Big dogs and underdogs
The sports year 2002 tossed a bone to everyone
By Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated
Some sports years have something of a pattern to them, but 2002, like the year itself -- which can be read the same backward and forward -- went in all directions. Tiger Woods set the standard. He won the first two majors, didn't really challenge in the next, and then got nosed out by a who's he? in the PGA. Oh well, two out of four ain't bad.
You like the big dogs? Well, two of the four major sports championships were won by the favorites. The Los Angeles Lakers, led by an absolutely overpowering Shaquille O'Neal, won their third consecutive NBA title, routing the New Jersey Nets. And the Detroit Red Wings brought the Stanley Cup back home again with a victory over the Carolina Hurricanes. It was the ninth championship for coach Scotty Bowman, who promptly retired, henceforth to sit on his record laurels.
You like underdogs? The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in the last minute behind a boy-wonder quarterback, and the Anaheim Angels took the World Series -- their first -- in seven games, after after 41 years of trying. Barry Bonds led the San Francisco Giants to the National League pennant with another stupendous MVP season, but remained the most unpopular superstar in sports. Nobody cared enough about Bonds to tune in, and the Series' ratings were abysmal. Oh well, at least there was a Series. Baseball management and labor were finally able to reach a collective bargaining agreement without a strike or a lockout. And the Yankees can no longer sign everybody their little hearts desire.
The Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City -- the place that had already brought scandal to the so-called "Movement." And once the Games finally opened in Utah, more shenanigans erupted, as charges of a fix roiled the pairs figure skating competition. In the end, a pair of golds were handed out to two figs pairs (Canadian and Russian), a French judge was sent home in shame, a Russian mobster faced accusations of having masterminded the scheme, a whole new set of ridiculous judging procedures were conjured up, and sweet memories of Tonya Harding were reprieved. Meanwhile, in an honest sport, Canada, Mother Hockey, beat the U.S. to win its first hockey gold medal since 1956. As Sergeant Preston of the Yukon used to say: "This case is closed!"
Lance Armstrong showed again he is the best thing to work the mountains since Heidi, winning his fourth straight Tour de France (as well as the Sportsman of the Year award from Sports Illustrated). Pete Sampras, dismissed as a has-been, not only won the U.S. Open, but also beat countryman Andre Agassi in the final. Lennox Lewis whipped Mike Tyson so badly that "Iron" was forever knocked out of the latter's name.
The University of Maryland won its first NCAA basketball championship, beating a Bobby Knight-less Indiana team in the worst exhibition of basketball ever displayed in a tournament final. Luckily, the University of Connecticut's women's team, an undefeated masterpiece, performed a basketball ballet all season long, with Sue Bird at the point. In college football, the University of Miami began 2002 by dismantling Nebraska in the national title game and stayed unbeaten during the fall as it prepares, evidently, to make Ohio State the Nebraska of 2003. Oh yes, whatever happened to Nebraska?
Meanwhile, the world-minus-the-United-States-of-America came to a breathless halt in June, as soccer's World Cup was played in Asia for the first time. As veritably dozens of Americans cheered, the U.S. team made its way to the quarterfinals before losing gamely to Germany. As it turned out, Brazil was the easy winner, while America turned its interest to the baseball All-Star game. That ended in a tie.
In other baseball news: Montreal and Minnesota were not contracted after all.
Sports Illustrated senior contributing writer Frank Deford is a regular contributor to CNNSI.com and appears each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. He is a longtime correspondent for HBO's Real Sports and his new novel, An American Summer (Sourcebooks Trade), is available now at bookstores everywhere.