My four best personal sports victories

21 Feb

Unfortunately, unlike in my worst losses column, not all of my teams have sports victories worth celebrating here, so we have four proper entries, with some backups in each.

Sorry, Knicks. I considered their vanquishing the Bulls in the ’94 second round, but, well, the Bulls didn’t even have Jordan, and the Knicks still barely eked it out. The ’99 lockout year finals run was pretty cool, and definitely a fun happy-to-be-there moment but it was so weird and I have just general good feelings about it and not really strong Sports Feelings.

And as for the Bills, well, you can forget about it. I wasn’t really a fan yet at the time of the big early-round playoff victories, like the comeback against the Oilers in 1993.

Moving on then to the actual choices.

New York Rangers ’94 championship

This is always, for me, the positive flip side to the Knicks’ 94 loss. I don’t remember this series nearly as well, but I do remember exactly where I was when it happened, listening on radio at my paternal grandmother’s apartment in the Bronx.

Islanders fans mercilessly teased Rangers fans on Long Island with a “1940” chant, denoting the last year the Rangers had won the cup, and in one fell swoop, that jibe was erased from their playbook and us Rangers fans had the upper hand (and still do). On top of that, the Rangers swept the Isles in the first round.

This team had everything, and possibly even more satisfying than the Stanley Cup finals was the previous round where the Rangers came back from a 3-2 deficit to the hated Devils, who finished the season with the second-best record, after Mark Messier guaranteed victory in Game 6, a guarantee that really meant something and is well-remembered among Rangers fans.

Broadcaster and lifelong Ranger fan Howie Rose gave one of the all-time calls in Game 7 of that series, when the Rangers broke a 1-1 tie with 7.7 seconds left in double OT, scored by a 24-year-old left winger who had only played 12 games and scored 4 goals for the Rangers, all season, exclaiming, “Matteau, Matteau, Matteau!.”

Fluke championships are great in their own way, but the Rangers championship was everything you could want in a title-winning year. They were the best team in the league, taking home the President’s Trophy with 112 points.

They had legends. Mark Messier, one of the all-time greats, who had left the shadow of Wayne Gretzky to lead a long-suffering New York Rangers team to the promised last, showing he could win one on his own.

Brian Leetch, the American offensive defenseman, who was the best player in franchise history.

And rounding out a redoubtable core four of stars were left-winger Adam Graves and goalie Mike Richter.

My only wish is that I could have been just a couple of years older to better appreciate this magical year.

2003 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final: Syracuse defeats Kansas

This was the fucking best. Right in the middle of the years when I cared about Syracuse basketball as much as any other team, they delivered the ultimate prize.

I don’t care about the Bills anymore, but football was never my favorite sport. Part of the reason I fell off was simple lack of interest, but also the violence of the game began to bother me more over time, and I’m not really sad about leaving it behind.

I don’t really care about college basketball anymore, and that, on the other hand, does make me quite sad. The NCAA tournament was one of, if not, my favorite sporting event of the year, and I buzzed the entire week before it began, trying to work through the bracket, assessing the regions and the seedings, and, of course, making predictions. I then stared at nothing but the TV for the four days of the first weekend, my favorite time of the tournament, frantically flipping through channels when there were up to four games on at a time, upsets around every corner, and the starting 64 (none of this 68 bullshit) were knocked down to 16.

I lived for the tournament and I equally lived for Syracuse basketball. For about a decade and a half, between around 1995 and 2011, I lived and breathed the ‘Cuse, and while I didn’t even mention them in my worst losses column, regular upsets to lower seeds, like Vermont and UTEP, drove me mad.

I didn’t feel anything for the Bills in their playoff game earlier this year, but if Syracuse reached the back end of the tourney, I would still make a point to tune in and root for the Orange. But I don’t care like I did once, largely because of my general frustration with the institution of college sports (anything more on that is a matter for another time).

I remember almost every game of the wild, magical ’03 run fairly well. The ‘Cuse were a #3 seed with one transcendent player, freshman Carmelo Anthony, a sophomore who was already the soul of the team, Hakim Warrick, a freshman point guard, Gerry McNamara, and some other parts.

I had the mixed blessing of having to follow Carmelo for years with the Knicks, and he gave fans a combination of highs and lows, from a scoring title and a 50-win season to, well, everything else. But I can never dislike Carmelo because of the 2003 championship.

Well before dv-ring sports was a thing, I video taped Syracuse’s Elite Eight game vs. Oklahoma because I had to go a show with my family, and I remember imploring my parents to keep the radio off when we were in the car and then spending the next couple of hours in my downtown dorm room jumping up and down in what ended up being an anti-climactic blowout that sent Syracuse to the Final Four.

This was a truly amazing, pure sports victory, that still means a lot to me despite the fact that I haven’t been following Syracuse or college basketball much for years now.

Contender: The 6 OT game – Syracuse defeats UConn 127-117 in the 2009 Big East tournament quarterfinal in longest Division 1 college basketball game ever played.

