Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My 5 Most Memorable Games of the Decade

In case you haven't heard, the decade comes to a close when the clock strikes midnight at the end of Thursday's New Year's Eve festivities, and everyone and their mother is doing lists from the decade of 2000-2009. Consider this my contribution to said lists, only I'm going to do something a little bit different. I'm going to list my 5 most memorable games for the teams I root for (i.e., one for the Sixers, one for the Flyers, one for the Eagles, one for the Phillies, and one for Penn State — the only college because I'm actually a graduate), and the 5 most memorable games I attended in the past decade. Enjoy.

1. Game 5 of the 2008 World Series.
Really, any Phillies fan could go for the entire 2008 postseason, whether it be Brett Myers' walk, Matt Stairs' moon shot or any game Cole Hamels pitched, but nothing will ever trump the game that finally crowned the Phillies, the city of Philadelphia, World Fucking Champions.

The game began on Monday, Oct. 27 and ended on Wednesday, Oct. 29. It began with Cole Hamels pitching his sixth straight brilliant gem of the postseason, despite the fact the rains were falling and he could not grip his devastating changeup. It got postponed after the Rays tied the game in unplayable conditions. It resumed with a sprint and a bang, the first shot coming off the bat of the previously dead Geoff Jenkins, who picked a hell of a time to get his first postseason hit. I'll let my past self recount the rest:

I watched the game with just three other people: Adam EatShit, uncle jellyfish and our boy Alan, here at my house. And last night, the Phillies showed just how hungry they were to give us all something to celebrate. They played the way they have all year, only they didn't. A leadoff double by Geoff Jenkins--his first hit of the World Series--followed by a bunt to move him over by Jimmy Rollins followed by a popup that was just a little too far for anyone to reach, and the Phillies had a lead via small ball.

After the Rays tied it up with a home run by Rocco Baldelli, no problem. A leadoff double by Pat Burrell--his first hit of the World Series--followed by Shaner moving pinch runner Eric Bruntlett to third with a grounder to the right side, followed by a laser base hit up the middle for Pete Happy, the most underappreciated player in this entire run. Small ball again. Back in the lead. For good.

J.C. was phenomenal. And Lidge was, well, perfect. When he got Eric Hinske on strikes, the four of us leapt up and formed a 4-man hug. I sat in disbelief, walked out to Girard and saw the fireworks, literally. Mayhem was upon us. I returned inside to find Adam EatShit crying, and I, too, shed a tear. Finally, it was our turn. THE PHILLIES ARE WORLD CHAMPIONS!!!!!!

It's a moment I'll never forget as long as I live. Ever. And it was, without question, the best game of the last 10 years for any Philadelphia team of any sport.

Best Phillies Game I Attended: Game 4 of the 2008 World Series.
As part of the greatest weekend ever, silver fox and I attended game 4 of the World Series at Citizens Bank Park, also known as the Joe Blanton Home Run Game.

In a strange twist of fate, it was the one game in the World Series that lacked any true drama, any tension. The Phillies exploded offensively, Ryan Howard hit two bombs, Jayson Werth added another. It was nothing but pure, unadulterated joy. I was giddy like a little schoolgirl the entire game, never having experienced a playoff game in person, much less a World Series game. It was the greatest fan experience at a game of my entire life. Joe motherfucking Blanton.

2. 2004/05 NFC Championship Game.
Growing up an Eagles fan is the equivalent of heartbreak. For three straight years, we watched as the Eagles were at the top of the NFC, only to lose in the championship game each and every year, falling a game short of reaching the Super Bowl. The first came against the Rams, where an upstart Eagles team wasn't expected to be, but nearly pulled off the upset. Then came the game they couldn't lose: The final game at the Vet, against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that the Eagles have owned, playing in frozen weather, conditions the Bucs had never won in. It was the year the Eagles were winning the Super Bowl. Then they didn't, as Joe Jurevicius and Keyshawn Johnson and Brad Johnson and Ronde Barber took the game and won the Super Bowl two weeks later. And then there was the third straight time, the embarrassment to the Panthers.

But finally, on that frigid January afternoon, the Eagles were determined, were focused and were going to the Super Bowl. Not even Michael Vick could stop them.

It was the greatest game the Eagles have ever played in my lifetime, considering the conditions, the history and the importance of it all. It was glorious.

Best Eagles Game I Attended: This one, the 2004/05 NFC Championship Game.
I was a junior in college at Penn State at the time. Earlier in the week, a friend of mine called and told me his brother was stuck in Texas and that he had an extra ticket to the NFC Championship game. It was mine if I wanted it. Of course I jumped at the offer, and on the Friday before the game, I piled into a car along with Adam EatShit, his brother, and two other friends, riding all the way back to the Philadelphia area in the middle seat in the back of a Jetta … and I've never been more comfortable in my life.

