Recapping the year’s best moments in sports.
Following up on my list of worst in sports from 2012, here is my list of the best moments. In contrast to the craven and avaricious behavior that dominated the first list, these were the stories and moments that made us stand up and cheer, reminding us in the process why we watch sports in the first place.
1) I’ve stated before that I think Lebron James is the best basketball player I’ve seen. I realize that this is not a widely held proposition, but anyone who watched James dominate the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Championship last year just might agree with me. Facing elimination—and the prospect of another off-season full of stories about how he doesn’t have what it takes to win—James scored 45 points on the Celtics home court, making 19 of his 26 shots and grabbing 15 rebounds to lead his Heat to the win. They went on to take Game 7 back in Miami and then the NBA Championship in five games versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. James would be named MVP of that series, collecting a triple double with 26 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists in the deciding fifth game.
2) As good as Lebron was last season, though, he wasn’t the NBA’s biggest story. Not even close. That, of course, was Linsanity. Jeremy Lin, the little used point guard, the first NBA player to come out of Harvard since 1954, claimed off waivers by the New York Knicks because no other team wanted him, demoted to the NBA’s Developmental League only 2 weeks earlier, was thrown into action on February 4th by coach Mike D’Antoni out of sheer desperation because his team, wracked by injuries, was struggling at just 8-15. What Lin proceeded to do was light the league up, becoming the first player in NBA history to score more than 20 points and dish out more than 7 assists in each of his first five starts. The highlights were the 38 points he scored on February 10th in a 92-85 win over the Los Angeles Lakers and this game winning shot against the Toronto Raptors on February 14th. The media storm surrounding Linsanity, much of it, unfortunately, racially tinged, was so intense it was even spoofed by Saturday Night Live.
3) In the NFL, it wasn’t the emergence of a new face that excited fans and generated news; it was the reemergence of an old, familiar one. Peyton Manning sat out all of the 2011 season due to a compressed disc in his neck. Some wondered whether he would ever play again. His team, the Indianapolis Colts, for whom he had played his entire NFL career, let him go. Even when he was picked up by the Denver Broncos, there were still questions about his arm strength. All Manning did was go out and throw for more than 4,600 yards and 37 touchdowns, leading the Broncos to a 10-game winning streak to finish the regular season and #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
4) In another comeback of sorts, Serena Williams, who, at the age of 29, had fallen all the way to No. 26 in the world at one point during the 2011 tour season and then for the first time ever lost in the opening round of a major championship at the French Open in May, found a new lease on her tennis life somewhere between Paris and London. Over the next 3 months, Williams would go on to sweep Wimbledon, the Olympics, where she lost only 17 games on her way to the Gold Medal, becoming only the second woman after Stefi Graf to win Olympic gold in addition to all four major championships, and finally the U.S. Open, where she defeated No.1 seed Victoria Azarenka in the finals. In a tennis year filled with great stories, including Roger Federer’s own resurgence at Wimbledon, Andy Murray finally breaking through to win both at the Olympics and the U.S. Open, and Novak Djokovic’s victory at the Australian Open over Rafael Nadal in the longest final in major championship history, Serena Williams’s story was the best.
5) There is no single moment that stands out for our next entry, because Miguel Cabrera’s achievement, baseball’s first triple crown in 45 years, was one of sustained excellence. Yes, we live now in a sabermetric statistical era, one dominated by the likes of On-base plus slugging (OPS) and Batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and there were those who believed that Mike Trout, whose adjusted OPS (Don’t ask. Unless you’re a stat geek, you’re really not interested.) this past season was 7 points higher than Cabrera’s, should have been named American League MVP. But in a sport much of whose appeal rests on historical continuity, the Triple Crown remains an achievement for the ages.
6) Another achievement for the ages, just one that’s been accomplished now in each of the past two World Series, were the three home runs Pablo Sandoval hit in Game 1 of the Giants sweep of the Detroit Tigers. Sandoval became only the fourth player in baseball history, following in the footsteps of Babe Ruth, who did it twice, Reggie Jackson, and Albert Puljos, who did it in 2011, to hit 3 home runs in the same World Series game. Too bad nobody watched.
7) Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel became the first freshman in college football history to win that sport’s most coveted individual award, the Heisman Trophy. In a season full of highlights, the brightest was A&M’s win at then #1 Alabama. Manziel completed 24 of 31 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, while running for another 92 yards to help beat what had previously thought to be a team that couldn’t be beaten. At a relatively diminutive 6’1” 200 lbs. and possessing a quickness that helps him elude onrushing tacklers to buy time for his receivers to get open, Manziel resembles another former Heisman winning quarterback.
8) From American football to what the rest of the world considers football. Since 2008 FC Barcelona has undisputedly been the best club soccer team in the world, winning 14 titles during that span including 3 La Liga championships, 2 Champions League victories, and 2 FIFA Club World Cups. The best player on the best team in the world has been Lionel Messi. Messi was named FIFA’s World Player of the Year/Ballon D’Or in 2009, 2010 and 2011. To top that off, only last month Messi broke German Gerd Muller’s 40-year old record by netting his 86th goal of 2012, the most any soccer player in history has scored in a single calendar year. I suspect that Senor Messi will soon be adding another Ballon D’Or to his trophy case.
9) College basketball’s NCAA Tournament, otherwise hyped as March Madness, has grown in popularity since Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the 1979 finals. Today it stands second only to the Super Bowl as the most watched/talked about/bet on sporting event in the United States. Though too often it fails to live up to billing, 2012 was different. Not one, but two #15 seeds—Norfolk State and Lehigh—pulled off the upset of a #2 seed in the tournament’s first full round of play. It was the first time in the tournament’s history that happened, and only the fifth and sixth times that a #15 seed beat a #2 at all. It was also the first time in the tournament’s history that three teams seeded #13 or lower advanced past the round of 64 on the same day. Paging Cinderella for a slipper fitting in aisle 2.
10) We close out our list of the best of the year in sports with a team that, historically, has been the joke of the NBA. The Los Angeles Clippers are better known for injuries and bad trades than they are for wins, but drafting Blake Griffin and trading for point guard Chris Paul seem to have turned things around. The Clippers finished December undefeated, having won their last 17 games, and they now sport the league’s best record. These are not your father’s Clippers.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig