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Oh, what a year it was

The most amazing thing I saw in this most amazing sports year was not especially important or historic or even decisive. No one won a medal at the end of it, no trophy, no championship, no world record. There were no playbooks involved, no chalkboards, no swimsuits, no balls, no bats, no clubs, no rackets. The man who performed the miracle was only doing what every child does, and at the end of it he seemed utterly unimpressed with himself. He would become world famous, but that was later.

Even now, at the end of the year, those few seconds overwhelm everything for me, which is odd because the moment was so utterly simple and direct -- and this was a year of the overwhelming. How many "Greatests" did we have in one year? Greatest comeback. Greatest match. Greatest play. Greatest performance. Greatest achievement. It's always tempting to overstate the immediate and lose the perspective of history when you're still keyed up from something remarkable and present.

Still, this was an impossibly great year, right? I was 20 feet away from Kansas' Mario Chalmers when he launched a three-point shot -- Mario's Miracle -- that climaxed the greatest comeback in the history of the NCAA championship basketball game. Kansas had trailed Memphis by nine points with two minutes left, and those two minutes were a wild torrent of missed free throws, great plays, bad decisions, a million emotions ("I thought we were national champs," Memphis coach John Calipari would say), and all the while Kansas coach Bill Self jumped around on the sideline and screamed, like he was in a movie, "You got to believe!" You could hear the music from Hoosiers.

There was Tiger Woods on the 18th green at the U.S. Open standing over a 12-foot putt he had to roll in over a chewed up green in order to force a playoff. "I knew he would make it," said Rocco Mediate, his challenger, his Alydar, but then we all knew that he would make it. Yes, we knew Tiger was in pain -- he had been wincing in agony all weekend and crumpling to one knee after taking his big swing and chewing pain killers to take the edge off. But we did not really know; it was two days after he won the Open that Tiger admitted he was playing with a torn ligament in his left knee and a stress fracture in his left tibia. Only then would we appreciate that what he did -- winning a U.S. Open on one leg -- is impossible, the greatest thing of its kind. He made the putt because he's Tiger Woods, and there's never been anyone quite like him.

We saw the single greatest play in Super Bowl history this year. The game was already laced with that greatest tag -- it was supposed to be a coronation for the undefeated New England Patriots, the presumptive greatest team ever. Only the New York Giants, playing with a ferocity no one quite expected, kept the game close. The Giants were down four with roughly a minute left.

Then, Giants quarterback Eli Manning stepped up to avoid Adalius Thomas' right hand, tore away from Richard Seymour's right arm, ducked while taking a hit to the head from Jarvis Green, ran away into open space and winged the football downfield while Mike Vrabel closed in.

On the other end, Giants receiver David Tyree leaped up to the catch the ball while Rodney Harrison, a certain Hall of Famer, jumped up with him and banged at the football with his right hand. As Tyree fell to the ground, Harrison pulled him and shook him, and Tyree's left hand slipped off the ball. He kept the football in his possession by jamming it against his helmet with his right hand. It was, as NFL Films leading light Steve Sabol said, TWO miracles, good for 32 yards. Three plays later -- and people forget this -- Manning completed a 12-yard pass on third and 11. And on the next play, the Giants scored the touchdown that beat the unbeatable team.

This year we saw the greatest tennis match ever played, five sets of beautiful tension in the final at Wimbledon. Roger Federer was supposed to be unbeatable on grass -- he had not lost a grass match in six years and had not lost a single set at Wimbledon this year before the final. His nemesis Rafael Nadal dominated him for two sets, and everyone felt shock because Federer looked to be in a fog.

Then rain fell. When the players returned, Federer looked reborn. Nadal was supposed to be unyielding, this inescapable force of nature, a bundle of will, but Federer stared back, hit an ace with match point against him, hit brilliant backhand winner with match point against him again and won the next two sets to tie the match.

That led to more rain and, finally, to the unforgettable fifth set as darkness closed. The tennis was beautiful -- on grass the first great shot is supposed to be decisive, a winner. But some points Federer and Nadal would hit three, four, even five great shots that would have put away any other player in the world. The match went on. It ended in exhaustion, when Federer buried a forehand into the net, and Nadal tumbled to the grass and stared up at the sky, his body in position to make snow angels in the Wimbledon grass.

This was the year of Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian, who did not just win eight gold medals but won them theatrically, with style, like he wanted to give the world something to believe in. He (and his relay partners) broke Olympic records in all eight of his races, and world records in seven of them. In one of those relays, the 4x100 freestyle, his anchorman Jason Lezak clinched gold by chasing down the world record holder in the final 50 meters.

We spent much of this year learning about Phelps -- he is 6-foot-4, he has a 79-inch wingspan, he was raised in Baltimore by a single mother, Debbie, a school principal who could be seen on television cheering from the stands. He was coached by a force of nature, Bob Bowman, whose workouts seemed inhuman, but then the goals were inhuman too. It was said that Phelps consumed 12,000 calories a day though later he would call that ridiculous and insist that he did not gulp down more than 10,000. Phelps said one of his great strengths was the ability to sleep all day.

