Folks, it’s been a while. But we are living in bizarre times, with all sports shut down for the first time since 9/11, and the Detroit Sports Czar is here to fill the desperate sports viewer’s void.
Detroit’s had plenty of rewatchable sporting events over the last few decades, and with the leagues opening up their League Pass apps for free during the shutdowns or offering games on YouTube, now is the perfect time to catch up on some classic games to give you yours sports fix.
Without further ado, I present you with the DSC’s Viewing Guide to the Coronavirus Shutdown.
(Some of these may require you to sign up for free access to Leagues’ Game Pass websites, but otherwise these are games that you can access for free.)
We’re kicking things off with a couple of dark horses. The Tigers have had plenty of rewatchable games over the years. We could go back to 1984 and show you Game 5 of that year’s World Series. Or Game 162 in 1987. Or Justin Verlander’s no-hitters, the Armando Galarraga perfect game, or the Magglio Ordonez pennant-clinching home run. You could even go with 2009’s Game 163 if you hate yourself (a truly classic game, but not exactly one that Tigers fans would be too eager to re-live). But we’re going with a game that quite possibly changed the history of the Tigers’ franchise.
In 2006 the Tigers took the baseball world by storm, jumping out to a huge lead in the AL Central before a late-season collapse landed them the Wild Card spot and a Division Series matchup with the New York Yankees, owners of the best record in baseball (although only 2 games in front of the Tigers), spoiling some of the excitement of their first playoff birth in 19 years. After their late season swoon and a Game 1 loss at Yankee Stadium (which followed some rain delay shenanigans on the part of the home team), most Tigers fans were hoping only to escape that season’s playoffs without getting swept.
That pessimism felt justified after a Johnny Damon home run in the 4th gave the Yankees a 3-1 lead. But the Tigers clawed back, cutting the lead in half on a Curtis Granderson sac fly in the 5th and tying it up on a Carlos Guillen home run in the 6th. When Granderson tripled in Marcus Thames in the 7th to give the Tigers the lead, Detroit went wild, realizing the Tigers could win the series without going back to New York. They did just that, finishing off the victory in Game 2, kicking off a 7-game winning streak that would only be stopped by a 9-day layoff before the World Series.
If the Tigers don’t win Game 2, a sweep is not out of the question, and it’s questionable how much of that season turns out to be a fluke. Owner Mike Ilitch was a spender in those days, so it’s likely his moves don’t change much in the ensuing offseasons, but there’s no question Game 2 helped put the Tigers back on the baseball map.
Look, finding a rewatchable game for Lions fans isn’t easy. Their last playoff win was 28 years ago, and that’s their only one since they finished their run as the Team of the ’50s in 1957. Any memorable game the Lions have been involved in found them on the losing end, and we don’t want to spend our quarantine being any more miserable than we have to be. The best bet here would be to just share a highlight reel of Barry Sanders runs, and hell, why not just to be safe.
But in 2009 they won a game that a YouTube video proclaims to be “The Greatest Game That Nobody Watched”, and having been at the game, it’s hard to disagree. Usually I wouldn’t guide you to a game between two 1-8 teams, but it’s one worth watching. The Browns jumped out to a 24-3 first quarter lead, only to watch the Lions tie it in the 2nd. The Lions got the ball back down 6 with no timeouts and under two minutes to go, and rookie Matthew Stafford led the team to the Cleveland 32 with 8 seconds left. Then things got weird.
Stafford scrambled the remaining 8 seconds (plus an additional 4, just for good measure) off the clock, threw an interception in the end zone, and absorbed a vicious blow that dislocated his non-throwing shoulder. Game over, right? Nope. The Browns got flagged for pass interference in the end zone, nullifying the interception and granting the Lions an untimed down (those don’t typically turn out too well for the Lions). Stafford had to come out of the game because of the injury, but after the Lions were (correctly) granted an injury timeout, Browns coach Eric Mangini called a timeout of his own to throw a temper tantrum, the Lions were able to put Stafford back in the game even with the injured shoulder, and he threw a touchdown pass to fellow first round rookie Brandon Pettigrew, allowing the Jason Hanson kick to win the game with no time left.
