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The Sports Report: In one of his last interviews, Franco Harris talks about the “The Immaculate Reception”

Franco Harris  eludes Jimmy Warren as he runs 42 yards for a touchdown after catching a deflected pass.
Franco Harris eludes Jimmy Warren as he runs 42 yards for a touchdown after catching a deflected pass.
(Harry Cabluck / Associated Press)
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Howdy, I’m your host, Houston Mitchell. The great Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris died Wednesday, mere moments before a story Dave Bennett of The Times had written about Harris and the 50th anniversary of “The Immaculate Reception” went live on our website. Talk about eerie timing. In one of his final interviews, Harris talked about that game. The story is well worth a few minutes out of your day.

From Dave Bennett: Moments before Franco Harris made the most improbable play in NFL history, maybe in pro sports history, his mom sensed something was wrong, even from nearly 300 miles away.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1972 season was on the brink, and Harris, their star rookie running back, knew he was probably lining up for his final play that year. In an AFC divisional playoff game Dec. 23 — only the franchise’s second postseason game — the Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-6 with 22 seconds left and faced fourth and 10 at Pittsburgh’s 40-yard line.

“At home in Jersey, my brothers and sisters and my dad are watching the game,” Harris — whose death at age 72 was announced by his son Wednesday — said in an interview with The Times last month. “My mom, being from Italy, didn’t know much about football, so she’s in the kitchen drinking coffee. She could feel that something wasn’t right, though, so she went and got her Italian album out and put it on.

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“My brothers and sisters swear that when the Immaculate Reception happened, ‘Ave Maria’ was playing.”

The play the Steelers ran 50 years ago Friday, 66 Circle Option, turned out to be a “Hail Mary” indeed.

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Former Steelers running back Franco Harris, of ‘Immaculate Reception’ fame, dies at 72

‘There’s a huge hole in Pittsburgh.’ Franco Harris touched Steelers fans now in mourning

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LAKERS

From Dan Woike: None of the Lakers could believe it when they either saw or heard that the Brooklyn Nets scored 91 points in the first half Wednesday night, the locker room filled with amazement and the offensive onslaught.

By the end of the night, it’d seem a little more believable – the Lakers watching as the Sacramento Kings scored a combined 81 points in the second and third quarters in an easy 134-120 win over the short-handed Lakers.

Sacramento led by as many as 23, their fans chanting “Light the beam” in the fourth quarter while Laker fans in Sacramento headed for the exits.

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With no Anthony Davis, no Russell Westbrook and no Austin Reaves, the Lakers were going to need to find something special from someone.

The natural place to look, even in season 20, is to LeBron James – still so big, so strong, so springy and so skilled despite being a little more than a week from his 38th birthday.

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CLIPPERS

From Andrew Greif: The first sign that things were different for the Clippers wasn’t seen so much as it was heard, 70 minutes before Wednesday’s tipoff. It was the sound of sneakers on cement flooring reaching full speed down a hallway leading from the court to the team’s Crypto.com Arena locker rooms.

The feet belonged to Norman Powell, the backup guard playing for the first time since injuring his groin on Nov. 29, who slowed only to make a hard left turn through the entrance of the locker room’s door, chopping his steps as if closing out on a shooter left wide open.

“I see how he feels tonight,” said a team official as the blur blew past.

For seven injury-strewn weeks, as their lineups resembled a revolving door of the healthy and hurt, the Clippers measured progress in how many steps forward they could take before another injury eventually set them back. They had played just twice at full strength – once in the season opener, and the other instance in game No. 3.

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The third and long-awaited game featuring a fully healthy roster arrived Wednesday, after Powell and starters Paul George (knee), point guard Reggie Jackson (Achilles’ tendon) and center Ivica Zubac (knee) all returned from ailments of various lengths.

The 126-105 rout that followed was at times uneven and overpowering. The title pursuit this franchise hopes can now resume again in earnest will not resemble Powell’s run, an unbroken burst toward June. But Wednesday found the Clippers finally taking a strong first step, moving in the right direction.

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UCLA BASKETBALL

From Carlos De Loera: UCLA head coach Mick Cronin knew his team tapped into something special and familiar during their east coast trip which saw the Bruins take down ranked opponents Maryland and Kentucky.

“We were totally locked in with respect for our opponent and what we needed to accomplish,” Cronin said before Wednesday’s 81-54 victory over UC Davis at Pauley Pavilion. “We had that magic.... We captured that [Final Four] magic last week.”

Despite a sluggish start, the Bruins (11-2) did ultimately handle their business by defeating the Aggies (7-5) to lock up their eighth straight win heading into the heart of Pac-12 conference play, which begins Dec. 30 against Washington State.

