By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The horror and sadness that gripped America after September 11 brought the sports world low, too, and weeklong suspensions of play in college and pro football, major-league baseball, stock-car racing and golf served as fitting tributes to the dead. So did the astonishing outburst of patriotism that rang through stadiums when the games resumed. From New York to Los Angeles, "God Bless America" replaced "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at the seventh-inning stretch, and Old Glory unfurled over every gridiron and diamond in the nation. Just as important, our changing, changeless sports events -- trivial though they may be -- helped us regain our national equilibrium in the wake of al-Qa'ida's savagery. After all, the Colorado Rockies still played by time-honored rules, as did young Dale Earnhardt Jr. and old Cal Ripken Jr. -- even the hated Oakland Raiders. And that provided comfort of a sort.
Herewith a review of some notable sports stories from a plague year:
Lord Stanley returns to Denver
Consider the indelible joy and relief on defenseman Ray Bourque's face as he hoisted the Stanley Cup high in the flickering of 20,000 flashbulbs. In Colorado, the longtime Boston Bruin's gritty new team had brought him a championship at last, and Avalanche fans could share in his transplanted rejoicing as the favored New Jersey Devils slipped off the ice in defeat. Amazingly, the Avs had won their second title in five years without one of their bulwarks: After suffering a ruptured spleen in game seven of the Avs' series against the Los Angeles Kings, star center Peter Forsberg was gone for the rest of the year and, as it turned out, decided to bench himself for at least part of 2001-02. With the triumphant Bourque in retirement, Forsberg's return in question and goalie Patrick Roy approaching the end of a record-setting career, is the Avalanche now girding for a slide into mediocrity? Don't tell that to 2001's Most Valuable Player, Joe Sakic, or the hungry young talents GM Pierre LaCroix has brought to the Pepsi Center. At the moment, the Avs stand second in their division.
Earnhardt killed; NASCAR nation grieves
No Hollywood screenwriter would dare pitch a plot so trite. On the last lap of the Daytona 500, stock-car racing's biggest event, its most beloved superstar smashes into the wall and is killed. The race winner, driving a car owned by the dead hero, gets his first taste of glory, heavily tainted. The second-place finisher is the crash victim's son. Still, it happened -- all of it. And more. The death of Dale Earnhardt, 49, winner of seven NASCAR championships, sent shock waves through the nation and dramatized the huge popularity of a sport once perceived as the province of tobacco-chewing rednecks. Amid the grief, hard questions arose about stock-car safety -- seatbelts and head-restraint devices -- and the reluctance of NASCAR officials to publicize their findings. Five months later, Dale Jr. won the Pepsi 400 on the very track where his father was killed, arousing unfounded suspicions of a fix. Meanwhile, the 2001 deaths of internationally known race drivers Bob Wollek and Michele Alboreto, as well as that of ARCA racer Blaise Alexander, went virtually unnoticed. So did the horrific September accident in which CART driver Alex Zanardi lost both of his legs.
Upstarts win World Series, cap sublime baseball year
While the much-tinkered-with and psychologically bruised Colorado Rockies gazed up (again) from last place in the National League West, an even newer team -- the five-year-old Arizona Diamondbacks -- upset the mighty New York Yankees in a thrilling seven-game World Series that ended in November and will be remembered for decades. The irony was that the Damn Yankees, long despised by most fans west of the Hudson, had gained much sympathetic national support following the World Trade Center attacks. Elsewhere in the grand old game, Seattle tied a record for season wins (116) set by the 1906 Chicago Cubs, then lost to New York in the playoffs; San Francisco's Barry Bonds made (largely unpopular) history by breaking Mark McGwire's home-run record with 73 dingers, and one-team, one-city legends Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres and Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles both retired. So did selfless slugger McGwire. The Hall of Fame induction ceremonies five years hence should be something beautiful to behold. Not so the game's ongoing agonies: inflated player payrolls, labor problems, the possible liquidation of two teams.
Comebacks get mixed reviews
After a lot of hemming and hawing and halfhearted denials, the greatest player in NBA history made his much-disputed return to the hardwood after a three-year absence. Michael Jordan's Washington Wizards are a little more respectable of late, thanks to a recent nine-game winning streak, and their 39-year-old mentor, tormentor and employer has had a profound effect on his young charges. Their future may be even brighter once the boss hangs up his Air Jordans for good and repairs to the front office. The other notable comeback belonged to tennis's Jennifer Capriati, who finally put her troubled adolescence behind her with stunning victories in two Grand Slam events, the Australian and French Opens. As for Tiger Woods, undeniably the best golfer on the planet, the supposed swoon he experienced in early 2001 abruptly vanished when he won the Masters in April. Nitpickers argued that Woods hadn't really achieved golf's Grand Slam, but the long-driving phenomenon held all four major titles at once, albeit in two calendar years. Meanwhile, you could call bicyclist Lance Armstrong's third win in the Tour de France a "comeback," if only for the fact that he came back to France to get it. As for the snipers of the French press, who continue to accuse the American cancer survivor of illegal drug use and other imagined malfeasances, you wonder when they'll come back to their senses.