From Sharapova to Smarty to the Sox, 2004 was full of the unexpected
By Phil Taylor
The Boston Red Sox won the World Series and, for a change, New York Yankees fans were the ones left brokenhearted. The top golfer in the world (Vijay Singh) was not named Tiger Woods. In college basketball, the best player in the nation wasn't a teenaged prodigy killing time on campus while he waited for the NBA draft but an honest-to-goodness student-athlete, Emeka Okafor of national champ UConn. The U.S. not only didn't win its usual Olympic gold medal in men's basketball, it had to sweat just to sneak away with the bronze. In the star-driven NBA, a real team, the Detroit Pistons, finally overcame a glamorous group of stars, the Los Angeles Lakers.
It was enough to make our heads spin, and it all would have been even more disorienting if there weren't, thankfully, a few sporting truths on which we could still depend. Lance Armstrong remained quite possibly the most amazing athlete on the planet, winning his sixth consecutive Tour de France. The BCS continued to leave nearly everyone dissatisfied by failing to produce an undisputed national champion in college football (USC and LSU, with one loss each, both laid claim to the title). Barry Bonds kept doing wondrous things with a baseball bat that no man his age had ever done before, and many of us kept wondering if that was because he had a chemical boost. The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl and couldn't seem to stop, running off 21 victories in a row before they were finally beaten.
We continued our habit of lusting after female tennis players -- (Anna) Kournikova gave way to (Maria) Sharapova -- and ignoring their male counterparts. We kept wrestling with our split national personality regarding sex and sports -- the puritanical side that was aghast at the sight of Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime show and a towel-clad actress on Monday Night Football, and the leering side that loves the buxom twins on the beer commercials and Serena Williams' skimpy tennis outfits.
But sex wasn't nearly as big an issue as violence in 2004, which produced some of the ugliest scenes we've witnessed in years. It was repugnant enough when the hostility was between players, such as Todd Bertuzzi's attack on Steve Moore during a National Hockey League game, which led to an indefinite suspension and criminal charges against Bertuzzi. It was downright frightening when the aggression was between players and fans. Texas Rangers' pitcher Frank Francisco threw a chair into the Oakland Coliseum stands during an August melee, breaking a woman's nose. That was just a prelim for the year's main event, the brawl between Indiana Pacers players and spectators at the Pistons' Palace of Auburn Hills, which earned Pacers' loose cannon Ron Artest a season-long ban.
We had our share of lighter moments in 2004. Smarty Jones took horse racing fans for a fun ride before falling short of the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. Pedro Martinez and Latrell Sprewell made us laugh, not necessarily intentionally, with crazy quotes, Martinez about the Yankees being his "daddy," and multimillionaire Sprewell worrying that he had a "family to feed."
But overall, the year had a feeling of melancholy to it. Kobe Bryant's fall from grace was a sad tale for all involved. A cloud of steroids suspicion, and a few admissions, hung over some of the world's greatest athletes including Bonds, Marion Jones and Jason Giambi, while an admitted steroid user, former baseball MVP Ken Caminiti, died, a victim of his addictions. One of the Olympic heroes who was free of steroid rumors, Michael Phelps, tarnished his name with a DUI arrest. The NHL strike knocked out the 2004 part of the 2004-05 season and threatened to obliterate the other half as well. All the while, our deepest sorrow -- and admiration -- was reserved for one man whose name still causes us to pause for a moment:
Tillman was the ultimate surprise of 2004, not just the awful shock of his death in Afghanistan, but because of his willingness to sacrifice everything -- everything -- for his country. He was a reminder of what remarkable people and stories the world of sports can produce. We had more than our share of surprises in 2004, some of them uplifting, some disheartening and some, like Tillman's, bittersweet. But isn't that what draws us to the games in the first place, the possibility -- no, the inevitability -- of surprise? Here's to 2005, and all the surprises to come.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor writes about a Hot Button topic every Monday on SI.com.