The year in sports: Believe the hype

2008 was a series of did you see thats that are destined to become do you remembers.

Topics: Football, Basketball, Baseball, Olympics, Peyton Manning, College basketball,

The year in sports: Believe the hype

Years from now, 2008 will probably be remembered as the year of an economic collapse so severe that even the usually recession-proof world of North American sports felt it. The NFL laid people off. That doesn’t happen most years.

But for most of 2008, living through it, even as housing prices fell and the recession gathered, the sports year didn’t feel like the Year of the Crash. Most of 2008 seemed to be about big sports stories actually living up to their hype.

It started with the New England Patriots chasing an undefeated season. They’d ended 2007 by winning an epic regular-season finale over the New York Giants, and a month later lined up as heavy favorites in the Super Bowl against the same team. Giants quarterback Eli Manning engineered a late touchdown drive that gave New York a stunning victory.

The highlight, Manning spinning away from the grasp of the Patriots pass rush, sprinting to the sideline and heaving the ball downfield, where David Tyree trapped the ball against his helmet and hung on while the great safety Rodney Harrison wrestled with him, was the signature football moment of the year and, so far, of the century. It might have been the single greatest play in Super Bowl history.

Like that, is how 2008 was. A series of breathtaking did you see thats destined to become do you remembers.

Swimmer Michael Phelps set out to win eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics and succeeded. His seventh gold, tying Mark Spitz’s record for one Games, was in the 100-meter butterfly. Trailing badly at the turn and still behind Serbian Milorad Cavic one body length from the wall, he somehow made up the distance on the last stroke, touching one-hundredth of a second before Cavic.

And that wasn’t even the most electrifying moment of the Games. That honor belonged, pun and all, to Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who didn’t just win the men’s 100- and 200-meter gold medals, the first to do so since Carl Lewis in 1984, he did it in cartoonish, world-record-setting fashion and with a sparkling personality — which drew fire from the International Olympic Committee’s idiotic chieftain, Jacques Rogge.



Bolt was so rattled by Rogge’s inanity that he went out and helped Jamaica win the four-by-100 gold, also in world-record time.

American Dara Torres became the first woman over 40 to swim in the Olympics and the first to swim in five of them, all the more remarkable because the five, dating to 1984, weren’t consecutive. She won two silver medals in relays and another in the 50-meter freestyle, losing to gold medal-winner Britta Steffen by a Phelpsian hundredth of a second. “I’m thinking,” she said afterward, “I shouldn’t have filed my nails last night.”

Overall the Olympics failed to live up to the hype in one good way. After a few American athletes were censured for arriving with masks on to filter out the pollution, fears of athletes being overcome by Beijing’s horrible air quality were not realized. American television viewers, however, were nearly suffocated by NBC’s ceaseless broadcasting of synchronized diving and beach volleyball.

In between, glimpses were caught of the U.S. men and women winning basketball gold, and the usual drama in the gymnastics arena. China dominated the men’s competition and won the women’s team all-around, but Americans Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson went gold-silver in the individual all-around, and Johnson, a darling of the pre-Games buildup, won gold on the balance beam.

The Euro 2008 soccer tournament lived up to its billing thanks in large part to a thrilling underdog run by Turkey, which staged dramatic comebacks against Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Croatia before falling to Germany in the semifinals. Spain, an exciting, attacking team — two concepts often lacking in international soccer — beat Germany for the cup.

Kansas guard Mario Chalmers hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds to cap a Jayhawks comeback against Memphis in the NCAA men’s basketball Tournament Championship Game, forcing an overtime, which Kansas dominated for the title.

That finished off a Tournament that was outstanding even by its own high standards, with just enough upsets to make it interesting and a deep run by an exciting — and underseeded — No. 10, Davidson, but the best teams were left standing at the end. The Final Four was the first ever to feature all four top seeds.

In the women’s Tournament, the sport’s colossus, Tennessee, won yet another title, led by Candace Parker, the game’s best player. Parker was taken first in the WNBA draft by the Los Angeles Sparks, scored 34 points in her first game, and went on to be named Rookie of the Year. Now that’s living up to the hype.

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers spent the 2007-08 season threatening to renew their old NBA Finals rivalry, and sure enough, this being the year that anticipation paid off, they did. The offseason acquisition of Kevin Garnett was the centerpiece of the Celtics’ return to prominence. Boston started strong and never let up.

