Looking Back: Best and Most Emotional Detroit Sports Year of the 1990s

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Looking Back: Best and Most Emotional Detroit Sports Year of the 1990s
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

It may seem strange to look back to the 1990s, but with the Stanley Cup Finals, Memorial Day, and lots of happenings in the world of athletics, memories tend to find their way back. 

The year was 1997, and in Detroit it was the best and most emotional of the decade. 

 

Detroit Tigers

Although the Tigers finished only 79-83, it was a massive improvement from the previous year's 53-109 record. This team was one of the better post-1984 Tigers teams led by a fun offense. 

Tony Clark in his 2nd full season as a Major Leaguer replaced Cecil Fielder, who was traded to the Yankees in 1996, as 1st baseman of the team. Going for career bests with a .376 OBP, 105 runs and 117 RBIs he finished 18th in AL MVP voting.

With Clark, two others hit over 100 RBIs to give the Tigers three 100 RBI batters for the first time since 1950. The others, 

Bobby Higginson at 101 RBIs with a .299 average and Travis Fryman in his final year as a Tiger reached 102 RBIs and even stole a career high 16 bases. 

Of course, 16 stolen bases really gets overlooked when somebody steals 74 bases in a season like 

Brian Hunter did for Detroit. It was the most for a Tigers player since 1979 when Ron LeFlore stole 78. 

In addition to those accomplishments Justin Thompson had a 3.02 ERA with 15 wins and Willie Blair added 16. If the Tigers had been in the Central Division like they are today, instead of the East, they'd have been in a fight for a playoff spot down the stretch. The Cleveland Indians clinched with an 86-75 record.

 

Detroit Pistons

Led by Grant Hill in perhaps the best all-around season of his career (21.4 PPG, 9 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.8 SPG) the 1996-97 Detroit Pistons were a force to be reckoned with in the regular season. The Pistons finished with a 54-28 record, their best since their 1989-90 Championship season. And a regular season record that would not be matched again until 2003-04 when the Pistons won the title again. 

While nobody was going to stop the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, the Pistons had a solid combination of young and old to entertain the fans. Joe Dumars shot 43 percent from beyond the arc and scoring 14.7 PPG in 79 games, his largest number of games played in a season in five years. 

To go with Dumars and Hill was Lindsey Hunter in his 3rd season. Hunter went for a career high 14.2 PPG, never scoring more than 13 PPG in a season again. Otis Thorpe anchored the middle with 13.1 PPG and 7.9 RPG, while Terry Mills lead the bench with 10.8 PPG and 42 percent from long range. 

Although Detroit was ousted 3-2 by the Atlanta Hawks in their first round series, it was the lone bright spot for the Pistons in the mid-nineties.  

 

Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions 1997 season was one of the bigger rollercoaster rides of the Lions' teams of the 90s. The first year of Bobby Ross's tenure featured a 9-7 season where four NFC Central teams made the playoffs.  

But most impressive was the season of Barry Sanders culminating in over 2,000 yards rushing.

Perhaps the most overlooked part of Barry's 1997 campaign was the fact that he rushed for a total of 2,053 yards. Why is this interesting? Because in the first two games of 1997 he ran for a total of 53 yards. In the last 14, he gained exactly 2,000 yards. He also ran for over 100 yards per game in each one.

Those NFL records for the most 100-yard rushing games in a season and most games consecutively still stand today. 

As for the rest of the team, a 4-6 start had Detroit looking like they would once again be on the outside looking in on the playoffs. But like many of the other Lions teams of the 90s a strong finish was in sight.

Accompanying Barry on this mission was Scott Mitchell with 3,484 yards passing, Herman Moore with 104 catches, and Johnnie Morton with 1,057 receiving yards. For the defense Robert Porcher and Luther Ellis combined for 21 sacks and Mark Carrier had 5 INTs. 

Entering the final game of the season versus the Jets, the Lions needed to win to make the playoffs and Sanders needed 131 yards for 2,000. With all the build up, one of the most emotional games in recent Lions history took place.

First, I was there in attendance as I often was as a kid at Lions games, but something was missing. My dad, on his way to meet me at the game, got in a car accident and didn't arrive until mid-second quarter.

During that time the Jets jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead in the first quarter and the Lions looked to be in a dire situation. Going against Bill Parcells, Barry managed just 20 yards on his first 8 carries and the Lions found themselves down 10-3 at halftime. 

As the game progressed the action on the field picked up. Barry finally found his groove breaking off big runs and leading the Lions to a 13-10 lead in the 4th quarter. The Silverdome was showing why it was one of the loudest football domes in all of football and everything was clicking.

Then it all changed. Promising young linebacker Reggie Brown, who had over 100 tackles and had scored 2 INT TDs during the year, suffered a serious spinal cord injury. The situation immediately brought back memories of Mike Utley and the stadium was silent. Brown had to be resuscitated with CPR and would never play the game of football again. 

In addition to Brown's injury, a fan suffered a heart attack in the same time frame.

After 17 hellacious minutes, the game had to be restarted. Barry reached 2,000 yards and ironically had a final run of 53 yards in the 4th quarter, bringing his final total to 2,053 and clinching the playoff spot.

The team lost to Tampa Bay in the Wild Card round, but one of the greatest seasons and most memorable games in Lions history took place.

 

Detroit Red Wings

It had been 42 years since the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. In 1995, they had been the best in hockey, but were embarrassed by the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Unlike in previous seasons where Detroit dominated the regular season, the Red Wings finished as the 3rd seed in the Western Conference and held the fifth best record in all of hockey.

Early in the season, the Wings acquired Brendan Shanahan who quickly took charge as an offensive leader for the team, leading them in points for the year.

Also on offense captain Steve Yzerman continued his brilliant career with more veteran savvy than ever. 

And most importantly, they had the best Russian players in the game. Sergei Federov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and Igor Larionov on offense with Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov anchoring the defense.  The Russian Five helped keep pressure on opposing teams and enforced tough defense.

Larry Murphy and Nick Lidstrom also helped form one of the best defensive duos in the game at the time.

And then there were the tone setters, the original Grind Line for the Red Wings with young Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, and Kirk Maltby wore down defenses nightly by simply grinding out each line shift.

Regardless of how good the team as a whole seemed to be one big question mark remained, who would step up at goalie?

When the playoffs began Mike Vernon got the call, despite a mediocre season and playing fewer total games than the young Chris Osgood. Looking for redemption from the 1995 playoffs, Vernon never looked back. The Red Wings got through the Blues in six and then swept a weak Mighty Ducks team. 

Then came the series all of hockey had been waiting for. The Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche were the main NHL rivalry of the 1990s. Patrick Roy, Claude Lemieux, Peter Forsberg, and Joe Sakic had left Detroit angered from a brutal 1996 season between the two teams, including a vicious cheap shot on Draper from Lemieux. 

With a chance to exact revenge, the Red Wings won in six games as Colorado had done the year before.  Detroit blew out Colorado 6-0 in Game 4 of the series. It also marked the game where everything boiled over—each team had over 100 penalty minutes, and Detroit took a 3-1 lead.

Finally done in six, the Red Wings were back in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Facing the Philadelphia Flyers the Red Wings were simply on a mission. A four game sweep later and the sweet taste of champagne pouring from Lord Stanley's Cup hit the lips of the players.

The scene was one of the best I've ever witnessed in person and nobody left their seat as the celebration carried on late into the night in Detroit.

Unfortunately, tragedy did strike this team as well. A week after clinching the cup, the promising career of Konstantinov came to an abrupt end with a horrific limo accident.

 

College—Michigan State and University of Michigan

Although not directly Detroit, the Michigan Wolverines claimed a National Championship in football led by coach Lloyd Carr.

As for the Spartans, a young Tom Izzo had begun planting the seeds for a bright future when Mateen Cleaves joined the squad for the 1996-97 season.

Not many years come close to the emotional highs and lows like it did in 1997 in Detroit in any decade.

 

Is there a different year that sticks out in your mind about Detroit or your own city? Let me know.

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