We all remember the Redskins’ Super Bowl win in ’92, Joe Theismann’s broken leg in ’85, and the Nats’ World Championship in 2015 (they won, right?). But DC has had a multitude of sports moments—good and bad—that aren’t as dramatic but are just as important.
Michael Jordan Blocks the Bulls
It was all smiles and competitive rage when Michael Jordan stepped out of the owner’s suite and back onto the court as a Washington Wizard in October 2001. While the legend’s two-year tenure as a Wizard player was marked with mediocrity, there were still times that Jordan’s greatness was on full display. His first game against his former team, the Chicago Bulls, was one of those times.
Late in the game’s second quarter, Jordan drained a free throw, making him only the fourth player in NBA history with 30,000 career points. Then, with only 15 seconds left in the game and the Wizards clinging to a small lead, “His Airness” flew. Bulls’ forward Ron Mercer was on a fast break with a clear path for what should have been an easy lay-up. Instead, Jordan come up from behind him and, with two hands, pinned the ball against the backboard. The sold-out crowd at the MCI Center (renamed Verizon Center in 2006) erupted as the 38-year-old Jordan stared down the Bulls bench. It was easily Jordan’s best moment as a Wizard.
18 months later, Jordan would re-retire as a player, thinking he was headed back to management. Instead, he was fired (for good reasons).
Joe Juneau’s Goal Sends Caps to First and Only Stanley Cup
It wasn’t a particularly memorable 1997-98 regular season for the Washington Capitals. While stars Peter Bondra, Adam Oates, and goaltender Olaf Kolzig led a talented team, the Caps were maddeningly inconsistent and finished only fourth in a rather uninspiring Eastern Conference. Then, the playoffs happened.
Three dramatic overtime wins propelled the Caps to a six-game series win against the Boston Bruins. Next came a dismantling of the eighth-seed Ottawa Senators (who had just taken down the heavily favored New Jersey Devils), where the Caps outscored the Sens 19-4 in the five-game-series win. It was on to Buffalo and a matchup against one of the greatest goaltenders ever, an in-his-prime Dominik Hasek. A evenly matched series set the stage for a dramatic Game 6. The Sabres led 2-1 with only six minutes to go in regulation when Bondra tied it. The game went into overtime, but six minutes and 24 seconds into the sudden-death period, Joe Juneau entered DC lore with a goal that sent the Caps to their first, and so far only, Stanley Cup Finals.
The Caps would end up getting swept by the Detroit Red Wings, but Juneau’s goal remains the most triumphant moment in Washington Capitals history.
The Maryland Terrapins Lose “The Greatest Game Ever Played”
Not every defining sports moment is a good one. Often times, it is heartbreak that defines a memory. In 1974, possibly the best Maryland Terrapins team ever (well, until this year’s version) lost to the North Carolina State Wolfpack in what was billed at the time as “the greatest game ever played.”
Today, there is of little need for the best teams to win their conference championship–68 teams, including 36 at-large bids, make the NCAA tournament. But back then, in order to even have a chance at a national championship, teams had to win their conference. That’s exactly what the Terps and Wolfpack–considered two of the best squads in the country–were fighting for on March 9, 1974.
Tom McMillen (who later served in Congress) and Len Elmore led the Maryland team to a five-point halftime lead, but the Wolfpack roared back. A missed John Lucas jumper sent the game into overtime, but a Wolfpack layup with seconds remaining sealed the deal and sent the Terps home. The Wolfpack went on to to win the 1974 national championship, but the game helped the Terps establish itself as one of the best (and most innovative) college basketball teams of the early 1970s.
Vince Lombardi Becomes a Washingtonian
With all due respect to Don Shula, Bill Belichick, and Joe Gibbs, Vince Lombardi is the greatest coach in NFL history. And for one glorious year, he turned around the Redskins and helped set the stage for a two decade run as one of NFL’s model franchises. It all began on February 6, 1969, when Redskins President Edward Bennett Williams introduced Lombardi to a rabid Redskin fan base, hungry to see a winner after years of losing. At the press conference, Lombardi explained why he had left Green Bay for Washington, “Why did I choose Washington among offers from other cities? Because it is the capital of the world. And I have some plans to make it the football capital.”
While the team was far from perfect in 1969, they won more times than they lost. Led by quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, they finished 7-5, the first time the Washington Redskins had had a winning record in 14 seasons. Hope burned eternal for the 1970 season, but tragedy struck. During the summer, Lombardi was diagnosed with colon cancer. On September 3, 1970, Vince Lombardi died at 57.
Bill Austin coached the 1970 season, to disappointing results. But that season led to the Skins hiring George Allen and making a Super Bowl appearance in 1972.
The Washington Senators win the 1924 World Series
Yes, there was baseball in the nation’s capital before Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and racing presidents. The Washington Senators (also known as the Nationals) played 71 seasons in DC, losing much more often than they won. After all, the old mantra about the baseball team in Washington was “first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” But for at least one season, that wasn’t true.
After splitting the first six games of the 1924 World Series, the Washington Senators and the New York Giants returned to Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. for Game 7. The Senators were losing 3-1 in the eighth inning until Bucky Harris (who was also the manager) hit a bounding ball over the Giants’ third baseman’s head, driving in the tying runs. Legend has it that the ball hit a pebble on the infield, causing it to carve a bizarre path skyward. Innings later, rookie Earl McNeely won the game with a bounding single of his own. When the final out was made, Griffith Stadium erupted in celebration. As described by famed Washington Post sports reporter Shirley Povich, “the crowd catapulted out of the stands to thrash onto the field and to dance on the dugout roofs, refusing to leave the park until long after nightfall.” The next day was even more wild, with the joy spread across the city. As Povich also wrote, people packed Pennsylvania Avenue, “the streets lined by tens of thousands.”
To this day, the 1924 World Series is the only time that a DC sports franchise has clinched a championship at home.
The 1962 Thanksgiving Football Riot
It was Thanksgiving Day 1962 when more than 50,000 football fans packed into DC (now RFK) Stadium to see the private St. John’s College High School take on public Eastern High in the City Title Game. At the time, it was the largest sports crowd in city’s history. It started out as a joyous day, full of football, fun and turkey. But it soon turned tragic and violent.
As the game went on, it became clear that tensions were high in the stands, with St. John’s nearly all-white fans and Eastern’s nearly all-black fans exchanging taunts. As the final ticks of the clock melted away, fans from both sides started seeping onto the field. Within moments of the final buzzer, an all-out riot started. Three hundred and fifty people were injured. In the end, St. John’s 20-7 victory did not matter. The riots and violence became a national story, marring high school football in the District.
The city title game between the city’s top public and private schools would not be played again for a decade. It then took a 42-year hiatus until 2014’s Gonzaga-H.D. Woodson tilt.