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In 1996, sports ruled pop culture, as movies like “Jerry Maguire,” “Happy Gilmore” and “Space Jam” — starring the king, Michael Jordan — topped the box office.
Legends walked among us: Ken Griffey Jr. earned headlines for his record-breaking $8 million contract with the Mariners. Muhammad Ali lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympics, where Kerri Strug and Michael Johnson would win gold.
It was also the year that Kobe Bryant debuted in the NBA and Dwayne Johnson in WWE. Derek Jeter was a rookie. The Williams sisters entered public consciousness. The WNBA and MLS launched, and Tiger Woods shook up the PGA.
“There are not many years in sports that match up to this,” author Jon Finkel told The Post. His new book, “1996, A Biography: Believing the Legend Packed, Dynasty Stacked Most Iconic Sports Year Ever” (Diversion), marks the 25th anniversary of what may be sport’s greatest year. Here are five ways 1996 changed the game:
Trivia nights gained a bunch of questions
Who starred in the 1996 golf flick “Tin Cup”? (Kevin Costner.) Who was Robert De Niro’s character obsessed with in “The Fan”? (A baseball player.) What sports are plot points in “Kingpin” (bowling), “Celtic Pride” (basketball) and “Happy Gilmore” (hockey)? Which movie features Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny vs. aliens? (“Space Jam.”) And which sports movie had everyone screaming “Show me the money”? (“Jerry Maguire.”) Said Finkel: “You won’t find more quotable sports movies [than in 1996].”
Tiger raised the stakes
In August 1996, a 20-year-old Tiger Woods went pro; by October he’d notched his first win at the Las Vegas Invitational. “When I grew up, it was players like Craig Stadler — pudgy white guys with beer bellies who had no charisma,” Finkel, 43, said. “Golf in the early ’90s was a broken planetarium: no stars. Then Tiger shows up. He played video games, went to Stanford and was cool.” Woods’ media attention and giant deal with Nike brewed resentment on the tour. That would soon change.
“Ratings jumped, and these guys went from being upset that he was getting all the attention to realizing purses were doubling [from renewed interest] and he was making them rich,” said Finkel.
NFL retirees got a new blueprint
The Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl in 1996, and Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders were stars off the field, too.
Sanders had five Sports Illustrated covers and his own video game for Sega sports, and was a pitchman for Burger King, American Express, Nike, Pizza Hut and Wheaties. “You couldn’t take your eyes off of him if you tried,” Finkel writes. Aikman, too, had a massive amount of deals and magazine covers. Along with Irvin, they ended up being “trailblazers in terms of how to make the transition from NFL Hall of Famers to television personalities.”
Aikman is now Fox’s top analyst, Sanders was at NFL Network and is now at Barstool Sports, and Irvin is at NFL Network. And everyone in the league wants to emulate their post-NFL careers. “You can’t turn on television on a Sunday and not see them,” said Finkel. “It’s been a shocking display of longevity.”
Women went pro
On April 24, 1996, the NBA approved the concept for a women’s pro league, which hosted its first game a year later. Soon-to-be-legends Sheryl Swoops, Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie were the first to put their names on WNBA contracts. Twenty-five years later, thanks to them, women playing pro hoops is no longer seen as a joke. “The female players have their own followings and are stars,” said Finkel of women like Sue Bird and Candace Parker. “The WNBA is a now a force.”
Finkel added that it was poetic that Kobe Bryant started in the NBA in 1996 — and later became one of the WNBA’s biggest supporters.
Tennis met its future
No one expected 16-year-old Venus Williams to beat Steffi Graf at the Acura Classic — and she didn’t — but the 1996 match gave a glimpse of how tennis was soon to be dominated by two sisters.
“It was a girl with 14 pro matches against a woman with 20 Grand Slam victories,” writes Finkel. “Venus was just coming onto the scene and was playing lights-out … she took it to Steffi.”
It was also a generational passing of the torch: “If you are making a Mount Rushmore for the last 40 years [of women’s tennis], it’s Graf and the Williams sisters.”
Finkel noted that Venus’ sister Serena was in the stands that day — perhaps dreaming of the time, 20 years later, when she would break Graf’s Women’s Grand Slam singles’ match record at Wimbledon.
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