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USC BASKETBALL

Boogie Ellis hit four three-pointers and finished with 19 points, Drew Peterson scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half and USC beat Colorado State 73-64 at the Jerry Colangelo Classic. Tre White added 10 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals for USC and Reese Dixon-Waters also scored 10 points.

Isaiah Rivera made two free throws to give the Rams a one-point lead before Ellis hit a three-pointer to give USC the lead for good with 2:07 left in the first and spark a 22-5 run that spanned halftime and made it 46-30 with 14:40 to go in the game. USC (10-3) has won six in a row.

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The USC (10-2) women’s team got a third consecutive double-double from Rayah Marshall, beating visiting Saint Mary’s 71-45. Marshall scored 18 points and had 15 rebounds along with four blocks and Okako Adika scored 12 points. Saint Mary’s was led by Jaycee Wedin’s 12 points.

USC FOOTBALL

From Ryan Kartje: Zachariah Branch saw this coming, long before the coach’s plan had started to come together at USC.

He knew it by last Christmas Eve, when the five-star wideout first announced his commitment to USC, just a month after Lincoln Riley was hired and a full year ahead of Wednesday’s early signing day, when Branch and 18 others officially signed as part of USC’s 2023 recruiting class.

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At the time, it was a leap of faith for the nation’s top receiver prospect in some respects, hopping on a bandwagon that was just being rebuilt. But even before the 11-2 debut and the Heisman trophy win and the hope of a national title had returned, Branch was already convinced by the coach and what he planned to build at USC. He never wavered in the year that followed.

“I trusted the process with him,” Branch said. “It was just perfect timing. To see it all come full circle, to execute it the way he said he would, it’s a blessing.”

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From Ryan Kartje: USC will be without both its top receiving target and its top offensive lineman for the Cotton Bowl, as each focuses on putting nagging injuries behind them ahead of the NFL draft process.

Wideout Jordan Addison has elected not to play in the bowl game, USC coach Lincoln Riley said Wednesday, in order to rehab the nagging ankle injury that kept him out for a month earlier this season.

Offensive guard Andrew Vorhees, who also spent most of the second half of the season battling various injuries, “is not physically going to be ready for the game,” Riley said.

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Hernández: Lincoln Riley keeps raising the bar, expecting his first USC team to be his weakest

UCLA FOOTBALL

From Ben Bolch: The four UCLA-bound high school football players on the group chat reacted to the news of Dante Moore’s commitment like the arrival of a dazzling gift that had been ordered a few weeks earlier.

They were excited but unsurprised.

Bruins coaches had kept the prospects apprised of Moore’s status as the five-star quarterback increasingly contemplated switching his allegiance from Oregon to UCLA. Now that Moore was on board, the foursome wanted to see who else they might be able to lure.

“We have a couple of kids we’ve been friends with that are still waiting to make their decision,” said Norco wide receiver Grant Gray, part of a group chat that also included Los Alamitos defensive back Ethan O’Connor and Bellflower St. John Bosco safeties Ty Lee and R.J. Jones. “So we’re going to see if we can add a couple of names to that recruiting class.”

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RAMS

From Gary Klein: Baker Mayfield missed his first chance to play against the Denver Broncos this season, but the Rams quarterback will get that opportunity Sunday at SoFi Stadium.

Late last month, Mayfield was a member of the Carolina Panthers when he was benched in favor of Sam Darnold going into the game against the Broncos.

Just more than a week later, he was released and claimed off waivers. by the Rams.

“It was my last game prep in Carolina so I’m familiar with the structure of the defense,” Mayfield said Wednesday. “They’re playing at a high level — that hasn’t stopped.”

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DODGERS

From Bill Shaikin: There is nothing stopping a team from signing a player with a medical issue. There is nothing stopping Steve Cohen, the owner of the New York Mets.

The two converged at midnight. On Tuesday morning, the San Francisco Giants had scheduled a news conference to welcome Carlos Correa. By Wednesday morning, after the Giants hesitated in the wake of Correa’s physical examination, Cohen had swooped in and whisked Correa off to the Mets.

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The phrase “agreement pending a physical examination” does not mean a deal is automatically blown up if a player fails the examination. What happened overnight simply means Cohen was willing to take a risk that the Giants and their owners were not.

In this era of evolving analytics and exploding salaries, it is not just sheer dollars that makes Cohen an outlier among baseball owners. It is, interestingly enough, a guy who made his fortune in hedge funds deciding that spending and winning are greater priorities than risk management.

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Carlos Correa spurned Giants for Mets. Why that’s still bad news for Dodgers

KINGS

From Helene Elliott: The Kings have gotten an early and special present from a North Pole resident. It’s the right size, and useful, too. It might actually help keep them on course for the playoffs.

