Where is America’s most livable city? Forget cost-of-living, quality of education, transportation and economic opportunity. The most livable city is the one with the best sports. For each year of the modern era, starting in 1976, The Sports Notebook has selected one city or part of the country where it was particularly good to be a fan. Below is the recap of how that year unfolded…
1993 was a good sports year for Chicago in general and especially for the large elements of the Windy City fan base that root for Notre Dame football. Michael Jordan’s Bulls won their third straight NBA title, the White Sox won the AL West (this was the last year before realignment created a Central Division in each league) and Notre Dame rolled to an Orange Bowl victory and what should have been a national championship. We should probably even be more specific about where it was a good year for Chicago—you’d have to be on the South Side and in the Irish neighborhoods. The Notebook takes a look back on how the year unfolded.
The Bulls had rolled to championships in 1991 and 1992 that managed to shut up media types who pontificated that Michael Jordan wasn’t the type of player who could win a title (for younger readers, this really was a dominant media theme in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I trust those writers are hidden under a rock somewhere today). The summer of 1992 saw Jordan and teammate Scottie Pippen join the first “Dream Team”, the collection of NBA players who would compete in the Olympics. After blowing their way through Barcelona to the gold medal, both stars had some wear and tear on them, having missed the customary offseason. As a result, the 1993 Chicago Bulls perhaps they didn’t push quite as hard in the regular season and consequently finished with “only” 57 wins, behind the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference and the Phoenix Suns overall. Along with the Jordan and Pippen duo, the Bulls had B.J. Armstrong running the show at the point, with power forward Horace Grant being the key man underneath. These four all averaged more than 30 minutes a game, while no one else averaged more than 20. Coach Phil Jackson rotated veteran Bill Cartwright along Stacey King and Scott Williams in the center spot.
With Jordan’s Bulls getting ready for the playoffs, the White Sox were hoping for a breakout season. Chicago had been a solid, winning team for three straight years coming into 1993. A 94-win season in 1990 wasn’t good enough to win the West behind the powerful Oakland A’s, of Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley and Tony LaRussa. By the standards of today, the ’90 Sox would have made the playoffs, but pre-wild card, they went home. The season got Jeff Torborg Manager of the Year, and they followed it up with an 87-win season in 1991 that brought them in behind Minnesota. Torborg made an ill-fated decision to go to the Mets, a switch that blew up in his face, while Chicago turned to Gene Lamont and kept winning. They won 86 more in 1992 and were primed to make the final push in ’93.
In the NBA playoffs, Chicago rolled through the first two rounds, going 7-0 against Atlanta and Cleveland (the first round was best-of-five). While New York and Phoenix both advanced, neither was dominant, particularly the Suns, who barely escaped the first round. What this did was give some early credence to the theory that the Bulls were the best team in waiting—not just on the grounds that the defending champ is the team to beat, but for the fact they had to take it a little easier during the regular season with 40 percent of their starting lineup having played all summer. While we should note that New York center Patrick Ewing and Phoenix forward Charles Barkley also went to Barcelona, they didn’t have a teammate with them as Jordan did.
The Eastern Conference Finals began in New York and it wasn’t an auspicious beginning. The Knicks got wins of 98-90 and 96-91 and put Chicago’s back to the wall as the series reverted to the Windy City. Game 3 got out of hand in more ways than one—the Bulls won by twenty points, and the Knicks chose to respond by picking fights in the second half. With everyone getting more than a little testy—the teams had played a seven-game series in the conference semi-finals one year earlier—Jordan did what he always did best. He took over, scored 54 points and led the way to a 105-95 win that tied the series.
Game 5 is on the list of the top NBA playoff games ever played, primarily because of the way it finished. Clinging to a one-point lead, the Bulls watched Knicks forward Charles Smith grab repeated rebounds. Just as repeatedly, Smith’s shots were blocked. New York fans insist to this day Smith was fouled. To Chicago fans it’s one of the great moments of the first Jordan Dynasty. It preserved what would be a 97-94 win and Chicago closed it out at home in Game 6. The Bulls had answered the bell against a team that had what they lacked—a truly dominant center in Ewing, a 24-point scorer and 12-rebound a game man.
