The year in 1996 sports was marked by one in which proud franchises or programs returned to the top after what each would consider a lengthy absence. Continuing the theme would be a singularly great player who made a celebrated return and led his team on a historic run.
We refer to Kentucky basketball, the New York Yankees and Green Bay Packers, who joined with Michael Jordan’s Bulls to turn 1996 into a year of the return to greatness. Kentucky and the Yankees won championships for the first time since 1978. The Packers won the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly thirty years.
Jordan had taken early retirement following a three-peat championship in 1993, made a late return to the NBA in 1995, though too late to get himself into good playing rhythm. 1996 was a year MJ was out to make a statement and he certainly did that, leading his team on a historic 72-win regular season and a run to the NBA championship.
Two other teams reached the throne room of their respective sports. The Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup and the Florida Gators captured college football’s national championship, the first title for each.
TheSportsNotebook’s series of sports history articles have put together six separate pieces on the championship events of the major sports. The links below take you on a ride to the Meadowlands, where Kentucky cut down the nets, and through the Rocky Mountains and Windy City and the championship rounds of June, in the NHL and NBA. Then move on to the Yankees-Braves World Series, Florida’s crazy ride to Sugar Bowl glory and finally to New Orleans, where the Packers sealed their own return to greatness.
THE CHAMPIONSHIPS OF 1996
1996 Final Four: Showdown At The Meadowlands
1996 Stanley Cup Finals: An Avalanche Pours Down
1996 NBA Finals: The Bulls Complete Their Mission
1996 World Series: Dynasties Trade Places
1996 College Football: Florida’s Wild Ride
1996 Super Bowl: The Lombardi Trophy Goes Home
Any sports year always offers a few little tidbits that a focus on the championship rounds can’t cover in sufficient detail. In the pantheon of 1996 sports, let’s give honorable mention to the following…
*Anti-Climax In The East: The Orlando Magic, with Shaquille O’Neal were supposed to give Jordan and his crew a big battle in the Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, Chicago’s four-game sweep only validated the Bulls’ greatness.
*LCS Controversy & Comebacks: The Yankees’ win over the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series did not come without controversy. The Yanks won Game 1 when a fly ball to deep right by rookie shortstop Derek Jeter was pulled out of the hand of Baltimore right fielder Tony Tarasco by a young fan, Jeffrey Maier.
Under the rules of today, where home runs are reviewed, this would be easily ruled fan interference. Even under the rules of 1996, it’s almost unfathomable that the umpire placed down the right field line for postseason play didn’t get in position to make the call. The home run stood and it broke a 6-6 tie, ensuring the Yankees at least got a split of the opening two games at home. The fact New York won all three games in Baltimore to clinch the pennant mitigated the potential effects of the blown call, but it certainly helped New York avoid a tough hole.
In the National League Championship Series, the Atlanta Braves were in a 3-1 hole against the St. Louis Cardinals and the Braves’ bid for a repeat World Series title was in trouble. They responded with three consecutive wins by a combined 32-1 score. Now that’s a comeback.
*The Stanley Cup Finals of Colorado-Florida was a letdown, at least in terms of matchup. The Detroit Red Wings had a historic regular season in the West. The Pittsburgh Penguins had the league’s best player in Mario Lemieux. A Red Wings-Penguins Final would have provided excellent hockey and a Rustbelt rivarly. But the Red Wings lost in six games to Colorado and the Pens lost a Game 7 at home to Florida as each favorite came up one round short of the Finals.