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1995: YEAR OF THE SENTIMENTAL FAVORITE

WANT TO SEE THOSE venerable old senior citizens Karl Malone and John Stockton finally get their due? Want to see the TV behind the bar at Mike & Dan's in Spokane tuned into the playoffs well into June? Willing to trade in your original shares of Xerox stock to see these men get what they deserve after 40 zillion points and 20 zillion assists? Want to see them wind up where they belong - celebrating in a crowded locker room wearing new ballcaps that say "NBA Champions" while Pat O'Brien tries to get a word with them - after being such good soldiers . . . after more than a decade of loyalty . . . after riding in the Days of '47 float . . . after punching the old time clock game after game, season after season, never complaining . . . other than about contracts and teammates and maybe signing autographs and about A.C. Green.

Well, take heart.If this isn't their year, when is? In case you haven't noticed, 1995 is already turning into The Year Disney Wrote The Scripts. After four months a distinctive pattern has emerged. The winner is . . . the sentimental favorite, the guy lugging the monkey on his back, whoever you've been feeling sorry for for at least a generation.

Give us your tired, your wretched, your non-champions, and this year we'll give them a trophy.

If Ernie Banks were still playing, this is the year he'd win, too.

This is the year Avis has a chance. The year to bet on the Red Sox. Maybe even the Bills. The year Jimmy Stewart plays the heroes. This is the year you need a box of Kleenex nearby. Heartwarming is in, heartbreaking is out. The motto is "Life Is Fair."

The good guys are winning. Longsuffering is in. Look at Ben Crenshaw. Look at Steve Young. Look at UCLA. Look at Tom Osborne. Nineteen ninety-five is the year of the sentimental favorite. All things come to he who waits . . . and waits . . . and waits. Who didn't want Young in the Super Bowl? Who didn't want Crenshaw at the Masters last weekend with Harvey Penick riding in his bag? Who didn't want the much beleaguered Jim Harrick and his UCLA Bruins over Nolan Richardson's scowling Arkansas Razorbacks in the NCAA basketball final? Harrick had been disparaged more than the Los Angeles Police Department. UCLA had been labeled as the school that could never win it all again.

Who didn't want Tom Osborne, who had never won a national championship, to prevail over the University of Miami at San Quentin in the Orange Bowl game Nebraska had to win to lock up the national championship?

All of 1995's big winners went through tough times just a year ago. In '94 they were all just a bunch of almosts and also-rans. Nebraska had lost - again - in the big one, to Florida State. UCLA got dumped by Tulsa in the NCAA tournament's opening round. In the '94 Masters Crenshaw, who last won at Augusta in 1984, never broke par. Young lost to Dallas - again - in the big one, and then early in the 1995 regular season lost to his nemesis, the Kansas City Chief, Joe Montana.

And what were Stockton and Malone doing a year ago? Not that you have to be reminded, but they were coming this close to losing to the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the NBA playoffs and then they bowed out in five games to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals. Another playoff flameout for two of the world's best players.

Another season that ended with Stockton and Malone fans wondering why them. Is it too much to ask that the best passer and the best floor-running power forward in the history of the game get one lousy ring before they discover that they're mortal? I mean, they've got three fewer rings than Will Perdue!

OK, OK, settle down. This . . . this could be the year. Michael Jordan's return notwithstanding, this is not the year for traditional winners. This is the year Notre Dame got shut out of the top 25. This is the year Bobby Knight and even Dean Smith got bounced from the NCAAs. This is the year Joe Paterno won his first Rose Bowl and still got snubbed. Can Pat Riley be far behind?

Things are already shaping up for the playoffs. Phoenix is in trouble now that Danny Manning is gone. Seattle is always on the verge of a breakdown - the question isn't how but when. The Rockets are anemic. The Lakers are young. San Antonio might have been a problem (David Robinson can himself be considered a long-sufferer) but luckily Dennis Rodman healed in time. And the way the draw is shaping up, Stockton and Malone should be able to avoid Denver completely . . . Denver could be a problem.

It looks like the year even Michael Douglas got even is the year of redemption all right. From Fatal Attraction to Disclosure. This is the year of Forrest Gump. As Crenshaw walked off the final green at Augusta last Sunday he said, quite Forrest-like, "I don't know how it happened. I don't. I believe in fate."

Never argue with karma. That's the rule. Sit back and enjoy it.