The Ten Biggest Sports Stories of 2020

Jamal Murray emerged as a star during the Denver Nuggets' 2020 playoff run.
Jamal Murray emerged as a star during the Denver Nuggets' 2020 playoff run. NBA via YouTube
Early on, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed likely to result in the shortest sports season in Colorado history — under three months, from January 1, 2020, to the stretch in March when one event after another was canceled. In the end, though, plenty of athletic contests eventually happened, albeit in fits and starts, and always under a viral cloud, and sports created big news in other ways, too.

Here are the ten biggest sports stories in Colorado in 2020:

Denver Nuggets Reach the NBA Western Conference Finals

The March 11 game between the Nuggets and the Dallas Mavericks was the last to be completed before the NBA season was postponed, and it took until July 30 for the league, players and owners to come up with a workable plan for a restart — a shortened slate of regular-season competitions leading to a fairly standard playoffs structure, but staged without in-person fans in a bubble created on a Disney campus in Orlando, Florida. So much could have gone wrong with this setup, but it actually worked marvelously, particularly for the Nuggets, who shocked the championship favorite Los Angeles Clippers before falling to LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers, who went on to win the entire tournament. With the 2020-2021 campaign already under way, the Nugs' future is looking bright.

Colorado Avalanche Makes a Playoff Run

Not to be outdone by the NBA, the National Hockey League doubled its pleasure by creating not one, but two bubbles, both in Canada, in order to hold the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs in the most health-conscious way possible — and it worked. There was no major spread of the disease among the players, giving the Avs a chance to make good on their abundant promise — and they started out strong, dispatching the Phoenix Coyotes in a 4-1 series crusher. As a result, Colorado advanced to a second round match-up with the Dallas Stars that was epic if heartbreaking, since the Avalanche lost game seven in overtime. But like the Nuggets, the Avs are well-positioned to go even further the next time around.

Von Miller Misses an Entire Season

The news wasn't nearly as upbeat for the Denver Broncos. Despite the pandemic, many fans were optimistic about the squad's chances in 2020, given the strong performance by young quarterback Drew Lock at the end of the previous season and a slew of offensive weapons, including wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, obtained in the NFL draft. But in September, during a non-contact drill in preparation for the opening game against the Tennessee Titans, Von Miller dislocated a tendon in his ankle, putting him on the bench for the long haul. It was a (bad) sign of things to come.

COVID-19 Outbreaks Hit Colorado Teams at Every Level

No squad was safe from the novel coronavirus, which disrupted so many campaigns that even the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had trouble keeping track of all the outbreaks. Among the amateur outfits that made the CDPHE's infectious list were the Larimer County Puckhogs, the Lady RoughRiders of the Boulder Hockey Club, and the USA Women's Rugby unit. Colleges were hit, too, with the University of Denver gymnastics team and the University of Northern Colorado's volleyballers, among many others, designated as outbreaks. As for the pros, the Colorado Rockies and the Colorado Rapids were both listed as outbreaks (the latter twice), as were the Broncos — who soon suffered another infection-related debacle.

The Broncos Play a Game Without a Quarterback — Sort Of

The NFL determined that Drew Lock and the other QBs on the roster had violated COVID-19 protocols in the hours before the Broncos were slated to face off against the New Orleans Saints on November 29 — and ruled all of them ineligible. As a result, the signal caller who started for Denver was Kendall Hinton, who'd played some quarterback at the college level for Wake Forest before being converted to receiver and landing a spot on Denver's practice squad. With no time for Hinton to practice or the coaching staff to scheme up any plays, the game was an unmitigated disaster that vividly demonstrated how little respect the NFL currently has for the once mighty Broncos.

COVID-19 Wreaks Havoc on College Sports Schedules

In August, both the Pac-12, the conference that includes the University of Colorado Boulder, and the Mountain West, Colorado State University's governing organization, postponed fall sports in the interest of safety, with the idea of playing games in early 2021. But just over a month later, after watching conferences such as the SEC move ahead in order to qualify for giant piles of broadcasting money, each decided that players weren't that endangered after all and reversed course.

The CU Buffs Surprise

In the shortened season that eventually got under way, the CU Buffaloes posted four straight wins under new coach Karl Dorrell, the replacement for Mel Tucker, who bailed on the university after being wooed by Michigan State. And Dorrell didn't let this opportunity go to waste. In game five, the Buffs came up short to Utah, but despite this disappointment, they far exceeded expectations in a way that hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as it might have in a more ordinary year.

On-Again, Off-Again High School Sports

For a time, it looked like high school athletes would be sitting out until 2021. But in the face of student-led protests and plenty of criticism from parents, the Colorado High School Activities Association caved to pressure in September and gave its blessing to fall sports. Crowd sizes were much reduced, but senior footballers who seemed at risk of losing their final chance at gridiron glory were able to hit the field after all. Now, however, CHSAA has put spring 2021 sports on hold because of rising COVID-19 numbers.

The Nolan Arenado Trade Rumors

The Colorado Rockies might have been better off sitting out 2020. Major League Baseball eschewed bubbling, and as a result, a lot of games were canceled, but not enough to prevent the Rockies from finishing fourth in the National League West, a distant seventeen games behind leader (and subsequent World Series winner) the Los Angeles Dodgers. To add insult to injury, the Dodgers are said to be trying to find a way to wrest away third baseman Nolan Arenado, far and away Colorado's best player — and there's a very good chance they'll succeed before they take the diamond again in 2021.

Sports Betting Begins in Colorado

In November 2019, Proposition DD, which called for sports betting to be legalized in Colorado, passed easily at the ballot box, and such wagering became legal on May 1. While sports betting got off to a slow start in casinos during the pandemic, smart-phone apps also allowed wagers, and betting boomed as sports returned to the schedule. With a COVID-19 vaccine in the very early stages of distribution, the smart money is gambling on many more opportunities to wager in the years to come.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts