Less morbid and more satisfying was basketball, both college and pro. Familiar faces paraded to championships, rather effortlessly at that. Duke escapes the theme of this essay, having required more resolve than resiliency to win yet another NCAA title, its third under coach Mike Krzyzewski. The Blue Devils, led by Shane Battier (a senior!), were top-ranked for almost half of the season and strolled through the NCAA tournament without letting anybody finish within 10 points of them.
The Los Angeles Lakers were similarly dominant although, this being the personality-driven NBA, not without their intrigues. Their two stars, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, tangled over their roles on the team, and until that got sorted out, the Lakers sputtered along. By the playoffs, however, some kind of rapprochement appeared to have been reached, with O'Neal increasingly ceding the spotlight, if not every basket, to his younger teammate. "Once that happened," said O'Neal, "it was pretty much all over for the rest of the league."
Pretty much? The Lakers, who won their last eight games of the regular season, won 15 of 16 more in the playoffs. Only the Philadelphia 76ers prevented a sweep, winning the first game of the Finals, and the rest was a rout. The Lakers easily won their second NBA tide in a row, and Shaq and Kobe's newly discovered partnership didn't exactly discourage thoughts of a dynasty to come.
Tiger Woods's own little dynasty seemed more tenuous, especially as he approached the final leg of his majors sweep. Strictly speaking, he wasn't eligible for a Grand Slam, his championships in the other three majors having come in the previous calendar year. Four in a row, though, call it whatever you want, that wasn't to be sneezed at. The problem was, going into the Masters, Woods was in a relative slump. But as he inched his way up the leader board, a kind of inevitability set in, and he turned in one of the least surprising come-from-behind victories of his career. Nobody was getting between him and his Pretty Good Slam.
Determination was everywhere. Or was it just desperation? Backed into the corner by age or circumstance, there were a number of athletes who performed well beyond expectation. There was Hasim Rahman, of course, a 20-1 underdog, who knocked out Lennox Lewis in the biggest upset since Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson (and Lewis himself, who salvaged his career and his legacy by clocking Rahman in the rematch). There was Jennifer Capriati, who'd made tabloid headlines in the 1990s with shoplifting and drug forays (but few for playing tennis), who came back to win the Australian and French Opens. There was Lance Armstrong, who had been cut down by cancer, pedaling up the French Alps as if they were the Great Plains and winning his third consecutive Tour de France.
These were people who wouldn't go away. The Colorado Avalanche's Ray Bourque hung in for his 22nd season, retiring finally with a Stanley Cup team. That was a nice touch. But there were plenty like that, an inspiring tenacity all around.
Finally there was baseball, which carried a larger burden than usual. By now the sport is edging toward marginal, long past its national-pastime prime. To be sure, it got a boost from the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki, a Japanese import who was both Rookie of the Year and MVP of the American League, setting major league records for hits by a rookie and for attitude. (By personal decree he was to be known only by his first name, like Madonna.) Then there was Barry Bonds's home run record, though his chase lacked the excitement of Mark McGwire's three years earlier. It may be that home run records, even at 73, have become commonplace, that they require amiable accomplices, or that Bonds, who has more attitude than Ichiro ever will, can't command a nation's attention, or affection.
That baseball couldn't get more out of Bonds's remarkable pursuit—his record came despite 177 walks—is discouraging. But any game that insists on a Hot Stove mentality in a Microwave Age is headed for trouble. And baseball knows it. It builds retro stadiums, banking on nostalgia, and then, when that doesn't work, argues before Congress that the answer is to dismantle itself, a team at a time.
Nonetheless, this is the sport that was charged with a nation's psychic repair, its World Series coming six weeks after the terrorist attacks and featuring a team from the city most devastated. That was a lot to ask of baseball (and of the Yankees), but in a regrouping of its own, the game (and the Yankees) provided the kinds of thrills that remind us why we're such hopeless sports nuts. You can come from behind. You should never give up. You will get a second chance.
It was a wild series, the new-money Diamondbacks versus the old-money Yankees. Sentiment may have favored New York for once, for the city the Yankees represented was still stoically sifting through the remains of 3,000 innocents. Logic, however, suggested Arizona, with its dominant tandem of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, might mow down the aging champions. Indeed, that's the way it began, Arizona taking the first two games while the Yankees mustered all of six hits.