Ten Best Damn unforgettable sports moments

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Kevin Hench

An accomplished film and television writer, Kevin Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla. His podcast, Spider and the Henchman, is available every Friday on iTunes. MORE>>
Most sports fans — particularly, say, those on the North Side of Chicago or in Cleveland or Buffalo — try very hard to forget some of the images that have been seared into their memories. But Steve Bartman, Tony Fernandez and Scott Norwood aren't going anywhere. They will forever dance on the damaged psyches of these fated fans. So remember, every thrilling sports moment you've ever enjoyed was absolutely crushing to someone else. With that in mind, and in honor of Best Damn's Top 50 Unforgettable Sports Moments show, here are my Top 10 sports moments that will never be forgotten.

10. The airball heard 'round the world


Friday night Best Damn Sports Show Period counted down the 50 most unforgettable plays in sports history.'s own Kevin Hench dropped by the show to argue his all-time favorites.

When Dereck Whittenburg let fly with his desperation heave from 35 feet in the final seconds of the 1983 NCAA tournament final, North Carolina State and Houston looked headed for overtime. And surely the Olajuwon-Drexler Phi Slamma Jamma Cougars would bury the Wolfpack if given a five-minute reprieve. But Whittenburg's lazy parabola turned into a perfect alley-oop as Lorenzo Charles caught the air ball and stuffed it through for the winning basket at the horn, triggering the most genuine, most euphoric celebration by a coach in the long history of stoic headset removal, firm handshakes and awkward male embraces. The scope of the upset, the suddenness of the ending and Jimmy V.'s search for a hug make this series of moments unforgettable.

9. Montana-to-Clark, "The Catch"

If Joe Montana had turned out to be a merely decent quarterback and the 49ers just another team, "The Catch" would not have been permanently burned into our memories by countless replays. But since Montana-to-Clark introduced us to the Greatest Quarterback of All Time and sent the Niners on their way to the first of five Super Bowl titles, it will live forever as one of the signature plays in the illustrious history of the greatest sports league ever. If movie directors can get upset at Blockbuster for editing their films, Dwight Clark should be able to sue Gatorade for making those commercials that make it look as if "The Catch" never happened.

8. Mike Eruzione beats the Soviets

The defining moment of the greatest achievement in sports history. I know that sounds like an opinion, but it's a fact. At least in my opinion it's a fact. Eruzione, the fourth-line grinder and captain, epitomized the grit and guts the U.S. used to dethrone the unbeatable Soviets. It was Eruzione's perfectly placed missile that blew up the Death Star just added to the mythic Good vs. Evil, human vs. robot storyline. The heart and soul of the team delivered a victory for heart and soul. USA! USA! USA!

7. Flutie to Phelan

It had been an amazing college football game, an epic shootout between two quarterbacks who would go on to long pro careers. But in the end, as would almost always be the case with games played in the Orange Bowl, the University of Miami looked certain to be celebrating a win when the clock struck zero. But then came Flood Tip, the Hail Mary that delivered the Jesuit school to victory. Doug Flutie dropped back inside his own 40 and let fly from his 37. The 5-foot-9 QB threw the ball 65 yards on the fly into the waiting arms of Gerard Phelan in the end zone to give Boston College a 47-45 victory. As if the play itself wasn't memorable enough, it was immortalized in a Saturday Night Live sketch with Rich Hall as Flutie and Eddie Murphy as the Bishop Desmond Tutu.

6. Jordan's second (and best) farewell

When the 1998 NBA Finals rolled around, Michael Jordan had already filled more highlight reels than any athlete in history. There was the NCAA title-winning jumper. The 63-point playoff explosion against the Celtics. The in-Craig Ehlo's-face double clutch. The right-left, bait-and-switch, mid-air sleight of hand against the Lakers in the '91 finals. The 3-point-apoolooza against the Blazers in '92. The dunk on Tree Rollins. The dunk on Ewing. Etc., etc., etc. But no play more totally captured Jordan's greatness than the championship-winning jump shot he buried against the Jazz before disappearing (albeit temporarily) into the sunset. Any montage of Jordan's greatest plays should end with this shot — wrist bent, fingers extended — and then we should all pretend the Wizard years never happened.

5. Billy Buck, tragic figure

Any narrative — triumphant or heartbreaking — needs its moment, its big bang. For poor Bill Buckner, the Red Sox's tragic meltdown in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series would forever be distilled down to a simple ground-hugging roller slipping through his wickets. Somehow, perhaps because the Buckner image is so easily understood and so final, other Boston culprits — Calvin Schiraldi, Rich Gedman, Bob Stanley, John McNamara — have been exonerated. If you have a few minutes to tell the story, your listener will know Buckner was merely the period on the most horrific paragraph in Red Sox lore. But if you only have one image, he becomes the whole damn story, the man unfairly held responsible for the biggest choke in World Series history.

