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The second city

No. 2 was the place to be for USC football, UCLA basketball and several other L.A. teams that fell short of a championship

December 31, 2006|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

Here in the nation's second-largest market, a phrase the NFL has forced us to commit to memory, we have a saying that the nation needs to learn, because this was us in 2006: We're No. 2!

Take a look at our sports teams and the last 12 months.

USC football: Runner-up to Vince Young and Texas in the Rose Bowl.

UCLA basketball: Runner-up to Joakim Noah and Florida in the men's NCAA final.

The Dodgers: Runners-up to the San Diego Padres in the National League West, runners-up to the New York Mets in the NL Division Series.

The Angels: Runners-up to the Oakland Athletics in the American League West.

The Lakers: Runners-up to the Clippers in the L.A. NBA standings.

The Clippers: Runners-up to the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the playoffs.

The Ducks: Runners-up to the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL Western Conference finals.

The Kings: Runners-up to the Western Conference's ninth-place team, which finished one game out of the playoffs.

With the exception of USC, which ended its streak of national football titles won or shared at two, none of this was truly considered disappointing.

UCLA and the Ducks came out of nowhere to go as far as they did. The Lakers won three playoff games, which constituted a great leap forward in the post-Shaq era. The Dodgers don't win playoff games, remember? The Clippers had their most successful season ever. The Angels were very satisfied with second place, judging by General Manager Bill Stoneman's decision to stay with the hand he already had.

The Kings have had better seasons, but they have also had worse seasons. At the end of every Kings season, it all washes out the same: again, no championship.

Or as the Kings' 2006-2007 marketing slogan goes, "Celebrating 40 Years of Stanley Cup-Free Hockey!"

There's nothing wrong with being part of the supporting cast. Members of Michael Jordan's supporting cast came away with the same rings as he did.

We were very good at being almost great in 2006.

Kobe Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22 -- the second-best performance in NBA history, behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100.

(Bryant also placed fourth in the NBA most-valuable-player voting, but had the second-most first-place votes -- 22 -- behind winner Steve Nash of Phoenix.)

Reggie Bush took his Heisman Trophy, Fresno State highlight video and Gale Sayers comparisons into April's NFL draft, where he was said to be the no-brainer top draft pick. He wound up being second -- the Houston Texans opting instead for a defensive lineman, Mario Williams.

(The Texans, no bold gunslingers, blinked in the face of reports that Bush's family had violated NCAA rules by giving new meaning to the words "taking it to the house.")

Matt Leinart was the second quarterback taken in the draft, second-guessed for bypassing the 2005 draft to play his senior season at USC, where he did not repeat as Heisman winner or national champion.

Phil Jackson nearly took the Lakers into the second round of the playoffs in his second tour of duty with the team, losing to Phoenix in seven games.

Shortly thereafter, the Clippers became the second team from Los Angeles to lose to Phoenix in seven games.

The Ducks came close to reaching their second Stanley Cup finals, but lost to Chris Pronger and the Oilers in five games. Determined not to do that a second time, the Ducks took Pronger from Edmonton in the off-season and now enter 2007 with the NHL's best record.

In most years, in most cities, these achievements would have been toasted with a champagne supernova. Nothing like this went down in Cleveland, Atlanta or Washington this year.

But the people who went on to win it all in 2006 turned our champagne flat.

St. Louis, the city that stole our Rams, won the World Series. With a former Angels shortstop, little David Eckstein, winning World Series MVP.

Jerome Bettis, who played for the Rams before St. Louis stole them, won the Super Bowl with Pittsburgh.

Shaquille O'Neal, who finally made up with Bryant but ended the year calling Jackson "Benedict Arnold," celebrated his second season away from the Lakers by winning the NBA championship with Miami.

Americans like to refer to their league winners as "world champions." This has always been a presumptuous claim, as the world extends far beyond the AL East and the NFC South, but we have blissfully played isolationist for decades.

At least until 2006, when the plain facts became impossible to ignore.

U.S. national teams are not No. 1 in much of anything anymore. Not baseball, not basketball, not hockey, not golf. Not even NASCAR in the satirical stock-car send-up "Talladega Nights," where Will Ferrell's good ol' boy Ricky Bobby gets turned into a grease spot by a fleet, effete Frenchman.

We co-hosted the first World Baseball Classic, and could not get out of the second round. Our major leaguers were eliminated with a loss to Mexico, the same country that eliminated our minor leaguers during qualification for the 2004 Olympics.

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