Roman super-heavyweight wrestling match between Rulon Gardner, a Wyoming farm boy, and Russian Alessandro Karelian. The Russian hadn’t lost a single match in 15 years.

He had won three consecutive Olympic Gold Medals. He had won seven consecutive world titles in between Olympic Games. Indeed, Karelian had not given up a single point in a match in 10 years. Meanwhile, Gardner didn’t even win the NCAA Championship in his weight class any of the three years he competed at the University of Nebraska. It was expected to be a Russian rout…but instead Gardner’s defence frustrated the Russian, who backed away with five seconds remaining in overtime…admitting defeat.

I was ten years old when the New York Yankees played the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series. An ardent Yankee fan, I was glued to the television for the entire seven-game series. The Yankees had sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, legends Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. They won the American League pennant by eight games over the Baltimore Orioles. The Pirates were outliers…a blue-collar team from a blue-collar city…lacking the glitz and glamour of the Yankee squad.

But none of that mattered in the seventh and deciding game in Pittsburgh. The lead changed four times, and when Bill Mazeroski hit a one-ball, no-strike pitch over the 406-foot mark at Forbes Field…Yogi Berra in left field simply turn his back to the field and watched the ball clear the wall by 30 feet. My heart sank as a young Yankee fan. It is to this day, the only seventh-game, ninth-inning walk-off home run in a World Series.

Turning to college football, I remember well the 2003 season that kicked off with powerhouse Michigan - with its pre-season number five ranking - taking on lowly Appalachian State at home. The Mountaineers were coming off an 8-4 season but were playing way out of their league…literally and figuratively. The Michigan Wolverines believed they had scheduled an easy-to-beat smaller college team - as many big-time programs do - to start the season. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. That day the football bounced the Mountaineers’ way every time they needed it…and they humbled the Wolverines 34-32.

I recall, too, the New Jersey Devils clashing with the Detroit Red Wings in 1995 for the Stanley Cup. I don’t remember the odds, but certainly no Red Wings fan expected the Devils to sweep their team four straight…but they did.

It’s easy to love an underdog…maybe because we’ve all been there at one point or another in our lives. Maybe it’s because it brings to reality that life lesson that you never give up…no matter what. For certain, the triumph of an underdog brings a smile and a knowing nod…if not outright cheers, unrestrained joy and even tears.

If you have a favourite underdog story…share it here. Don’t we all love being swept off our feet by inspiring true stories…even if some fall short? By the way, UMBC’s effort to crack the Sweet Sixteen ended two days after its greatest win…losing to Kansas Sate 50-43. But, you know, the UMBC players, coaches and fans share a memory that will last forever. You gotta love it when nobodies rise up to become somebodies. As Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade said in “The Maltese Falcon”…“It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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