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IN SPORTS, A HISTORY OF ... ALMOST

Buffalonians are a sensitive sort. Tell us how awful our weather is -- as Johnny Carson did routinely during his glorious reign on "The Tonight Show" -- and we'll erupt with indignation. Tell us how aesthetically unpleasant our downtown is and we'll gesture dismissively, passing off Frank Lloyd Wright's sacred but few Queen City creations as proof otherwise.

But we know. We know our winter weather is frightful, our downtown bordering on blightful. So to hit us as low as low goes, say:

Wide Right.

And then watch the Niagara Frontier shiver like the Cowardly Lion at the altar of Oz.

Wide Right.

Now, that's cold.

Wide Right has become a Western New Yorker's euphemism for Excruciatingly Close. It describes specifically the fate of Scott Norwood's field-goal attempt at the close of Super Bowl XXV. But it can be applied generally to many Western New York sports teams during the 20th century.

Wide Right fits the 1970 St. Bonaventure basketball team, a contender for the national title until Buffalo-born All-American Bob Lanier went down with a knee injury in the regional final.

The Buffalo Sabres lived through their own version of Wide Right in the summer of '99, when Brett Hull's controversial goal gave Dallas a triple-overtime victory -- and the Stanley Cup -- in Game Six. The city remains in search of its first hockey title since 1969-70, when the Bisons triumphed in their final season in the American Hockey League.

And Wide Right also can be used to categorize Buffalo's untimely exit from the NBA in 1978. The following season, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came out of college and the league's renaissance began.

Buffalo never had a chance to suffer heartbreak in the World Series because it was always Wide Right in its efforts to land a major-league team. But the city is rich in baseball history.

The Bisons were the International League's flagship franchise during the first half of the century and led all the minors in attendance the last 12 years of the 1900s. Seventeen former Bison players or managers are in the Hall of Fame. Among native Buffalonians in the Hall are Warren Spahn, the winningest left-hander of all-time, and third baseman Jimmy Collins.

In addition to minor-league baseball, bowling and boxing flourished in Buffalo during the first half of the century. Lockport's Allie Brandt rolled an 886 series in 1939 that stood as the national record until 1988.

Meanwhile, boxing developed an avid following as Buffalo produced six world champions -- Jimmy Slattery, Rocky Kansas, Tommy Paul, George Nichols, Frank Erne and Jimmy Goodrich -- and a heavyweight contender in Phil Muscato.

But Henry Brimm might have been the toughest local fighter of them all. He battled Sugar Ray Robinson twice in Memorial Auditorium in the 1940s, losing a 10-round decision before 11,904 and later securing a draw.

Women's sports struggled for acceptance until late in the century, but Buffalo still produced its standouts. Catherine "Kit" Klein won an Olympic speedskating gold in 1936. Bea Massman and Ethel Marshall combined to win 41 U.S. badminton titles. Lancy Smith was, for one year, the top-ranked women's amateur golfer in the country and captained the Curtis Cup team. Sweet Home's girls volleyball team set a national high school all-sports record by winning 292 straight matches from 1978 to 1987.

But it was football that became Buffalo's unrivaled passion once Ralph Wilson brought an American Football League franchise to the city in 1960. The Bills won AFL titles in '64 and '65, yet still yearned for the national recognition only an NFL title could supply.

Which brings us back to Super Bowl XXV.

The hangover from Norwood's miss in that 20-19 loss to the New York Giants on Jan. 30, 1994, never faded. The Bills went to the next three Super Bowls and were thrashed every time, first by Washington and then twice by Dallas.

Wide Right. It's the catch phrase we're left with.

Top 10 happenings in Buffalo sports

1. Wide Right (Jan. 27, 1991) ... The first of Buffalo's four straight Super Bowl losses.
2. No Goal (June 19, 1999) ... Brett Hull's controversial triple OT tally ends Sabres' Cup dreams
3. Wounded Knee (March 1970) ... Bob Lanier goes down in '70 NCAA regional final, leaving Western New York to wonder what might have been.
4. Title Town (Dec. 26, 1964) ... Bills LB Mike Stratton KO's San Diego RB Keith Lincoln and Bills win first of two AFL titles
5. Striking Oil (Jan. 3, 1993) ... Bills rally from 35-3 down to beat Houston in '92 AFC wild-card game.
6. Millennial Magic (1973) ... O.J. Simpson rushes for 2,003 yards
7. Let Freedom Ring (Jan. 4, 1976) ... Sabres demolish Soviet Wings, 12-6, and receive a standing ovation in Montreal before their next game.
8. Shot Heard 'Round Town (June 14, 1957) ... Luke Easter homers over Offermann Stadium scoreboard.
9. Could have heard a pin drop (Oct. 25, 1939) ... Allie Brandt bowls an 886 three-game series, still a state record.
10. High School Heyday (Oct. 21, 1948) ... Kensington beats Bennett in football before 50,988 at Civic Stadium.

Top 10 Buffalo Sports Figures

1. Ralph Wilson ... Brought pro football back to Buffalo in '60 -- and kept it here.
2. Seymour/Northrup Knox ... Through their relentless efforts, the NHL arrived in '70.
3. Warren Spahn ... From South Park High to 363 wins and the Baseball Hall of Fame.
4. Jim Kelly ... The General during the Bills' greatest days.
5. Bob Lanier ... From Bennett to Bona to the NBA and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
6. O.J. Simpson ... Simply electric.
7. Dominik Hasek ... The best in the world and winner of consecutive MVPs.
8. Jimmy Slattery ... 109-14-5 and twice light heavyweight champ, in '27 and '30.
9. Ollie Carnegie ... Hit 258 homers in 12 years with baseball Bisons.
10. Kit Klein ... Speedskater extraordinaire won Olympic gold in '36.

TOP QUOTES

"Where would you rather be than right here, right now?" -- The popular pre-game exhortation of Bills coach Marv Levy."Forecheck, backcheck, paycheck." -- Sabres Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault on the three most important elements of hockey.

"Jim Kelly's still the quarterback and Ted Marchibroda's still the offensive coordinator and Marv Levy's still the head coach. And if you don't like it, get out of town." -- Bill Polian, Buffalo Bills general manager, Dec. 11, 1989.

"I realize what a big opportunity this was. I'm sure it will never get to a point where I'll ever forget it." -- Scott Norwood after his 49-yard kick in Super Bowl XXV sailed a foot wide of the right goalpost.

"All week drivers cut me off, my wife nags me about taking out the garbage, people beat me to parking spaces and I get all sort of hassles. I keep it all in. Then, about noon on Sunday, I start thinking about all of it and get ready to let it out" -- Cookie Gilchrist, the Bills' great fullback of the early '60s, explaining why he played in such a fury.

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