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Back in the Game Troubled times have put sports into proper perspective, but what better place to find inspiration for the comeback we all need?

Dec. 24, 2001
Dec. 24, 2001

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Dec. 24, 2001

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Back in the Game Troubled times have put sports into proper perspective, but what better place to find inspiration for the comeback we all need?

This year's theme? Regrouping, man. Second effort. You know, never
give up. What good is sports if it can't be reduced to a nifty
postgame wrap-up? These guys will not quit, is what we're saying.
So we boil it down for you, the entire year. (This is your
postyear wrap-up.) Never say die is the gist of it. And as we've
always insisted, just because it's a cliche doesn't mean it's not
true. Thank God for that.

This is an article from the Dec. 24, 2001 issue Original Layout

If you were paying any attention in the past year, you're already
on board with our big idea: Lotta comebacks, people dusting off
the seats of their pants (or their Hanes) and stepping back into
the box. Speaking of which, let's talk about America. How 'bout
that plucky little country! It gets the bejesus bombed out of it
and, even as the dust is still billowing down Wall Street, finds
a way to locate heroism in its defeat (and quickly organize a
rematch, which it's winning huge at press time). So much devotion
to duty, so much resolve, so much charity. Who knew that
Americans, softened by cable TV and riding mowers, had it in
them.

We hate even to mention Sept. 11, to trivialize a nation's
trauma here, except that right up till then this country had a
way of confusing sports with real life. Sports always seemed so
much bigger. Its bowls were Super, its leagues Major, its slams
all Grand. Our lives, Tiny. Then, suddenly, sports was so
reduced in scale that it actually vanished for a week or so,
reappearing only in the service of extended metaphor (the
comeback thing). Plus, as you might have noticed, sports has
been forced out of the hero business. It can't compete with the
notion of men lugging hoses up 50 flights of stairs (we play
hurt, but...) or plane passengers battling terrorists (we
wanted it a lot, but...). Still, you might like our halftime show!

All the same, reevaluate as we might (you haven't read about too
many life-and-death struggles here lately, have you?), this
year's seasons undeniably had a strange resonance, and looking
back, we can still see pluck aplenty. And we don't just mean
underwear pitchman Michael Jordan coming back after his
management phase, although he does advertise the idea of rebirth
in the most American of ways (ka-ching!). There was resilience
everywhere, beginning to end. The New York Yankees, suddenly
everyone's home team, nearly clawing their way to another World
Series championship, Mario Lemieux coming back from retirement
and cancer to boost his Pittsburgh Penguins, Jennifer Capriati
coming out of her lost childhood to win a pair of Grand Slam
titles, the given-up-for-dead Lance Armstrong winning another
Tour de France.

It wasn't all storybook stuff. There was disgrace, defeat, even
death. And for every person who proved that second acts are
possible in American life, somebody else was still tangled in the
curtains (Bobby Knight, Mike Tyson). Not to mention the folks
still in their first act, swaggering back and forth on the stage
as if they own it. Still, didn't you think there were some nice
moments? Journeyman Hasim Rahman, overlooked and unknown, decking
Lennox Lewis for the heavyweight championship. Tiger Woods,
slipping on a green jacket, having won a Pretty Good Slam. The
Arizona Diamondbacks, 35-1 underdogs at the start of the season,
outlasting those Yankees.

The year started on that kind of note, Oklahoma showing up for
the Orange Bowl as the Bowl Championship Series afterthought.
Florida State, now there was a team. The Seminoles, playing in
their third straight national championship game, were led by
Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and, except for an early loss
to Miami (a lot of people would have preferred a rematch of that
game for the championship), had played all season pretty much
like an NFL starter kit. Oklahoma's prestige, on the other
hand, dated to a previous era. Coach Bob Stoops wasn't yet
being confused with Bud Wilkinson.

