2004 was 15 years ago. Let that sink in. The Detroit Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals in the swan song of the Kobe-Shaq era. Karl Malone and Gary Payton played for that Lakers team.
The New England Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three years when Tom Brady bested Jake Delhomme and the Carolina Panthers in the most surprising quarterback duel in memory. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup. Nick Saban won the National Title with LSU. And Pete Carroll won the National Title with USC. The University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, led by Hobey Baker winner Junior Lessard, went to the program’s first Frozen Four since the 1980s.
A decade ago and it’s all fresh in my mind. But nothing stands out quite like the 2004 college basketball season. Understand this is coming from someone who didn’t watch an NBA game in its entirety until 2009. Hoops, whether watching or playing, has never been my thing.
However, the college game captivated America. Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, and the UConn Huskies ultimately defeated Jarrett Jack, Luke Schenscher, the ginger giant from Australia, and Georgia Tech for the title. But for much of the season, St. Joe’s and Stanford grabbed the headlines.
Specifically, one moment stands out. Pac-10 — remember the Pac-10? — power Arizona traveled to Palo Alto to take on the 19-0 Stanford Cardinal. I remember two things about that Stanford team. One, Josh Childress rocked the most egregiously awesome (Ed’s words, not mine) afro in the game. Two, Stanford was the Cardinal, not Cardinals. Its mascot was a tree. Who knew?
As the fans filed into the arena that night, one man stole Stanford’s thunder and shook the university’s foundation to its roots. Tiger Woods shocked the world disguised as a college student — or as something. The planet’s most famous athlete had been a Cardinal freshman a decade prior. Perhaps that explains his tucked-in sweater/baggy jeans/backward hat look. That may have been cool in 1994 — I don’t know I was 5 — but Tiger resembled a man grasping for glory days like Billy Madison in his second stint in high school.
In 2004, Woods was firmly entrenched in a major-less drought that would continue throughout the year. His biggest trophy was the one who clung to his arm, Swedish supermodel Elin Nordegren. Regardless, Tiger was still on top of the sports world, and fans like myself were hitting the links and reading Callaway wedges reviews, hoping to improve our games. He had seamlessly taken over for Michael Jordan as Nike’s most prized athlete spokesman. Everywhere he went, cameras, and a gallery followed.
That’s what made his cameo in Palo Alto so stunning. Tiger had avoided doing anything interesting in front of the camera since the late ’90s. A revealing Esquire profile ruined the fun. Woods emerged a robot.
The game was so good it brought life out of Tiger. The Wildcats and Cardinal exchanged punches all night. Arizona held a 77-74 lead into the final minute. But Childress’s desperation three with 23 seconds left tied the game at 77-77 and sent the Stanford faithful into pandemonium. Tiger himself, Elin politely clapping by his side, could hardly contain his emotion, fist pumping like he had won the Masters four times over. The Cardinal fans went berserk. Tiger, if I may, roared loudest.
And then, well, watch.
Nick Robinson’s heave blew the roof off the building. Stanford remained undefeated, 20-0. The student body nearly trampled Tiger. The jubilation of a buzzer beater rendered the most famous athlete in the world and in turn Stanford’s most famous alumnus, a pylon of celebration. For one night, Josh Childress and Nick Robinson were bigger than Tiger. And it was awesome.
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