This Day in History (April 11)

Apr 11, 2004: Phil Mickelson wins first major at Masters

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On this day in 2004, Phil Mickelson wins the Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, his first major championship in nearly 12 years as a professional golfer.

A native of California, Mickelson graduated from Arizona State University, where he won three NCAA individual championships and three Haskins Awards as the nation’s outstanding college golfer. In 1991, while still an amateur, he won his first PGA Tour tournament, the Northern Telecom Open. Mickelson turned pro in 1992 and went on to win a number of tournaments; however, a victory in one of the four majors–the most prestigious tournaments in pro golf: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the Open Championship in Britain and the PGA Championship–eluded him. He finished in second or third place in eight majors and became known as the best player in golf without a major win.

The Masters Tournament is the first of the four majors to be held each year. The inaugural Masters took place in 1934, a year after Augusta National opened in Augusta, Georgia, as a private golf club. On April 11, 2004, Mickelson’s majors losing streak ended when he sunk an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole at the Masters Tournament to defeat Ernie Els by a single stroke. Mickelson, who finished with a nine-under-par 279, won $1.17 million and was awarded the traditional green sport given to each Masters champ.

In 2005, Mickelson won the PGA Championship and in 2006 he captured his second Masters victory. As of 2007, nine men, including Mickelson, have won the Masters twice. Four golfers have won the Masters three times each, while Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods have claimed victory four times each. Jack Nicklaus holds the record for Masters wins, with six.

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This Day in History (April 1)

Apr 1, 1985: Villanova beats Georgetown for NCAA basketball championship

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On this day in 1985, in one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history, the Villanova Wildcats beat the Georgetown Hoyas, 66-64, to win the NCAA Men’s Division I tournament. The victory was Villanova’s first-ever national championship.

Over 23,000 college basketball fans gathered at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, for the match-up between the Hoyas, who took home the NCAA championship in 1984, and the Wildcats, who finished the ’85 regular season tied for third place in the Big East conference. On their way to meeting the Hoyas, who were coached by John Thompson, the underdog Wildcats, coached by Rollie Massimino, beat No. 2-ranked Michigan, No. 5-ranked Memphis State and No. 7-ranked North Carolina in tournament play.

During the championship game on April 1, the Wildcats shot 79 percent from the field and nailed 22 of 28 shots, plus 22 of 27 free throws. Wildcats forward Dwayne McCain, the leading scorer, had 17 points and 3 assists. The Wildcats’ 6’ 9 ½” center Ed Pinckney outscored 7’ Hoyas’ center Patrick Ewing, 16 points to 14 and six rebounds to five and was named MVP of the Final Four.

In a March 16, 1987, Sports Illustrated article, Gary McLain, who played starting guard on the championship Villanova team, admitted to using cocaine during the 1985 Final Four tournament and during his team’s visit to the White House to celebrate their victory and meet President Ronald Reagan. McLain, who also confessed to selling drugs while at Villanova, implied that other Villanova players had used drugs, although he wouldn’t name them. McLain entered drug rehab after he was fired from his job on Wall Street for forging a check and company voucher to help support his addiction.

This Day in History (March 19)

Mar 19, 1966: Texas Western defeats Kentucky in NCAA finals

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On March 19, 1966, Texas Western College defeats the University of Kentucky in the NCAA men’s college basketball final at Cole Field House in College Park, Maryland. This marked the first time an all-black starting five had won the NCAA championship.

The top-ranked University of Kentucky men’s basketball team was favored in the final over the third-ranked Miners. Adolph Rupp, Kentucky’s coach from 1930 to 1972, recruited almost exclusively inside Kentucky, earning the nickname “The Baron of Bluegrass.” Like many other coaches of the time, Rupp neither recruited nor played African-American players. Using exclusively white players, Rupp eventually established the most successful coaching career in college history: He had four national championships to his credit, one NIT title and was on his way to 876 wins, a record number upon his retirement in 1972.