Phoenix was up for the Finals and this was to be the year that Barkley got his elusive championship ring. The Suns were deeper than the Bulls,with seven players averaging in double digits. They had a top-caliber point guard in Kevin Johnson and Danny Ainge, a veteran of the Celtics’ 1984 and 1986 championship teams (and the front-office architect of another Celtic title in 2008) gave a veteran presence off the bench. It hadn’t stopped from the Suns from struggling in the playoffs though. After the first-round scare they had been pushed to seven games in the conference finals by the Seattle Supersonics (today’s Oklahoma City Thunder). And the Bulls came ready to go in the first two games out west, winning both. Game 2 was a great battle between Jordan and Barkley, who each scored 42 points, but Pippen preserved a 111-108 win when he blocked Ainge’s final three-point attempt.
With the next three games in Chicago, this series looked all but over. But Phoenix miraculously pulled out a triple-overtime battle in Game 3. It was the longest NBA Finals game since 1976, one that also involved the Suns, against the Celtics. In that ’76 game, Phoenix coach Paul Westphal was a player. Westphal lost the game as a player. As a coach his team survived Jordan’s 44 points in a 129-121 final. Three nights later in Game 4 Jordan restored order with a big 55-point showing in a 111-105 win. Once again this series was sure to end in the Windy City. And once again, Phoenix had either ideas. Barkley hit the glass in Game 5 to the tune of 17 rebounds and Phoenix snuck out with a 108-98 win. In a league where homecourt edge too often equates an automatic win, the road team was 4-1 in this series. Small consolation to Chicago who would have to find a way to win in the desert.
Game 6 was another Finals Classic. On a Sunday afternoon, in front of a raucous crowd, the Suns led 98-94 late in the game and it seemed a Game 7 was inevitable. At least NBC, broadcasting the series, with Marv Albert handling play-by-play had to hope that was the case. Then the Bulls scored, came up with a defensive stop and brought the ball across midcourt trailing by two. Unexpectedly, it wasn’t Jordan or even Pippen who got the ball. John Paxon, a 32-year old reserve from Notre Dame went to the left corner, was fed the ball and drilled a three-pointer with second remaining. It sealed a third straight title and made the Bulls the first time to three-peat since the Red Auerbach-era Celtics. The chances for a grand slam the following year were ended when Jordan decided to do a two-year stint trying to play minor league baseball. After he came back, the Bulls again won three in a row from 1996-98. On this June afternoon in 1993, they gave the Windy City another championship, eased the disappointment of the NHL Blackhawks surprise loss in the first round of the playoffs and gave way to the baseball season.
THE LCS COMES BACK TO THE SOUTH SIDE
To say the White Sox were far from dominant in the early part of the season would be an understatement. The entire AL West seemed to be stuck in neutral, and after two months the White Sox 24-23 record only had them three games off the pace. By the end of June, a mediocre 39-36 record was actually good for first place and a 1.5 game lead. Chicago had the horses though, with ace pitcher Jack McDowell on his way to 22 wins and a Cy Young Award. Frank Thomas would hit 41 home runs, bat .317, drive in 128 runs and be named AL Most Valuable Player. The supporting cast included scrappy second baseman Joey Cora and his .351 on-base percentage. Ozzie Guillen, whose fiery style would captivate the city for eight years as White Sox manager one day, played short. Offseason acquisition Ellis Burks, a veteran of Boston’s playoff teams in 1988 and 1990 played right and had an OBP of .352.Robin Ventura hit 22 home runs at third base. Another veteran, Tim Raines, had an on-base percentage over .400. Behind McDowell in the rotation were a pair of 23-year olds, Wilson Alvarez and Alex Fernandez, who combined for 33 wins, each had ERAs under 3 and piled up over 200 innings. In the early part of July the White Sox won two of three over Toronto, and took off. They pushed the lead out as high as 5.5 games in July, and the only nervous moment came in mid-September when Texas briefly pulled within 2.5 games. Chicago re-asserted itself, finished 94-68 and won the West by eight games.
The White Sox got ready for the American League Championship Series with Toronto, while Notre Dame got ready for another season. Lou Holtz was the head man in South Bend and was coming off a Top 5 finish in 1992, where the Irish finished 9-1-1 in the regular season and then blasted Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Under Holtz, Notre Dame had been to a major bowl game every year since 1987, won the national title in 1988 and finished #2 in 1989. Even though expectations weren’t high for 1993, that’s all relative and “low expectations” still meant a Top 10 preseason ranking. After an opening win over Northwestern, ND went to Michigan who was ranked #2. It was supposed to be a whipping and it was—but for Notre Dame. The Irish dominated on the ground and led 27-10 in the second half. A goal-line stand and subsequent 99-yard drive allowed Michigan to pull closer and Notre Dame had to preserve a 27-23 win by covering an onside kick. It was still a game not nearly as competitive as the final score made it look, and it wasn’t the last time the Irish would win a big game in such fashion. They won three games over Michigan State, Purdue and Stanford (none of whom were very good at this point) and as the sports calendar turned to the baseball playoffs, Notre Dame was 5-0, ranked fourth in the nation and pointing to a November 13 showdown with top-ranked Florida State in South Bend.
Toronto was the defending World Series champion and had a stacked lineup coming into an ALCS they were favored to win. Future Hall of Famers like Roberto Alomar and Paul Molitor dotted the everyday lineup and were joined by leftfielder Joe Carter and centerfielder Devon White. Toronto had raided Oakland to add Rickey Henderson to the top of the batting order and Dave Stewart to the top of the pitching rotation. The raid made the White Sox path to the AL West crown much easier, as Oakland (the ’92 division winner) collapsed and started the sequence of events that would take LaRussa to St. Louis. But the price for that easier path would come due as the series began at Comiskey Park (homefield advantage determined by an East-West rotation, not best record).
McDowell held the Blue Jays in check for three innings, but third baseman Ed Sprague hit a triple down the rightfield line in the fourth that scored Molitor and John Olerud. The White Sox came right back in the bottom of the inning when Guillen delivered a two-RBI single, stole second and scored himself. McDowell couldn’t hold the 3-2 lead long though, as Olerud delivered a two-out two-run double in the fifth and Molitor drove him in. The White Sox didn’t have an answer this time, threatening only once and watching Olerud and Molitor team up one more time for a two-run homer that resulted in 7-3 final. One night later the offense disappeared against Stewart. After a mysterious bout of wildness by the Toronto veteran, where he issued three walks and a wild-pitch to give Chicago a first-inning run, the Jays would later break a 1-1 tie when two doubles and a single made the score 3-1. The White Sox had their chance in the sixth when they loaded the bases with nobody out, but the bottom of the order failed to come through and no runs were scored. Like the Bulls, the White Sox had opened the finals of their league/conference playoffs by losing the first two. Unlike the Bulls they weren’t going home. Chicago would have to find a way to beat the best team in baseball two of three up in Canada if the folks on the South Side would get more baseball in 1993.
To everyone’s surprise, the White Sox did just that in grabbing Games 3 & 4. Alvarez delivered a shutdown effort in Game 3. The lineup blasted Toronto starter Pat Hentgen for five runs in the third, a rally entirely started with two outs. Raines, Cora and Thomas hit consecutive singles that resulted in one run. Ventura walked, and Burks singled in two more. Another walk to Bo Jackson (now a utility player at this point in his famous two-sport career) set up a two-run single by speedy Lance Johnson. Toronto got a run back in the bottom of the inning, but never touched Alvarez after that and the game ended 6-1. Johnson, a 35-steal man and contact hitter showed unexpected power early in Game 4 with a two-run homer in the second. Toronto answered with three in the third. Lamont, managing with the urgency the game demanded, removed #4 starter Jason Bere quickly, replaced him with Tim Belcher and kept the score at 3-2 when it might have gotten out of hand. Johnson again came up big in the sixth. After a Thomas homer tied it, the centerfielder hit a two-run triple. The final ended up 7-4 and it was now a best-of-three with the final two games in Chicago.
