When it comes to iconic sports moments, the 1990s were filled with awe-inspiring highlights, shocking revelations, unbelievable scandals, and award-winning performances.
Much of the decade can be defined by the changing of the guard. Michael Jordan took over the basketball world from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Serena Williams and Tiger Woods broke down racial barriers by winning their first major championships. And extreme sports opened the door to undiscovered athletes from every walk of life.
In addition to new talents taking over the sports world, the ‘90s were also marred in scandals. New performance-enhancing drugs led to athletic feats that took years to unravel, turning heroes into villains, staining legacies, and destroying careers. Other athletes tarnished their reputations with bizarre acts in the field or illegal acts off the field.
Stacker brought together the most iconic sporting moments that helped define the decade. In scouring the history books, Stacker found 30 occasions that shocked, wowed, and inspired. Diehard and casual fans alike will likely remember where they were when these incredible events transpired.
Take a trip down memory lane because these are the most amazing moments from the 1990s.
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In one of the all-time, “people remember where they were” moment in history, on June 17, 1994, O.J. Simpson hopped into his white Ford Bronco and led the Los Angeles Police Department on a two-hour, 60-mile chase through Southern California. The chase also coincided with Game 5 of the NBA Finals, captivating sports fans and casual observers alike. Simpson was later arrested, and exonerated, for the murder of his ex-wife and her lover.
In the theater of the absurd, Mike Tyson is the all-time reigning champion. Fighting Evander Holyfield for the second time in eight months, Tyson was eager to regain the heavyweight championship belt. On June 28, 1997, during the third round of the contest, and after a series of headbutts from Holyfield, a frustrated Tyson lashed out by nearly biting off his right ear. Shockingly, Tyson wasn’t disqualified until he bit Holyfield’s other ear at the end of the same round.
After the U.S. basketball team failed to capture gold in the 1988 Summer Olympics, a decision was made to allow professional players to compete in the 1992 games in Barcelona. With that decision came the greatest compilation of basketball players in history, headlined by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. The Dream Team didn’t just win the gold medal, they beat teams by an average of 43.8 points per game, solidifying American dominance in basketball.
Though the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa is now plagued by drug scandal, nothing was more exciting at the time. Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 and baseball players had been chasing the record ever since. In ’98, McGwire smashed the mark with 70 home runs, and Sosa also bested it when he hit 66. It has since been revealed that the players were using performance-enhancing drugs, but there was still nothing quite like the summer of ’98 to inspire baseball fans.
One of the most indelible images in sports history is of Brandi Chastain, crouched on the soccer field, shirt in hand, in celebration after scoring the winning penalty in the 1999 Women’s World Cup on home soil. It was the second World Cup victory for the U.S. team since the cup’s inception in 1991 and made Chastain an international superstar and icon for thousands of future soccer players.
The Chicago Bulls beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals, but the actual changing of the guard from Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan can be pinpointed to a single unforgettable play. After losing Game 1 on a last-second shot, Jordan and the Bulls knew they needed to win Game 2 or the series could be finished. In the fourth quarter, Jordan drove into the lane and flew through the air with the ball in his right hand. Sensing he would get blocked, he somehow switched hands, mid-air, kept soaring and banked in a layup with his left. The Bulls won the game by 21 points and never lost again, taking the title in five games.
In 1996, Atlanta played host to the Summer Olympics. On July 27, police received an anonymous call that a bomb was going to explode in Centennial Park, and within a half-hour, a pipe bomb exploded, killing two people, and wounding more than 100. The bomber was sentenced to four consecutive life terms and remains in prison to this day.
Leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked during a practice session. It was later discovered that the attack was masterminded by fellow skater Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt. Although Kerrigan had to withdraw from the U.S. Figure Skating Championship, she was still given a spot on the Olympic team and finished with a silver medal. Harding finished in eighth place and later pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, had her U.S. Figure Skating Championship title revoked, and was banned from the United States Figure Skating Association for life.
On Nov. 8, 1991, Magic Johnson announced to the world that he was HIV-positive and would be retiring from basketball. The announcement shocked the world, and Johnson immediately became the highest-profile celebrity to have contracted the virus. Despite the prognosis, Johnson still played on the 1992 Dream Team in Barcelona and briefly returned to play for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1995–96 season before retiring for good.