We headed to Widener University in Chester to meet up with another friend who was going to the game with us, only to find him nowhere in sight when we arrived. Turned out, he and the buddy we were staying with had gotten entirely too drunk, gotten into a fight, and our friend was passed out in the trunk of his car outside in freezing weather. After hours of searching for him, we finally found him and brought him inside. Then we slept.

When we awoke the next morning, there was a massive snow storm. A few brave soles ventured out to get food and beer, but the rest of the area wasn't going anywhere. It was virtually a blizzard outside, and we were all set to watch college hoops all day. And we did. What we witnessed was an upset for the ages, as Allen Ray, Randy Foye, Jason Fraser, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry upset No. 1 Kansas. It was awesome. We drank, relaxed and waited for the morning.

Sunday finally came, with snow on the ground and the temperatures colder than I can ever remember. We went to Tony Luke's before the game, got cheesesteaks and headed over to the Linc for some tailgating. It was so cold outside that I felt like my hands were going to fall off as I was eating my cheesesteak. I couldn't take it, so I had to finish it inside the car. Finally it was time to head in, and I sat up in nose bleeds next to my friend's cousin, a stranger until that point. I have never been so cold in my life, and I have never cared less about being cold in my entire life. As far as I was concerned, it was 70 and sunny. And as Chad Lewis caught that touchdown that broke his foot and sent the Eagles to Jacksonville, I was the happiest I had ever been in my life up until that point, hugging complete strangers sitting around me, jumping up and down like an idiot. I was so happy I wanted to cry.

After the game, we headed back with a friend of ours in the trunk, got in a slight fender-bender with him in the trunk yelling through, "What the hell was that!?!?" And the driver whom we hit stuck his head out the window and proclaimed, "I DON'T CARE! WE'RE GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL!!!!!!" And that was the sentiment across the city. Nothing else mattered. The Eagles were finally going to the Super Bowl.

When I returned to class later that week, I showed up with a life-size cardboard cutout of Donovan McNabb, just to rub it in a little to the Pittsburgh fans. Alas, the Eagles fell short of the ultimate goal, and a year later, the Steelers won the Super Bowl yet again, giving the Pittsburghers the last laugh. But that one glorious day against the Atlanta Falcons was a thing of beauty. It really was.

Honorable Mention: 4th and 26.
I was also at this game with my dad. I was a sophomore in college, purchased two tickets — one for myself and one for my father — for way too much money, and sat in disgust as the Eagles were giving away a lead. It was 4th and 26, and all hope was lost. Until it wasn't.

Freddie, you magnificent bastard. I'd like to thank your hands for being so great. My dad and I couldn't believe it. We were stunned. And then we watched as David Akers tied it to send it to OT, Brett Favre threw up a gift to Brian Dawkins and Akers ended the game to advance to the NFC Championship game. It was unreal.

3. Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals.
I was always a Sixers fan growing up, even when they sucked and the best players were Clarence Weatherspoon and Dana Barros. But when Allen Iverson came to town and Larry Brown followed suit, my fandom became an obsession. I watched Iverson and Brown turn a horrid franchise into a playoff team, then a contender and finally Eastern Conference champions. I taped playoff games, never missed a regular season contest. And when the little Sixers that could shocked the world against the unbeaten, indestructible Lakers, I really thought maybe this team built around David really could slay Goliath.

I was a high school junior at the time. I taped the game, just as I had numerous other playoff games that season. As I watched it live, I was going berserk. When it ended, I watched it again. And again. I even brought the tape into school and begged my Latin teacher to play it for us instead of watching Rocky in Latin. She agreed. I watched it as if it was the first time I had seen it. And I've done that about 30 or 40 times since, every time yelling about foul calls, screaming for the travel on Rick Fox, marveling at the step-over, waiting for Eric Snow to make the face, listening to Allen proclaim that Tyron Lue was holding him and Dikembe Mutombo anoint himself as playing great. When I went to college two years later, I honestly must have watched that game once a month, minimum. Just thinking about it makes me want to watch it right now.

Best Sixers Game(s) I Attended: Games 3 and 4 of the 2002 NBA First Round Playoffs.
Now, I could have went with Allen Iverson's return to Philadelphia as a member of the Denver Nuggets just as easily, but watching him on my side in the playoffs was even better. Coming off the high of the 2000-01 season, Arkansas Fred, silver fox and I bought a 10-game plan for the 2001-02 season along with Arkansas Fred's dad and secured ourselves playoff tickets. After the Celtics defeated the Sixers in the first two games, the series came back to Philadelphia. We were at both contests, and both were equally electric.

