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a glimpse of heaven
sports can give us the briefest glimpse...
by todd w bush

I took the opportunity to watch The Natural for the 118th time the other day, and spent most of the time reflecting on how great of a sports movie it was, getting the chill bumps at least a dozen times in the course of the film, and of course trying to figure out what Roy Hobbs did for those lost 16 years. But as the movie came to a close, I realized how badly we need those magical moments in sports and in life. Those small slivers of time, sometimes less than a second, is where muscle, bone, and tendon combine with talent, luck, and hard work to provide a complete, yet brief, glimpse at heaven.

ESPN.com, in honor of the network’s 25th anniversary, has been running a poll this past week where users of the site can vote on the top 10 games that have been televised on ESPN over the past quarter of a decade. Out of the over 20,000 games, races, tournaments, and special events that have aired on the network, they have picked out around 30 for consideration. As a die-hard sports fan, I noticed that I’d watched some of the games I could vote on. Reading the small two- or three-sentence blurbs about the games, I remembered the situations surrounding each game both on the national level and on a personal level. I recalled who I’d watched the games with, where I’d been, and in some cases what I’d done either immediately after or before the game. Some of the games were heartbreaking, some were heaven sent, but a few were more than that. A small group of those games weren’t real. Oh, I watched them happen, heard the call of the game, saw the images coming from my Sony television set, but what I saw and heard was something that couldn’t possibly have happened. The plays, the efforts, the drama was unbelievable. Normal people, made of flesh and blood, were becoming superheroes in need of spandex and hokey names right before my eyes, if only for brief seconds. ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons says it best “…when you hope for something improbable to happen, and 499 times out 500, it never happens ... and then there's the 500th time, and for God's sake, it's happening.”

August 21, 1990: Philadelphia Phillies vs. Los Angeles Dodgers I remember tuning into this game on a whim. It was a week night, nothing was on TV and for an eighth grader before the era of “Friends” and “90210” a baseball game was like finding a ten spot in an old pair of jeans. The only problem was that the game was already in the seventh inning and the Dodgers were up by 10 runs. Having suffered through some ridiculous blowouts in my playing days, I knew it wasn’t going to be exciting, but hell, there was nothing on TV. Then, the Phillies got three runs in the bottom of the 8th inning. Not anything to write home about, but losing by seven looks a tad bit better than losing by double digits. The bottom of the ninth came around, and LA didn’t even use their closer. One of the little-used, out of shape guys named Gus or something like that came wobbling out of the bullpen to try and close out this laugher for the Dodgers. Only problem was, Gus gave up a single. Then a double. Then a home run. And as I grinned from ear to ear, I watched the improbable happen: the Phillies came from 10 back in the final two innings and won the game.

February 2, 1995: Duke Blue Devils vs. North Carolina Tar Heels Anytime these two get together, it’s a special game. Arguably the best rivalry not just in college basketball, but in sports period, they are two programs that both hate and respect each other. Some of their games have been wars, but what happened in this game will be told for generations. Duke came in over-matched, scrambling to keep up with their more talented rivals. But the scrappy Blue Devils never let the Tar Heels get ahead by more than a dozen, even sending the game into overtime with only a precious few seconds remaining. With just two seconds left in overtime, Carolina had a three point lead. Duke had the ball, but needed to go the length of the floor against a smothering defense. The situation was as close to hopeless as it can get in basketball without being impossible. Only a miracle could tie up the game. The ball was inbounded to Duke senior guard Jeff Capel, who only had time enough to take three or four dribbles before he reached half court. Capel launched the ball from over 40 feet away from the basket, a desperation heave. As the ball sailed through the air, some of the Carolina players had started to raise their arms in victory. The home crowd at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium erupted as Capel buried the shot, sending the game into a second overtime. At the end of that extra frame, Capel had yet another chance from almost the same spot, and nearly hit it again, missing by perhaps the length of a fingernail.

November 3, 2001: Arkansas Razorbacks vs. Ole Miss Rebels My buddies Talent and Schoony were in tech school together in the Air Force at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had just happened not even two months previous, and while sports had started back up and the World Series looked like it might go seven games, most of the contests had been pretty routine. Nothing special had happened yet to remind us of how amazing sports could make America feel. That is until college football gave the country one of it’s first gifts in the post-Sept. 11 era. Talent, Schoony and I went to a sports bar just off base, with the intention of watching the early evening football game on ESPN, then making our way down to a club when the game ended (approximately 9:30 pm or so). Arkansas and Ole Miss were fairly evenly matched, but neither team was a threat to win the national title. Mostly they were just playing for pride. Apparently, pride is something worth putting it all on the line for, because the two teams combined for a record seven overtimes before Arkansas finally prevailed by a yard when Ole Miss’s final effort to send the game to yet another extra session was stopped short. The two teams also succeeded in keeping me and my friends in the sports pub till around midnight, dazed, worn-out, and amazed at home a mere game could make us forget that in a few short weeks, we’d be leaving for the operational Air Force and a possible fight against terror.

