Game on

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  January 6, 2006

In the college-football championship game, the January 4 Rose Bowl, Texas engineers a mild upset of USC, winning 75-72 in three overtimes. Reggie Bush runs for 471 yards in the loss. After soundly defeating Florida State in the Orange Bowl (no way I’m calling it the FedEx Orange Bowl), beloved Penn State coach Joe “Pa” Paterno announces he plans to retire in 2020.

Some of the biggest football news is made in the booth when, after 36 years on ABC, Monday Night Football migrates to ESPN. After trying several combinations, the all-sports network decides to replicate the famous Howard Cosell/Don Meredith/Frank Gifford chemistry by hiring Billy Crystal, Billy Bob Thornton, and Doug Flutie to broadcast the games. The trio is entertaining enough, and the sports-media world is abuzz with rumors that Thornton is knocking down several Wild Turkeys during the halftime intermission. But ratings continue to sag.

Number 33 Returns
On the hardwood, it’s difficult for the new-look Celtics to generate any real momentum or interest in the 2006 season. Halfway through the campaign, they are a disappointing 17-23. Still, playoff hopes run high, since that puts them right in the thick of things in the highly competitive and wildly entertaining Atlantic Division with Philly (18-22), New Jersey (19-21), the Knicks (16-24), and Toronto (12-28). With fan interest in the club dwindling, however, the Celtic owners make a popular move by replacing executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge with the legendary Larry Bird. Bird admits he can’t improve the Green immediately. But the team benefits anyway by charging an extra $5 per ticket at home games to fans who show up early to watch Bird shoot H-O-R-S-E against the leading scorer on the opposing team. By season’s end, Bird’s record in those contests is 41-1. The one blemish on the record is a hard-fought two-hour contest against Kobe Bryant.

The meek inherit the earth when the NBA finals roll around and the LeBron James–led Cleveland Cavaliers defeat the Elton Brand–led Los Angeles Clippers in six games. The bad news is that the last game of the NBA championship series is beaten in the ratings by TV Land’s all-night Sanford and Son–athon.

Hockey
Who cares.

Other Notable Moments in 2006
• Yes, the 2006 Torino Olympics is a gorgeous spectacle of winter splendor and, as usual, the only event shown on prime-time television is 50 straight hours of the “chick sport” of figure skating. Tragedy does strike, however, when a bullet fired by a member of the US biathlon team goes astray, severely wounding the top scorer on the Ukranian curling team. (I actually don’t even know if or how you score in curling.)

• Steroid truth-teller, Juiced author, and Surreal Life contestant Jose Canseco is elected to a US House seat from Florida, running on the catchy campaign slogan: “I didn’t lie to Congress, I won’t lie in Congress.”

• The moribund heavyweight division in boxing gets a big lift when John “The Quiet Man” Ruiz packs it in after being presented with a petition from one million pay-per-view and premium-cable fans begging him to retire on aesthetic grounds. After getting in shape while filming Rocky Balboa (a/k/a Rocky VI), 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone manages to wangle a boxing license from the Nevada State Athletic Commission. He is immediately ranked ninth in the heavyweight division by Ring magazine and signs on with Don King. By year’s end, he is booked for a $20 million fight against comebacking 57-year-old George Foreman in a battle billed “Rock of Aged.”

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