The Atlanta tornado, five years later

When I told people I was going to an advanced screening of the new ESPN film “SEC Storied: Miracle 3” on Wednesday night, I got the same reaction from virtually everybody:

“Wow, I can’t believe it’s been five years.”

Indeed, it’s been nearly five years since the first tornado in recorded history ripped through the center of downtown Atlanta, right in the middle of the SEC Basketball Tournament at the Georgia Dome. The new documentary, which will premiere on Sunday evening at 5 p.m. on ESPN, took a look back and told the story through the eyes of the players, coaches, fans and even the bus driver who experienced a real-life emergency — a twister hitting a building with 20,000 people inside, during a sporting event. Director Rory Karpf gives you a rare, fascinating look at people afflicted by a weather phenomenon as it’s happening, even though many of them weren’t sure whether it was a tornado or a terror attack.

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare, but it turns out it could have been worse. As Alabama trailed Mississippi State by three points late in their second-round game on the Friday night of the tournament, Mykal Riley sank a three-pointer that would send the game to overtime. The third of four games that day, Georgia and Kentucky were waiting to wrap up the day of basketball with their game to follow.

They wouldn’t play until the next day. Riley’s three-pointer possibly saved thousands of lives, because instead of the fans pouring out onto the streets, they were forced to stay inside for another five minutes of basketball, safe from the tornado.

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The film tells the story of the massive conundrum forced on the SEC when their tournament location was deemed unsafe for games. With four games left to play in the tournament, they moved to Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the campus of Georgia Tech, and the rest is history.

Actually, it really was history — no school in the modern era went on the run that Georgia, the worst team in the SEC, was about to go on. They’d beat Kentucky on Saturday morning after everything (and everyone) had been transferred over to GT, and then they beat Mississippi State later that day. Then, depleted and exhausted, the Bulldogs went on to win the conference title by beating Arkansas on Sunday, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which would have been the only way the Dawgs, a really bad team that year, would have punched their ticket.

“Miracle 3” is about more than just UGA’s magical run. It’s about everything that surrounded that weekend — the nuances of a tournament that had to be completely re-done at a different location in the middle of the night, a town trying to recover from a tornado leaving damage downtown and even the story of Mike Turner, a man who lost his wife in a tornado the day after the Dome was hit, who broke nearly every bone in his body, but rallied with the Bulldogs. He sat behind me at the premiere, and I’ll warn you — there were plenty of tears in the theatre when his story was told in the film.

It’s really an incredible film. I wouldn’t miss it.

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