The Lakers had been fringe contenders for a while but became championship caliber when they made a one-sided trade for Memphis Grizzlies star Pao Gasol. Even without talented young center Andrew Bynum, who was injured during the season, the Lakers won the Western Conference behind Gasol and Kobe Bryant. But they proved too soft to be a match for the Celtics, who took the Finals in six games and won the title for the first time since 1986.

The Gasol trade sparked two answer trades in the West, longtime contenders trying to reload for another run by bringing in aging superstars. Shaquille O’Neal went to the Phoenix Suns, and Jason Kidd to the Dallas Mavericks. It didn’t work out in either place. Not everything in 2008 lived up to the hype.

It just felt like it. Baseball’s trading deadline, July 31, is usually a time of a million blockbuster rumors and a handful of minor deals. Oh, but this was 2008. In early July, C.C. Sabathia, the defending Cy Young Award winner, was dealt from the Cleveland Indians to the Milwaukee Brewers, and Rich Harden, who might have the best stuff in baseball when he’s healthy, which isn’t often, was sent from the Oakland A’s to the Chicago Cubs.

And then, supposedly within seconds of the deadline, colorful slugger Manny Ramirez went from the Boston Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Harden pitched brilliantly as the Cubs, already in first place when the deal was made, reached the postseason. But it was Sabathia and Ramirez who led their new teams to the playoffs by playing so spectacularly well that they got serious consideration for postseason awards in the National League for two months’ work.

A few weeks before those trades, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer met in the Wimbledon men’s final for the third year in a row. That one lived up to its billing and how. In an epic, see-saw, rain-delayed match that people who are paid to know about such things have called the greatest ever played, Nadal ended Federer’s five-year run as Wimbledon champ.

The women’s final took a far backseat, but it was as glamorous a matchup as women’s tennis is capable of serving up: Venus Williams beat her younger sister Serena for her second straight Wimbledon title, her fifth overall.

The National Hockey League even lived up to its hype, kicking off the year with an outdoor game that easily overshadowed the now-meaningless New Year’s Day college football bowl games.

The game, between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres in front of 71,000 people in Buffalo, was the first outdoor contest in the league in four years, and it was a humdinger, the Penguins winning 2-1 on a shootout, though that result, and the sloppy, snowy hockey that led to it, was secondary to the spectacle, which was magnificent.

In a show of brainpower that’s often missing in the NHL, including five years ago, when the league failed to follow up on a similarly successful outdoor game in Edmonton, plans were made to do it again on New Year’s Day 2009. The Chicago Blackhawks were to host the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field, though unseasonably warm weather was threatening to delay the game.

The Red Wings won their fourth Stanley Cup in 11 years in 2008, beating the Penguins and the league’s transcendent rising star, Sidney Crosby, in the Finals.

And then there was Tiger Woods. His legend would have been secure even if he’d bowed out of this year’s U.S. Open with what he later revealed was a torn ligament in his knee and a broken tibia. Instead, he played on that bum leg and beat game journeyman Rocco Mediate in 19-hole playoff. It was a moment so grand, Woods would have been a legend if he’d done that and nothing else in his career. As it is, that win was just one more case of Tiger being Tiger, just one in a series of the hype coming true in 2008.

Of course it wasn’t all greatness and wonder. It never is. While 2008 wasn’t weighed down with scandal, tragedy and misbehavior like most recent years, it didn’t escape those things either.

The year began in the shadow of the Mitchell Report, baseball’s December 2007 accounting of the steroid era, which by January had become the story of the fall of Roger Clemens. The great pitcher decided against the “disappear and hope it blows over” strategy of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro and fought back hard against accusations that he’d used steroids.

Clemens traded barbs and lawsuits with his former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, and eagerly faced a congressional subcommittee. But the more he spoke, the less believable he sounded. Then a small-time country singer went public with her story that she’d carried on a long affair with the married Clemens. His pal and teammate Andy Pettitte admitted that the parts of McNamee’s story that concerned Pettitte were true, which badly damaged Clemens’ credibility. When the dust settled, Clemens’ reputation was in ruins.

A lot of the year’s most depressing stories were like that, holdovers from previous years.

The New England Patriots “Spygate” game-taping scandal oozed into the new year before fizzling out in the spring when former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh admitted to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that an alleged tape of the St. Louis Rams’ pre-Super Bowl walkthrough from January 2002 did not exist.

Marion Jones was released from prison and went on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show to apologize for her “mistake,” the slight boo-boo of lying about her illegal activities to an admiring world for years. Indiana basketball coach Kelvin Sampson took a $750,000 buyout — a year and a half’s salary — as punishment for his illegal calling of recruits.