Truly a classic that hardly anyone ever talks about. Most of the classics we talk about come in the playoffs or between contenders, but sometimes the best games come between two bad teams on a random November Sunday.
The Pistons have played plenty of classics over the years, but a fair chunk of them, like the Lions, saw them coming out on the losing end. The last 2 games of the 1988 NBA Finals were undoubtedly great, but the Pistons got the short end in both (both literally and figuratively, as the officiating was…less than top notch). There was Isiah Thomas scoring 16 points in 94 seconds to send a clinching playoff game to OT, but again the Pistons came up short.
So we’ll go with “The Block” in Game 2 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals. Down 1-0 to the Pacers, the Pistons clung to a 2-point lead in Indianapolis when they turned the ball over with 23 seconds left in the game. Indiana picked up the loose ball and Jamal Tinsley found a streaking Reggie Miller racing towards the basket. But instead of an apparent easy layup for Miller, Tayshaun Prince came out of nowhere to block the shot, with Rip Hamilton corralling the ball rather than setting up an inbounds play for the Pacers. The Pistons would win the game, take 3 of the next 4 to win the series, then score one of the biggest upsets in NBA history when they pulled off the “5-Game Sweep” of the heavily favored Lakers.
While the shot only kept the Pacers from tying the game and there’s no guarantee they win, if the Pacers win that series they take a 2-0 lead and are heavily favored to win the series. A win against the Lakers was not guaranteed but also not unlikely. The Pacers were among the NBA’s contenders in the 2004-05 season, derailed only by the Malice at the Palace. But with a possible title under their belt, it’s reasonable to think that the brawl never happens, Indiana isn’t depleted, and the Pacers and not the Pistons spend the next few seasons going to the Eastern Conference finals (if not further).
(The NBA has opened up their League Pass site during the shutdown, but the classic games are shockingly sparse, so I had to find video of this play on YouTube. Sorry I couldn’t do better.)
Detroit Red Wings
I tried to keep to recent history with these teams, but the Red Wings’ recent history has been…less than ideal, shall we say. So we’re going back to the game that really started the Red Wings dynasty.
The Wings had really become contenders in the late-’80s/early-’90s after years of being known as the Dead Things in Detroit, but by 1997 they’d become the Buffalo Bills of the NHL, failing to live up to their potential in some memorable playoff flameouts. By 1997 it was thought that their window had closed and passed on to others, with the Avalanche winning the Cup in 1996 in their first season in Denver.
Colorado – and Claude Lemieux specifically – had kicked off the rivalry when Lemieux checked Kris Draper into the dasher, breaking his jaw, nose, and cheekbone, and giving him a concussion, in Game 6 of the prior season’s Western Conference Finals. Lemieux was ejected from the game, but the Avalanche would win the game and the series, and go on to win the Stanley Cup against the Panthers. The hit was not forgotten, and when things got chippy in a late-season game in Detroit, all hell broke loose.
The game had seen a couple of fights, but the real fireworks started when Igor Larionov and Peter Forsberg (not exactly well-known brawlers) went at it late in the 1st period. It wasn’t long before Darren McCarty made Lemieux answer for the Draper hit, sending him to the ice in a turtle position while throwing shots relentlessly. Patrick Roy left the goalie crease to help his teammate, leading to a memorable collision between he and Brendan Shanahan and eventually the rare goalie brawl between Roy and Mike Vernon. At the end of the game the teams had racked up 144 penalty minutes.
Thing is, the Avalanche had the Wings’ number, having won the all 3 games up to that point between the two teams, so the brawl meant nothing if the Wings couldn’t get the win. Luckily, McCarty was able to play the hero in more ways than one, netting the game winner in OT. The game propelled the Wings into the playoffs and another matchup with Colorado, with the Wings winning the conference finals in 6 games (blowing out the Avalanche 6-0 in another brawl-filled Game 4). The Wings would sweep Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup Final, with McCarty scoring the Cup-clinching goal, ending a 42-year title drought for the Red Wg ings.
(Another video not available on YouTube, but some pretty good footage of the fights in the March 26 game.)
