Local teams made a big splash in the playoffs, the Olympics came and went and 2008 left us with plenty of great memories. With no further adieu, here are the Top 10 stories in the sports world that affected us nationally and locally.
1. Kobe winning MVP - To understand why this is the No. 1 story of the year, you have to go back to 2003. Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault and his bright star seemed to fade as endorsements fell by the wayside and feuds with teammates reached their boiling point. He was still a player known for being selfish and it was no surprise that after the 03-04 season, several teammates bolted the Lakers and due to his legal situation, he lost his chance to play for an Olympic gold medal.
Flash forward to 2008. Kobe Bryant is once again the most popular player in the league. A player who can pitch products (remember that YouTube clip of him jumping over the Aston Martin?) and one has matured into a better teammate. No longer the guy who kept to himself, he learned to put the team first and winning the Most Valuable Player award wasn't just for him as the best player, but almost a validation of him reclaiming his place among the game's elite on and off the court. Oh yeah, he got that gold medal too last summer.
2. Giants stop Patriots undefeated season - It was supposed to be a coronation, the first undefeated season in NFL history courtesy of the New England Patriots at Super Bowl XLII. Too bad the New York Giants – who narrowly lost to them in Week 17 – had other plans.
Those in Arizona who saw it live and the millions who made this the second-most watched event ever saw a miracle 35-yard grab by David Tyree led to a game-winning touchdown for Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left and the Giants – featuring former Taft HS and USC receiver Steve Smith – had their third Super Bowl crown while the Patriots finished with the most wins in a regular season (18) and one stinging loss short of perfection.
3. Black Olympic Stars - The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing may be remembered for Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals but there were several other impressive feats worth remembering.
Usain Bolt of Jamaica winning three track-and-field gold medals in world-record time, the Redeem Team capturing the gold medal in men's basketball and making playing for the U.S. cool again, fencer Keeth Smart leading the U.S. fencing team to an improbable silver medal, Cullen Jones becoming the first Black swimmer to win a gold medal as part of the 400m freestyle relay team, Allyson Felix and Dawn Harper winning track-and-field gold medals…the list goes on
4. Lakers Return to NBA Finals - Despite finishing as the No. 1 seed in the West, few expected the Lakers to go 12-3 during the Western Conference Playoffs. But such was reality for the team that acquired Pau Gasol midseason and reclaimed the hearts of a city like they had during their three-peat earlier this decade. For the first time since 2004, they were playing for an NBA title…until Boston came through and showed who the better (and more physical) team was.
5. USC starts/ends year in Rose Bowl – 2008 started with USC racking a Rose Bowl-record 633 yards of offense in their 49-17 victory over Illinois. It ended with them getting ready to face No. 6 Penn State in the '09 Rose Bowl, their fourth consecutive appearance in Pasadena. In between that, the 12-1 Trojans dominated another season and after a surprising loss to Oregon State, they showed a hunger that took their play to another level.
6. Dodgers win first Playoff Series in 20 Years – The young and talented Dodgers were on the verge of another disappointing season before a July miracle brought them Manny Ramirez. Next thing you know, the Boys in Blue turned L.A. back to Dodgertown and won their first playoff series since the 1988 World Series by sweeping the Chicago Cubs They would lose in the NLCS to the eventual world champion Philadelphia Phillies in five games but with a majority of returning players under 27, expect this young core to do more in '09.
7. UCLA Final Four run comes short again - The Bruins basketball team made history with their third consecutive trip to Final Four without winning a title, something Michigan State (1999-2001) and Kentucky (1996-98) did at least once. Their 78-63 loss to Memphis might have shut the window on a potential title run but armed with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class – including the talented Jrue Holiday – seniors Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya are hoping to reach college basketball's final weekend once again.
8. Williams sisters return to prominence – The year began with murmurs of Venus and Serena Williams being over the hill despite being ranked in the Top 10 of the WTA Tour rankings. Well, Venus won her fifth Wimbledon title by defeating Serena, the sisters won the Wimbledon doubles title – their first Grand Slam doubles title since 2003 – and their second Olympic doubles title. To top it off, Serena won the U.S. Open and returned to the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 2002. She ended the year No. 2 and Venus at No. 6 – their highest year-end rankings in six years. Washed up? We think not.
9. Black-out in College Football – At the end of the 2008 regular season, there were only three (Turner Gill – Buffalo, Randy Shannon – Miami, Kevin Sumlin – Houston) at the 119 schools in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision and one (Shannon) at a BCS-eligible school. Two more were added in December (Mike Locksley – New Mexico, Ron English – Eastern Michigan) but with African-Americans composing more than half of all college football teams, the ratio of Black head coaches to players is not just alarming, it's shameful.
10. Candace Parker Arrives in L.A. - Just to recap what she did in 2008, Parker won her second consecutive NCAA title at Tennessee, got selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the Sparks, nearly had a triple-double in her debut (34 pts., 12 rebs., eight assists), won an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. Women's Basketball team and became the first WNBA Player to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. Oh yeah, she also did a little thing called dunking twice this year. Los Angeles, meet the new face of women's basketball.