Well, it wasn't exactly a Cinderella story by bowl time--Oklahoma
had, after all, gone 12-0 during the season--but it was a surprise
when the Sooners stymied Florida State's passing game and upset
Weinke's team 13-2. Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel, who had
stewed privately when Weinke finished ahead of him in the Heisman
balloting, played a near-perfect game. Looking back, the outcome
fits comfortably into our narrative of hopefulness: Remember,
Heupel, who was last seen kneeling at midfield after the biggest
game of his life, came to Oklahoma after stops at Weber State and
Snow Junior College.

The NFL provided moments of redemption as well, although it
didn't produce the same warm flush as the colleges. The Baltimore
Ravens, a .500 team the season before, advanced to the Super Bowl
against the New York Giants, largely on the strength of their
defense. Largely, to be more specific, on the play of middle
linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis not only was the principal in a unit
that held teams to 10 points a game in the playoffs but was the
Ravens' emotional leader as well.

The thing was, it was hard for the rest of us to get behind
Lewis. He'd spent much of the year charged with murder, climbing
out from under it--partly, anyway--only when he pleaded to a lesser
charge of obstruction of justice in connection with a knife fight
that had left two men dead. But there he was, batting away four
of Kerry Collins's passes, making five tackles, becoming the
Super Bowl MVP in Baltimore's ridiculously easy 34-7 victory over
the Giants. Afterward Lewis said, "The man upstairs tells you,
'I'll never take you through hell without taking you to
triumph.'" Feel-good moment? You decide.

The year was like that a little bit, its lessons not always
obvious. What did it mean, for example, for Dale Earnhardt to die
at the Daytona 500, which he'd elevated to such dramatic heights?
Earnhardt was NASCAR's pole sitter in popularity, his defeats at
Daytona somehow as mythic as his wins elsewhere. Now, having
slammed head-on into the wall on the race's final turn, he was
gone. Even with his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., winning at Daytona
when the circuit returned five months later, it was difficult to
reach any satisfying conclusions beyond the usual: Gee, isn't
life fragile.

Less morbid and more satisfying was basketball, both college and
pro. Familiar faces paraded to championships, rather effortlessly
at that. Duke escapes the theme of this essay, having required
more resolve than resiliency to win yet another NCAA title, its
third under coach Mike Krzyzewski. The Blue Devils, led by Shane
Battier (a senior!), were top-ranked for almost half of the
season and strolled through the NCAA tournament without letting
anybody finish within 10 points of them.

The Los Angeles Lakers were similarly dominant although, this
being the personality-driven NBA, not without their intrigues.
Their two stars, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, tangled over
their roles on the team, and until that got sorted out, the
Lakers sputtered along. By the playoffs, however, some kind of
rapprochement appeared to have been reached, with O'Neal
increasingly ceding the spotlight, if not every basket, to his
younger teammate. "Once that happened," said O'Neal, "it was
pretty much all over for the rest of the league."

Pretty much? The Lakers, who won their last eight games of the
regular season, won 15 of 16 more in the playoffs. Only the
Philadelphia 76ers prevented a sweep, winning the first game of
the Finals, and the rest was a rout. The Lakers easily won their
second NBA title in a row, and Shaq and Kobe's newly discovered
partnership didn't exactly discourage thoughts of a dynasty to
come.

Tiger Woods's own little dynasty seemed more tenuous, especially
as he approached the final leg of his majors sweep. Strictly
speaking, he wasn't eligible for a Grand Slam, his championships
in the other three majors having come in the previous calendar
year. Four in a row, though, call it whatever you want, that
wasn't to be sneezed at. The problem was, going into the Masters,
Woods was in a relative slump. But as he inched his way up the
leader board, a kind of inevitability set in, and he turned in
one of the least surprising come-from-behind victories of his
career. Nobody was getting between him and his Pretty Good Slam.

Determination was everywhere. Or was it just desperation? Backed
into the corner by age or circumstance, there were a number of
athletes who performed well beyond expectation. There was Hasim
Rahman, of course, a 20-1 underdog, who knocked out Lennox Lewis
in the biggest upset since Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson
(and Lewis himself, who salvaged his career and his legacy by
clocking Rahman in the rematch). There was Jennifer Capriati,
who'd made tabloid headlines in the 1990s with shoplifting and
drug forays (but few for playing tennis), who came back to win
the Australian and French Opens. There was Lance Armstrong, who
had been cut down by cancer, pedaling up the French Alps as if
they were the Great Plains and winning his third consecutive Tour
de France.