In game 3, the Sixers edged the Celtics 108-103 behind 42 points from Allen Iverson, 19 of which came from the free throw line, a stunning 23 points form Eric Snow and 18 more from Derrick Coleman. Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker were beasts as well in that game, scoring 29 and 27 respectively, but the Sixers edged out the Cs. The very next game, Walker and Pierce were at it again, this time combining for 45 points, but Allen Iverson's 28 points and Dikembe's 14 boards helped the Sixers edge out the Celtics 83-81 in an intense battle.

The thing I remember most about those two games was the entire crowd in unison letting out a collective, "Noooooooooo!!!!!!" every time the Sixers dumped the ball in the post to Dikembe. The man was a great defender, great shot blocker, great rebounder, but he had hands of stone. More often than not, he would fumble the ball away, but he occasionally surprised us all by nailing home one of his line-drive hook shots. The other thing I distinctly remember is just how intense and tense the atmosphere was. Every basket mattered. Every timeout was crucial. Every turnover seemed deadly. Every rebound vitally important. The atmosphere was off the charts. Too bad the Sixers couldn't host a game 5, because that debacle in Boston was the worst basketball game I ever watched. But those two in Philly were fantastic. I'll never forget them.

4. Penn State vs. Ohio State, 2005.
Boy did I ever pick a bad time to graduate high school and head off to Penn State. The year before I arrived, Penn State had its worst season under Joe Paterno in decades. My freshman year, I did get to witness Larry Johnson rush for 2,000 yards, get jipped out of the Heisman, and watch Penn State get screwed by calls against Iowa and MIchigan. In all, it was a pretty solid season that let me watch future NFLers Larry Johnson, Bryant Johnson, Jimmy Kennedy, Anthony Adams and Michael Haynes, to name a few. Then the suck started. In my sophomore year of 2003, Penn State went 3-9, beating only lowly Indiana, Kent State and Temple. It didn't get much better my junior year, going 4-7 including the worst football game ever played, a 6-4 loss at home to Iowa. The program was in shambles, and Joe Paterno was starting to get some heat.

But then my senior season happened. Penn State finished the regular season 10-1, winning the Big Ten and coming one second away in Ann Arbor from going undefeated and playing for a national championship. They did it behind the leadership and talent of Michael Robinson, not to mention the shot in the arm from star-studded recruit freshmen Derrick Williams and Justin King. And the highlight of that season was undoubtedly the 17-10 victory against Ohio State in Happy Valley.

It was a tight game, a defensive battle, and the Nittany Lions went out and proved they were the better team. Not only that, but Paul Posluszny, who went on to win both the Butkus and Bednarik, proved he was the best player on the field. And he was the best player by miles that night. Better than A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter combined. How do I know? Because I was there …

Best Penn State Game I Attended: Penn State vs. Ohio State, 2005.
It was my senior season. I had suffered through the doldrums, missing just one game in my four years, a home game against Illinois my freshman season to attend my uncle's funeral. I was finally rewarded as a senior, and this game was by far the best college football game I have ever attended, surpassed only by the NFC Championship Game against the Falcons as far as any football game I've ever attended.

The atmosphere was electric, like nothing I have ever been a part of before. The only game that can even come close to comparing was the 40-7 thrashing against Nebraska my freshman year, when the "Fuck Nebraska!" chants began a full hour before the game. But this was better. This was special. It was the first true whiteout, and the only whiteout I respect, even though I bucked the system and wore my blue No. 43 Brandon Short jersey, the same jersey I always wore. There was nothing manufactured about that moment. There were no announcements made the game before to wear white, no whiteout printed on the ticket. It was a campus-wide movement that spread through word-of-mouth and culminated in a once-in-a-lifetime moment. In a sense, it sort of ruined the experience of going to a Penn State game after that because since that incredible moment, the university has tried to financially capitalize on it by designating whiteouts and marketing the atmosphere as something it's not every week.

Moments like that game can't be marketed and manufactured. Just can't. This was two undefeated heavyweights going at it toe-to-toe in prime time on national television. It was the two best defenses in the country with the two best linebacking corps going at it. It was two tough, heroic quarterbacks dueling. It was Penn State and Joe Paterno announcing to the world that the Nittany Lions are back, far from washed up. And watching Paul Posluszny roam around the field and dominate in a way that even LaVar Arrington never did, it was something to behold. He was everywhere, on every play, and his rundown sack of the speedy Troy Smith was the single greatest sack I've ever witnessed in my entire life. I'm still not sure how he got him, how he closed so fast. Believe me when I tell you that on that night, no one could outrun Posluszny. No one. He may not have had the fastest 40 time in the world, but he had the best closing speed in the country that season, hands down. He dominated that game. And when Tamba Hali sealed the game with his sack and forced fumble, the place went nuts. Riots occurred downtown. Police were out on their horses. It truly was Happy Valley once again.

