Bob Knight, Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson had already made their mark on the respective histories of college basketball, the NHL and the NBA. All three were looking for redemption in varying degrees, and in the year of 1987 sports, all three got back on top.
None of the three won a championship in more dramatic fashion than Knight. After coaching the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1984, Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers had seen some hard times—missing the NCAA Tournament in 1985 and losing in the first round in 1986. Knight’s infamous, albeit vastly overplayed chair-throw incident took place in ’85.
It was appropriate that the year Knight returned to the top of the college basketball world took place in the same year the movie Hoosiers came out. Like the movie, the real-life version of the story ended up with a last-second shot winning the national championship, as Keith Smart’s jumper near the baseline gave Indiana a 74-73 win over Syracuse and their head coach his third national title.
The 1987 NCAA Tournament also provided a Cinderella, and one with lasting implications for college basketball. Providence made the Final Four. It was the first breakthrough for a young head coach named Rick Pitino. And his best player was Billy Donovan. We’re still hearing plenty from both Pitino and Donovan on the sidelines today.
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Magic Johnson already had three championship rings and twice had been named MVP of the Finals. But the 1986 season ended badly for his Los Angeles Lakers, and there was talk that they might be supplanted by the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference.
Instead, Magic upped his game to become a top scorer, without losing his tremendous passing ability and he won his first league MVP award. The Lakers won the NBA title, and their battle with the Boston Celtics in the Finals was a historic benchmark—it was the last time Magic and Boston’s Larry Bird ever competed for a championship.
And on the hockey side, Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers had seen their dynasty interrupted in 1986, after winning consecutive Stanley Cups in 1984-85. Gretzky won another MVP award of his own—making him 8-for-8 in his career, and Edmonton erased the upset loss of 1986 by capturing a third Stanley Cup in four years.
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Baseball and college football each provided good regular seasons and interesting finishes. The baseball season was highlighted by a dramatic AL East race, with the Milwaukee Brewers providing any number of streaks, both individual and team, while the Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers ran a great race to the final day of the season.
And baseball’s postseason was marked by a team making full use of the rotation system MLB then used to set homefield advantage for both the League Championship Series and World Series. The Minnesota Twins won their division on the one year in four that they were set to have homefield throughout, and the Twins used it win a surprise World Series.
College football saw the first advent of the four-team playoff that begins in 2014, albeit entirely unintended. But Miami-Florida State and Nebraska-Oklahoma ended up as a de facto national semifinals, with the winners playing for the national title and the losers meeting in the Fiesta Bowl. Miami won the national championship and Florida State ended up #2.
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The NFL toyed with fans with the second strike in six years. Four weeks of play were missed, but unlike the 1982 strike, the league used replacement players to cover for three of the weeks. The games counted in the standings and were retained even after the regular players returned.
What this strike year had in common with 1982, was that once again it was the Washington Redskins who held together and won the Super Bowl. The Strike-Year ‘Skins still had the magic and their 42-10 rout of the Denver Broncos sealed a title, with Doug Williams becoming the first African-American quarterback to start and win the Super Bowl.
Read more about the 1987 Washington Redskins