March 28, 1992: Kentucky Wildcats vs. Duke Blue Devils As a Duke basketball fan, I’ve had the pleasure of watching my beloved Devils play some great games over the years. I’ve seen three national titles, 10 conference titles and a host of buzzer-beating thrillers. But the East Regional Final at the Continental Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey was the greatest show of athleticism, grit, determination, and heart I’ve ever seen. It was such an amazing game, with such an unbelievable finish, that Rick Reilly, the dean of Sports Illustrated writers, called it “The shot heard round the world.” Again, the game was close for the entire 40 minutes of regulation time, with both teams laying it all on the line, sacrificing their bodies just to win, oblivious to the fact that if they won, they’d have to play again in just a few days. The bruises, the cuts, the scrapes that they’d suffer during this game would be there for weeks. It didn’t matter. This game was all that mattered. Overtime started, and you could just imagine Rick Pitino telling his Wildcats, and Mike Krzyzewski telling the Blue Devils the same thing Duke told Rocky before the start of Round 15 against Ivan Drago, “All fear, all your heart, all your love, everything you’ve got. Do it now… NOW!!!

Back and forth the teams went, neither team getting more than a single basket ahead. Players who had no chance of playing it in the NBA were making shots not even Michael Jordan would attempt. Basketball players dream of making the impossible shot once in their lives, but Duke and Kentucky were doing it every time down the floor during this game. Time was running out, and with just 1.7 seconds to play, Kentucky’s Richie Farmer drained a one-handed shot to put the Wildcats up by one. Duke called a time out to set up one last play that needed to go the length of the floor. Krzyzewski looked each of his players in the eye before he diagramed the play and said, “We are going to win this game!” The horn sounded, and ten players walked out onto the court, exhausted, but calling on the last bit of energy they didn’t even know they had to try and win one game. It wasn’t going to be the guy who had the best skills, the guy who had the most talent, but rather, the guy who could dig the deepest, who wanted it more.

When runners get to the point of exhaustion, when they feel that they cannot go any farther, the cramps get unbearable, the thirst unquenchable, the ones who keep going claim to get a boost of energy unlike anything else imaginable. They call it “runner’s nirvana.” We don’t know if Duke’s Christian Laettner felt anything like when he caught Grant Hill’s pass, turned and drained the winning basket as the clock expired, nor what he felt as he ran back down the court, screaming in joy as Duke won the game. Nor do we know what Duke’s Thomas Hill was thinking as he clasped his hands behind his head, his face a picture of disbelief, excitement, and what almost appeared to be horror.

Perhaps it’s best explained in the words of Isaiah Thomas, NBA Hall of Famer. He was on an “Best of the NBA” show with ESPN’s Dan Patrick, showing highlights of the Detroit Pistons first title win in 1989. In Game 3 of the series, Isaiah rolled his ankle, spraining it horribly. Fighting off the pain, struggling to even walk, much less play well, he scored over 20 points in the third quarter alone, helping his team to a crucial win. When the show cut back to Thomas and Patrick in the studio, Isaiah was crying. Patrick asked him why he was so emotional after watching those clips. The answer to that question is the best description of how it must feel to win a title, make the big shot, or complete the unreal play, how it must feel to catch that glimpse of heaven I’ve ever seen. While it’s not as open as we might like, the answer is as honest as it gets in life. Isaiah said, “Seeing those highlights… man, I haven’t seen those in a while. It was… it was just so… I’m sorry. You can’t understand. You’ll never understand.” He’s right, we never will.


Todd's background includes military service, a stint at a movie theater, and getting turned down for a date by Sandra Bullock. All things that make him totally unqualified to be a writer. However, now that he's getting married in November, that might just do it.

more about todd w bush


fridays in mississippi
by todd w bush
topic: sports
published: 9.5.04

do you believe in miracles?
how one game helped change america
by todd w bush
topic: sports
published: 6.18.04


adam kraemer
7.8.04 @ 1:00p

Shame the Phillies didn't manage that last night, huh?

steve luxton
8.28.04 @ 3:42p

I couldn't believe Capel made that shot. I sat in disbelief staring at the TV just glad to know that the 3 only tied the score. Ironically, the dook fans forgot Capel's heroics and put on a boofest his senior year when he went into a protracted slump. I still believe that's the main reason his little brother Jason (6'8") didn't end up in Durham.

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