I watched this live. I did not remember it being a 10 point victory, nor that UConn was ranked #3 while Syracuse was ranked #18. I do remember that Johnny Flynn played almost the entire game – all but three minutes, and it will always be my enduring memory of Johnny Flynn despite his megabust of an NBA career. It was one of those games where everyone involved talked about what an honor it was to just be a part of the game, but really, it was better to win it. Syracuse remarkably never led during the first 5 OTs.

2008 Wimbledon: Rafael Nadal defeats Roger Federer 6–4, 6–4, 6–7(5–7), 6–7(8–10), 9–7 

It’s been called the best tennis match of all time. Jon Wertheim, tennis writer for Sports Illustrated, wrote a book about it.

It’s weird to talk about now, since Nadal and Federer, not to mention Novak Djokovic, who had just appeared on the world stage in 2008, winning his first slam at the Australian Open (he wouldn’t win another until 2011) are still battling over slams routinely – between the three, they’ve won the past 13 majors, and they’ve had ups, downs, and more ups between them since.

Maybe that reduces the importance of this match from the current perspective, but when it’s all said and done, this will signal the passing of the torch from Roger to Rafa, when Rafa came and beat Roger at his home base. Of course, Fed would win 8 more majors after this, so it’s hardly like the end of his career was nigh, but this changed the dynamic of the relationship. Rafa lost to Roger in the 2006 and 2007 finals, getting better between each go around. He had been putting bigger beatdowns on Roger in the French Open finals the same years, leading to his most humiliating defeat of Roger then and to this day in the 2008 final at Roland Garros 6–1, 6–3, 6–0 (the line is still stunning to behold; it’s one of the few times I’ve truly seen his will broken).

I believed that Rafal Nadal could win in 2008, but this was Roger’s court – he had won 5 straight at the time, and seemed totally unbeatable on grass.

Rafa jumped out to a two set lead, and my confidence was buoyed, only to see Roger crawl back, winning sets 3 and 4, ready to take his rightful place once more.

And then, as darkness fell over the All England Club, the climatctic fifth set, which didn’t have a tiebreaker of any kind until 2019. went into overtime, only to see Rafa triumph at 9-7, capturing the summer double of the French Open and Wimbledon for the first time since Bjorn Borg did it in 1980.

The joy was sweet. Rafa has given me many of my favorite sports memories. He’s probably my favorite athlete of all-time, and frankly, he’s simply won a lot more than most of the teams that I root for.

I don’t remember watching the exact beats of this match as well as I think I should. This was a long time ago, but not so long ago that I was a kid. I was a fully formed adult and yet I don’t have the same exact sense memory of where I was as I do during the 1994 Rangers victory or the 2003 Syracuse victory, even though I do remember watching it at home on Long Island.

But this was the match where Rafa became a legend, where he went from young upstart to on par with Roger, when he went from a great of the time to a great of all-time and it’s a touchstone for tennis fans everywhere.

Contender: Rafael Nadal defeats Daniil Medvedev 7–5, 6–3, 5–7, 4–6, 6–4 in the 2019 U.S. Open final

I’m not sure this one is going to stand the test of time quite honestly, but it’s relatively fresh in my mind, gave Nadal the key slam he needed to get to 19, one behind Federer, away from the French, and could be seen as the changing of the guard, as Medvedev, one of the leaders of the class of tennis players born in the ‘90s, pushed Rafa to the absolute limit before Rafa put him away.

July 31, 2015 – Mets defeat Nationals 2-1 AKA the Wilmer Flores game

The Mets are, overall, better known for their losses than their wins, but unlike the Knicks, they actually have won some big games and series over the years. In baseball, it can be hard for regular season games to stand out, as the season is a grind, but the absolutely magical 2015 run had several, and one in particular, that stood out, even above any individual post-season game that year.

Whoever was scripting the 2015 MLB season did a great job with the Mets, because the arc was edge-of-the-seat compelling. After a rocky season start, everything came into place over the course of July, complete with one big trade – that for Yoenis Cespedes, and one big non-trade – keeping Wilmer Flores. It’s not as if Mets fans were so enamored of Flores’ contributions on the field. But he was a career Met who has put his heart and soul on the line for the team, and as Mets fans sometimes (myself included) have an inferiority complex about whether players actually want to be here, to see someone cry over the possibility of leaving tugged at the heartstrings.

And then in a game played on July 31, right after the trade deadline passed and Flores knew he would likely be with the team for the duration of the season, he finally had his signature moment as a Met, hitting a walk-off home run in the 12th inning to break a 1-1 tie in a game against the then-division leading Nationals. They went on to sweep the three-game set, wrenching the lead from the Nats, and took it all the way to the World Series from there.

Contenders: 2012 Johan Santana’s no-hitter – I was at a concert and didn’t see it, so I couldn’t really put it here, but it’s a big moment in Mets history. 2015 NLCS sweep of the Cubs – the Cubs would get their World Series the next year, but this decimation was amazing and stunning. The first two rounds of that post-season were fantastic but there was no one game or moment, partly because they were such relatively easily won series, as the Wilmer home run.

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