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What a Wonderfully Wacky Time It Was

December 31, 2002|MIKE PENNER

The Sparks won their second WNBA title, repeating the all-gender basketball sweep they and the Lakers first managed in 2001.

The Galaxy, on the verge of being branded the Buffalo Bills of soccer, finally broke through in its fourth appearance in the Major League Soccer championship final, in overtime, on a goal by Guatemalan rookie Carlos Ruiz, to defeat the New England Revolution, 1-0, for its first MLS Cup.

USC won 10 of 12 football games, including routs of UCLA and Notre Dame on national television, the latter giving Trojan quarterback Palmer the cross-country exposure he needed to become the first West Coast player to win the Heisman Trophy since Marcus Allen in 1981.

All told, in terms of trophies won, the Los Angeles-Anaheim sporting empire has never had a better year than 2002.

In 1988, the Dodgers and the Lakers won championships and USC's Rodney Peete finished second to Barry Sanders in the Heisman voting. But the Angels were awful, the Raiders missed the playoffs, the Rams lost their wild-card game to Minnesota, UCLA failed to qualify for the NCAA basketball tournament and the Kings still were getting used to the absurd notion of Wayne Gretzky skating for the good guys at the Forum.

In 1981, Dodgers won the World Series and Allen won the Heisman. But the Angels were awful, the Lakers were eliminated in the playoffs by Houston, the Rams were 6-10, the Raiders were still in Oakland, the Kings lost in the first round of the playoffs and UCLA lost to Brigham Young in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

In 1972, the Lakers won their first championship in Los Angeles, John Wooden won his eighth at UCLA and USC went 12-0 to earn the national championship in college football. But the Angels were awful, the Kings were too, the Dodgers finished third in the NL West and the Rams went 6-7-1.

Granted, the Sparks and Galaxy joined the neighborhood after 1995, widening the channels for potential success. But before them, the region went through the comings and goings of the Sun, Surf, Stars, Amigos, Aztecs, Express and Dreams, and all they left us with was a solitary North American Soccer League championship, courtesy of the 1974 Aztecs.

The Angels' triumph embodied a baseball season in which anything and everything seemed possible.

Yes, Commissioner Bud Selig was booed in Milwaukee after shutting down a 7-7 All-Star game, forever debunking the notion that there's no tying in baseball. Yes, the ready-for-contraction Twins reached the AL championship series. Yes, the Oakland A's won 20 games in a row. Yes, Seattle's Mike Cameron and the Dodgers' Shawn Green hit four home runs in a game in the same month. Yes, Selig and Players Assn. chief Don Fehr saved the season by forging a new labor agreement Aug. 30 -- hours before the strike deadline, hours after angry Angel fans pelted Edison Field with debris as a work stoppage seemed imminent.

(Did the Angels vote Selig and Fehr playoff shares? Because without that historic accord in late August, the Angels would be spending their 42nd consecutive off-season wondering, "What if?")

The NFL, addled after so many years of obsessive-compulsive attention to leveling the playing field, completely went off the rails.

For most of four decades, the Patriots couldn't do anything to help themselves. So, in consecutive postseason games in January, the Patriots received handouts from the referee in a divisional playoff game against the Raiders (an apparent game-losing fumble negated by an obscure "tuck rule"), the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game (the Steelers started Kordell Stewart in a big game) and the Rams in the Super Bowl (St. Louis Coach Mike Martz mysteriously decided to use Marshall Faulk as a decoy).

In the regular season that followed, absolutely nothing made sense. The Rams couldn't win with Warner, but went 6-0 with a third-stringer named Marc Bulger. The expansion Houston Texans netted 47 yards and three first downs against Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh, and won by 18 points, costing the Steelers home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Miami Dolphins finally traded for a franchise running back, Ricky Williams led the league in rushing ... and the Dolphins slipped from 11-5 in 2001 to 9-7 and out of the playoffs in 2002.

Heading into the 16th week of a 17-week season, no AFC team had clinched a playoff berth. By the end of the 17th, no team had more than 12 victories and no team, with any degree of confidence, could consider itself the team to beat in the playoffs.

Even the Lakers, a bastion of dependability after Phil Jackson came aboard, succumbed to the nasty karma. In fact, after winning their third consecutive league title by sweeping New Jersey, absolutely nothing went right for them.

Chick Hearn, the team's legendary play-by-play broadcaster, died Aug. 5 after hitting his head during a fall in his backyard.

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