Pro Football Turns in a Gem of an Anniversary Season
IF any pro sports league has enjoyed a more glorious anniversary season than the National Football League, it must exist in another solar system.
To begin with, much of the sports-overlap that fragments public attention was wiped away by baseball and hockey labor problems, meaning extra attention on the NFL's 75th birthday celebration. Then, throughout the season, the league has been on a roll with high TV ratings and in-stadium attendance. And now, only four teams remain in the playoffs, and three of those look as thought they were handpicked by anniversary promoters. San Francisco, Dallas, and Pittsburgh own 12 Super Bowl victories among them. They are the established iron.
The only fly in the ointment appears to be San Diego, which scored a thrilling 22-21 victory over Miami on Sunday.
The Charger win keeps Miami's Don Shula, the league's all-time winningest coach, and Dan Marino, one of its greatest career passers, from making it to this year's Super Bowl, which will be played on the Dolphins' home field (Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami) on Jan. 29.
The Chargers, however, represent the all-important Cinderella element needed to bring added flavor to any postseason.
The Chargers and Dolphins teamed up to salvage a weekend of playoff action otherwise devoid of suspense. Pittsburgh crushed Cleveland, 29-9, San Francisco walloped Chicago, 44-15, and Dallas dominated Green Bay, 35-9.
San Diego came from behind in the second half, and scored the game-winning touchdown and extra point in the last minute - the eight-yard TD toss hauled in by an incredibly wide-open Mark Seay. But then the Chargers practically handed the game to the Dolphins with a squibbed kickoff that gave Miami excellent field position and a 32-yard pass interference penalty. But wait, normally sure-footed Dolphins kicker Pete Stoyanovich sailed a makeable 48-field goal attempt wide in the last seconds. The conference championship games will be played Sunday, Jan. 15. L.A. Clippers in basketball backseat
IN Los Angeles, all-Asian radio station KAZN occasionally carries L.A. Clipper basketball games in Mandarin Chinese. Given the team's sorry National Basketball Association record (5-26), one might think this a protection to Anglo ears, except that the games are also carried in English and usually Spanish elsewhere on the dial.
The real reason for the multilingual approach, says a Clipper spokeswoman reaching for a trendy marketing phrase, is ``to expand the fan base.''
This also explains the scheduling of six home games this season in Anaheim. The Clippers, who migrated from San Diego 10 years ago, usually call the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena home. About 45 miles separate the Sports Arena and the new Anaheim Arena, a real jewel. There can be a vast difference in attendance between the two, with Anaheim games attracting more than 17,000 spectators - twice what the team draws in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the Clippers claim loyalty to L.A., where a small band of fans faithfully turns out.
Word out of L.A. a few years back was that the Clippers were ready to overtake the Lakers as basketball toasts of the town. But the Lakers are showing surprising signs of new life. They have won 17 of their last 21 games and are one of the league's hottest teams with a 20-9 record.
The Clippers, on the other hand, have gone into reverse since flirting with respectability in the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons, the only ones in which they finished ahead of the Lakers.
The Clippers just missed tying the slowest season start (0-17 by the 1988 Miami Heat) in NBA history. They lost 16 straight before beating Milwaukee Dec. 7.
Touching other bases
* Professional athletes can be terribly superstitious. Case in point: After losing four straight games to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the Cleveland Browns reviewed their itinerary in preparation for last Saturday's NFL playoff game. Instead of busing to Pittsburgh, as they'd done before, the Browns flew, even though it takes just as long once ground-connections are factored in. The Browns also switched hotels, but they still lost, 29-9.
* Here's a happy coincidence for Brooklynites: Both Red Auerbach and Lenny Wilkens, who just surpassed Auerbach as the National Basketball Association's winningest coach, are from the borough.
* In making a case for the impact of imported NBA players, Jan. 3 would serve nicely. At the same time Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon was scoring 41 points for Houston, German Detlef Schrempf and Lithuanian Sarunas Marciulionis were contributing 36 points to a winning Seattle cause, and Serb Vlade Divac was notching a team-high 23 points for the victorious Los Angeles Lakers. There was also Denver's Dikembe Mutombo of Zaire, whose 22 rebounds were tops in the NBA that night.
* Along with everything else put ``on ice'' by this season's National Hockey League work stoppage, which will reach a head Tuesday, was a trial run in Portland, Ore. The New York Rangers and New York Islanders were to have played a regular-season game there in December. The league is interested in testing the Pacific Northwest's appetite for hockey, especially since a new arena, the 20,000-seat Rose Garden, is scheduled to open in Portland later this year. The city has hosted NHL exhibitions before.