The year’s biggest controversy in sports wasn’t directly about sports. It was the worldwide protests over human rights violations in China in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. The traditional celebratory globe-trot of the torch became a tense security gantlet as grim-faced Chinese military security forces squared off against protesters.

At times it became comical as officials head-faked demonstrators and sneaked the torch through streets filled not with cheering fans but with bemused commuters. Is a parade still a parade if no one knows it’s going on?

Once the Games began, a controversy broke out about Chinese officials lying about the age of some allegedly underaged female gymnasts. If it can be called a controversy when almost no one believed what China was saying.

As is usual with malfeasance and misbehavior committed not by relatively powerless individuals but by formidable entities, nothing came of it. That’s the way to bet on the shenanigans surrounding the new Yankee Stadium in New York.

The Yankees shut down their historic 85-year-old ballpark in the Bronx this season amid much hullabaloo and prepared to move next door to a new park, one with a reported price tag of nearly $2 billion, including more than a half-billion in taxpayer subsidies, according to various outlets, including the Village Voice.

The Yankees allegedly pulled a fast one on the real estate assessment, telling the IRS the parkland under the new stadium was worth more than $200 million in order to qualify for a massive tax break, and telling the state of New York the land was worth only $21 million in order to keep from having to replace it with more parkland.

The press and public are not nearly as outraged about this as they are about the Yankees working within the rules of baseball to improve the team on the field. So far, all of the big free-agent prizes of the offseason — Sabathia, pitcher A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira — have signed with the Yanks, who have literally outspent the other 29 major league teams combined. The remaining marquee name, Ramirez, who grew up in New York City, has been the subject of a few rumors involving the Yankees, which have been denied by all sides.

The New York Mets are also moving into new digs in 2009, and while they made the big splash of the 2007-08 offseason, trading for pitcher Johan Santana, their results were the same: They collapsed down the stretch and missed the playoffs.

The Yankees are hoping to spend their way back into the postseason, which they missed for the first time since 1993. This turned out to be a season of the underdog as the Tampa Bay Rays, a doormat of a franchise for a decade, went from their habitual last-place finish in 2007 to the World Series in ’08, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, a doormat of much longer standing, having now won two championships in the last 29 seasons, and also two in the last 126.

The World Series ended with the completion of a suspended game, the first ever in Series history. Following two days of rain, the teams finally got together to play the last three innings of Game 5. It wasn’t a classic of a Series but it ended up as a heck of a way to decide a championship.

Almost any way of deciding a championship would beat college football’s Bowl Championship Series, which lunged through another year. LSU won the 2007 title in January by destroying Ohio State, and in the year between that game and the upcoming Florida-Oklahoma tilt for the ’08 championship, the president of the University of Georgia and the president-elect of the United States both joined the chorus calling for a playoff or tournament to decide the victor.

Fat chance. ESPN signed a deal to televise the BCS bowl games through 2015, making any revisions before then unlikely. And with the juggernaut of the sports industry having a vested interest in the status quo, expect calls for change to become fewer and farther between in the media.

2008 had its share of departures. Some major figures died, among them Sammy Baugh, Pete Newell, Gene Upshaw and Buzzie Bavasi. Sports lost several great chroniclers this year, most prominently W.C. Heinz, Jim McKay, Skip Caray and a pair of good players who became much-loved broadcasters, Herb Score and Bobby Murcer.

One of the year’s most poignant moments came at the end of the Kentucky Derby, when the filly Eight Belles collapsed with two broken ankles just after finishing second to Big Brown. The horse had to be euthanized. It was the second year in a row sports fans had to watch a popular American racehorse die. Barbaro, the 2006 Derby winner who was injured at the Preakness, died in January 2007.

There were calls for reform in the breeding and training of thoroughbreds in the wake of the Eight Belles incident, with industry critics saying the inbreeding of horses has led to equine physiology like that of Eight Belles, who, Sally Jenkins wrote in the Washington Post, “ran with the heart of a locomotive, on champagne-glass ankles for the pleasure of the crowd.”

There were other kinds of departures as well, many caused by the economic upheaval that climaxed late in the year. The Arena Football League, hailed just a few years ago as the next big thing on the North American sporting scene, shut down.

So did EliteXC, a mixed martial arts circuit that was second tier but notable because an EliteXC event was the first MMA card broadcast on U.S. prime time network television. CBS showed a lackluster EliteXC card in May, lying to viewers that what they were seeing was the sport’s big leagues.