These were people who wouldn't go away. The Colorado Avalanche's
Ray Bourque hung in for his 22nd season, retiring finally with a
Stanley Cup team. That was a nice touch. But there were plenty
like that, an inspiring tenacity all around.

Finally there was baseball, which carried a larger burden than
usual. By now the sport is edging toward marginal, long past its
national-pastime prime. To be sure, it got a boost from the
Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki, a Japanese import who was both
Rookie of the Year and MVP of the American League, setting major
league records for hits by a rookie and for attitude. (By
personal decree he was to be known only by his first name, like
Madonna.) Then there was Barry Bonds's home run record, though
his chase lacked the excitement of Mark McGwire's three years
earlier. It may be that home run records, even at 73, have become
commonplace, that they require amiable accomplices, or that
Bonds, who has more attitude than Ichiro ever will, can't command
a nation's attention, or affection.

That baseball couldn't get more out of Bonds's remarkable
pursuit--his record came despite 177 walks--is discouraging. But
any game that insists on a Hot Stove mentality in a Microwave Age
is headed for trouble. And baseball knows it. It builds retro
stadiums, banking on nostalgia, and then, when that doesn't work,
argues before Congress that the answer is to dismantle itself, a
team at a time.

Nonetheless, this is the sport that was charged with a nation's
psychic repair, its World Series coming six weeks after the
terrorist attacks and featuring a team from the city most
devastated. That was a lot to ask of baseball (and of the
Yankees), but in a regrouping of its own, the game (and the
Yankees) provided the kinds of thrills that remind us why we're
such hopeless sports nuts. You can come from behind. You should
never give up. You will get a second chance.

It was a wild series, the new-money Diamondbacks versus the
old-money Yankees. Sentiment may have favored New York for once,
for the city the Yankees represented was still stoically sifting
through the remains of 3,000 innocents. Logic, however, suggested
Arizona, with its dominant tandem of Randy Johnson and Curt
Schilling, might mow down the aging champions. Indeed, that's the
way it began, Arizona taking the first two games while the
Yankees mustered all of six hits.

Then the Yankees won the next three games, two of them with
ninth-inning rallies (with two out each time!) that seemed to
foretell the city's destiny. Surely the country, still grieving,
would have embraced such a fairy tale, but Arizona was not a
party to such karmic conspiracy. The Diamondbacks laid out their
version of real life (unforgiving and unsentimental, isn't it?)
and won the next two games and the Series with their own
comeback. It was not storybook by any means, but who could
begrudge Arizona the championship after a World Series that had
been so much fun?

It was, in these times of modest expectations, the best that
sports could do--offer a little fun. That and the reminder, if you
don't mind the summation: Never say die. We told you we could
boil it down. Ninth inning, two out? Who knows how it's going to
end, but you've still got another at bat, don't you?

FIVE COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY MIKI SAKAICOLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHOCOLOR PHOTO: BOB SWEETENCOLOR PHOTO: TONY RANZE/AFP/THE LEDGERCOLOR PHOTO: CHRISTOPHE ENA/APCOLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLANCOLOR PHOTO: MIKE FIALA/AFPCOLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR.COLOR PHOTO: MIKE HUTCHINGS/REUTERSCOLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANSCOLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMONCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVERCOLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTINCOLOR PHOTO: JAY LAPRETE/APCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVERCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGHCOLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGINCOLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANSCOLOR PHOTO: ROD MAR/SEATTLE TIMESCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO
So much devotion to duty, so much resolve, so much charity. Who
knew Americans, softened by cable TV and riding mowers, had it in
them?
Sports has been forced out of the hero business. It can't
compete with the notion of men lugging hoses up 50 flights of
stairs. (We play hurt, but....)
Reevaluate as we might, this year's seasons undeniably had a
strange resonance.
The World Series reminded us why we're such hopeless sports
nuts: You can come from behind.