We’re coming to that time of year when you begin to see a lot of year-end stories. But as we get closer to New Year’s, the real news heats up again, so I wanted to take a look back before the holidays when there’s a little time.
This is a personal list. And the great thing about it is that everyone has their own list like this, and every list will be different. In fact, I’d love to hear about your own lists, if anyone wants to post their most memorable sports moments of the year in response to this blog, or even email them along to me at email@example.com, I might use them in a piece along these same lines in the newspaper later this month.
Anyway, here we go. These aren’t necessarily my five favorite moments, but they are those that stand out in my memory, and probably will for a long time. In countdown order . . .
5. Olympic Opening Ceremonies
This is the only one of my five that I wasn’t there for in person. I can only imagine what a spectacle it must have been live. But it was amazing enough on television. In a high-def age when it’s tough enough to elicit “oohs” and “ahhs” from a sophisticated audience, this piece of stagecraft did it for an extended time. And Li Ning’s walk on air through the Beijing night to light the Olympic cauldron was a moment you didn’t have to see in person to remember forever. I’d also include here any number of Olympic moments, particularly Michael Phelps swimming brilliance and some of the breathtaking finishes in swimming.
4. Walking up No. 18 with M.J. at Valhalla
I don’t remember who I was tracking heading up to the 18th green at Valhalla on the second day of the Ryder Cup, but I won’t forget who I encountered. Striding along in front of us was Michael Jordan, and for several minutes, I was one of a small group of media folks making our way toward the green with, apologies to the golfers aside, the most reconizable athlete in the place. It was fun to hear the gasps of recognition from people outside the ropes as he walked by, and then the polite calls, “Hey, MJ!” I told Jody Demling, who was with the group, afterward, “You’re one of the few people, maybe the only one, to walk up this fairway with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.”
It’s always one of the most memorable moments of the year, slogging through the Churchill Downs track to the backside before the Kentucky Derby, then walking back toward the paddock with the horses and hearing the crowd start to swell as the horses come into view. When you come around the turn and see those Spires and that view, you feel pretty fortunate. I do it every year, and this year picked the 3-year-old star Pyro to follow from backside to front. But I didn’t keep up with that group very well and found myself drawn to what was happening behind me. There were huge cheers and shouts for the big gray filly, Eight Belles. And unlike the colt in front of her, Eight Belles seemed completely comfortable in her surroundings. She turned and looked into the crowd, and being on her left side, I was able to catch her eyes and look up into the crowd where she was looking, where people were shouting, “You go girl! and Go Lady Go!” She wasn’t a delicate, graceful filly, but a big, muscular, strong-looking one. Still, not long after that, I’d be writing a memorial to her, after she was euthanized on the track.
2. Ryder Cup, on the green for the clincher
I was standing right beside Boo Weekley when Miguel Jiminez concended the putt to Jim Furyk that ended the United States’ 9-year Ryder Cup drought. Boo took off toward the hole. Everybody took off toward the hole. I looked around and Gov. Steve Beshear was not far to my left. Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly was a few steps away. And though it wasn’t a huge crowd, it felt like most of Louisville was surrouning that little patch of green. I looked down the hill as the team made its walk back up the fairway to watch the next group, and saw Louisville attorney Dave Barber, who I went to school at U of L with, following the group. After that scene, and heading back up toward No. 18 and the clubhouse, I followed Phil Mickelson, who saw his wife off to the right talking to three guys behind the ropes. He swooped in and grabbed her away and started walking on when she pointed back to tell him that the guys wanted to give him their flag. They had an American flag, that Mickelson accepted and draped around his shoulders as he walked the rest of the way in.
1. Bill Keightley’s office
It wasn’t an enjoyable scene, but Scott Stricklin, the University of Kentucky’s sports information director at the time, was good enough to let me go with an idea I had. I was overwhelmed at the notion of summing up the life of Mr. Wildcat, legendary UK equipment manager Bill Keightley. But I thought that there might be a scrap of something that might help me in his office. What I found was a treasure trove. They’d already sealed the office and put velvet chords around the doorway, but unlocked it for me and we went walking back through a storied Kentucky life. We were all a little spooked when we realized that the two bobblehead dolls on his shelf — Aaron Harang and Brandon Webb — were the pitchers who worked the Major League game he was heading to when he died. The best thing you can do in this job is try to get yourself into places where other people can’t go. I was glad I was able to take that little trip through an office where Bill spent most of his life. I wrote the story, reproduced just a couple of blog entries down from this one, at a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Versailles Road. I know I won’t forget seeing his space, the way he left it, a suitcase still packed on the floor, though he had departed on his biggest journey of all.
A few others worth noting.
— The Belmont Stakes. While everyone was trying to figure out what was happening with Big Brown, this guy behind me was shouting up a storm. I turned and there, a few feet away, was Nick Zito, whose longshot Da’ Tara was rolling to victory. I was happy for Nick, a good friend of my good friend Cliff Guilliams, who passed away this year.
— NCAA Charlotte Regional. Anytime you get one game away from the Final Four, it’s a special atmosphere. I don’
t think U of L had a chance against North Carolina in what was essentially a home game for the Tar Heels, but it made for a memorable moment.
— UCLA-Memphis, national semifinal. I sat on the baseline, 10 feet away from the UCLA dance squad. Art Spander (Oakland Tribune), Tim Sullivan (San Diego Union Tribune) and I worked the best we could under difficult circumstances.
— Wesley Korir. Sitting with the U of L cross country All-American, listening to his tale of escaping death squads, marauding bands and riots in his native Kenya, I knew I was getting to tell a special story. I’m planning on telling a little more of Korir’s escape story, a special piece of it, in a Christmas Eve column this year.
— Memphis meltdown. I’ll admit, I felt bad for the Tigers, watching them give the national championship away at the free throw line. It also really screwed me up on deadline.
— Joe Crawford, post-NCAA tourney. After the Wildcats lost to Marquette, Joe Crawford, who had been stoic for four years, sobbed harder than I’d ever seen a player cry after any loss. He let it flow, and didn’t care who saw. It was moving, and you had to appreciate what he had given.
Again, feel free to email your own memorable moments to me, or just list a few below.