In 1981, the NCAA basketball final was played the day the president was shot.
"A lotta people get shot," said Isiah Thomas after Indiana won.
So please, ladies and gentlemen, a moment of silence for 1981, the year they played when they shouldn't have, and didn't play when they should have.
Wear a ribbon for 1981, a year that succumbed to terminal self-importance. They tied a yellow ribbon 'round the old Superdome for the hostages the day the Raiders won the Super Bowl, a ribbon so big you could see it from the space shuttle Columbia. And they wore green ribbons for the children of Atlanta. But mostly, it was a blue-ribbon year for empty symbols, for lawyers, negotiators and the powers that be, who took things oh so seriously, except when they should have.
And things just got more serious, until June 12, when the baseball players went on strike. For 50 days and 50 nights, talks recessed, resumed, broke off, broke down and occasionally broke up everyone. One day Rusty Staub of the New York Mets delivered crossword puzzles to all the management negotiators and said, "If you want to play word games, let's do it right."
Talks moved from New York to Rochester to Washington and still there was no movement. The players headed west, singing solidarity forever, and management called for a meeting. The players said: "We'll send a representative. We'll send Fernando Valenzuela. He speaks two words in English: 'More beer.' "
On the 50th day, the strike was settled. Baseball set a record for the longest season, the shortest season, and the most seasons in one season. The Cincinnati Reds, with the best record in baseball, did not make the playoffs. The game had an integrity problem.
In 1981, Valenzuela did everything but settle the strike. He won the National League Cy Young award, the rookie of the year award and a bride. Len Barker of Cleveland threw a perfect game against the Toronto Blue Jays in which Danny Ainge was oh for two with no rebounds. By December, Ainge was a Celtic.
Billy Martin, the manager of the Oakland A's, took one look at Dave Winfield, the game's richest player, and said, "He has the softest bat I've ever seen for a guy 6 foot 6." Winfield went one for 22 in the World Series; when he finally got his base hit he stopped the game to ask for the ball. The Dodgers, who had already come back from 0-2, 1-2 in the mini- and championship series, came back from 0-2 to beat the Yankees in the World Series. "God delays, he doesn't deny," said Tommy Lasorda.
In 1981: Jack Pardee was fired; Joe Gibbs was hired; and John Riggins returned: "I'm bored, I'm broke. I'm back," said Riggins, who stopped talking after that statement.
George Allen did not become a head coach.
The Redskins started out 0-5 and finished 8-8 with Joe Washington having an exceptional season, Joe Theismann earning his pay and more, since the Redskins had a defense that had trouble stopping the run and pass.
On a day when Joe Washington was hurt in Dallas, Cowboy Coach Tom Landry said: "Washington isn't Washington without Washington."
The Oakland Raiders were the first wild card team, and first wild man team (they were fined $15,000 during one super week) to win the Super Bowl. Commissioner Pete Rozelle presented the trophy to his main man, Al Davis, but there were no high fives. Jim Plunkett, an unemployed quarterback for part of 1978, threw three touchdown passes to beat the Eagles in January and was on the bench in November. The Raiders did not make the playoffs, and neither did the Steelers, whose curtain turned to chintz; six new teams did (if the New York Giants lost and the Redskins won by 73 points, Washington would have been among them).
Bear Bryant won his 315th game, passing Amos Alonzo Stagg for most victories ever by a college football coach. Six times in a season the No. 1-ranked college football team was defeated; five times in a row Marcus Allen of Southern Cal, the Heisman Trophy winner, ran for more than 200 yards.
Sugar Ray Leonard undid a hit man, a garbage man and a witch doctor to become the undisputed welterweight champion of the world, and sportsman of the year. "He hurt me," said Thomas Hearns. Roberto Duran, who quit before Leonard could hurt him, returned to the ring and the crowd roared, "No mas!"
The Boston Celtics were behind, three games to one, to the Philadelphia 76ers and still won the Eastern Conference championship and then the NBA championship over the Houston Rockets, the first team under .500 to get to the finals. The Sixers, who once told their fans, "We owe you one," when they lost in 1977, now owe them four. The Bullets made Wes Unseld a vice president and Elvin Hayes a Houston Rocket and did not make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
For signing tall freshmen Patrick Ewing, Anthony Jones and Bill Martin, Georgetown Coach John Thompson got the national spotlight and a key to Capital Centre. Maryland's Lefty Driesell lost Albert King to graduation, Buck Williams to the New Jersey Nets and then a game, at home, to Georgia Tech. Ralph Sampson announced he had accepted an offer to live in his coach's basement and will remain at Virginia another year.
John McEnroe ended Bjorn Borg's 41-match winning streak at Wimbledon, liberating the championship from him on the Fourth of July; beat him again at the U.S. Open, and helped the United States win the Davis Cup. In between, he chased Lady Di away with his less than courtly manners; telling officials at one point, "You guys are the absolute pits of the world, do you know that?"
Some thought it was a rhetorical question.
Chris Evert Lloyd did not retire and have babies, as some of her competitors wished. Instead, she won her third Wimbledon title.
Recapitulation: For the seventh time in seven years, the Capitals failed to make the playoffs; for the sixth time, they changed coaches.