Michigan State Football
Our college teams give us a much lengthier list of memorable games to choose from, and we’ll start with Michigan State football. Do we go with “Little Giants”, with Mark Dantonio calling one of the gutsiest play fakes in history with the overtime touchdown pass by his punter? Or the Hail Mary against Wisconsin in 2011? Perhaps you like the Northwestern comeback in 2006? The 2014 Rose Bowl? Negative 48 yards rushing by the defense against Michigan in 2013? Or the Ohio State game or Big 10 championship games in 2015?
But no, this one’s simple. It’s the 2015 Michigan-Michigan State game. The Spartans had won the game everywhere except where it mattered, beating the Wolverines soundly in both first (20-10) and total yards (386-230). MSU had cut it to two with just under 9 minutes left in the game, but a late attempt to get into field goal range had failed with 1:47 left on the clock. Michigan State had a timeout left and was able to force a punt with 10 seconds left, but all Michigan had to do was get the kick off and the game was over.
Except, they couldn’t pull it off. Punter Blake O’Neill bobbled a low snap, the ball popped free as he was trying to get the kick off, right into the hands of Jalen Watts-Jackson, who ran it back 38 yards to win the game as time expired. Michigan State stayed undefeated, would go on to beat Ohio State with their backup quarterback, survive a late loss at Nebraska, and win the Big 10 championship game to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff against Alabama.
(We won’t talk about what happened there.)
Michigan State Basketball
This was a tough one. When you’ve got games where your school won a national title, it seems logical to go that route. Parades are forever after all, and the 1979 championship game remains iconic. But there’s just something about beating Duke…even if it doesn’t happen all that often.
Michigan State enters most NCAA tournaments contending for the title, and 8 Final Fours in the last 21 seasons backs up that resume (even if their Final Four results have been less than stellar). But Duke was the favorite last season, with the top 3 in the ESPN 100 starting (plus #17 and #41 for good measure). MSU fans groaned when they saw Duke on the top line of their bracket, but stranger things had happened. The tables looked like they might have turned, as MSU had won their first 3 games by an average of 16, while Duke had survived their 2nd and 3rd round games by a total of 3 points.
The game was close throughout, with the Spartans managing to turn a 9-point first half deficit into a 4-point halftime lead. The second half was a nail-biter, with the game separated by no more than 6 points. Duke held a 1-point lead with 50 seconds left, when Kenny Goins was able to pull down the rebound on an R.J. Barrett jumper, then hit the go-ahead 3 with 34 seconds left. Duke had their chances, with Barrett going to the line with a chance to tie with 5 seconds left. He missed the first, then hit the second when he was trying to miss and force the rebound. Michigan State was able to inbound, Duke didn’t have enough fouls to send MSU to the line, and the Spartans were off to Minneapolis.
(We won’t talk about what happened there either.)
Bonus: 2000 One Shining Moment
Now, my faithful readers will know that the Detroit Sports Czar is a devout Spartan, but as I said at the outset, we’re in bizarre times, and I’m not above showing solidarity with my readers who may be faithful to Michigan. I’m not going to give you a write-up for these games, but there’s some entertainment to be had for the Wolverines out there.
I know the “Trouble with the Snap” game is painful for Michigan fans, so I’ll give you one that was just as painful to us. MSU blows a 27-10 lead, Braylon Edwards catches 3 TD, and Michigan wins the first overtime game in the rivalry’s history.
I could’ve gone with the 1989 NCAA title game, but I’m trying to keep it relatively recent. Michigan rallies back from 14 down with 7 minutes left, then Trey Burke hits a 30-footer with 4 seconds left to send the game to overtime. They knock off top-seeded Kansas and advance to the school’s first title game in 20 years. Wait…make that 24.
Bonus: 1989 One Shining Moment
Things have been bad on the Detroit sports scene in recent years. The city’s last playoff win was five and a half years ago, our college teams have not lived up to expectations, and only the Pistons were not in last place at the time the world closed (and they were only half a game up on the Cavaliers). But this town loves our sports, and we were just as sad to watch the games end as people in Boston, or Milwaukee, or Dayton (ok, maybe not Milwaukee or Dayton, as they’d had legit title teams shut down). If watching these games can bring just a little happiness to your world in these dark times, I’ll consider that a win.