Avs Lead the Parade

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.

Wayward laptop screws Buffs

(and Ducks)

Something called the Bowl Championship Series, a computerized ranking system designed to determine the national champion of major college football in the absence of playoffs, has had its detractors over the past five years, but the hue and cry grew louder last month. After (10-2) Colorado pounded Nebraska 62-36 on the day after Thanksgiving, then edged Texas 38-36 to win the Big 12 Championship (and Louisiana State upset second-ranked Tennessee), it seemed meet and just that the BCS computer might send the Golden Buffs to the Rose Bowl to play number-one Miami for the national title. Pac 10 winner Oregon had an equally legitimate claim. Alas, those scrambled circuits anointed Nebraska instead, which provoked much gnashing of teeth and befouling of the English language in Boulder and Eugene. Look for major renovations next year to the BCS schematics -- maybe even abolition. Football's follies did not end there: The XFL, an illegitimate child of the World Wrestling Federation and NBC Sports, mercifully folded after one season of cheap theatrics; the Denver Broncos, beset again by a plague of key injuries, slipped into oblivion; and in tiny Loveland, Colorado, the local high school team was barred from league playoffs after players slicked their uniforms with cooking spray in the hopes of warding off would-be tacklers.

The Horse's mouth

For more than two decades, Dan Issel had been a bulwark of the lowly Denver Nuggets. Beloved in a town where pro basketball is an afterthought, the former Kentucky star scored nearly 17,000 of his 27,482 career points as a Nugget and served two stints as head coach. But the Horse's famous temper got the best of him on December 11 when he answered a loudmouthed fan's post-game taunt with a racial epithet. To wit: "Have another beer, you Mexican piece of shit." The team fined Issel and suspended him for four games. For his part, he was contrite about the incident, and even Hispanic groups seemed to accept his apology. But the pressure was too much, and on the day after Christmas, Issel resigned. How he will be remembered is now very much in question.

The old guard tastes triumph

Let us close on a happier note. Imagine the delight of Evelyn Tucci, an 82-year-old golfer from Pompano Beach, Florida, when she played a four-wood from the tee of the 112-yard second hole of her local course and the ball bounced onto the green, then trickled into the cup. "I prayed that before I died, I'd get a hole in one," Mrs. Tucci exulted. Imagine her surprise when, on the 157-yard fifth hole, she took her driver from her bag and promptly carded her second ace of the afternoon -- and of her life. Did we mention that this happened on Valentine's Day? A month or so later, bowler Berry Thomas of Nashville, Tennessee, rolled a 300 game at Pla-More Lanes, his local haunt. "I wasn't at all nervous," he said. "I just got up there on the twelfth ball and did it." Twelve days later, Mr. Thomas did something else: celebrated his 88th birthday.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo