10 Defining Sports Moments for the Big Apple

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2014

10 Defining Sports Moments for the Big Apple

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    How do you define a sports town like New York?

    Mere words don't seem to do it justice. Neither do stories nor songs. The history and character of New York sports is a visceral experience, something that is survived by the sight of its moments, the sound of the reaction of the fans.

    New York could mean anything in the context of sports, be it plucky underdog or overwhelming favorite. The Yankees have all the money in the world; the Islanders nearly went bankrupt. From glitz and glamour to hustle and heart, the Big Apple truly has it all.

    The first cold-weather Super Bowl is on its way this February, reminding us also that New York sports aren't just defined by its teams. From Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing to Bethpage Black on Long Island to Lake Placid way upstate, New York has played backdrop to some of the best neutral sports moments ever.

    How do you define a sports town like New York? There's only one good way. You re-live the history, one great moment at a time.

Bambino Curses the Red Sox (1919)

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    Nothing says New York like the Great Bambino, the Babe, Mr. Georgie Herman Ruth. Though he hailed from Baltimore, starting his career both there and with the Red Sox before coming to the Bronx, Ruth became a true icon of Manhattan culture during his 15-year run with the Yankees.

    If anything does say New York like the Great Bambino, however, it's a fierce rivalry with—and borderline hatred of—all things Boston sports. The rivalry between those two Northeastern cities extends from baseball to football to basketball to hockey, and Ruth is the man who upped the ante.

    By that token, Ruth's move from the Red Sox to the Yankees is no doubt one of the defining moments in the history of New York sports, fueling an interstate rivalry that still resonates in 2014. Even if his "curse" has been lifted and the Red Sox have won three World Series in a decade, the impact of his purchase will never be forgotten.

Broadway Joe's Guarantee (1969)

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    Babe Ruth was the original large-scale New York City sports icon, but Jets quarterback Joe Namath was the biggest. Not just at the time, but ever. 

    They call him "Broadway Joe" for a reason.

    Before Super Bowl III, Namath's Jets were heavy underdogs against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, who were expected to win with ease. But Namath wouldn't have it. "We're going to win Sunday," he now-famously told a heckler. "I guarantee it."

    Namath made good on his smack talk, leading the Jets to an upset win and being named the MVP. In the process, he helped establish an identity that New York sports fans still recognize: supreme confidence, bordering on arrogance, with enough bravado and talent to back it all up.

The Return of Willis Reed (1970)

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    One game away from their first-ever NBA Championship, the Knicks were without superstar Willis Reed for Game 6 of the Finals. Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain torched New York for 45 points and 27 rebounds, forcing Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.

    Nobody knew if Reed would play, and after he missed warmups, it appeared that he wouldn't. But after taking an injection in the tunnel, he limped out onto the court, fully uniformed, and was met by a noisy cascade of cheers.

    "(The Lakers) lost the game right there," recalls former New York Daily News writer Phil Pepe in the video above. Once Reed stepped on the floor and the city climbed anxiously on his his back, Los Angeles no longer had a chance.

    Reed took the opening tip against Chamberlain and scored New York's first two buckets of the game. Even though he didn't score again the entire evening, the emotional lift he provided empowered his team to victory in dramatic fashion.

The Fight of the Century (1971)

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    Even in a vacuum, the first meeting between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was one of the biggest, most historically significant fights in the history of boxing. Given the context, it was so much more than just that.

    Ali was the most outspoken man in sports, a symbol of young liberalism, a proponent of Civil Rights, an opponent of the war in Vietnam. Frazier, more by necessity than anything, was billed as his opposite, antagonized and taunted by Ali in vile ways that history seems to have forgotten.

    The actual fight lived up to its billing, rounding out as a fast-paced affair. Frazier won by unanimous decision, but it was the atmosphere, more than the result, that became a part of history.

    New York City provided the perfect, most riveted backdrop for the Fight of the Century, as remembered by the late referee Arthur Mercante Sr.:

    New York City has been called the city that never sleeps. It was never more so that night. Celebrations and talk of the fight echoed throughout Manhattan. Two spectators in the Garden had actually suffered fatal heart attacks from the excitement. 

    Only in New York, people. Only in New York.

The Miracle on Ice (1980)

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    It's a simple question, really. Do you, or don't you, believe in miracles?

    So was the query from the immortal voice of Al Michaels, right as the United States cleared the puck and iced out a win over the U.S.S.R in the Olympic hockey semifinals. Dead in the heart of the Cold War, head coach Herb Brooks and his band of merry Yanks defied all odds and upset a supposed machine.

    This profound moment in time played out in the sprawling winter hamlet of Lake Placid, a different side of New York State than the one enjoyed in Manhattan. Not just a city, New York is a versatile host to sporting events, capable of hosting one like this just as well as Ali-Frazier I, which required the city's bright lights.

    The United States went on to win the Gold Medal Game against Finland, but those extra three periods were exceedingly anti-climactic. Scoring back-to-back goals in the third period to beat the Soviets, however, was as climactic as climaxes come.

Buckner Lets It Go Five-Hole (1986)

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    Boston was happy to play the Mets in the 1986 World Series. New York was the city that cursed it more than 65 years ago, and while it couldn't play the Yankees of the American League for the title, the Mets seemed the next-best thing.

    It was supposed to be poetic.

    Instead, the moment became poetically cruel, as a baseball team from New York was responsible for the lowest low in the history of the "Curse of Bambino." After a furious two-out rally to tie Game 6 in the bottom of the 10th, and needing to win to force a Game 7, New York's Mookie Wilson hit a routine ground ball to Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.

    The rest, as the say, is history.

    The ball bounced right between Buckner's legs, allowing Ray Knight to round third—a hop, a skip and a jump in his step—for the improbable winning run. The Mets went on to clinch the title two nights later in Game 7, sending Boston in another spiral of sad disappointment.

    Even Yankees fans, who are the Mets' sworn enemies, found themselves rooting against Boston. In terms of pure schadenfreude, this might be the greatest moment in New York sports history.

Matteau! Matteau! Matteau! (1994)

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    Everything about the Rangers' run to the 1994 Stanley Cup was dramatic. Mike Richter's penalty shot save in Game 4 of the finals against Vancouver? The stuff of legends. So was the breathless, edge-of-your-seat tension during Game 7. These moments were 54 years in the making, and they lived up to the billing.

    But nothing sums up those playoffs like Stephane Matteau's Game 7 double-overtime goal against the New Jersey Devils. Mired in a next-goal-wins scenario, with a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals on the line, the Rangers' winger poked a wraparound past Martin Brodeur and sent the city of New York into frenzy.

    I had friends who were Rangers fans in high school. They were three years old when this play took place. And yet, Howie Rose's now-legendary call—"MATTEAU! MATTEAU! MATTEAU!"—was the ringtone on almost each of their cell phones. 

    That's how much this meant.

Piazza's Homer After 9/11 (2001)

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    Mike Piazza has a complicated relationship with history. Reviled by some because of his back acne, which seems the most asinine, condemning, bias-confirming way to identify a potential steroids user, he will always—always—remain loved by fans in New York.

    This is a big reason why.

    The Mets returned home for the first time since the events of Sep. 11, 2001, merely 10 days after the attack on the World Trade Center. Trailing the rival Braves by one run in the eighth inning, Piazza stepped up to the plate with a man on-base and hit the most important homer of the 427 in his career.

    No, it didn't come in the playoffs. It came at a time that was far more important. Even without a World Series ring, Piazza came up big when his team—and much more, his city—needed most to see something inherently, undeniably good.

    Piazza delivered.

Jeter Saves the Day (2001)

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    Derek Jeter is Yankee baseball, more than any other player since the Babe. Because he was drafted by and groomed in the organization, you could actually make the case for him over the Babe, over Gehrig, over Mantle, over the rest of the lot.

    And this was his signature moment.

    What Jeter's done with the bat has defined his career more than what he's done with the glove, this is true. But the Captain's flair for the dramatic, in general, has defined his career more than either phase of the game. Leading the Oakland Athletics, 1-0, in the seventh inning of the 2001 ALDS, that flair was never more important.

    Shane Spencer airmailed the cutoff throw from right field on a hit by Terrence Long, seemingly giving Jeremy Giambi the lucky break he needed to score and tie the game. Then, out of nowhere, Jeter appeared on the spot, picked up the errant throw and flipped it to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged Giambi out at the plate.

    Yes, it was just one play in the ALDS, but the moment symbolizes so much more about the greater landscape of New York sports. The late '90s-early '00s Yankees were among the most successful teams in modern American history.

    This was one of their greatest hits.

The Helmet Catch (2008)

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    The list comes first circle.

    We went chronologically, starting with the sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees, which began the primary chapter of Boston-New York sports feuds. Now, we end with a moment that again changed that rivalry forever.

    The Pats had a chance to make history. Even more history than they made all season in 2007-08, which included single-season touchdown records from Tom Brady and Randy Moss. They went undefeated in the regular season and advanced to the Super Bowl against the Cinderella Giants, where they were expected to roll, once again, and become the first team to finish with zero losses since 1972.

    It wasn't to be.

    After Asante Samuel dropped what should have been the game-sealing interception, Eli Manning broke free, impossibly, from a New England rush and heaved a pass downfield for David Tyree, a seldom-used part of the passing game. Draped by Rodney Harrison, a four-time All-Pro safety, Tyree went up and pinned the ball on his helmet for a landscape-shifting 32-yard catch.

    With momentum—and, it seemed, destiny—now on its side, the Giants offense marched down the rest of the field, winning the game on a touchdown pass from Manning to Plaxico Burress with less than a minute remaining.

    It was another bad day to be from Boston.