By Anna Merlan
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'BRAVEST' AND 'FINEST' FILL IN FOR KNICKS AT MSG
Imagine the intensity of a Rangers-Islanders encounter if it happened only once a year. That was the feeling at Madison Square Garden last Saturday at the annual FDNY-NYPD game, which returned to the city for the first time in 15 years. However, the biggest crowd in the rivalry's 29 yearsa selloutmay not be enough to keep the teams from returning to Nassau Coliseum, where the game had been played since 1988. The Garden originally hosted this series, once played rent-free on Sunday afternoons. But by the mid '80s, says FD team general manager Billy Kammener, the Garden was less forthcoming with prime dates while the Coliseum offered the organizers any day the Islanders weren't playing. Even this year, the Garden wedged the contest in between the Rangers-Flyers afternoon clash and Sunday's Knick game.
That mattered little to the 18,500, drawn in part by September 11's long shadow and in part because this is the uniformed services' biggest sports event. "Fire Department, that side. Police, on this side," cried the Garden ushers on the 33rd Street flank of the building to the fans streaming in. The cops brought their brass band, the FD supporters wore red jerseys, and each side took turns erupting on every fierce body check and every good play. There were lots of both. The high caliber would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. "We were one level above ankle-benders," recalls Kammener. There were so few skaters in the departments that they formed one team, organized in large part by Ray Downey, the fire chief who became the country's top disaster-rescue expert and who died in the Trade Center collapse. Downey's No. 9 sweater was presented to his family in a pre-game ceremony, but that was just one reminder of September 11's events. John Conroy of the FD team even had the hair on the back of his scalp shaved to form the numerals "343," the number of lost firefighters. "It grew that way," Conroy told a reporter.
After trailing 1-0, the cops rallied for two third-period goals. The game winner, a fine backhand shot by rightwinger Joe Somma, flew past FD goalie Alvin McMorrow's glove hand. And as the entire 33rd Street side of the Garden rose and roared, the PA system blared the old Bobby Fuller Four hit, "I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)."
Dismayed FD co-captain Jimmy Campbell, a veteran of 17 years on the team who had planned to hang up his skates before September's events drew him back, kept things in perspective. "No one likes to lose," he said, "but we're here. We're able to play. In the scope of life, how bad can losing a game be?"
SCALING THE OLYMPIAN HEISTS
Now that the Olympic hoopla has subsided to the point where we're no longer besieged with footage of weeping skaters accompanied by John Tesh-like piano tinklings, we can put the Salt Lake "scandals" in perspective: Nothing that happened in Utah makes the list of really great Olympic scandals, no matter what kind. For starters, just put aside the 1972 terrorist attack in Munich. And don't even mention Jim Thorpe having his medals taken away from him nearly a century ago for "professionalism."
In the events themselves, no team in Salt Lake got hosed like the U.S. basketball team did in 1972, when the final seconds of the gold medal game against the Soviets kept getting replayed until them Russkies got it right.
And no performer in a judgment sport in Salt Lake got ripped off the way Roy Jones Jr. did in Seoul in 1988, when he fought Park Si Hun of South Korea for the light-middleweight gold medal. Jones landed 86 punches to Park's 32. However, the Korean, fighting before his hometown fans, won a 3-2 decision. Bribery was alleged, but International Olympic Committee officials refused to change the result.
There have been Olympic moments when the judges can't be faulted for starting a fuss and wind up making a good decision. At the Grenoble Games in 1968, France's Jean-Claude Killy was skiing for the triple in the downhill, having won two golds already. Killy was leading when Austria's Karl Schranz took off down the hill. But Schranz screeched to a halt, claiming that a mysterious figure in black had crossed his path, delaying his progress. He took several witnesses back up the hill to plead his case. Befuddled officials granted him a rerun, his second try was perfect, and he bested Killy. On a French appeal, however, Killy was given the victory for his third gold medal.
When talk surfaced last week about Buck Showalter possibly managing the Boston Red Sox, we, along with Miss Cleo, immediately divined that hiring Showalter would be the only way for those bathetic Brahmins to break the Curse of the Bambino. Fact: Each time Showalter has been given the boot (Yankees in 1995 and Diamondbacks in 2000), the club went on to win the World Series the following year. . . .
The Post's Larry Celona noted that somebody broke into MSG over the weekend and filched 15 spare Knick jerseys. We promise amnesty to whoever did it, and we can only add this: Put one of those jerseys on! Report for Houston! And guard somebody!