Alberto Salazar broke the world record in the marathon by 21 hundredths of a second (2:08.13), running a 4:33 mile between miles 16-17. That is only 46 seconds less than the world record for a single mile set by Sebastian Coe this summer (3:47.33). Coe and his nemesis, Steve Ovett, raced around the globe, breaking the world record in the mile three times, without ever setting foot on the same track in the same event.
The Indianapolis 500 was won in record time of four months and eight days by Bobby Unser. Earl Weaver, the manager of the Orioles, was the driver of the year. When stopped for driving under the influence, the arresting officer asked Weaver if he had any physical liabilities. "Jim Palmer," Weaver said.
Litigation is the sport of the '80s. Anyone can play. More courts than racquetball. Check it out. Rick Kuhn, former Boston College basketball player, and four others were found guilty in a point-shaving scheme. Frank Kush, later to become coach of the Baltimore Colts, was found not guilty of charges that he hit and harassed punter Kevin Rutledge at Arizona State. Stay loose, Colts. Norm Ellenberger, former basketball coach at New Mexico, was found guilty on 21 of 22 counts of fraud and making false public vouchers and sentenced to one year on probation.
UCLA, Miami of Florida, Oregon and Illinois were put on NCAA probation, to name a few. Ken Stabler was investigated by the NFL.
Flying Nashua, a horse, won an appeals court judgment against Churchill Downs for limiting the Kentucky Derby field to 20, ran and finished eighth. Billie Jean King's former lover, Marilyn Barnett, sued her, forcing her to acknowledge publicly their affair. Davis and the Raiders brought an antitrust suit against the NFL because he wants to move to Los Angeles. After 55 days of testimony and 13 days of deliberation, the judge declared a mistrial. Analyze that one, Brent Musburger.
Major league umpires filed a class action suit against Lloyd's of London for paying the baseball owners insurance money. The judge in the Philadelphia Court of Common (Uncommon) Pleas had a Phillies pennant attached to his bench and another judge held a press conference for sportswriters in open court.
Harold J. Smith, boxing promoter, was indicted and arrested in connection with a scheme to embezzle $21.3 million from the Wells Fargo Bank. Harold J. Smith admitted he was really Ross Fields, a former American University runner and Washington, D.C., disco owner. Ross Fields petitioned a Los Angeles court to legally change his name to Harold Rossfields Smith.
It was the year of funny money. Magic Johnson signed a 25-year contract scheduled to go into effect in 1984 (when else?) at $1 million a year and decided basketball isn't fun any more. Mitch Kupchak, who started 15 games in five years as a Bullet, signed a seven-year contact at $800,000 a year, also with Jerry Bu$$. Six months later, Kupchak broke his leg.
A French syndicate offered $40 million for Northern Dancer and was turned down. The Leonard-Hearns fight grossed $38 million, which struck many in the viewing public who couldn't see the closed-circuit telecast as gross indeed. Lloyd's of London gave the baseball owners, who had the ability to prevent/provoke a strike, $50 million in insurance. Its spokesman, David Larner, said, "Baseball? Rather like rounders, isn't it?"
Some stooped to conquer in 1981; others just stooped. Reggie Jackson, who began the season vowing he would need a "Brink's truck" to haul off his new free-agent money, ended it (unsigned) filling his cap with nickels and dimes collected in right field. One day he got $82.56 and said, "There were some Baltimore fans yelling, 'Stop throwing quarters, throw dimes.' Then when I picked up the dimes they said, 'See if he'll bend over for pennies' and when I picked them up, they went crazy yelling, 'All riggghhht, Reggie!' "
There were other elevating moments. Federal mediator Ken Moffett went through the ceiling in his running shorts when the elevator at the Federal Mediation Service stopped working. George Steinbrenner allegedly duked it out in an elevator with two kids who insulted New York. Later, he issued an apology to the city for the Yankee performance on the field, insulting New York, the Yankees and the Dodgers in the process.
Baseball owners gagged (and fined) themselves, while the public gagged at the spectacle of millionaires hushed into silence like kindergarteners sent to the corner for punishment. "Kind of un-American," said Eddie Chiles, owner of the Texas Rangers. The football owners immediately voted to gag themselves. Ed Garvey, the head of the NFL Players Association, called for 55 percent of the gross profits, then 65, then tried to keep San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts from playing in the final game of the season because he did not pay his union dues. Solidarity.
The owner of the Colts called plays from the press box; and the lights went out at Yankee Stadium on Bowie Kuhn's birthday, an omen for the commissioner. Lots of people retired, though Kuhn insists he is not among them: Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, Diron Talbert, Bobby D, stickum and Muhammad Ali. "Father time beat me," said Ali, about to turn 40.
Smokeless Joe Frazier fought Father Time (and Jumbo Cummings) to a draw, leaving his son Marvis (his father's keeper, and trainer) with an oedipal crisis the likes of which sports has never seen.
There were death threats (Winfield, Evert, Joe Montana) and there were deaths. Joe Louis lay in state in a boxing ring in Las Vegas. The Dips, The Star, the split season and Sunshine Mary, who was last even at the end, all died; 10,000 rabbits were clubbed to death by Idaho farmers.
And on Jan. 27, for the first time in a decade, the stork visited Hialeah Race Track, and a flamingo was born. Eleven months later, in honor of yet another mortal lock from you know who, five trees were planted in Israel by a still-solvent reader.