Today in Sports History: May 31st

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5/31/1949 - Lupica climbs flagpole

One day, pharmacist Charley Lupica and his pals were eating at their favorite diner when they overheard some Yankee fans disparaging the Cleveland Indians. Lupica walked over to their table to defend the tribe and an argument ensued. Both parties quarreled until the Yankee side retorted, "Well, if you like the Indians so much, why don't you sit on a flagpole until you die up there?"

Back then, sitting on top of a flagpole was sort of a hobby for teenagers. Lupica agreed and the challenge went into effect on May 31, 1949. The drug store owner climbed a 60-foot pole and settled on a 4-foot precipice were he would stay until Cleveland led in the standings, or were eliminated from contention. Stores donated him food and drink, a phone, radio, and telephone. The Indians were in 7th place when Lupica started and only got up to 4th when he came down. Lupica was so die hard that he even missed the birth of his son. The media covered it nationally and even newspapers in Europe heard of his ascent.

The Indians got as close as three games behind the Yankees in August before tailing off a few weeks later. On September 25, the tribe's last home game of the season, Lupica relented after 117 days on the perch. Bill Veeck had a truck come and haul the flagpole to Cleveland Municipal Stadium where Charley at last stepped back on terra firma. He was greeted with cheers from the 39,000 fans in attendance. For his troubles, Veeck awarded him the keys to a new car.

Two days before Lupica's descent, Veeck held a mock funeral for the '48 pennant flag to commemorate their elimination from playoff contention. The flag was buried in the soil and a tombstone labeled "1948 champs" was place atop of it.

In 2003, Lupica died at age 90 from the effects of a double hip fracture. Even then he was still listening to Indians games on the radio.

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(Erving and Moses hold the championship trophy. Photo courtesy of AP Photos)

5/31/1983 - Sixers sweep Lakers

The Philadelphia 76ers defeat the Los Angeles Lakers, 115-108, to sweep the 1983 NBA Finals and win their first championship since 1967. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar combined for 50 points, 16 assists, and 14 rebounds, but four different Sixers scored twenty points. Philadelphia forward Moses Malone led the way with 24 points and 23 rebounds -- his third game of the series with at least 18 points and 18 boards.

The 76ers had been a great team since they acquired Julius Erving, fittingly, in 1976. But they could never get over the top and had lost three NBA Finals since acquiring him, including two in three years to the L.A. Lakers. But in 1982, the Sixers added Moses Malone to an already formidable roster that included Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, and Andrew Toney. Malone won the regular season MVP in 1983 and guided Philadelphia to a 65-17 record, the best in the NBA and their best in franchise history.

Philadelphia was so impressive that year that when a reporter had asked Malone how well his team would do in the playoffs, Malone simply answered, "fo-fo-fo," -- or four, four, four. His guarantee that Phili would sweep all three rounds of the postseason was the most memorable aspect of their championship run. The Sixers nearly matched his prediction by going 12-1, or fo-fi-fo. Nonetheless, Malone played fantastic all season and was rewarded with the Finals MVP award. His assertion was still the most famous guarantee in sports since Joe Namath, who promised that his Jets would win Super Bowl III in 1969.

The Sixers' win was the last championship the city of Philadelphia enjoyed for a while. They went more than 25 years without another title, amassing the longest championship drought of any city with four major sports teams. The streak finally came to an end in 2008, when the Phillies defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in five games.

5/31/1984 - Henderson steals the ball

With 18 seconds left in Game 2 of the '84 Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers held a 113-111 lead over the Boston Celtics. Several things had happened in the past thirty seconds: Dennis Johnson had fouled out of the game, jumping into a Magic Johnson pump-fake; Magic Johnson hit both free throws to give the Lakers a two-point lead; Gerald Henderson came on in place of Dennis Johnson; on the Celtics' next possession, he was left wide open near the top of the key but missed the shot; Kevin McHale grabbed the rebound and was fouled on his putback attempt; however he missed both free throws and L.A. immediately called timeout, still holding a slim advantage.

James Worthy inbounded the ball from the Lakers' backcourt. He passed it in to Magic, who quickly dished it back to him to avoid the foul. Worthy then attempted an outlet pass to Byron Scott, who was streaking down the right side of the floor. But his pass was low, and Henderson, who read it from the very beginning, stole the ball and laid it in -- tying the game at 113. On the Lakers' ensuing possession, Johnson made a horrendous mistake by forgetting to look at the clock, and time expired without him even attempting a shot. The game went to overtime, where the Celtics prevailed, 124-121.

It was an enormous pair of errors for the Lakers, who would go on to lose the series in seven games. They had won Game 1 on the road at the Boston Garden, and had they won the first two games of the series, with three of the next four to be played in L.A., they were practically assured of a series win. Instead, they would have to wait another season to beat the Boston Celtics.

After the game, everyone was comparing Henderson's steal to that of John Havlicek, who famously picked off a pass in Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals. The man who made that play famous, Celtics' announcer Johnny Most, was calling Henderson's game as well. "For a minute," Henderson told reporters, "I could hear Johnny Most going, 'Henderson steals the ball!'"

5/31/1998 - Bulls survive Pacers in Game 7

The Chicago Bulls barely eek out an 88-83 win over the Indiana Pacers in the seventh and final game of the Eastern Conference Finals.The win pushed the Bulls into the finals for the third year in a row, where they would reacquaint themselves with the Utah Jazz.