We knew about him, but we did not know what he was about, not until (are we going to use that word again?) the greatest race in Olympic swimming history, the 100-meter butterfly, when he swam against Croatia's Milorad Cavic. There was tension between the two men; Cavic had come to bury Michael Phelps and end this eight-gold medal dream. In his mind, Phelps was not the hero of the story. "With all due respect to Michael," he would say later, "he's got a monopoly on the sport ... the last time I checked this isn't a good thing for anyone except that person."

Cavic got the early lead -- nobody swims that first 50 meters faster. Phelps closed hard -- nobody swims that second 50 meters faster. They came to the wall together. Phelps went high, taking one final stroke. Cavic went low, stretching for the wall under the water. Phelps won by one-hundredth of a second.

"I wish we could have shared that gold," Cavic would say after the race, but he still slept with his silver medal, a symbol of how close he came to immortality.

Yes, there was so much this year -- there was the miracle of Tampa Bay, where the Rays went from the worst team in baseball to the World Series thanks to a bunch of young pitchers who did not know any better, a rookie third baseman with a name comically close to the actress from Desperate Housewives, a longtime minor league manager with thick frames and a love for Springsteen and a much-slandered domed stadium where the Rays won relentlessly. Those Rays lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, who won only their second championship in 125 years.

And none of this yet mentions the Boston Celtics and their singular star, Paul Pierce, who emerged from an aloof reputation and played like Bird or Magic or even Michael in the playoffs when it mattered. None of this mentions the day Jon Lester pitched his no-hitter at Fenway Park barely 18 months after undergoing chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma. None of this mentions Redeem Team, the U.S. Olympic basketball team, which not only won a gold medal -- that was the easy part -- but won back a little bit of America's basketball dignity. None of this mentions Jimmie Johnson, the driver with the plain name, who won his third consecutive NASCAR championship, the first since a tough old coot named Cale Yarborough did it 30 years before.

None of this mentions Josh Hamilton, a left-handed slugger who had emerged from the abyss. He was a lost soul, of course -- failed drug tests, tattoo parlors, a baseball suspension, a dead end life. He reemerged in 2007 after two years out of baseball, and he played well, and it was a sweet story. He came back in 2008 and was a star.

Then, at Yankee Stadium, three months before the mausoleum would close down, he turned a silly All-Star sideshow called the Home Run Derby into an epic poem. He had a man named Clay Council throw to him; Council had thrown him batting practice when he was a child. And with those Council pitches, Hamilton hit 28 home runs in a single round, a record, if you care about such thing. But more than the numbers was the emotion; he hit shot after shot after shot to those places reached by Ruth and Mantle and Reggie. "A dream," he said.

Yeah. It was one heck of a year.

So ... how then can I choose a preliminary 100-meter dash race in Beijing as the moment that sticks with me? I don't have an answer for that except to say that emotions are not easy to figure, and memories do not always shine brightest for the big moment. I had never watched Usain Bolt run before. I knew a bit about him, of course -- he was a tall, lanky runner from Jamaica, and his coaches thought his long strides made him better suited for the longer sprints (200 and 400 meters). But he wanted to run the 100, the big stage. As it turns out, he was born for it. He broke the world record in May, less than a year after his first official 100-meter event.

Still, I was not ready -- could not be ready -- for what I would see. This was still a full day before the final; Bolt still had one one more qualifying race after this one. So the point here was only to get to the lead, cruise to the finish and advance to the next round. Bolt took the point very seriously. The gun sounded, and Bolt took off. He only exerted himself for two or three seconds, but those seconds were unlike anything I had ever seen -- he burst out of the scene, like he was in 3-D. It was like he had gone to light speed. And just like that, he shut it down. With 40 meters left in the race, Bolt slowed to a jog. It was like a parachute had ejected from his back. He was practically running backward when he hit the finish line.

He still won the race, of course. More, he finished with a time of 9.92. How fast is 9.92? It would have won him a gold medal in 1992 and just about every Olympics before that. It would have won him the silver medal in 2000. It would have, in fact, made him a contender for the bronze medal the next day. He had just run a remarkably fast time -- and he had not even tried.

I have never seen anything like it. There's something bewitching about the 100-meter dash because it's so childlike. Race you to the third telephone pole. That's all. There are no fancy lights, no teammates to set picks, no lucky bounces. Usain Bolt on that night showed us a gear that no other man has ever had. And, just as quickly, he pulled back. Could he have broken the world record with a little more effort? No doubt. Could he have run a time that would have left the world gasping? Almost certainly. But instead he jogged off the stage, content with the gasps he left behind, a carnival barker -- "Come back tomorrow, folks, I'll really give you a show."

And that's my moment. Yes, the next day he famously prepared for the final by eating Chicken McNuggets and he set the world record, though one his shoes wasn't tied and he cruised to the finish again. Yes, he would then break Michael Johnson's 200-meter record, and there were many who thought that record would not be broken for decades. Yes, he was one of the stars of the year.

But I'll remember him and this year for that first race I saw, the one where he left everyone wondering what was possible.

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GALLERY:Breakout stars of 2008

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