Lamont turned to McDowell for a late Sunday afternoon start in Game 5. The Bears, on their way to a 7-9 season in Dave Wannstedt’s first year, put everyone in a good mood by beating the Philadelphia Eagles early in the day and now it was time for the Cy Young Award winner to assert himself. Except Toronto still had McDowell’s number. Rickey Henderson doubled in the first inning and provided an early run. Molitor doubled in the second and came around. Almoar walked, stole second and scored in the third. With two on and one out, Lamont removed his ace and the score was kept at 3-0. But one inning later a Devon White double and Alomar single made it 4-0. It was death by a thousand cuts, but the Jays had missed chances to blow it wide open and they would leave runners on in the sixth and eighth. In the top of the ninth it was 5-1 when Ventura hit a two-out, two-run homer. When Burks drew a walk, suddenly Jackson represented the tying run. But he struck out. Still, the White Sox couldn’t complain too much. In spite of McDowell having lost twice, they had still gotten the series back home for the final two games.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s homefield advantage was no match for Dave Stewart in a big game. Stewart was to his day what Curt Schilling would be to a future age. There was no stopping him when the money was on the table and certainly not with a pennant. Fernandez fell behind early and even though the Sox tied the game 2-2, the Jays got the lead in the fourth at 3-2 and Stewart never let go. It stayed that way to the ninth when a White home run and Molitor triple were the big blows in a four-run rally that broke it open. Chicago got a cosmetic home run from little-used Warren Newsome in the bottom of the inning, but the final was 7-4 and the Blue Jays had won the pennant.
There was still no shame in the White Sox defeat. They had finally reached the playoffs and when Toronto went on to beat Philadelphia in the World Series, the White Sox had a good case as the second-best team in all of baseball. One of the big surprises with this team is that they never made it back to October with the current group, though they did lead the AL Central one year later when the strike that wiped out the rest of the season hit. The playoffs wouldn’t return to the South Side until 2000 and not until 2005 would they finally win the World Series, by which time Guillen was in the dugout rather than at short. But no one knew this in October of 1993 and the future looked bright.
Notre Dame rolled unabated towards its showdown with Florida State. The Irish beat Pitt 44-0, won an ESPN night game at BYU, took out USC 31-13 (the Trojans at this point just an above-average team) and then beat Navy to end October. Holtz had two weeks to get ready for FSU and the college football world was tuned in.
The November 13 game decisively changed the way we view college football in one way. The magnitude of this game led ESPN’s Gameday crew, still hosted by Chris Fowler and including Lee Corso, to do its first-ever on-scene show, setting up shop in South Bend. It worked so well that Gameday is done on live from somewhere every week now. The ‘Noles had Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward and were so well-regarded that Notre Dame was a 14-point underdog on their homefield with two weeks to prepare and being #2 in the nation.
Just as they’d done against Michigan, the Irish came out hitting in the trenches. After Ward led an opening drive for a Florida State touchdown, the Notre Dame line took over. Receiver Adrian Jarrell took a reverse 32 yards for the tying touchdown and two more rushing TDs made it 21-7 at half. With a defensive lineup that included All-American choices in tackle Bryant Young and defensive backs Jeff Burris and Bobby Taylor, along with Lombardi Award winner Aaron Taylor on the offensive line, the Irish were showing they had some talent themselves.
Notre Dame maintained a steady control of the game and it was 31-17 in the fourth quarter. On 4th-and-20 around midfield Ward fired a pass down the middle. A Notre Dame defender batted it in the air and through a fluke play it ended up as first down for FSU. They got a touchdown, and upon getting the ball back rallied down to give Ward two cracks at the end zone from just outside the 10-yard line. The first pass was knocked down. On the second Ward sprinted to his left and forced the ball into coverage. Defensive back Shawn Wooten batted the ball to the ground and Notre Dame had won 1993’s version of The Game of the Century.
Notre Dame was now the consensus #1 and the country was ready to watch them play undefeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, but the Cornhuskers were not given any respect, so that’s really a way of saying most everyone assumed ND would roll to a national title. But Boston College had something to say about that. Still steaming over a 54-7 loss to the Irish the previous year where Holtz ran a fake punt in the second half, BC’s fine passing offense with Glen Foley came out firing early and often and led 38-17 in the fourth quarter. Suddenly the Irish awoke and took a 39-38 lead with less than a minute to play. A foolish personal foul penalty on the kickoff handed Foley fifteen extra yards, he moved the Eagles into field goal range and a David Gordon field goal that won it became a great moment in BC history and an infamous one for Notre Dame. It put “The Holy War” between the two Catholic schools playing at the FBS level on the map. And it put Notre Dame into a bind heading into New Year’s Day.
