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The Inside Track | Mike Penner / SOUND AND VISION

A Classic Coach and Call, Frozen in Time

August 12, 2003|Mike Penner

The most famous American sports broadcasting call of the last half-century was also the shortest Q&A ever recorded.

Do you believe in miracles?

Yes!

Question asked and answered by Al Michaels, based on a true story scripted and choreographed by Herb Brooks.

The two men are forever linked, Brooks and Michaels, coach and commentator, which is more than a little ironic, considering Brooks' often fractious relationship with the media. Brooks didn't need Michaels to craft the United States' remarkable hockey victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics. The brushstrokes and the artwork were all Brooks'. But how high in the mind's museum would that victory hang without Michaels' words providing the unforgettable framework?

Creator and chronicler manufactured a moment that brought them together, to Madison Square Garden, in December 1999, for a Sports Illustrated banquet toasting the greatest sports moments of the 20th century. Michaels was there to announce the winner -- and do you believe Brooks' boys took home top prize?

No, Brooks couldn't.

Michaels remembers walking off stage with Brooks, "like 20 seconds after we announced the winner. Herb looks at me and says, 'How could they vote that No. 1?'

"I said, 'Herb, will you ever get it? How could they not vote it No. 1? Come on!' And Herb was just kind of shaking his head."

A coach with a keen eye for detail, Brooks had spent most of the evening studying the luminaries surrounding him.

"He's looking out there," Michaels said, "and he sees Muhammad Ali. Bobby Thomson is sitting in front of us. There are a lot of moments. Herb knew all of the great moments. Johnny Unitas was there -- you go back to the 1958 Colt-Giant game.

"It was an awesome night. Just to look out in the audience -- it looked like a hundred magazine covers lined up. And I think that might have had something to do with [Brooks' reaction]. Like, 'What am I doing up there as No. 1?' "

Michaels laughed as he told the story, a much-needed respite on a sad day. Monday, Brooks, 66, was killed in a car accident near the Twin Cities.

"I've thought about him a lot over the years," Michaels said. "And all of the things [the victory] meant to other people were for other people.

"It was somehow a validation of our system being better than the Soviet system, the winning of a Cold War battle, I suppose. You know, the way any jingoist would look at it, or the way people who knew nothing about hockey would look at it.

"That had nothing to do with how Herb looked at this. Herb's mission was to take a hockey team and to bring that hockey team to a moment in time when they would play their very, very best. And he did it brilliantly. I still contend it was the greatest coaching job ever done."

Michaels said he considers himself honored and lucky to be associated with Brooks' pinnacle moment.

"Just to have witnessed it was enough," he said. "I'm one of the 8,000 people in this country who was lucky enough to see that live. If somebody had told me at some point, 'You're going to be there when they play the greatest event of your lifetime,' that's pretty good....

"Sometimes I used to gulp when I used to think, 'Oh my god, what if I said something really dumb?' And the funny thing was, when that game is winding down, all I'm caring about is identifying the proper people, because that game could end with a shot on goal.

"Everybody around me was losing their head. They're screaming in the truck. The building is shaking like an earthquake. And all I kept saying to myself was 'Stay cool, stay calm, announce the game.' That was my subconscious thought.

"And when the puck comes out toward center ice with about six seconds to play, I've got a moment and that's what comes into my head -- the word 'miraculous.' And 'miraculous' gets turned into, 'Do you believe in miracles?' I turned it into a question, and answered it, and that was it."

It's a classic call, crystallizing exactly what most Americans were thinking as they watched on television. It was dramatic without being melodramatic, as spontaneous as the startling triumph playing out on the ice below.

"You can't think of lines beforehand," Michaels said. "Otherwise they sound rehearsed. It would sound like a script, and probably a bad script. You had no idea that was coming.

"Nowadays, you'll think about someone breaking a home run mark or some major mark and you can't help but think, 'How am I going to do this?' But I always tell the young guys, 'Trust your instincts. Just trust and go with what's in your heart and head. You're good enough to be in position to announce a game of that importance, so trust yourself. Let it go. Otherwise, it's going to sound forced. It's not going to sound right.' "

One other thing, Michaels advises.

"You've got to get lucky too."

Michaels recalled another banquet with Brooks, some time during the mid-1980s, when the famous footage was played.

"Herb was sitting next to me at a table," Michaels said, "and kind of leans over and says, 'Aw, you made too much of it.' "

Michaels laughed again.

"Herb was a coach. A purebred coach," he said. "He was a Minnesotan who coached hockey. And that's what he did.

"Don't forget, when Lake Placid was over and a guy might want to stick around and get a little acclaim across the country and make a few bucks, Herb went to coach in Switzerland. It's almost like, 'OK, next?'

"He was really a fascinating guy. I'll miss him."

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