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8 Upper

To Sir, With Love

By Tom Scocca | Posted 12/15/1999

The key sports moment of 1999 was unplanned and unpleasant. On Dec. 8, early in a game between the Houston Rockets and the Philadelphia 76ers, Charles Barkley went up to block a shot and came down wrong and hard, landing on the floor of Philadelphia's First Union Center with his left quadriceps tendon torn loose and his kneecap protruding sideways. Suddenly, Barkley's 17-year career was over.

In the year of Wayne Gretzky's last skate-around and John Elway's walk-off Super Bowl win, Sir Charles' exit was confusingly abrupt. It didn't fit neatly into all the year's retrospectives, the coverage of the Athletes of the Century and the Teams of the Decade. He went out in the service of a losing team, never having won a championship.

But Barkley's 1999, like the rest of his career, was a study in talent and will. In the strike-shortened NBA season just past, he averaged 16.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists; to stave off playoff elimination against the Lakers, he put up 30 points and grabbed 23 rebounds in one game.

I was too young to pay attention to the early years of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and I never much cared for Michael Jordan. Charles Barkley was the first great NBA player I cheered for from beginning to end. As Philadelphia's young Round Mound of Rebound, he attacked the rim like no one else. On the first Olympic Dream Team, he outplayed his teammates, the greatest All-Star Squad ever assembled, showing more personality and all-around skills than Michael, Magic, or Larry. In his old age, at 6-foot-4 (don't believe anything saying he's taller), he knocked guys who were 10 inches taller than him flat on their asses.

When he thudded to the floor for the last time, he had more than 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists in his career, a combination matched only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the late Wilt Chamberlain. His single-game high score was 56 points—recorded in the 1996 playoffs, and 9 points more than he ever scored in a regular-season contest.

1999 was a fitting year for Barkley to go out. As this year made abundantly clear, winning isn't everything.

There was, of course, a full slate of happy champions. The hated Yankees and the obnoxious Broncos won titles again. Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs grew into their promise. The underrated University of Connecticut men's basketball team beat an overrated and overweening Duke squad for the NCAA crown. Serena Williams won her first major tennis title. But things were more interesting away from the winner's circle. This was a year of tough, passionate runners-up. The Chinese women's World Cup soccer team battled the favored Americans to a 0-0 tie in the finals, only to lose a shootout. The young Sacramento Kings almost upset the Utah Jazz in the playoffs, using a newfound combination of flashy skills and focused teamwork. LaMont Jordan almost carried the University of Maryland football team to a bowl game by himself after the resurgent Terps lost their quarterback. And, of course, there was the eternal runner-up, Chamberlain, whose sudden death amid the athlete-of-the-century hype brought new attention to just what incredible things he had done.

So the scenes of 1999 that linger are not of mere victory, but of valor. Other things I'll be telling the grandkids about:

Charismatic: Respect came grudgingly for Charismatic in this year's chase for the Triple Crown. A claiming-race entry in February, the chestnut went off at 31-1 in the Kentucky Derby; after he won, he was 8-1 in the Preakness. After he won that, horses that hadn't run the first two races lined up at the Belmont to try to deny him the crown. It worked: The filly Silverbulletday sprinted out fast, and Charismatic's jockey, Chris Antley, gave chase, a boneheaded move in the 11/2-mile race. Charismatic did take the lead, briefly, but a rested Lemon Drop Kid passed him down the stretch—and, trying to battle back, the laboring Charismatic snapped two bones in his left foreleg just before the wire. He limped to a third-place finish, and quick veterinary intervention saved his life.

Todd Martin: Down 5-7, 0-6, 4-5, and facing Greg Rusedski's blistering serve in the U.S. Open, 29-year-old Martin reversed his fortunes completely and instantly. He broke Rusedski's serve, forced a third-set tiebreaker, and won it. Suddenly, every shot he made was a winner. He attacked from all angles, hitting hard shots and soft ones, playing with inhuman perfection. Rusedski would hit a good shot; Martin would hit a better one. He won the fourth set, then took the fifth, winning 20 of the last 21 points to advance to the quarter-finals. He would go on to lose the Open final to Andre Agassi, but on that one night, he could have beaten anyone in the world.

Boston Red Sox: Armed with exactly one star hitter, one star pitcher, and a collection of journeymen, rookies, and retreads, the 1999 Red Sox were the soundest, smartest, capital-T team in pro sports. Against Cleveland in the playoffs, Boston's already ragged pitching rotation fell completely apart when ace Pedro Martinez went down with a sore back and shoulder. The Sox fell behind 2-0 in the best-of-five series. But somehow, manager Jimy Williams got the pitchers to keep going, and the motley hitters clobbered Cleveland in games three and four. And then, in game five, they took another lead—and Williams, having done everything else he could, called the sore-armed Martinez in from the bullpen in the fourth inning. The ace held the Indians hitless the rest of the way. There was no greater sports moment in 1999.

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