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Dare we say '08 was great?

From Tiger to Michael (Phelps), Manny to (Eli) Manning, it was a sports year to savor.

November 30, 2009|By Mike Penner

It was a sports year that often seemed blissfully out of touch with the times, with Beijing staging an opulent Olympics amid the backdrop of an earthquake that killed tens of thousands and the New York Yankees' spending hundreds of millions on free agents while an American economy shivered in the winter cold.

It was a year in which sports took its ability to distract quite seriously, delivering epic and historic achievement on a regular basis.

In the NFL, New England opened 2008 having just completed a 16-0 regular season, extended it to 18-0 heading into the Super Bowl against a seemingly overmatched New York Giants team. Then in Glendale, Ariz., Eli Manning outplayed Tom Brady and Tom Coughlin outcoached Bill Belichick and the Giants scored an upset comparable to that of another New York team, the Jets, almost 40 years earlier.

In the NBA, for the first time in 21 years, the Lakers and the Boston Celtics met in the Finals, which was welcomed by the league as a rescue mission after the San Antonio-Cleveland Finals of '07. It was heralded as a dream matchup across the land, even in Los Angeles, until the Lakers were eliminated in a nightmarish Game 6.

Baseball gave us a World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies (one Series championship in their first 125 years) and the worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays, then gave us a Game 5 clincher that was interrupted by a 46-hour rain relay.

Hockey, after years of off-Broadway matchups in the Stanley Cup finals, finally got a pairing worthy of the marquee: Detroit against Pittsburgh, with the Red Wings' veterans prevailing over the Penguins' precocious young stars in six games.

Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate played 91 holes at the U.S. Open before a winner -- Woods, bad left knee and all -- could be decided.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer played a classic Wimbledon final, Nadal finally besting Federer on grass in a 9-7 fifth set. Mario Chalmers hit a three-pointer for the ages to send Kansas into overtime against Memphis, where the Jayhawks won an unforgettable NCAA basketball final. Jimmie Johnson won his third consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

With so much emphasis on big numbers, one of the smallest imaginable -- one-hundredth of a second -- yielded the most impressive performance of all: the margin of victory for Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly final, enough for what would be an unprecedented eight Olympic gold medals.

By that much, Phelps out-touched Serbia's Milorad Cavic, climaxing a race-ending sprint that bordered on the unbelievable. The same could be said for Jason Lezak's incredible anchor leg in the 400-meter freestyle relay, already a legend. Lezak entered the pool with the Americans appearing hopelessly behind, but he somehow chased down France's Alain Bernard for the victory.

Phelps owned these Olympics -- at least until the track and field portion of the event began. Inside the Bird's Nest, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt reigned supreme, setting a world record in every final he ran. In order: 9.69 seconds in the 100-meter sprint, 19.30 in the 200 to break Michael Johnson's supposedly untouchable record, then running a leg on a 400-meter relay team that completed the trek in 37.10 seconds.

Bolt. It was the perfect name for the fastest man in the world, and sportswriters had a field day matching it with nicknames: Lightning Bolt. Insane Bolt.

Another nickname popularized in Beijing was Redeem Team, assigned to the U.S. basketball squad, attempting to make amends for the embarrassment four years earlier in Athens. Kobe Bryant didn't care for it much, but both in China and back home in the States, his 2008 played like one long redemption song.

Bryant led the United States back to the top of the medal stand and, somewhat less probable, drove the Lakers back to the Finals about a year after saying he'd rather play on another planet. As it developed, Bryant turned into the best player on this one, at last doing what his critics said he couldn't do -- make his teammates better -- and winning the league's most valuable player award for the first time.

With a sizable assist from the Memphis Grizzlies, who kindly donated Pau Gasol to the Lakers in a Feb. 1 trade/giveaway, Bryant maneuvered the Lakers through the Western Conference playoffs in a swift 15 games. Meanwhile, the Celtics, prohibitive championship favorites after the off-season additions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, scuffled through seven games in the first round of the playoffs against Atlanta, seven more against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and six more against Detroit -- looking vulnerable every step of the way.

By the time the Finals were arranged, Los Angeles was frenzied. There was talk, in some corners of the media, of a Lakers sweep. Elsewhere, the general tone of discussion was: How could the Lakers lose?

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