A single college football game highlighted what was, top to bottom, a very good year in 1988 sports. That game took place in South Bend in mid-October and it defined not just that season, but became caught up in a national culture war.
The game was Notre Dame and Miami, and with the Fighting Irish perceived as the white hats and the Hurricanes perceived as the black hats, everyone was set for battle. Notre Dame won an epic game 31-30 and that game proved to decide the national championship.
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The state of California produced three championship teams at the pro level, two from SoCal and another from the Bay Area. Each was thrilling, but for different reasons.
The Los Angeles Lakers became the first NBA team in nineteen years to win consecutive championships. The Lakers got everything they could handle and then some from the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons, led by Isiah Thomas, had dethroned the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals—although not before Larry Bird first led the Celtics into the conference finals by winning an epic Game 7 scoring duel with Atlanta Hawks’ forward Dominique Wilkins.
It was Detroit’s time in the East, but Los Angeles still had Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. They trailed the Finals 3-2, but won came from behind in the closing minute of Game 6 and then held off a furious Piston rally to win Game 7, fulfilling head coach Pat Riley’s guarantee of a repeat NBA championship.
More last-minute dramatics were on display at the Super Bowl, as was a championship for a 1980s dynasty. The San Francisco 49ers, led by Joe Montana, scored the winning touchdown with 34 seconds left in their victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Montana’s drive culminated a NFL playoffs that was filled with interesting storylines, but for reasons both on-field and off, desperately needed this kind of an ending.
And in baseball, we’re back down in Los Angeles. The World Series itself was not thrilling. The Los Angeles Dodgers jumped out on the Oakland A’s and won in five games. But the manner it went down has still captured the heart of the nation to this day.
The Dodgers, heavy underdogs to the A’s of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco won a shocking Game 1. Los Angeles outfielder Kirk Gibson, barely able to walk because of an injury, came off the bench to pinch-hit and took the best closer in the game, Dennis Eckersely, deep for a home run. Los Angeles never stopped winning and took an unlikely World Series title.
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College basketball didn’t lack for its own drama, this time in America’s heartland. Danny Manning led the Kansas Jayhawks on an improbable ride as a #6 seed, in which they combined catching bracket breaks with having a singular superstar and took a national championship.
The 1988 NCAA Tournament also saw two respected coaches, who never made the Final Four, have their best chances. John Chaney of Temple and Gene Keady at Purdue each had excellent teams and were #1 seeds. But Temple come up short to Duke in a regional final, while Purdue lost in the Sweet 16. Each would have other chances, but never a better one than existed in 1988.
In that, they shared a common bond with Michigan football coach Bo Schembecler. Bo never won a national title and while 1988 wasn’t his only shot, it was certainly one of his best. Michigan took both Notre Dame and Miami to the bitter end before losing heartbreakers. Sometimes, things just aren’t meant to be, as Keady and Chaney lived through at the NCAA Tournament.
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The Edmonton Oilers won their fourth Stanley Cup in five years behind the leadership of Wayne Gretzky. The regular season didn’t go as smoothly as had been in the case in recent years, but the postseason was their most dominant. Edmonton rolled to a 16-2 record to add another jewel to their Gretzky-era treasure chest.
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