Today in Sports History: February 24th

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(Dominique flies in against the Nets. Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler, Getty Images)

2/24/1978 - Clifford Ray saves Mr. Spock

In 1978, Marine World dolphin "Mr. Spock" was having his tank repaired when one of the divers dropped a stainless steel screw in the water. When the divers failed to relocate the screw, it was presumed that Mr. Spock had swallowed it. They took his x-ray and sure enough it was in his stomach.

Fears arose that the screw could cause internal injury to the dolphin. The doctor didn't want to do surgery when it was more practical to pull it out through his mouth. The only problem was that no one on hand had arms long enough to reach into the dolphin's gut.

That was when someone suggested Clifford Ray, the starting center for the Golden State Warriors, whose 3-foot-9 arms were perfect for the task. Ray was on good terms with Marine World's public relations director, and he agreed to take on the job. With his finger nails clipped, arm greased, and body dressed in surgical gear, Ray reached into the mouth of the porpoise as film crews and photographers captured the scene. Eventually he found the bolt and exhumed it from Mr. Spock's throat. For his contribution, the NBA player got to keep the screw on a plaque.

"He was pretty much cooperative through the whole thing," Ray said of Mr. Spock. "I just reached my arm down there. One of the leading veterinarians from Los Angeles was there and he talked me through it over an intercom. He would tell me what I was going to experience and what I would be feeling, and how to get through the first stomach to the second stomach. It was quite interesting."

In a related story, the world's tallest man, Bao Xishun (7-foot-9), was asked to remove plastic from the stomachs of two dolphins in 2006.

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2/24/1985 - Young and Kelly duel in USFL

Steve Young and Jim Kelly were two of the greatest quarterbacks of the 1990's. But before they began their Hall of Fame careers in the NFL, both QB's played in the upstart USFL in the mid-80's.

In one eventful February showdown, Young's Los Angeles Express hosted Kelly's Houston Gamblers at the L.A. Coliseum. Only 18,828 fans were in attendance, but that didn't stop either team from playing as hard as they could. Trailing 13-6 at halftime, the Express scored 27 consecutive points to take a 33-13 lead early in the fourth. But the Gamblers fought back and managed to score three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes, winning one of the most notable USFL games in history: 34-33.

While Steve Young played fantastic in defeat, Jim Kelly was even more phenomenal, throwing for five touchdowns and a sensational 574 passing yards. Kelly's yard total was not only more than he would ever produce in the NFL, it was the most ever thrown by an American quarterback in history -- even more than Norm Van Brocklin's 554-yard game in 1951. Only Sam Etcheverry of the Canadian Football League, who once threw for 586 yards, had ever thrown for more in a professional football game.

"What I remember most about that game was that Sports Illustrated referred to it as the ‘The Greatest Game No One Saw.'" Kelly said in 2005. "That sure was a great one and I only wish that when it was all over, that more people had seen it. It would have been great if it was recorded as it would be a perfect fit for ESPN Classic."

Unfortunatley, SI's description was accurate. The game had been scheduled to be aired nationally on ABC, but the network pulled out at the last second to cover Doug Flutie's professional debut. Kelly's performance received virtually zero airtime and wasn't even televised in Houston or Los Angeles.

Young and Kelly would later hook up for several more tight matches. The most memorable occured in 1992 when the two of them threw for over 400 yards in what was the only NFL game to avoid a single punt. Young and Kelly combined to go to the Super Bowl each year from 1989 to 1995, though their respective Bills and 49ers never managed to face each other in the big game.

2/24/1994 - The Hawks deal Dominique

The Atlanta Hawks ship Dominique Wilkins and a first round draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers for Danny Manning. Wilkins was averaging 24.4 PPG and had the Hawks in first place in the central division; at 34 years old however, management felt that his best years were behind him. Manning, who was 27 years old, was putting up similar scoring numbers and was happy to go to a contender.

The deal turned out to be a bit of a wash -- Manning lasted until the end of the a season before bolting to the Phoenix Suns, while Wilkins lasted just as long with the Clippers. Manning was a terrific player early on in his career, but injuries and age gradually removed his All-Star capabilities. Wilkins had plenty left in the tank, however he finished his career as a nomad, wandering from the Celtics to the Greek League to the Spurs to the Italian League and finally to the Magic, where he finished his career with his brother Gerald.

Many fans felt the Hawks would have been better served re-signing Wilkins and keeping the draft pick. Instead, they gave away their most popular player and got nothing in return.

2/24/1998 - Sales becomes all-time scorer

Nykesha Sales needed just one point to pass Kerry Bascom as the all-time leading scoring at the University of Connecticut. But there was only one game left in the season, and Sales had ruptured her Achilles' tendon in the previous contest. The injury not only ended her season but removed any chance of her scoring in a regular game situation.

That was when Uconn coach Geno Auriemma devised a plan. He contacted Villanova coach Harry Perretta, as Uconn was playing them in the season finale, and got Perretta to sign off on it. He then got in touch with Kerry Bascom to make sure that she'd be okay with it. "Honest to God, if she would have said, 'Coach, I mean, that's not right.' Then it would have been over," Geno later said.

And so it was at the start of the game against Villanova that Nykesha Sales limped onto the floor. With the Villanova players standing idly to the side, Sales was allowed to lumber into the lane and take an uncontested layup -- giving her 2,178 career points. To repay the favor, Uconn allowed Villanova to score an uncontested layup after Sales had hobbled off the court.

Sales was officially the Huskies' all-time scoring leader, and everyone involved was perfectly fine with it. Everyone else, however, was rather upset that Auriemma had orchestrated a record that otherwise would not have happened. Many collumnists argued that it violated the integrity of the game and was tantamount to point-shaving. Geno, who had expected Sales' milestone to be a celebrated event, found the media's coverage of the story to be obsessive.

"You guys just want a freaking story," he said. "And I gave you something to write about for two days."

The basket only got more controversial when ESPN The Magazine found that Sales had been incorrectly assesed with two extra points in a previous game at Seton Hall. After all the hooplah involved with getting her the record, it turned out that Bascom was technically still the Huskies' all-time leader. However, Seton Hall anounced that they wouldn't alter the box score of the game, thus keeping Sales' point total at 2,178 points.

Further reading:

Memo to Geno: Shhh [New York Post]

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