Notre Dame got a Cotton Bowl rematch with Texas A&M, who was 10-1 and ranked #7. The Irish were at #4, trailing unbeaten teams in Nebraska and West Virginia, along with Florida State. The Seminoles were inexplicably ranked #1, against a team they had lost to and two more that hadn’t lost. The voters seemed to have decided Florida State was the best team and actual on-field results be damned. Florida State would play Nebraska in what appeared to be the game that would settle the national title in the Orange Bowl. But West Virginia would have a case if they could beat Florida in the Sugar. And Notre Dame was preparing its case, with Holtz reminding the media that if, when the bowls were done, if no team was undefeated, it left Notre Dame and Florida State as the only ones among the one-loss teams that would have won a bowl game. And who pray tell, had won the head-to-head matchup in November, a game not as close as the 31-24 final score makes it sound?
Texas A&M was a hungry team in the Cotton Bowl as they looked for some national respect and as the mid-afternoon battle seesawed back and forth it looked like all of Holtz’s best arguments might not matter. After the Irish ran it down the Aggies’ throats for a first-drive touchdown, A&M responded with two of their own and it was 14-7 at half. Notre Dame opened the second half the same way they opened the first, with the pounding running game of halfback Lee Becton and fullbacks Ray Zellars and Marc Edwards getting the job done and tying the game. It was the ground game where ND would have a decisive edge, doubling up on A&M in yardage, 206-103. The teams swapped touchdowns and it went into the fourth quarter at 21-21. A key sequence then began when Irish linebacker Pete Bercich picked off sophomore quarterback Corey Pullig. It was one of three Aggie turnovers to zero for the Irish and this one happened around midfield. Though the Notre Dame offense couldn’t do anything, their punt did pin A&M. After the defense held firm, Notre Dame punt returner Mike Miller made the decisive play, fielding a punt around midfield and returning it deep into Aggie territory. It set up a field goal with five minutes that made it 24-21. A&M had a rally left in them and got to midfield, but a big sack all but sealed the Cotton Bowl win for the Irish. They had done their part. Now it was time to hope Florida and Florida State could beat the two unbeaten.
Florida blew out West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl, while the Orange Bowl was a wild game down to the end with some shaky penalties on Nebraska gifting FSU thirty yards on a drive for the game-winning field goal. It ended 18-16. Now the Irish had done their part. The undefeateds had fallen. Florida State had looked far from dominant in an Orange Bowl were both teams committed double-digit penalties. Now it was time to hope the voters respected their own precedents.
In 1989, Notre Dame and Miami had each finished with one loss. Though the Irish had played a tougher schedule, the teams played head-to-head in November and Miami delivered a decisive home win. That victory was correctly given primacy in the final voting and the Hurricanes won the national title. No one could have missed Holtz’s repeated reminders that this situation was exactly the same. While the ND coach didn’t say so aloud, no one could dispute that Florida State played a better schedule in 1993 (in addition to Notre Dame and Nebraska, they’d beaten Florida on the road, beaten Miami and beaten a good North Carolina team on the road. The only good team they didn’t play was the Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith-era Dallas Cowboys). But they had lost head-to-head. And ’93 Notre Dame, like ’89 Miami, hadn’t feasted on cream puffs all year. All Notre Dame wanted was a consistent strike zone. If it’s about strength of schedule, then give them the ’89 crown. If it’s about head-to-head, given them the ’93 title. The voters did neither and voted in Florida State.
It was still the end of a great year for the South Side of Chicago and the Irish Catholic world down there in particular. Jordan’s flirtation with baseball, the strike of 1994 and the fall of Notre Dame football—as of 2011 they have not seriously competed for a national title since and are 0-5 in major bowl games (1994 Fiesta, 1995 Orange, 2000 Fiesta, 2005 Fiesta, 2006 Sugar)—all that was unknown. For now, it was a good year to be a fan in this neck of the woods.