Texas Western, now the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), had been led by Coach Don Haskins since 1961. Haskins, who inherited an integrated team, continued to recruit black players and taught his team the “swinging gate” defensive style he had learned as a player at Oklahoma A & M (now Oklahoma State) under legendary coach Henry Iba. Haskins’ 1966 team was led by Bobby Joe Hill, a guard from Detroit, and Willie Worsley, a guard from New York City, while the Kentucky team featured guard Pat Riley, who went on to win NBA championships as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. In the NCAA finals, Texas Western took control in the first half and never relinquished the lead. Their tough defense disrupted the offense of the Wildcats, who showed signs of exhaustion after a hard-fought game against number-two Duke in the semi-final.

Western Texas’ journey to the 1966 NCAA championship was depicted in the 2006 film Glory Road.

This Day in History (February 26)

Feb 26, 1996: Stockton gets 11,000th NBA assist

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On this day in 1996, the Utah Jazz’s point guard John Stockton gets his 11,000th assist in the NBA. When Stockton retires from basketball in 2003, he leaves with 15,806 career assists, a record that still stands.

Stockton attended Gonzaga University and in 1984 was drafted by the Utah Jazz, where he would spend his entire career. The 6’1” point guard was the 16th overall pick in that year’s draft, which also included Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. Stockton got his first NBA assist on November 26, 1984, and his 1,000th assist on April 5, 1986. During the 1987-1988 season, he made 1,128 assists, setting a record for most assists in one season. Isiah Thomas had previously held the record with 1,123 assists.

On February 1, 1995, Stockton shattered the NBA record for career assists–9,921–which had belonged to Magic Johnson. Stockton earned a reputation as hard-working, consistent and the ultimate team player. During his 19 seasons with the Jazz, he and forward Karl Malone led the team to the playoffs every year, although they never won the championship. Stockton was also known for wearing short basketball shorts throughout his career, even when most players began sporting a longer, baggier style in the 1990s.

In addition to Stockton’s 10 All-Star game appearances, he played on the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball teams that won gold in 1992 in Barcelona and 1996 in Atlanta.

When Stockton retired from the NBA in May 2003, he was known as one of the greatest point guards in the history of basketball and was the all-time leader in assists, with 15,806, a record he still holds. He had 19,711 career points and led the league in career steals, with a total of 3,265. In November 2004, the Utah Jazz retired Stockton’s jersey–number 12.

This Day in History (February 25)

Feb 25, 1964: Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston

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On February 25, 1964, underdog Cassius Clay, age 22, defeats champion Sonny Liston in a technical knockout to win the world heavyweight boxing crown. The highly anticipated match took place in Miami Beach, Florida. Clay, who later became known to the world as Muhammad Ali, went on to become the first fighter to capture the heavyweight title three times.

Liston was a reserved, feared fighter, a decade older than Cassius Clay, and had been world heavyweight champ since defeating Floyd Patterson in 1962. By contrast, Clay was a mouthy underdog who had won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. While training for their fight, Clay, a natural self-promoter, taunted Liston and boasted to reporters that he would win by knockout. Clay came out strong during the fight, using speed and footwork to his advantage against the slower Liston. After the sixth round, Liston, who was suffering from cuts and bruises under his eyes and an apparent injured shoulder, announced he couldn’t continue. Clay won the match by technical knockout and then announced to the world, “I am the greatest!”

On May 25, 1965, the two fighters met in Lewiston, Maine, for a rematch. The bout ended with a highly controversial first-round knockout for Clay, who by then had become a member of the Nation of Islam and taken a Muslim name, Muhammad Ali. Some people claimed Liston threw the fight, possibly because he was controlled by the Mafia or because he feared retaliation from Black Muslim extremists.

In 1967, while America was at war in Vietnam, Ali refused for religious reasons to join the Army. As a result, he was convicted of draft dodging, stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three years. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction and Ali reclaimed the heavyweight crown on January 28, 1974, at the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire against champion George Foreman.

In February 1978, Ali lost the title to Olympic gold medalist Leon Spinks. In a rematch seven months later, Ali defeated Spinks in 15 rounds and to reclaim the heavyweight crown. He then retired. Two years later, he made a brief, unsuccessful comeback before retiring permanently in 1981. Ali’s career record includes 56 wins, 5 losses and 37 knockouts.

Sonny Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971. It’s believed he could have been dead for a week by that time and the cause of his death remains a mystery. During his career, he recorded 50 wins, 39 knockouts and 4 losses.

