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10 BEST

1. One for the Cowboy

Gene Autry didn’t live long enough to see it, but finally, after 42 years of wandering aimlessly in the desert, his Angels won it all. He would have been thrilled by Manager Mike Scioscia’s attention to fundamentals, the team’s refusal to quit, the red sea that engulfed Edison Field in October and the fans’ slow but sure mastery of inflatable plastic “noise sticks.” He probably would’ve had enough of the Rally Monkey, though.

2. Soccer Nation

The United States in the final four of the World Cup -- the men’s World Cup -- in our lifetime? It almost happened. It should have happened, with the Americans outplaying Germany in the quarterfinals and putting such a scare into the perennial soccer power that several German players fell to their knees to give thanks after barely holding on for a 1-0 victory. Inspired, the Galaxy also went where it had never gone before -- winning its first MLS Cup in four tries.

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3. Old Men at the Open

Pete Sampras was done, washed up, over the hill, without a tennis tournament championship in two years and headed for ESPN Classic when the U.S. Open began. Six rounds later, Sampras was still there, hanging around long enough to watch old rival Andre Agassi do him the courtesy of dispatching dangerous Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals. Then, in a final for the ages, the aged waged four sets of memorable tennis before Sampras, incredibly, stood holding his 14th Grand Slam trophy.

4. The Carson Show

Not much was expected of Carson Palmer and USC when the 2002 college football season began. Nothing much changed when the Trojans lost to Kansas State and Washington State. But Palmer ran one great half-season -- a sensational six-pack of games -- into some windfall: a 6-0 finish, blowout victories over UCLA and Notre Dame, USC’s first Heisman Trophy in 21 years and the probable No. 1 pick in the 2003 NFL draft.

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5. Red, White and a Shoe

Nine months before the Angels, there were the snow angels, scraped into the white-covered Foxboro Stadium turf after New England kicker Adam Vinatieri had delivered the field goal to send the Patriots’ playoff game with Oakland into overtime, followed by the eventual winner. Two weeks later, Vinatieri converted a 48-yard field goal as time expired to give the 14-point underdog Patriots a 20-17 Super Bowl victory over St. Louis.

6. Tour de Lance 4.0

That’s some journey Lance Armstrong has traveled in winning four consecutive Tour de France championships -- from miracle cancer survivor in 1999 to proving it wasn’t a fluke in 2000 to plowing through what’s-he-on? scrutiny in 2001 to winning over the skeptical French in 2002. Next up: Miguel Indurain’s record of five consecutive Tour titles.

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7. L.A. Hoops (through Aug.)

Los Angeles swept the men’s and women’s pro basketball championships for the second consecutive year, although the Lakers had to struggle through Kobe Bryant’s food-poisoning and Sacramento’s considerable home-court advantage to get to the finals, where they swept just-glad-to-be-there New Jersey. Two months later, the Sparks repeated as WNBA champions, capping an eight-month run in which UCLA upset Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament.

8. Serena X 3

French Open: Serena Williams over sister Venus in the final. Wimbledon: Serena over Venus in the final. U.S. Open: Serena over Venus in the final. Get used to it, because that is the future of women’s tennis, for as long as Venus stays interested and Serena buys new cat suits she wants to trot out on her personal catwalks in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York.

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9. Two at the Top

Tiger Woods or Annika Sorenstam -- who had the better year? Woods won the Masters and the U.S. Open, taking talk of a calendar-year Grand Slam to the British Open, where all went well until the deluge and his third-round 81. The next month at the PGA Championship, Woods finished second, one stroke behind Rich Beem. Sorenstam won 11 LPGA titles, among them the Kraft Nabisco Championship, leaving her within two of Mickey Wright’s 1963 record.

10. Baseball Saves Itself

Bucking odds and track records, and for once placing the game ahead of their egos, Commissioner Bud Selig and players’ union head Donald Fehr hammered out an 11th-hour deal that spared baseball its ninth work stoppage and kept the season going long enough for the Angels and the Giants to salvage it with one of the sport’s most memorable endings.

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-- Mike Penner


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