Illinois was about to upset Penn State. Will Leitch, editor of the sports blog Deadspin, was there that November 1994 night, ready to tear down the goalposts to celebrate his beloved Illini's big win. Then Penn State scored a touchdown. "Everyone went back to their dorms and got drunk," Leitch recalled more than a decade later. The game ended up a footnote to Penn State's shared national championship season, but to Leitch it was one of the five most memorable sporting events he's attended. Being there amplifies the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
"Sports fans know that one amazing moment can happen at any time. Besides, we're all going to watch anyway (unless it's the NBA finals or Stanley Cup finals, of course)."
That's the idea behind Being There: 100 Sports Pros Talk About the Best Sporting Events They Ever Witnessed Firsthand, a new book by Eric Mirlis. Leitch, Marv Albert, Keith Olbermann, and Tom Verducci are among the sports media folks and others who share their Top 5 with Mirlis and comment on what made the moments worthwhile.
Mirlisa senior editor at CSTV.com who has also covered six NBA All-Star Games, a Stanley Cup Finals, and the 2004 Summer Olympicstalked to Gelf about what TV actors are doing in the book, why so many New York moments made the lists, and his personal top 5. The following interview was conducted by email, and edited for clarity. (Also, you can hear Mirlis and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, July 5, in New York's Lower East Side.)
Gelf Magazine: What gave you the idea for the book?
Eric Mirlis: It started with a conversation over drinks with some friends, then I decided to play around with the topic on (cheap plug coming!!) my website, themirl.com. A few friends of mine contributed their Top 5 to it, including Kenny Albert from FOX Sports and the New York Post's Steve Serby, and it blossomed from there.
GM: Was there anyone on your wish list you didn't land?
EM: Of course there were a few, but I'm not going to name any names. Anyone who said no did so for a good reason, and I don't think there is a need to potentially call anyone out on it.GM: Did people submit their memories in writing, or did you interview them?
EM: Around two-thirds of the entries were done over the phone, with the other third being sent in writing. I gave everyone the option, since it was important to me that each person was happy with the way their entry read. The memories and the stories are theirs, so I wanted to make sure everything was worded to each person's satisfaction. If that meant that they wrote it to be safe, that was just fine with me.
GM: Who was the hardest person to get?
EM: I adopted the mindset that if I had to try that hard to convince someone to do it, they most likely didn't really want to take part. So, that made putting together the group of 100 fairly easy. The chase wasn't in lining people up, but it was more when I needed to try to set up time for interviews, or making sure people were OK with the way their entries read after I transcribed the interview.
EM: In date order: New York Islanders beat Pittsburgh Penguins in OT of Game 7 of the Patrick Division Finals in Pittsburgh, May 1993; John Starks's dunk over Horace Grant and Michael Jordan, May 1993 [YouTube]; Stephane Matteau's goal in the second OT of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, sending the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals, May 1994 [YouTube]; Michael Jordan's 55-point game at Madison Square Garden, March 1995; Argentina beats the U.S. in basketball in the Athens Olympics, August 2004.
GM: Eleven out of 100 people named Game 6 of the Mets-Red Sox 1986 World Series; 13 included Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, in which the New York Rangers won the Cup. Was your selection of people a bit New York-heavy? Or are these universal events?
EM: The answer is probably yes to both questions. The book does skew a little bit towards New York, but I think that might be unavoidable, given how many national broadcasters are either based in New York or spent part of their careers here. Since I am based in New York, I also have a little more access to the people here than I do in other cities.
That said, though, both of the events you mentioned are seminal events, and are mentioned by plenty of people who are from cities other than New York. Obviously, the Bill Buckner game is one of the most famous in World Series history and resonated with all baseball fans. As for the Rangers' Cup win, it probably is a bit surprising how many people talked about it. Once you read the entries, though, it is clear just why that night had the response it did. I look at it this way: No one mentioned the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004, because the game was played on the road. The Rangers' Cup win is a mini-version of what Fenway Park would have been like if the Sox won the Series there, but the emotions that were flowing that night in Madison Square Garden might not have been topped. Just remember the sign: "Now I Can Die In Peace."
GM: What did you consider the most surprising answer you got?
EM: There were actually quite a few, but that made me happy. I encouraged everyone to make the list as personal as possible, which led to events involving their children, or the first time they went to a game with their father or son, for example.
EM: My favorite story in the book is one of the very first. Ernie Accorsi was in attendance the night Gale Sayers gave his famous speech about Brian Piccolo, which was recreated in the movie Brian's Song. There are so many parts of the story that just blew my mind when Ernie was telling it to me, but the one that made it feel surreal was when he saw Vince Lombardi break down in tears. That, to me, is something that really needed to be seen by any sports fan as a reminder that even the most legendary of people are just that, people.
GM: Some people recalled being there as a fan, others as a professional in the sports media. Which kind did you feel resonated more?
EM: Because we are all sports fans, any story told from a fan's perspective can be related to more easily. While hearing stories about events being covered might make people say, "Wow," the reminder of why every person is in this business is because they are sports fans first and foremost really brings even the most famous of broadcasters into a different light.
EM: When I first started asking people to do this, my goal was for a split of sports pros and famous sports fans, for exactly the reason I just mentionedas a reminder that everyone is a fan first. As the project progressed, however, I found that the sports community was so overwhelmingly positive about participating that I opted for just a taste of famous fans, rather than a large portion. Hence, the appearance of Rob Burnett, Stephen Collins, Jay Mohr, and D.B. Sweeney. Their presence serves to bring that fan perspective back, just in case it started to disappear. The great part is that each one of the four tells some incredible stories.
GM: Were you surprised there weren't more negative memories?
EM: Not really. In fact, I thought there were plenty. Just read Chris Myers's list. The negative seems to follow him around: the San Francisco Earthquake, Hank Gathers, the Atlanta Olympic bombing, Dale Earnhardt. I've worked a bunch of NFL games with Chris for FOX, and after he gave me his list, I realized that I was lucky nothing bad happened at any of them.
GM: Does writingand readingthis book make it easier to forget that so many major sporting events end up being disappointing or forgettable, especially in a year when so many have been?
EM: Of course. I think everyone would trade 10 disappointing big events for the chance to see one unforgettable one. But that is what makes sports what it is: the knowledge that one amazing moment can happen at any time. Besides, we are all going to watch anyway (unless it is the NBA finals or Stanley Cup finals, of course).