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MULTITUDE OF MEMORIES FROM FLEETING NINETIES MAKES MY MILLENNIUM

Here we are, at the end of the millennum, and I haven't decided who was the greatest athlete in history, or at least the last 100 years. In fact I have no list of any kind, which must qualify me as freak in modern media circles, where you're nobody if you haven't weighted in on Einstein vs. FDR, or Jordan Vs. Ruth.

I have to be honest I haven't been around long enough to form a strong opinion (though I imagine Abe Lincoln would have posted up most of the politicans of his day). The 20 century was more than half over when I drew my first breath. It was two-thirds done when I went to my first Red Sox game.

Who am to say whether Jim Thorpe was a better athlete than Jim Brown? I never say Thrope play. I barely have an opinion on Gil Thorp. The only time I saw Brown play was when I watched the 1964-NFL title game on a black and white TV set with my dad. At the end of the game, I thought Gary Collins was the best athlete of all time.

I could be one of those people who fake an opinion on Babe Didrikson Zaharias, though they didn't even realize she was a woman six months ago. But who would I be kidding? I never saw her compete. I never watched Bill Tilden hit a backhand, or Ben Hogan a fairway iron. I have no idea how they'd stack up against Pete SAmpras or Tiger Woods.

The problem with these all-century lists is they artificially expand your frame of reference. They make for interesting arguments and they sell magazines, but in the end they discriminate against the dead.

That's why I limited my series on the best high school sports years to the second half of the century. It was hard enough figuring out which teams from the 1950s to include; how could I have possibly judged some high school from 1906, or 1922? So I had no quarrel when Michael Jordan took the No. 1 spot on ESPN's highly publicized ranking of the century's top North American athletes. He was the freshest in our memories. Plus, the list was mainly a commerical vehicle, and Jordan was a marketing prince, the athlete of the Nineties.

The Nineties are my main frame of reference. I arrived in Buffalo in mid-1989 to be a sports columnist. So as the clock winds down toward midnight tonight, it won't seem so much like the end of century or millennium, but the most memorable decade of my career.

I loved the Nineties. But where the heck did they go? One minute I had a 2 -year-old daughter running around the house. The next thing you knew, she was 12, heading off to the Charity Ball.

Has it really been 10 years since Bill Polian told the Bills' critics to get out of town? I can remember the playoff los at Cleveland, in the first week of January 1990. It was our first glimpse of the no-huddle, of wondrous things to come. In those days, they used to take us down to the field at the end of the game. I was in the back of the end zone, maybe 30 feet away, when Ronnie Harmon dropped the pass from Jim Kelly in the end zone.

Maybe the years flew by so fast because there was so much history being made.

A year later, I walked out into the stands for the National Anthem before the AFC championship game. The Gulf War was at its peak. I remember all the American Flags, and how surreal it was, watching the Scud Stud on NBC at halftime, with the Bills leading the Raiders, 41, 3.

I was there when Scott Norwood's field goal sailed wide to the right in Tampa a week later; when Carlton Bailey ran the ball into the end zone in the AFC title game in 1992: when the former Communist Nations marched proudly into the stadium in France to open the '92 Winter Olympics: when Chrisitan Laettner caught Grant Hill's long inbounds pass and made the shot to beat Kentucky at the buzzer; when Charles Barkley elbowed the Angolan.

I was there when the Bills beat Houston in the greatest comeback in NFL history in January of '93; when Brad May scored the "May Day" goal a few months later, which beat the Bruins and ended 10 years of playoff frustration for the Sabres; when Joe Carter homered off Mitch Williams to win the '93 World Series.

I remeber the devastated expressions on the faces of Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas after the fourth straight Super Bowl loss; the giddy reactions of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan during those awful press conferences at the '94 Winter Olympics in Norway; the quiet exhaustion in the Sabres' dressing room after Dominik Hasek's 1-0, four-overtime win over the Devils in the playoffs.

I say Curtis Strange blow up on the 18th hole at the Ryder Cup in '95, on the same Oak Hill course where he'd won a second straight U. S. Open title six years earlier; I saw Tom Glavine throw a one-hitter to give Atlanta its lone series title in a remarkable decade.

I saw Canisius win an NCAA Tournament berth in '96, and yes, I can still see Mickey Frazier sitting on top of the Backboard: I was there when Kerri Strug made her heroic vault at the Atlanta Olympics , and when Jim Leyritz hit his home run off Mark Wohlers to turn around the '96 World Series.

I was there when Kent Hull announced his retirement: when Derek Plante scored the OT winner against Ottawa in '97, in the only seventh game in Sabres' history; when the Bisons' Jeff Manto became the first player to hit three homers in a game at the downtown ballpark.

I saw Doug Flutie beat the Dolphins here in '98, then play a game of touch football with his buddies on the same field afterward; I saw the Yankees win back-to-back World Series in sweeps; I saw Brett Hull's goal that shouldn,t have counted last june ; I saw UB's basketball team give a soldout Almni Arena crowd a first half to remember against North Carolina.

I interviewed Ted Williams and Jim Brown and Warren Spahn and med Muhammad Ali, through Ali wasn't able to speak. I sparred with Bobby Knight and Bruce Smith and Ron Wilson. I watched the O. J. Simpson bronoco chase on a TV monitor at the NFA Finals.

Then there was all the local stories: a high school football coach who beat cancer and went to the state finals: an official working his last Harvard Cup game; a girls volleyball team winning a state titlel after a teammate died in a fire; a women's college basketball star who was blind in one eye; and of course, the series on the area's top high school sports years, which was the most gratifying thing I've done here.

Looking back, I feel awfully lucky. As a new decade dawns, I also feel the faint regret that comes with knowing there will never be another one like it.

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