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Thursday, August 19, 2004

ESPN25

Just a few weeks remain until ESPN's 25th anniversary bash, and their summer programming counting down the best of the last 25 years is winding down. There have been a few rather weak "Who's #1" shows, and the close ups of the women's lips saying the numbers strikes me as mildly pornographic and disturbing, but the last three editions sound solid: best plays, biggest controversies and best games.

Prior to "Who's #1" the worldwide network has been airing "The Headlines" on Tuesdays at 7. There's nothing on the web about this, leaving me to guess the top three sports news stories of the last quarter century (Magic Johnson's HIV announcement clocked in at #4 this week). My prediction: 3) the multiple retirements of Michael Jordan; 2) the O.J. Simpson trial; 1) the 1994 baseball strike.

Why these three? Because they touch on the most important themes in pro sports in my lifetime. There simply has to be a show on Jordan because he's the greatest athlete of this period. That show can touch on his marketing appeal, the internal struggle of the great athlete to find new challenges, his personal journey from the murder of his father to the Birmingham Barons to being a mediocre Washington Wizards exec who couldn't resist the urge to get on the court again.

The O.J. trial was enormous national news because it was such a dramatic story involving a guy everyone thought they knew yet who turned out to have a dark side. The implications for sports role models are big, and the case contributed to a national reconsideration of the place of the athlete (not to mention all the attention that was placed on the legal process--or the race stuff for that matter).

When the '94 baseball strike led to the cancellation of the World Series, that was the seminal event in a long-term erosion of how we viewed sports. "When It Was a Game" was replaced by the athlete's mantra that "it's a business" when contract disputes arose. These guys playing games were no longer necessarily in it for the love, and many fans came to resent the greed (on the part of owners too) that manifested itself in exorbitant ticket prices and concession costs at stadiums. Again, big stuff.

We'll see if any of this turns out to be correct. There's also an ongoing countdown of top moments that happens on SportsCenter every day. I expect these three stories to show up somewhere in the top 20 that's yet to be revealed.