The coronavirus epidemic has put a temporary halt to many things, including the world of sports. That, of course, is inconsequential compared to the millions of lives and careers that have been disrupted, but it’s also true that following sports is important to a lot of people.
That’s why, with professional, college and high school sports in hiatus, the sports sections of newspapers and television networks dedicated to sports have come up with some interesting filler, such as broadcasting great games or performances from the past.
With that in mind, I’ve come up with my own list – the five greatest individual performances I’ve witnessed first-hand. All of them came from a long and mostly undistinguished career as a sports writer, but looking back at it, I did see some amazing games by some amazing athletes.
So, here are my top 5 in chronological order. Feel free to respond with some of your own best performances and, remember, you had to have seen it live, not on television or an iPad (which wasn’t even invented when I witnessed my Top 5).
It was called the Shootout at Youngstown, and not only was it the best football game I’ve ever seen at any level, it featured one of the best individual games anybody has ever seen.
But you wouldn’t know that by the stat sheet because Delaware quarterback Scott Brunner had an average day when the No.1 Blue Hens played at No.2 Youngstown State in 1979 in a battle of Division II juggernauts. He barely completed 50 percent of his passes (14-for-27) and his 199 yards passing don’t even rank on the school’s top 20 list. Plus, Brunner didn’t throw a single touchdown pass, although he was intercepted once, as the Hens were humbled in the first half and fell behind 31-7 before a hostile crowd of 13,442 Penguins fans packed into a high school stadium.
So, you had to be there to appreciate the game Brunner had that November afternoon. Sometimes a player has a special light around him and you could see that light shining on Brunner as Delaware scored 28 points in the third quarter and 16 more in the fourth and ended up winning the seesaw game 51-45.
Brunner orchestrated the dramatic comeback – he also ran for two touchdowns – and you just had the feeling the Hens were going to score every time he got his hands on the ball, and they just about did.
Whenever they needed a key play or first down, Brunner got it for them as the Hens held onto their No.1 ranking and would eventually win the national championship 38-21 in a rematch with Youngstown State. And Brunner went on to have a solid five-year NFL career with the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals.
This has been as voted the best college basketball game of all time, and it’s mostly remembered for one play. But Christian Laettner did a lot more than score a game-winning basket in overtime.
The game was the Eastern Regional final of the 1992 NCAA Tournament at the Spectrum and two of the best teams in the nation – Duke and Kentucky – went at it.
Certainly, you’ve seen the replay of Laettner’s buzzer-beating jumper hundreds of times, and there’s a good chance you’ll see it again and again in the future – he took a long inbound pass from Grant Hill, wheeled around and put up a soft shot – since known as “the shot” – that gave Duke a 104-103 victory.
But that wasn’t the only reason he was chosen as the region’s MVP. Laettner scored 31 points and he didn’t miss a single shot all game, from the field or the free-throw line – he was 10-for-10 and 10-for-10. Laettner also had seven rebounds and three assists against a tough Kentucky team.
Do you believe in Magic?
Earvin “Magic’’ Johnson was a rookie when his Los Angeles Lakers took on the 76ers in the 1982 NBA Championship Series and both squads were loaded with All-Stars, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Lakers and Julius Erving of the Sixers.
But it was the rookie point guard who took center stage, literally and figuratively. With Abdul-Jabbar sidelined with an injury for Game 6, the Lakers limped into the Spectrum leading the series 3-2 and everyone assumed the Sixers would win at home and then play a Game 7 in L.A.
Johnson had other ideas.
He replaced Abdul-Jabbar (and when was the last time a point guard replaced a center?) and led the Lakers to a 123-107 victory and the championship. All the rookie did was score 42 points, including nine straight in the decisive fourth quarter, while making all 14 of his free throws. He also grabbed 15 rebounds and passed for seven assists and afterward Sixers guard Doug Collins said of Johnson: “I knew he was good, but I never realized he was great.’’
Randall rocks Redskins
Sept. 17, 1989 was a great day all around for Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham. In the morning, he signed a five-year, $18 million contract extension that made him the highest-paid player in Eagles history. Then, in the afternoon, he went out and earned it.
Cunningham put on an unbelievable show that day at RFK Stadium in Washington, although there wasn’t even a hint of that early in the game, as he threw an interception and the Eagles fell behind the Redskins 20-0.
The Eagles eventually pulled out a 42-37 victory as Cunningham completed 34 of 46 passes for 447 yards and five touchdowns. Cunningham was more noted as a scrambler than a passer, but he only ran for six yards, although he did make some eye-popping moves to elude the Redskins’ pass rushers and buy time for his receivers to get open.
And it was quality as well as quantity, as Cunningham led the Eagles to touchdowns on their final two possessions to steal the game from their NFC East rival in a game that still goes down as one of the most exciting in Eagles history.
Fifty is nifty
As shot after shot sailed through the basket and the points kept piling up, it became clear to everyone in the gym that they were witnessing something special.
In 2006, Elena Delle Donne scored 50 points to lead Ursuline Academy past St. Elizabeth 68-51 for the girls’ high school basketball championship and nobody – boy or girl, man or woman, not even Globetrotter – has ever scored more points at the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark.
Delle Donne, just a sophomore, almost outscored the entire St. Elizabeth team, which came into the game ranked 15th in the nation. She made 20 of 31 shots and also grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds. And, of course, she was perfect from the free-throw line (5-for-5).
Delle Donne’s record-breaking game is special not only because of what she did, but also because of when she did it and who she did it against – in a championship game against a good, well-coached team.
What’s also noteworthy about her half-a-hundred is that even though she took most of her team’s shots and scored almost all of its points, you never got the impression Delle Donne was hogging the ball or simply looking for her shot all the time. Everything she did came in the flow of the game and that’s why it looked easy when, of course, it wasn’t.
That’s also why it took a while for the sellout crowd to realize Delle Done was having a record-breaking game – one minute you looked at the scoreboard and saw she had 14 points, and the next minute you looked up and saw she had 37.
It was a performance everyone who was at the Bob that day will remember for a long time and a performance they might never see again from a high school athlete.