Christian Laettner is widely regarded as one of the best college basketball players of all time. His Duke Blue Devils went to the Final Four in all four years he was at school and won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1991 and 1992. But Laettner will probably be best remembered for his game-winning shot on March 28, 1992. Down by one point with 2.1 seconds left in the East Regional Final against Kentucky, Grant Hill threw a full-court pass to Laettner, who caught the ball at the free-throw line, turned, and made the last-second shot. The shot is still considered one of the greatest moments in college basketball history.
Tiger Woods became a professional on the PGA Tour in 1996, and it only took a single year for him to begin smashing records. In 1997, Woods started his first Masters’ win on very shaky ground, shooting a 40 on the front nine. Something must have clicked, as he went on the biggest tear of his career. At 21, Woods became the youngest Masters winner in history, as well as the first nonwhite winner at Augusta. He set the scoring record at 270 and the record for largest margin of victory at 12 strokes.
Before Roger Federer obliterated every tennis record in the books, Pete Sampras was known as the king of grass, totally dominating Wimbledon in the 1990s. From 1993–2000, Sampras won Wimbledon seven times (second only to Federer’s eight), and held the #1 ranking in the world for a total of 286 weeks (second to Federer’s 310 all-time). Sampras’s pièce de résistance came in 1999, when he destroyed his biggest rival, Andre Agassi, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 in the Wimbledon Final, which was then his sixth win at the All England Club.
Arguably the greatest upset of all time, Buster Douglas shocked the entire world when he knocked out Mike Tyson in the 10th round of their heavyweight championship fight on Feb. 11, 1990. Going into the fight, Douglas was a 42-1 underdog and surprised Tyson, who had never lost up to that point. Later, Tyson revealed that before the fight he had “smoked pot” and “didn’t take training too seriously,” via ESPN.com’s Rick Reilly.
Before 1994, no eighth-seeded team had ever beaten a one-seed in the NBA Playoffs. Heading into the playoffs, the Seattle SuperSonics were the best team in basketball and ready for a title run. Unfortunately, they ran into the super-hot Denver Nuggets, who pulled off the biggest upset in NBA history, beating the Sonics on their home court in a fifth game that went into overtime. The moment is forever memorialized by Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo, clutching the ball and laying on the ground in pure ecstasy.
In one of the most bizarre incidents in the 1990s, #1 ranked tennis player Monica Seles was playing in a match in Hamburg, Germany, when a deranged fan charged the court and stabbed her in the back. Seles was only 19 years old at the time and had won seven of the last eight majors she’d entered. The fan allegedly was obsessed with Seles rival Steffi Graf and wanted to help Graf regain the #1 ranking in the world. Though she won one last major championship at the 1996 Australian Open, Seles never regained her #1 ranking.
George Foreman first retired from boxing in 1977 but decided to return to the ring a decade later. Slowly but surely, Foreman rose through the ranks of the heavyweight division and totally defied the odds when he beat Michael Moorer on Nov. 5, 1994, for the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation heavyweight titles. Foreman was 45 years old at the time and still remains the oldest heavyweight champion of all time.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship got off to a rocky start in 1993. The first of its kind, the UFC was a no-holds-barred, anything goes fighting competition, pitting the toughest men in the world against each other in an octagon-shaped ring. The competition was quickly banned in states around the U.S. but over time caught on, and has since become one of the most popular sports in the world.
Once upon a time, Lance Armstrong’s story was one of the most inspirational tales in sports. Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, which had also spread to his lungs, brain, and stomach. Overcoming cancer, Armstrong returned to cycling and in 1999 miraculously won the first of seven consecutive Tour de France titles—the most prestigious event in cycling. Armstrong was later found to be using performance-enhancing drugs, tainting and stripping the victories, but for a time, he inspired people all over the globe.
Walk-off home runs are one of the most exciting plays to witness. In the 1993 World Series, the Toronto Blue Jays were leading the Philadelphia Phillies 3-2 heading into Game 6. In the bottom of the ninth inning, the Jays were trailing 6-5 when Joe Carter stepped up to the plate with two men on base. Carter smashed a line drive that not only won the game for the Jays, but the entire World Series. It was only the second time in the history of baseball that the Series ended with a walk-off home run.
Unfortunately for Chris Webber, his most iconic moment in the 1990s is a negative one. On April 5, 1993, Webber and the Michigan Wolverines were playing in the NCAA Championship Game against the North Carolina Tar Heels. With only 20 seconds remaining in the game and trailing 73-71, Webber snagged a rebound, headed down the floor, and called a timeout with 11 seconds left. But the team was out of timeouts, which resulted in a technical foul. The Tar Heels took advantage and won, 77-71.
