This could have all been avoided, of course. The Elite Ones could have just huddled up, talked it out, not been quite so bull-headed. There are other years available, after all. They didn't all have to go out and have Sportsman of the Year years in the same year. But they did.
So this year, more so than any other in recent memory, it's a good thing that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Sportsman of the Year amphora is kept locked away until December. If it were left within easy reach—like, say, a breath mint or a ballpoint pen—it might have been given away a half-dozen times in 1996.
In June we were gung ho to make Michael Jordan the first repeat recipient in the 42-year history of the honor. The urge to pick up Michael off the floor of Chicago's United Center, where he lay sobbing on Father's Day for his murdered dad and for the NBA title he had just won in his dad's memory, and present him with our award on the spot was almost palpable. After all, he had just had an MVP season in which his legendary will to win was somehow even fiercer, following his baseball sabbatical.
Then came August, and we were itching to honor sprinter Michael Johnson, not only for successfully taking on the yoke of an unprecedented double—Olympic gold in the men's 200 and 400 meters—but also for shrugging off the yoke entirely in the 200 final and flying to victory in a world-record-shattering 19.32 seconds.
And what of the U.S. women in the Atlanta Games? Their powerful performance in basketball, gymnastics, soccer, softball, swimming and tennis sorely tempted us to honor them en masse.
September came, and with it, Steffi Graf at the U.S. Open, playing right through the shadow cast by her father's trial in Germany for tax evasion and winning her third Grand Slam singles title of 1996 and the 21st of her career. October followed, and there was manager Joe Torre hugging everything but the bat rack after the New York Yankees' improbable World Series victory—a warm, human face at last for a sport that in recent years had worn only a scowl.
Then November and, well, why not reward a 34-year-old fighter who destroyed Mike Tyson, the most menacing fighting machine on earth? Why not heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield?
But now it's December, and the air and the blood have cooled. And it seems clear, to us anyway, that one young man has recently surpassed all the others—perhaps in deeds but certainly in the long ripples those deeds produced. Tiger Woods, all of 20, all of four months as a pro under his belt after he won, in most dramatic fashion, a remarkable third straight U.S. Amateur title, is the only one among the candidates who changed the face of a sport, perhaps more rapidly than any other athlete ever has. In case you blinked and missed it, golf is no longer your father's sport...and Tiger Woods is SI's 1996 Sportsman of the Year.
At least for now.