Baseball poets (ahem) always cite as one of the game’s great glories the absence of a clock. George Carlin, of course, put it best: “Football is rigidly timed; baseball has no time limit, we don’t know when it’s gonna end! We might even have extra innings!”
(Well. Until Ron Manfred outlaws them, anyway.)
But I digress: by not having a clock, baseball has, for a century and a half, deprived itself of the most heart-stopping and thrilling part of almost every other sport: the buzzer-beater. The play that begins with time on a clock, and ends with none — time, metaphorically anyway, standing still — and the joy, sorrow, chaos and commotion that surely follows.
We were reminded of that late Saturday night, when one second UCLA and Gonzaga were headed for double-overtime and the next Jalen Suggs was knocking down a 40-footer — off the glass, no less — to craft a moment we will see every March for the next hundred years, because buzzer-beaters are like that: they become a part of our mental encyclopedia from the moment they happen. And stay forever.
Here’s one man’s opinion of the 10 greatest buzzer-beaters of the last 40 years, which is right around the time we started saving every important moment on permanent video, so if our memory ever does begin to fade we can refresh it with one click of a YouTube link (along with two near-misses that would have forever altered history but still resonate as almost/forever examples of the “what-if?” wonder of sports).
1. U.S. Reed sinks Louisville, March 14, 1981
This was the day the modern NCAA Tournament was born, with NBC and host Bryant Gumbel shuttling viewers from Pauley Pavilion (where Rolando Blackman’s jumper beat Oregon State) to Dayton Arena (where St. Joe’s shocked top-ranked DePaul at the buzzer) to the University of Texas’ Erwin Center, where Arkansas’ Reed took an inbounds pass trailing defending-champ Louisville 73-72, let it loose from halfcourt and … well, let Marv Albert bring you home: “It’s in! IT’S IN! Do they say it counts? IT’S ALL OVER!!!”
2. Lorenzo Charles dunks Phi Slamma Jamma, April 4, 1983
The Wolfpack was already on an epic survive-and-advance roll and just the fact that they were about to push Houston’s high-flying Cougars to overtime was something. Then Dereck Whittenburg fired up a prayer which fell short, Lo Charles (out of Brooklyn Tech High) grabbed it and stuffed it in right as time expired, and Jim Valvano took off looking for someone to hug. “They won it!” Billy Packer exclaims as NC State 54, Houston 52 goes final.
3. Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary Stuns Miami, Nov. 23, 1984
A fun shootout of a game became something quite different when Flutie took the snap with six seconds left in a game Boston College trailed, 45-40, danced around a bit, retreated to his own 37-yard line, and let it rip. About 65 yards away Gerard Phelan had somehow slipped behind the Hurricane secondary, gathered in the ball, fell to the muddy Orange Bowl end zone and not only did BC have a win but Flutie clinched a Heisman and the “Flutie Factor” was born as a college-enrollment theory. “I DON’T BELIVE IT!” Brent Musburger exclaims. We still don’t.
4. Michael Jordan crushes Cleveland’s soul, May 7, 1989
Forget all that came after; when Jordan took the inbounds pass at old Richfield Coliseum in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first round his rep was as a wonderful player with minimal team success as a pro. Brad Sellers got it to Jordan with three seconds left and the Cavaliers leading the Bulls 100-99; Jordan dribbled left toward the free-throw line, jumped, Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo jumped with him, gravity pulled Ehlo back, gravity had no effect on Jordan, and Jordan canned the 17-footer to clinch the series. Ehlo’s knees literally buckled as the ball splashed through, quintessential reaction of the vanquished.
5. Rick Pitino forgets to guard the inbounds pass, March 28, 1992
Also known as “The Christian Laettner Shot,” aided and abetted by the Kentucky coach mysteriously leaving Grant Hill free to launch a perfect pass from under his own hoop with 1.8 seconds left and find Laettner, who audaciously made a move and a dribble before launching the single most-famous shot in basketball history (at least until Saturday night), which carried Duke to the Final Four with a 104-103 win. Verne Lundqvist, with a habit of witnessing moments like this, summed up perfectly: “WHOAHAAHOAH!!!!!!”
6. Miracle at the New Meadowlands, Dec. 19, 2010
Let’s make this one an item in a couple of boxed sets, first alongside Jake Elliott’s 61-yard field goal at the gun in 2017 that gave the Eagles another walk-off win over the Giants, and also the Michigan State-Michigan game in 2015 when a fumbled Wolverines punt led to a walk-off Spartans return. Either way, DeSean Jackson’s walk-off 65-yard punt return at 0:00 in MetLife Stadium’s first season is still enough to inspire instant nausea among Giants fans all these years later.
7. The Kick Six, Nov. 30, 2013
Alabama and Auburn were headed for overtime in the Iron Bowl except the Crimson Tide had :01 left to attempt a 57-yard field goal. That attempt fizzled short. But Auburn’s Chris Davis caught the ball 9 yards deep in his own end zone, ran it out … and didn’t stop until he crossed Bama’s 109 yards away. Verne was there, too, but late Auburn radio man Rod Bramblett captured the moment eternally: “AUBURN’S GONNA WIN THE FOOTBALL GAME! AUBURN’S GONNA WIN THE FOOTBALL GAME!!!”
8. Kris Jenkins breaks Carolina’s heart, April 4, 2016
The sequencing remains, five years later, just perfect. Ryan Arcidiacono takes an inbounds with 4.7 seconds left in a 74-74 game, coolly dribbles upcourt, doesn’t rush (which kills so many would-be buzzer-beaters) flips to his buddy, Jenkins, who lets loose two steps behind the arc and … money. But even more money? Nova coach Jay Wright watching this develop impassively and simply walking to shake Roy Williams hand while chaos ruled around him. Act like you’ve been there before never looked so suave.
9. Case Keenum to Stefan Diggs, Jan. 14, 2018
Plenty of NFL playoff games have ended at the gun with a walk-off field goal. But on the final play of a game at U.S. Bank Stadium that New Orleans was leading, 24-23, the Vikings’ Keenum dropped back with nine seconds left at his own 39, found Diggs (who made a leaping grab at the Saints’ 34) and then had the audacity not to step out of bounds but to complete a 61-yard TD, the first and only non-kick walk-off in NFL playoff history.
10. Jalen Suggs off the window, April 3, 2021
Let’s just let the Great Bill Raftery explain it as only he could (and did): “There are onions, Jim, and then there are MAJOR ONIONS! WITH A KISS!”
… And Two Near Misses …
Scott Norwood, wide right, Jan. 27, 1991
Think of all that would’ve been different if a breeze would’ve appeared and nudged Norwood’s ball a few feet to the left: Buffalo’s present streak of zero championships since 1965 would be dead; Bill Parcells would only have one Super Bowl; Bill Belichick’s game plan (which has had a home in the Hall of Fame in Canton the last 30 years) would be forgotten, the Bills’ continuing rep as big-game patsies would never even have been born … we could go on.
Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt heave, April 5, 2010
As amazing a shot as Suggs’ was … if Hayward’s halfcourt heave – after Duke’s Brian Zoubek purposely missed a free throw – had gone down it would live forever by itself as the greatest single shot in basketball history – all levels, any game, period. If.
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