The New York Yankees are the most storied franchise in baseball history. Since its inception, the team has won the World Series 27 times compared to the next-best St. Louis Cardinals at 11. But heading into the 1996 season, the Yankees were in a slump. They hadn’t won the World Series in 18 years and were facing off against the Atlanta Braves, the hottest team in the ‘90s. The Yankees not only won the Series, but in Game 4, they had to pull off the second-biggest comeback in Series history just to even the series at two games apiece.
John Daly has always been one of the most colorful golfers on the PGA Tour. He’s overweight, he drinks, and he’s often seen with a cigarette in his mouth. Most professionals wrote Daly off as a novelty who was known for a monster drive and not much else. That’s why it was so shocking when 25-year-old Daly won the PGA Championship in 1991, which was also his first full year on the Tour. Daly’s career was generally marred with struggles, controversies, and suspensions, but by winning the PGA, he became a fan favorite and remains so to this day.
By 1997, John Elway was considered to be one of the best quarterbacks of all time. One thing eluded him, however, as he had lost the Super Bowl three times and still wanted to end his career on top. The Broncos reached the Super Bowl in 1998 and faced off against the Green Bay Packers, a juggernaut team that had won the year before. The most indelible play of the game took place in the third quarter, as Elway was driving his team down the field. He took off on a quarterback sneak, leaped into the air, and was swiped by three Packers, spinning Elway like a helicopter, but giving the Broncos a first down. The team went on to score and never gave up the lead again, giving Elway his first of two Super Bowl wins and an iconic play that will be remembered forever.
There were no major stakes as the game between Colorado and Michigan took place during the third week of the college football season in 1994. Still, two highly ranked teams vied for football supremacy. Trailing 26-21, Colorado was down to one final play. They had the ball on their own 36-yard line with six seconds left. Quarterback Kordell Stewart heaved the ball 70 yards and found Michael Westbrook, giving Colorado the win and earning the nickname the Miracle at Michigan.
Historically, extreme sports were relegated to counterculture, anti-establishment athletes making their own way in the world. Ironically, it took the corporate behemoth that is ESPN to form the X-Games and bring everyone from skateboarders and snowboarders to BMX bikers and sky surfers into the mainstream. The first X-Games were held in Rhode Island in 1995 and attracted nearly 200,000 spectators. Today, the X-Games are watched by millions of fans around the world—both in the summer and winter—and see no sign of slowing down.
In 1990, Hank Gathers was the best college basketball player in the country. In his last two years at Loyola Marymount, Gathers averaged over 30 points per game and was poised to lead his team to an NCAA title. Everything changed, however, during a game on March 4, 1990, when Gathers collapsed on the floor and later died from a heart condition. After Gathers’ death, teammate Bo Kimble would memorialize Gathers in every game by shooting his first free throw left-handed in remembrance of his lost left-handed teammate.
Before Robert Downey Jr. was synonymous with the name Iron Man, Baltimore Orioles infielder Cal Ripken Jr. held the moniker for being the most durable man in baseball history. On Sept. 6, 1995, Ripken passed Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played at 2,130, but he didn’t stop there. Ripken ultimately played 2,632 straight games, a record that will probably never be broken.
The Chicago Bulls had just won their third straight NBA championship, Michael Jordan won his third straight Finals MVP, and it looked like the dynasty would last forever. However, on Oct. 6, 1993, Jordan shocked the world by announcing his retirement and citing his reasons as the death of his father and his desire to play professional baseball. Jordan attempted a run at the major leagues but never quite made it, ultimately returning to basketball in 1995 and winning three more championships for the Bulls.
When Kerri Strug heard a crack in her ankle, she thought her Olympic dreams of a gold medal had vanished. But in 1996 at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Strug shrugged off the pain of torn ligaments and knew she needed to land one more vault to secure a win for the U.S. national team. The 18-year-old Strug had one last jump in her, landing the vault flawlessly, cracking her ankle even worse, but scoring a 9.712 that edged the U.S. team over Russia by eight-10ths of a point for the gold.
In 1999, at the age of 17, Serena Williams became only the second African American woman to win a grand slam title in tennis. Williams beat then-#1 player Martina Hingis, 6-3, 7-6, in the U.S. Open final and marked the beginning of one of the most dominant careers in the history of women’s tennis. Since that time, Williams has reached 23 major titles, solidifying herself as an all-time great.