5. Game 4 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Five overtimes. Five. The Flyers opened the series losing the first two games at home. After battling the Penguins in game 3, a do-or-die game, and coming away with a 4-3 victory in overtime, the Flyers had to manage to get another victory in Pittsburgh to salvage any hope of advancing. So how do the two teams follow a hard-fought overtime game? By dueling it out for 8 periods — 3 in regulation and five overtimes.

As obsessive of a fan as I am with everything, I'm not sure that anyone I know loves the Flyers as much as me. I literally would watch every single game in my bedroom from the moment Comcast Sportsnet came into existence, was on basic cable, and started airing home hockey games instead of having to pay for Prism. And I watched every road game and the rare home ones that were on before that. I grew up a diehard.

It didn't matter that I was in high school and had to wake up in the morning. It didn't matter that I had homework to do that stood no chance of getting done. There wasn't a chance in hell that I wasn't going to stay up and watch every last second of that game. I began watching it in my family's living room with my dad. As it got later and my dad fell asleep, I moved upstairs to my room to watch the rest in solitude. It was almost too much to take.

Every bounce, every pass, every miscue felt like it could turn the tides. The tension was breaking my nerves. I didn't move for one second for fear of missing something, anything. The players were visibly gassed, looking like dead fish out there just flailing around. During each short intermission, Jim Jackson and Gary Dornhoefer talked about the players getting IVs, ordering pizzas, trying to get some sort of energy. Then finally, mercilessly, Keith Primeau raced up ice, stopped on a dime, cut inside Darius Kasparaitis and ripped the shot past Tom Barrasso Ron Tugnutt to end the game and tie the series. By the time the puck hit the back of the net, I had already sprung up off my bed, flew halfway down the stairs and was on my way to writing my dad a hurried, probably unlegible note about what had just happened. By some miracle from god, I didn't scream like a maniac and awaken everyone in my house, but I vividly remember pumping my fists, whisper-screaming, "YEAH!!! YEAH!!!! YEAH!!!!" as I raced down the steps to alert my father as to what had just taken place.

It's not only the greatest Flyers game of the decade, it's the greatest hockey game of the decade. Maybe of all time. And it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Keith Primeau and Flyers fans.

Best Flyers Game I Attended: Game 3, 2000 Eastern Conference Finals.
After that 5 OT game, the Flyers won the next two to advance to the Easter Conference Finals against hated New Jersey. The teams split the first two games in Philadelphia, and somehow, some way, my dad scored two tickets to game 3 in Jersey.

The two of us went and witnessed the Flyers hand the Devils a 4-2 loss to take a 2-1 series lead, highlighted by the greatest save in the history of the world by one Brian Boucher, then a rookie sensation.

It was a save for the ages. And I remember everything about that game like it was yesterday. First, the walk through the tunnel from the parking lot over to the arena. Then watching as Darren Pang stood on top of a podium to be eye level with his colleagues at ESPN. Flyers fans outnumbering Devils fans by at least 2-to-1 in New Jersey. Boucher's incredible save. John LeClair taking a stick to the face from Martin Brodeur on a followthrough while Brodeur was playing the puck, resulting in blood gushing down LeClair's face. Rich Tocchet completely dominating, scoring the goal that iced the game. Goals from Mark Recchi and Keith Jones. And a young, baby-faced Simon Gagne added another. It was a thing of beauty. And as I wrote after Boucher recorded his first victory for the Flyers this season about that game more than 9 years ago:

The win gave the Flyers a 2-1 series lead, and as we were walking across the bridge from the arena to the parking lot at the Meadowlands, there were glorious Flyers chants and a huge, giant of a man in a Flyers jersey with the custom name "Hot Tub" on the back. Everyone kept yelling, "Hey, Hot Tub!" It was great. And if you didn't know any better, you'd think the game took place on south Broad, because the whole place was packed with Flyers fans.

Of course, we all know what happened from there, and it's nothing we want to relive. But on that night, it was the Flyers who owned the Devils in their own building. It was Brian Boucher who made ridiculous save after ridiculous save, not Martin Brodeur. It was the Flyers taking control. And I was there.

BallHype: hype it up!

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