4. Better Laettner than never

Sitting in the huddle with 2.1 seconds left in overtime, trailing Kentucky 103-102 in the 1992 East Regional final, Christian Laettner must have been thinking, "Wow, I just went 9-for-9 from the floor and 10-for-10 from the line and my career is going to end with a loss." Even if Grant Hill's inbounds pass had been stolen, Laettner's performance would still have been one for the ages (right behind Bill Walton's 21-for-22 against Memphis State). But the fact that he caught the long bomb, turned and up-faked, then spun into space to release the perfect shot to cap a perfect night made it the most unforgettable moment in college basketball history.

3. Immaculate reception

Franco Harris's shoe-top snatch and TD sprint off a last-second carom against the Raiders in a 1972 playoff game will never be forgotten. Not because it launched the Steelers on their dynastic run — they wouldn't win a Super Bowl for another two years. Not because it capped a great game — it had been a 7-6 dog up until the propitious bounce. Not because it was an incredible physical achievement — it was pretty much a fluke. No, the play will be remembered forever because someone had the good sense to give it an awesome name. There is some debate as to who coined the phrase "The Immaculate Reception" — Steelers fan Michael Ord is most often credited with the brilliance — but there is no doubting that the name has helped immortalize the play. Raiders fans — once they get done complaining about Tom Brady's tuck play — will tell you that this one never should have counted either. They point not just to the rule that Harris could not legally receive the ball if teammate Frenchy Fuqua had been the only other player to touch it — a rule that has since changed — but also to the blatant clip of Oakland linebacker Phil Villiapiano during the subsequent pursuit of Franco.

2. Captain Kirk blasts off

Of all the elements that made Kirk Gibson's walk-off home run unforgettable — World Series stage, Eck, underdog Dodgers, unbeatable A's — gimpy Gibby's physical condition is what made it so improbable. With serious injuries to both legs, Gibson basically had the lower body drive of Franklin Roosevelt. But with a swing that was all arms, he whipped a 3-2 Eckersley slider into the night and changed the course of the Series from inevitable coronation of the Bash Brothers to monster upset. The moment was so powerful you could make an argument that Gibby was the Series MVP even though it would be his only at-bat in the five games.

1. Cal-Stanford, "The Play"

The most crushing loss, most exhilarating victory and most unforgettable play all rolled into a chaotic sequence that ended with trombone player Gary Tyrell on his back beneath game-winning touchdown scorer Kevin Moen. John Elway had just converted a 4th-and-17 from his own 13-yard line to lead Stanford to the go-ahead field goal with four seconds left. Had the Cardinal been able to tackle any of the numerous Cal return men, and they had a shot at, it still would have gone down as one of the great finishes in the history of the Big Game. But the fact that the Bears were able to play keep-away with the ball while the refs swallowed their whistles and pocketed their flags (until the band came on the field) made it the most unforgettable ending in all of sports history. Warning to Stanford fans: Do not watch this play frame-by-frame on your TiVo, it will only make you sick to your stomach. Of all the second-guessing surrounding Elway's final regular-season game, the most relevant question might be, "Why did Stanford leave four seconds on the clock for Cal?" It turned out to be an eternity as Berkeley went bezerkeley.

Honorable mention

"Hotter than a Pistol"

It won't be commemorated in a handsomely bound offer from Sports Illustrated, but the most unforgettable sports moment of the 21st century has to be the 3-point shooting streak Jason McElwain went on for Greece-Athena High School in the Rochester, N.Y. suburbs. McElwain, the autistic 17-year-old manager of the varsity team, was allowed to suit up for the first time for the team's final regular-season game and inserted by coach Jim Johnson after the team had built a big lead with four minutes left. That lead got bigger when McElwain drained six straight 3-pointers in a shooting display that would have been remarkable at any level by any player. "I was hotter than a pistol," McElwain astutely summarized after his astonishing feat.

Tagged: Bears, Raiders, Patriots, 49ers, Steelers, Tom Brady, Doug Flutie, Lakers, Magic, Jazz, Red Sox, Memphis, Houston, Stanford, North Carolina State, Kentucky, Montana, Buffalo, Boston College, North Carolina State, Boston College, Buffalo, Stanford, Kentucky, Houston, Memphis, Grant Hill

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