This Day in History (February 22)

Feb 22, 1980: U.S.hockey pulls off Miracle on Ice

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On this day in 1980, the U.S. men’s hockey team pulls off one of the biggest upsets in sports history with a 4-3 victory over the heavily favored Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Two days later, the Americans went on to beat Finland and take home the gold medal.

Going into the game, the Soviet team, which consisted of experienced, state-sponsored athletes, was considered the best in the world, even better than any teams in the National Hockey League. By contrast, the American squad was mostly made up of unseasoned college players. In an exhibition match shortly before the Olympics, the Soviets, who had dominated Olympic hockey since 1964, crushed the Americans, 10-3.

Despite their relative inexperience, the U.S. team had a strong, well-rounded group of players. They were led by Herb Brooks, the head hockey coach at the University of Minnesota, where his teams had won three NCAA championships. Brooks himself had been a player on the 1964 and 1968 U.S. Olympic hockey teams. In their opening game at Lake Placid, the U.S. squad tied with Sweden, 2-2, and then went on to defeat Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania and West Germany. On February 22, the Americans faced the Soviets, who had defeated all their tournament opponents up to that point. The U.S.-Soviet match up was particularly charged, because at the time the nations were Cold War enemies.

Once the game began, the Soviets came on strong but the Americans managed to hold their own. With the Soviets up 2-1 in the final seconds before the first period, Mark Johnson tied it up at 2-2. Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov then decided to replace goalie Vladislav Tretiak, considered by many the best goaltender of the time. Coach Tikhonov would later call this move his biggest mistake of the game.

The Soviets led 3-2 in the third period, when Johnson scored again to tie the game. With 10 minutes left in the game, U.S. team captain Mike Eruzione scored what would become the winning goal. As a flag-waving American crowd counted down the final seconds of the game to victory, broadcaster Al Michaels famously explained, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” After beating the Soviets, the U.S. defeated Finland, 4-2, on February 24 to capture the gold medal. The Soviets took home the silver medal, while the Swedes received the bronze.

Following the Olympics, many members of the U.S. team went on to pro careers in the NHL. Herb Brooks coached several NHL teams after the “Miracle on Ice,” before dying in a 2003 car accident.

The game is still remembered fondly by many Americans as one of the greatest moments in Olympic history.

This Day in History (February 8)

Feb 8, 1986: Spud Webb wins dunk contest

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On February 8, 1986, Spud Webb, who at 5’7” was one of the shortest players in the history of professional basketball, wins the NBA slam dunk contest, beating his Atlanta Hawks teammate and 1985 dunk champ, the 6’8” Dominique Wilkins.

Anthony Jerome “Spud” Webb was born July 13, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. Throughout his life, Webb had to prove himself as a basketball player due to his relatively small stature. As a high school player, he averaged 26 points per game and was one of 10 students out of 5,000 selected to the All-State team; however, his size prevented him from being recruited for Division 1-A colleges. Instead, he attended Midland Junior College in Texas, where he led his team to victory in the 1982 junior college championship. He then caught the attention of the coaches at North Carolina State University, where he went on to play for two years.

Despite a strong college career, his size initially kept him from making the NBA and after graduation he played in the U.S. Basketball League. In 1985, he had a successful tryout with the Atlanta Hawks and joined the team. Webb played six seasons with the Hawks, followed by stints with the Sacramento Kings, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Orlando Magic.

One of the most memorable events of Webb’s career was his dunk contest win, which took place on February 8, 1986, at the NBA All-Star Game Weekend in Dallas. Webb, the shortest player to ever participate in the competition to that time, went up against men who were, in some cases, a foot taller. In the end, size didn’t matter. Webb dazzled the crowd with his soaring dunks and bested teammate Dominique Wilkins, who had won the 1985 contest by beating Michael Jordan. (The NBA’s first slam dunk competition was held in 1984.)

Webb retired from basketball in 1998, after 12 seasons in the NBA. He was said to have paved the way for other height-challenged NBA players, including 5’5” Earl Boykins and 5’3” Muggsy Bogues. In 2006, 5’9” Nate Robinson of the New York Knicks became the second-shortest player to emerge victorious in the NBA slam dunk contest. Spud Webb was on hand in Dallas for the event and during one dunk, Robinson jumped over him and put the ball through the hoop.