So here we are, another year in the books, and how are things different today than they were on Jan. 1, 2005?
During the previous 12 months, USC won every football game it played, won the Heisman Trophy and is days away from playing the Big 12 champion for the national title.
The Lakers and Phil Jackson made big news that shook up all of Los Angeles, and the NBA.
Paul DePodesta drove Dodger fans nuts.
The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl.
Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France.
The Detroit Pistons reached the NBA Finals.
And in a stunning triumph that reversed a curse of more than 80 years, the Sox actually won the World Series.
So who hit the rewind button instead of play when 2004 gave way to 2005?
Was 2004 so wonderful a sports year, so undeniably and indelibly memorable, that, in a secret-ballot vote, it was decided to just replay it in 2005?
(Or was everybody so bored that no one noticed that the highlight loop on “SportsCenter” was simply one long rerun?) In truth, there were some tweaks.
For one, the Series-winning Sox were White, not Red, this time around. How could you tell? Oh, there were a few minor things. First, the East Coast media didn’t drop into the fetal position at the sight of the White Sox winning it all, even though Chicago’s championship drought (dating to 1917) was longer than Boston’s (1918) and was arguably more implausible (Scott Podsednik? Geoff Blum?).
Also, the White Sox’s amazing ride to the championship -- 11 victories in a dozen postseason games by a team overshadowed in its own hometown by the Cubs -- didn’t even warrant Sports Illustrated’s cover. No, that cover was devoted to previewing an event that happens every year and sometimes twice a year -- a game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots. (Worth noting: New England is on the East Coast. The White Sox are not.)
USC’s latest undefeated season saw the Trojans run the table as usual -- the customary couple of Pacific 10 Conference close calls mixed in with the obligatory harassment/embarrassment of UCLA -- with a minor twist at the end.
A Trojan won the Heisman Trophy in 2005 -- that’s three in four years for USC -- but only this time, Matt Leinart applauded as Reggie Bush accepted the statue. It was the right choice. By season’s end, Bush was drawing comparisons to Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders, and his mind-blowing all-purpose effort against Fresno State was the kind of performance that too few actually witnessed (evening kickoff and regional television froze out much of the East Coast audience), yet millions will one day assure their grandchildren that they were there, glued to the TV, the night Reggie went off for 513 against Fresno.
In something of an upset, the much-and-rightfully maligned bowl championship series got it right by letting the season play itself out, leaving us with two undefeated teams, USC and Texas, in a Rose Bowl matchup that the teams, the fans and the sport deserve.
(Worth noting: If not for a last-play touchdown pass by Michigan against Penn State, 2005 is 2004 all over again, with Penn State playing the role of undefeated-and-left-behind Auburn.)
The NBA season had a dog-eared feel to it, with Detroit making another trip to the Finals, Shaquille O’Neal falling just short again and San Antonio winning the title for the third time in six years. Oh, and the relationship between Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant got overanalyzed to a pulp, same as it ever was.
Only this time, it was Bryant and Jackson agreeing to reunite for the good of the NBA, a Laker franchise that hit the rocks in 2004-05, TNT’s studio crew and Bryant’s national public image, not necessarily in that order. Yes, Jackson came back a year after leaving the Lakers amid smoldering bridges and razed forests, so many tall trees sacrificed for Jackson’s hard-cover trashing of an “uncoachable” superstar who miraculously turned coachable once Jerry Buss waved $10 million under Jackson’s soul patch.
So far, Phil-Kobe II has produced mixed results. The Lakers enter January with a winning record, but they just lost again to O’Neal’s Miami Heat on Christmas Day, rekindling a new holiday tradition, and trail the Clippers in the Pacific Division. Also, Bryant is still shooting a lot, sometimes to the detriment of team play and balanced ball movement, sometimes to the tune of 62 points in three quarters.
The National Hockey League is actually playing hockey this January, which is a switch from last January, when the league was mired in the midst of a 301-day lockout that would wipe out an entire regular season, as well as Bob Goodenow’s tenure as head of the players’ union.
It only took about 300 days of sitting and watching hockey-less American sports fans weather the lockout by latching on to televised poker to persuade the players to accept a deal they could have had 300 days earlier.
Lost in the process was hockey’s long-fading status as a “major” American sport and television coverage bearing ESPN’s stamp of approval. Deciding to cast its lot with televised gambling, ESPN failed to renew its NHL contract, leaving the league to fend for its own elsewhere.
The quintessential indoor sport wound up on the Outdoor Life Network, resulting in hundreds of easy jokes and at least a dozen more TV viewers than the NHL had in 2004-05.
OLN had more success with Lance Does France, the annual two-wheeled reality series starring Armstrong as the arrogant American and ultimate survivor who wins every challenge and greatly annoys Frenchmen from Calais to Marseilles. After capturing a record seventh consecutive Tour de France title, Armstrong tried to ride off gracefully into the sunset, a mission made impossible by the French sports newspaper L’Equipe’s continued concentration on doping rumors.