This gift is the calm, stable goaltending provided the past few games by Pheonix Copley, a native of North Pole, Alaska. Not the actual geographic North Pole, but a town near Fairbanks that takes the Christmas spirit seriously year-round. The streets have Christmas-themed names and the streetlights are decorated with jaunty red and white stripes, a theme Copley has carried over by painting two candy canes on the lower part of his mask.

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Copley, 30, is the textbook definition of journeyman, having bounced around the minor leagues since he left Michigan Tech and turned pro with St. Louis in the 2015-16 season. The most NHL games he has ever played in a season is 27 with Washington, in 2018-19. He thought that might turn into something more permanent. It didn’t.

DUCKS

Matt Boldy scored the tiebreaking goal early in the third period and added two assists, and the Minnesota Wild won their season-best sixth straight game while continuing their two-year domination of the Ducks with a 4-1 victory Wednesday night.

Connor Dewar and Joel Eriksson Ek also scored and Marc-Andre Fleury made 21 saves for the Wild, who have 13 consecutive victories over the Ducks since January 2021. Last-place Anaheim has earned only four points during that stretch of the rivalry.

Rookie Mason McTavish scored and Lukas Dostal stopped 38 shots for the Ducks, who opened the longest homestand in franchise history with their 11th loss in 14 games.

Who is the best soccer player of all?

A debate arose on social media after Sunday’s World Cup final: Who is the best soccer player of all time, Messi, Diego Maradona or Pele? What do you say? Click here to vote in our poll.

THIS DATE IN SPORTS

1894 — The United States Golf Assn. is founded, becoming the governing body for the game in the country.

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1915 — The Federal League folds. Owners of the American and National Leagues buy out half of the owners (Pittsburgh, Newark, Buffalo, and Brooklyn) of the Federal League teams. Phil Ball, owner of the St. Louis Terriers, is allowed to buy the St. Louis Browns of the AL, and Charles Weeghman, owner of the Chicago Whales, buys out the Chicago Cubs of the NL.

1924 — Babe Dye of the Toronto St. Patricks scores five goals in a 10-2 victory over the Boston Bruins.

1946 — The Cleveland Browns beat the New York Yankees 14-9 in the first AAFC championship game.

1969 — Pete Maravich sets an NCAA record by hitting 30 of 31 foul shots, and scores 46 points to lead LSU to a 98-89 victory over Georgia.

1974 — Boston’s Phil Esposito scores two goals, including his 500th goal, to lead the Bruins to a 5-4 win over the Detroit Red Wings at Boston Garden.

1990 — Paul Coffey becomes the second NHL defenseman to record 1,000 points. Coffey reaches the milestone with an assist on Kevin Stevens’ goal in second-period of a 4-3 win against the New York Islanders.

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1996 — Brett Hull becomes the 24th player in NHL history to score 500 goals, with a hat trick in the St. Louis Blues’ 7-4 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Brett and his father, Bobby Hull, are the first father-son tandem to each score 500 goals.

2003 — Brett Favre passes for 399 yards and four touchdowns a day after his father dies, moving into second place in NFL history for career TD passes while leading the Green Bay Packers to a 41-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders. Favre passes Fran Tarkenton on the NFL’s career list with his 343rd career TD throw.

2005 — Reggie Campbell of Navy ties the NCAA bowl record with five touchdowns and had 290 all-purpose yards, leading the Midshipmen to a 51-30 win over Colorado State in the Poinsettia Bowl.

2006 — Peter Bondra scores his 500th NHL goal early in the third period to snap a 1-all tie and lead Chicago past Toronto 3-1.

2007 — Eathyn Manumaleuna blocks a field goal as time expires to give BYU a 17-16 victory over UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl.

2009 — Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh becomes the first defensive player voted The Associated Press College Football Player of the Year, winning the award after his dominant performance against Texas in the Big 12 title game.

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2013 — Peyton Manning finishes 32 for 51 for 400 yards and four touchdown passes to set the single season touchdown mark in Denver’s 37-13 win over Houston. Manning, with 51 touchdown passes, passes Tom Brady (50 in 2007) for the most in a season in NFL history.

2013 — Tom Brady leads the Patriots to a 41-7 win at Baltimore as New England clinches the AFC East. It’s the 11th division title for Brady, the most by a starting quarterback in NFL history.

2016 — Matt Linehan throws for 381 yards and four touchdowns and runs for a another score to help Idaho beat Colorado State 61-50 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. It’s the third-highest scoring game in bowl history. Idaho (9-4) matches its highest victory total since moving to FBS in 1996.

2020 - Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi scores his 644th goal for FC Barcelona during 3-0 win over Real Valladolid to break Pele’s record for most goals for one club; Pele, 643 goals for Santos 1956-74

Compiled by the Associated Press

And finally

Brett Hull scores his 500th goal. Watch and listen here.

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Until next time...

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.

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