Sports story lines are interesting things. At the outset of every season and every year, there are a handful of topics that capture the imagination and furor of the fandom so completely that they tend to dominate the national discourse with such force that they often drown out almost everything else happening within the sport.
If you’re an American football fan, you know that last year, the name of that game was now-unemployed quarterback Tim Tebow. For basketball fans, it could be the Dwightmare, the never-ending saga of Dwight Howard’s free agency. For baseball fans and cycling enthusiasts, you’ve undoubtedly read more than you ever wanted to about performance-enhancing drugs over the past 12 months.
At the start of 2014, with the lull between National Football League playoffs, the grind of the National Basketball Association season, and the short absence of the long stroll that is a full Major League Baseball season, we take a look back at the top sports stories that defined the recently concluded year. Click through to see the list.
Note: Lance Armstrong is not included, because it is this writer’s opinion that the cyclist needs no more publicity than he has already received. For an overview of his behavior, check out the 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie (IMDB page here).
4. The Spurs-Heat 2013 NBA Finals
It was, to some degree, an inevitable setup. The San Antonio Spurs represented a small-market team that had built a solid contender through the draft, a group of players highlighted by Tim Duncan — the first-overall pick who had stuck with the team his entire tenure, building a bulletproof Hall of Fame career with the same coach, largely the same teammates, and a “we-before-me” attitude that left him under-appreciated by casual fans but beloved by many diehards. On the other hand, there was LeBron James and the Miami Heat. James had made waves for abandoning his hometown team to create a “Big Three” with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach. It was too good to be scripted, and the series became one of the most thrilling contests in recent history.
From Tony Parker’s last-second shot (pictured above) to heroics from all the players involved in that last paragraph, the 2013 NBA Finals were winding down to the wire when, with 35 seconds left and a 5-point lead, the San Antonio Spurs blew Game 6. After missed free throws from an exhausted Manu Ginobili and a stressed-out Kawhi Leonard, the ball was in James’ hands as the shot clock wound down. James, who is not known for his outside shot, fired off a 3-pointer that missed. Badly. So badly that after almost being an air ball, the orange cylinder ended up in the hands of Chris Bosh, who was on the other side of the basket. Bosh looked up, saw an almost-open Ray Allen in the corner, and flipped it to him for a three.
Allen, it should be noted, is the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made. He’s pretty good at those. The shot went up, the universe slowed, and the ball cruised through the net. The Heat forced a Game 7 in Miami, which they went on to win. That Game 7 featured the most mythical of basketball beasts: a missed Tim Duncan layup. A wide-open layup. The exact shot that made him so boring to the casual fan. Duncan missed the exact shot that he has made a career out of consistently hitting, and he did on the biggest stage in the NBA. It was obvious that he knew it, too. And since the Spurs hadn’t reached the Finals since 2007, Duncan knew that he might have squandered his last NBA championship appearance on a missed layup. It was heartbreaking and classic in the best way sports can be.
3. Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos try for all of the records
You could be forgiven for thinking that Peyton Manning’s comeback last year was a bit of an empty gesture: A symbolic maneuver showing that a guy who — from everything we can gather about him, is a football obsessive — could have one more shot on the big stage after a pile-on of four(!) possibly career-ending neck surgeries involving fused vertebra and an uncharacteristically weak throwing arm upon his return. The Denver Broncos needed to get out from under the Tim Tebow rock, Manning had just been waived by the Indianapolis Colts, and it seemed to be a nice way for Peyton to ride into the sunset and the Hall of Fame.
You could be forgiven for thinking that, but no one would have taken you seriously if you had correctly predicted his 2013 campaign. To recap briefly: He helmed the highest scoring single-season offense in NFL history (a record 606 points while scoring a record 76 touchdowns, 55 of them through the air for a third record), helped the Broncos convert the most passing first downs in league history, set the record for passing yards, set the record for most four-touchdown passing games, two-touchdown passing games, and tied Dan Marino with four 400-yard-plus passing games. That was not riding off into the sunset — that was setting the world on fire and salting the earth afterwards.
Once Manning broke the passing yards record, beating Drew Brees’ old record by one yard, he was typically “aw, shucks” about it, saying that while it was nice to occupy a unique place in football history, he was more excited about getting the win. Of course he was. He’s Peyton Manning, the T-1000 of the modern-day NFL.
2. The NFL’s concussion crisis
Manning’s story paled in comparison to the largest elephant in the NFL’s room, though. In August, the league settled a lawsuit with NFL players over concussions, the link between football and brain damage, and the notion that player safety was secondary to profits in the minds of league executives. The players were in the right, of course, and while the settlement sounds like a large number — $765 million dollars — it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the money the NFL brings in annually, as the league stands as a lone juggernaut in the sheer scope and size of the game’s popularity and pocketbook.
What the lawsuit did do, aside from provide an uneasy fan base with a slightly smoother transition from concern to enjoyment once the games started up again, was draw attention to the violence that makes football so dangerous and so much fun to watch. CBS reported that a Virginia Tech study found that the amount of head trauma participating players gave and received during games regularly measured similarly to car crashes. That’s not a surprise to any fan of the game, but it is a little sobering to think of it that way. As a result, the league began to fine players for going high or aiming at a player’s head.
That worked about as well as can be expected, since the result was that players went low — after the knees — and many players ended up with career-damaging knee injuries as a result. Perhaps the most awful instance happened during a New England Patriots-Cleveland Browns game in Week 14, when Browns safety TJ Ward, in an admitted attempt to tackle Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski safely, ended up tearing Gronk’s ACL and still gave him a concussion.
With pressure on the NFL to make the game more safe coming from concerned parents and lower-level sports leagues that serve as the prep ground for the stars of tomorrow (think high schools in Texas), not to mention the increasing possibility that a link between football and brain-altering trauma is undeniable and the sport becomes too expensive to insure for all but the most diehard of feeder systems (again, high schools in Texas), this would have been the biggest sports story in any other year.
1. The Boston Marathon bombings, David Ortiz, and the Red Sox winning the World Series
The NFL’s concussion crisis is an ongoing drama that will play out for years to come. For residents of the city of Boston, the healing power of a sports community served a much more poignant and immediate purpose. On April 15, a pair of homemade explosives designed by two brothers exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds more. Over the next two days, a manhunt through Boston — centered around Cambridge, Somerville, and Watertown — uncovered one of the accused bombers, who was arrested and is now awaiting trial.
For members of the Boston community, the bombing was so offensive to so many because beyond the destruction, the marathon occupies a special place in the local sports universe. It happens on a local holiday, Patriot’s Day, and is the oldest marathon in the country, with the first event run in 1897.
It is as important to the city as the Celtics, the Bruins, the Patriots, or even the Red Sox, first among equals in terms of unconditional citywide sports support. So on April 20, five days after the bombing, when the Sox held a commemorative pre-game ceremony and David Ortiz unleashed the first Federal Communications Commission-backed F-bomb in broadcast history, the moment galvanized and encapsulated much more than a stadium full of folks and however many more were tuning in over the radio or via television. It was a true testament to the way that more people should think about sports. With one sentence, Big Papi communicated more on that premise than many others have made with entire books, studies, or sociological musings.
So when the Red Sox triumphed over the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2013 World Series and invited survivors of the bombings to march in the parade with them, only a scant six months after the event, it felt like the kind of ending that only happens in stories. It was more important than a game, a race, or anything else that will be repeated with new players and different outcomes next season.