Instead they were watching YouTube sensation Kimbo Slice, a Florida bouncer and street fighter, who beat a tomato can on cuts in the third round. A few months later, Slice was TKO’d in 14 seconds by a last-minute replacement fighter named Seth Petruzelli. EliteXC folded shortly after.

Not exactly dead but far more lamented are the Seattle SuperSonics, an NBA team that abandoned its home of 40 years for the — greener? — pastures of Oklahoma City, where the team now plays as the Thunder. Clay Bennett, an Oklahoma City businessman, and his partners bought the team in 2006 and immediately began lying about their intentions to move the team south.

Bennett and Co. dropped that charade fairly quickly, and it took them two years to escape their lease. The loss of the Sonics was the lowlight of a lousy year in the Emerald City. The baseball Mariners had their worst season in 25 years, finishing last in the American League. The football Seahawks had their worst season in 16 years, going 4-12 after a five-year run as NFC West champions.

And the Washington Huskies football team managed to do something that no other team in the NCAA’s Bowl Subdivision — formerly Division I-A — did: They went 0-12.

Women’s basketball fans in Houston lost their team and couldn’t even hate on the city that took it. The Houston Comets, the team that won the first four WNBA championships and was home for Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper, among other stars, folded. The Comets were disbanded by the league when owner Hilton Koch couldn’t find a buyer.

That was the last in a series of blows for women’s sports this year, the most notable of which was the twin retirements, one day apart, of golfer Annika Sorenstam and tennis player Justine Henin, arguably the best in the world at their respective sports.

Sorenstam, 37 when she announced that she would quit the LPGA tour at the end of the year, had slipped some from her peak, when she was the best female golfer of her generation, the rare woman who transcended her sport, famous for owning the women’s tour and sometimes playing with the men. Back and neck problems had slowed her down, and she admitted to having lost some of the burning desire that had helped make her great. She has various business interests and has talked of starting a family.

In her last tournament, two weeks ago in Dubai, she led after two rounds before fading. She ended her career with a birdie, though she has said that might not be the end. She might return to competitive golf someday.

Henin’s withdrawal, a day later, was far more shocking. She was two weeks shy of her 26th birthday and a few days from opening her defense of three straight French Open titles when she announced the immediate end of her career. She asked the WTA to remove her name from the rankings, making her the first woman ever to quit while ranked No. 1 in the world.

Though she’d reportedly spoken excitedly about the French Open and other upcoming major events mere weeks before, she said she had had enough of tennis. This month she was named a goodwill ambassador for the joint bid of the Netherlands and her native Belgium to host the 2018 soccer World Cup.

Henin acknowledged that it’s hard to believe a 25-year-old superstar athlete at the top of her game would simply walk away, and she dropped the name of a 38-year-old superstar quarterback who then, and for months before, and for months after, was waffling about his own retirement.

Brett Favre, who had for years made an annoying habit of playing out the offseason will he or won’t he retire drama to the hilt, made a veritable career of it in 2008.

After his usual couple of months of indecision, he announced in early March that he would retire from the Green Bay Packers. There were rumors throughout the spring that he might return, and in early July he asked the Packers to release him so he could sign with another team. The Packers refused, leading to a standoff of sorts.

There was talk of a trade to the rival Minnesota Vikings, and then charges by the Packers that the Vikings had tampered with Favre. Eventually, Favre petitioned for and was granted reinstatement to the league and actually reported to the Packers training camp, though he never suited up and the team sent him home.

A weary nation begged for release from the long nightmare of wall-to-wall Favre coverage — one of the key moments in the summertime melodrama was an interview Favre gave to, of all people, Greta Van Susteren of Fox News — and at long last, in early August, he was traded to the New York Jets for a bag of kicking tees and two tickets to “South Pacific.”

It started well, with Favre showing flashes of his old self as the Jets won five straight at midseason to improve to 8-3. But since that eighth win, a thrashing of the then-undefeated Tennessee Titans, things have gone sour. The Jets lost four of their last five and missed the playoffs. Favre, complaining of a bum throwing shoulder, threw two touchdowns and nine interceptions down the stretch.

Thus as the NFL playoffs and a new calendar year begin, so begins another edition of will he or won’t he, starring Brett Favre. Favre was to undergo an MRI on Monday, and if the news was bad from that, the drama this time might be a short one. If not, stay tuned.

One small consolation: Anything that looks like 2008 can’t be all bad. It was a year that really lived up to the billing.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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