Doping, it’s the American pastime. Or so it appeared when Major League Baseball was dragged before Congress in March, which saw at least two potential Hall of Fame careers trashed by what Rafael Palmeiro said with finger-poking defiance (“I have never used steroids, period”) and what Mark McGwire didn’t say (“I’m not here to talk about the past”).
Funny, McGwire hadn’t been summoned to Capitol Hill to talk about the going price for his rookie baseball card. McGwire was assailed in the media for looking guilty under pressure, or accepting the poorest legal advice in history, or both.
Yet, he could have done worse, as Palmeiro proved by taking the anti-McGwire route -- deny, deny, deny -- and then testing positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol right around the time he celebrated his 3,000th career hit. Palmeiro was suspended for 10 days, then came back and couldn’t resist pointing the finger again, this time at Baltimore Oriole teammate Miguel Tejada, claiming his positive test was the result of a vitamin shot given to him by Tejada.
This immediately earned Palmeiro acclaim as the Lousiest Teammate of the Year, no small feat in a year that saw:
* Ron Artest crush the Indiana Pacers’ championship hopes with his season-long suspension for pounding on Detroit Piston fans, then get reinstated long enough to demand to be traded.
* Terrell Owens vaporize the Philadelphia Eagles’ season by pounding on the integrity of the Eagle organization and the reputation of Donovan McNabb so relentlessly, the Eagles opted to suspend the All-Pro wide receiver, effectively ending his season after Halloween, rather than gut out another controversy-filled playoff run.
* Milton Bradley accuse Dodger second baseman Jeff Kent of racism and lack of leadership skills in late August, prompting the Dodgers to go TO on Bradley, immediately shutting down the outfielder for the season and shipping him to Oakland in December.
Bradley’s outburst typified a season full of frustration for the Dodgers. After winning over many critics with a playoff visit in 2004, DePodesta had no such cachet in 2005, not with the Dodgers losing 91 games and finishing fourth in an awful National League West -- compounded by the Angels winning the American League West and reaching the league championship series while Bartolo Colon won 21 games and became the franchise’s first Cy Young Award recipient in 41 years.
DePodesta was fired midway through a search he was conducting to replace ousted manager Jim Tracy, now with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Briefly, the Dodgers lacked both a manager and a general manager -- embodying the headless reputation of the Frank McCourt ownership era -- before McCourt brought in Ned Colletti, one-time baseball flack, as general manager and Colletti brought in Grady Little, one-time Red Sox anti-hero, as manager.
More ex-Red Sox would quickly follow: Bill Mueller, Nomar Garciaparra. So would ex-Astro, ex-Indian, ex-Brave, ex-White Sox, ex-Giant, ex-Pirate, ex-Cub, ex-Yankee and ex-Phillie Kenny Lofton. Throw in ex-Brave Rafael Furcal and ex-Giant Brett Tomko and Colletti has either given Dodger fans a reason to buy tickets in 2006 or the Dodgers a reason to print names on the backs of their jerseys again.
Other 2005 news that was not so new included:
* Tiger Woods’ winning his fourth Masters and his second British Open, leaving him with 10 major victories, more than halfway to Jack Nicklaus’ record 18.
* Annika Sorenstam’s winning the first two legs of the women’s golfing Grand Slam and 10 LPGA tournaments in 12 months, making her the first person since Babe Zaharias to be named the Associated Press female athlete of the year for three consecutive years.
* Roger Federer’s winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, giving him five majors in two years and a real shot at one day eclipsing Pete Sampras’ record of 14 major championships.
* Tony Stewart’s winning five races to record 25 top-10 finishes and earn his second NASCAR season championship.
* Peyton Manning’s chasing another record, this time the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ perfect season of 17-0. Manning got the Indianapolis Colts as far as 13-0, clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the Colts, who were emotionally flat and vulnerable for upset in their 14th game. Sure enough, Indianapolis lost that one to San Diego, 26-17.
There were a few breakthroughs as well.
Roy Williams, formerly known as the Greatest College Basketball Coach Who Can’t Win the Big One, finally found a way out of that albatross necktie. His solution: Jump back to his alma mater, take over a talent-glutted roster and watch North Carolina hold off Illinois in a thrilling NCAA tournament final, 75-70.
Kim Clijsters, formerly known as the Greatest Active Tennis Player Who Can’t Win the Big One, finally found a Grand Slam to her liking, sweeping past Mary Pierce to claim the U.S. Open championship in straight sets.
Danica Patrick became the first woman to place in the top five at the Indianapolis 500, leading the race until running short of fuel and eventually finishing fourth.
And then there were the White Sox, the first Chicago team to win the World Series in 88 years. Good enough to send half the Windy City into spasms of delirium, not good enough for the cover of Sports Illustrated -- what’s a White Sox player to do?
If 2005 provided any clues, here’s a quick suggestion: Do it again.