Since Jordan had come back from retirement in 1996, the Bulls had gone completely unchallenged in the Eastern Conference. Not even the Orlando Magic with Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway, and one of the best home court advantages in history could make a dent in the Bulls' championship armor. The '98 conference finals was a wake-up call to the Jazz, the Bulls, and everyone else in the NBA. The Bulls were beatable.

Michael Jordan had a great game statistically (29 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) but he made only nine of 25 shot attempts and missed another five shots at the foul line. The Pacers -- who Michael had described as "a bump in the road" -- harassed the 35 year-old superstar all series long, and while they weren't able to stop him completely, it was obvious that Jordan's age made it easier to guard him.

"I was tired," Jordan admitted after the game. "Very tired."

The Bulls knew that if not for a made shot here or a turnover there, the Pacers easily could have beaten them. It was a startling realization for a team that had breezed through the NBA just a few years earlier.

''Is some of the swagger gone?'' Jordan asked himself. "Probably. But we still are who we are."

The Pacers would have to wait until 2000, after Jordan retired, to get to the NBA Finals. The Bulls went on to beat the Jazz in six games, rewarding them with their second three-peat in eight seasons. After the season, Michael Jordan announced his retirement.

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(Elliott celebrates his game-winning jumper. Photo by Glenn James, Getty Images)

5/31/1999 - Memorial Day Miracle

On the second-to-last Memorial Day of the 20th century, Sean Elliott provided the greatest moment of the Spurs' championship season. The Portland Trail Blazers held the lead the entire game and were close to tying the Western Conference Finals at a game apiece. But the Spurs were making a push and trimmed an 18-point deficit to 2 with a dozen seconds left.

Mario Elie inbounded to Elliott along the sideline. Sean barely managed to catch the ball after Stacey Augmon tried to knock it away. Off balanced, Elliott dribbled once and shot the ball on his tippy-toes, just inches from being out of bounds. His impossible shot hit the bottom of the net, giving the Spurs their only lead of the game.

Portland couldn't match Elliott's heroics and lost 86-85. San Antonio then went into Portland and swept the disheartened Trail Blazers.

The "miracle" portion of Elliott's shot, besides its difficulty, came after the Spurs beat the Knicks in the Finals. Elliott had a poor series and appeared rigid and lethargic. It was only after the season that he revealed he had been playing with a kidney disease and that a transplant was needed to keep him from dialysis. His kidneys had been deteriorating for years. When the Spurs traded him to the Rockets for Robert Horry in 1994, the deal was reneged when he failed his physical due to a kidney infection.

Elliott received a healthy kidney from his brother Noel and was able to return to the court on March 13, 2000. He played only one more season after that and was forced to retire at age 33.

5/31/2007 - James scores 48 at the Palace

In a double-overtime thriller at the Palace of Auburn Hills, LeBron James single-handedly carried his team to victory. From hitting step-back threes to behind-the-back jumpers to knocking down the game tying- and winning-shots, LeBron had one of the greatest playoff games in history.

To read more about this story, click here for an in-depth Inhistoric article:

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(Donovan didn't last long in Orlando. Photo courtesy of Orlando Sentinel, via here)

5/31/2007 - Magic hire Billy Donovan

As LeBron James prepared to face the Pistons, the Orlando Magic finally inked a deal to bring in Billy Donovan as their head coach. Orlando had been offering him the job for years, and Donovan, coming off back-to-back title wins with the Florida Gators, was finally interested in the prospect of coaching professionals. He signed a 5-year, $27 million contract to coach one of the league's brightest stars in Dwight Howard.

Then, within a few hours of taking the job, Donovan had an epiphany and started having second thoughts. What changed his mind so dramatically he didn't say, but just one day into his tenure with the Magic, Donovan asked out. The stunned front office didn't know how to take it, though they eventually released him from his contract. In the buyout, Donovan agreed that he wouldn't coach an NBA team for five years.

Following that fiasco, Orlando hired their second option, former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy, to replace Donovan. Van Gundy had, by all reports, been pushed out the door by Pat Riley in Miami during the 2006 season, though Van Gundy insisted that he just wanted to spend more time with his family. I suppose the hiring meant that the he had gotten sick of his family and that he needed to get the hell away from them, although realistically, nobody believed that Van Gundy had willingly resigned.

Donovan's departure may have been a blessing in disguise for the Magic. Just two years later, with the help of free agent acquisition Rashard Lewis, Orlando advanced to the NBA Finals.

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(Ramirez watches homer No. 500 leave the yard. Photo by Greg Fiume, Getty Images)

5/31/2008 - Manny does 500

Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez, in the midst of a serious hitting slump, knocks a Chad Bradford pitch over the right field wall at Camden Yards. For Manny it was career home run #500, making him the 24th player to reach that mark. The Baltimore fans gave Ramirez a standing ovation as he crossed home plate and celebrated with his teammates.

Ramirez had the fourth-highest batting average of anyone to reach 500 home runs, with only Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Jimmie Foxx placing ahead of him. Coincidentally, all four of those players were Red Sox (at one point).

It was the last positive moment for Manny Ramirez with the Boston Red Sox. Shortly thereafter, his contentious relationship with the team got worse. Following an incident where he slapped Kevin Youkilis in the face, and another one where he shoved a traveling secretary to the ground, Manny appeared to dog it in the field and was no longer batting as well as he had before. And after a few more minor scuffles with the team, Manny was traded to the Dodgers not 70 days after hitting his 500th blast.

Further reading:

Very apologetic Donovan returns to Florida [MSNBC]

Charley Lupica, 90, dies; fan who sat on flagpole [New York Times]

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