Oh, what a year it was (cont.)
And none of this yet mentions the Boston Celtics and their singular star, Paul Pierce, who emerged from an aloof reputation and played like Bird or Magic or even Michael in the playoffs when it mattered. None of this mentions the day Jon Lester pitched his no-hitter at Fenway Park barely 18 months after undergoing chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma. None of this mentions Redeem Team, the U.S. Olympic basketball team, which not only won a gold medal -- that was the easy part -- but won back a little bit of America's basketball dignity. None of this mentions Jimmie Johnson, the driver with the plain name, who won his third consecutive NASCAR championship, the first since a tough old coot named Cale Yarborough did it 30 years before.
None of this mentions Josh Hamilton, a left-handed slugger who had emerged from the abyss. He was a lost soul, of course -- failed drug tests, tattoo parlors, a baseball suspension, a dead end life. He reemerged in 2007 after two years out of baseball, and he played well, and it was a sweet story. He came back in 2008 and was a star.
Then, at Yankee Stadium, three months before the mausoleum would close down, he turned a silly All-Star sideshow called the Home Run Derby into an epic poem. He had a man named Clay Council throw to him; Council had thrown him batting practice when he was a child. And with those Council pitches, Hamilton hit 28 home runs in a single round, a record, if you care about such thing. But more than the numbers was the emotion; he hit shot after shot after shot to those places reached by Ruth and Mantle and Reggie. "A dream," he said.
Yeah. It was one heck of a year.
So ... how then can I choose a preliminary 100-meter dash race in Beijing as the moment that sticks with me? I don't have an answer for that except to say that emotions are not easy to figure, and memories do not always shine brightest for the big moment. I had never watched Usain Bolt run before. I knew a bit about him, of course -- he was a tall, lanky runner from Jamaica, and his coaches thought his long strides made him better suited for the longer sprints (200 and 400 meters). But he wanted to run the 100, the big stage. As it turns out, he was born for it. He broke the world record in May, less than a year after his first official 100-meter event.
Still, I was not ready -- could not be ready -- for what I would see. This was still a full day before the final; Bolt still had one one more qualifying race after this one. So the point here was only to get to the lead, cruise to the finish and advance to the next round. Bolt took the point very seriously. The gun sounded, and Bolt took off. He only exerted himself for two or three seconds, but those seconds were unlike anything I had ever seen -- he burst out of the scene, like he was in 3-D. It was like he had gone to light speed. And just like that, he shut it down. With 40 meters left in the race, Bolt slowed to a jog. It was like a parachute had ejected from his back. He was practically running backward when he hit the finish line.
He still won the race, of course. More, he finished with a time of 9.92. How fast is 9.92? It would have won him a gold medal in 1992 and just about every Olympics before that. It would have won him the silver medal in 2000. It would have, in fact, made him a contender for the bronze medal the next day. He had just run a remarkably fast time -- and he had not even tried.
I have never seen anything like it. There's something bewitching about the 100-meter dash because it's so childlike. Race you to the third telephone pole. That's all. There are no fancy lights, no teammates to set picks, no lucky bounces. Usain Bolt on that night showed us a gear that no other man has ever had. And, just as quickly, he pulled back. Could he have broken the world record with a little more effort? No doubt. Could he have run a time that would have left the world gasping? Almost certainly. But instead he jogged off the stage, content with the gasps he left behind, a carnival barker -- "Come back tomorrow, folks, I'll really give you a show."
And that's my moment. Yes, the next day he famously prepared for the final by eating Chicken McNuggets and he set the world record, though one his shoes wasn't tied and he cruised to the finish again. Yes, he would then break Michael Johnson's 200-meter record, and there were many who thought that record would not be broken for decades. Yes, he was one of the stars of the year.
But I'll remember him and this year for that first race I saw, the one where he left everyone wondering what was possible.
More of The Year in Sports
GALLERY: The biggest retirements of 2008
GALLERY: Breakout stars of 2008
GALLERY: Year's most stressful sports moments
GALLERY: SI's top photos of the year