Top 5 Sports Stories of 2014

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible…And how, as a human being, does one face infinity?…Through lists, through catalogs, through collections…There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists – the shopping list, the will, the menu – that are also cultural achievements in their own right.”   — Umberto Eco (November 11, 2009)

 

I try not to make too many lists, mainly because of the clickbait reputation they’ve earned. Too many are mundane, under-researched, poorly composed, and usually just an itemized collection of the first few Google hits on a particular topic. When you read my lists, I guarantee you will learn something new, and you don’t have to click past annoying ads to get through the list itself.

So, in chronological order, the Top 5 sports stories of 2014 are:

 

This was the first Olympics held in Russia since the Summer Games of 1980, which was boycotted by 65 countries following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Sochi was chosen as the host city in 2007, which gave the Games plenty of time to take on a controversial tone before they even began. Local corruption led to overspending, Russian bigotry fueled LGBT fears, residents were reminded of a 19th Century genocide, and terrorist threats rolled in from nearby jihadist groups.

Sochi will stand out in my mind as the worst Winter Games in history, topping even Canada from four years prior. The list of Sochi’s failures grew daily. Hotel rooms were unfinished and underfurnished, if available at all. Streets and city infrastructure were still under construction several days into the games, and stray dogs wandered the city like hobos. The political turmoil stemming from Putin’s aggression in Ukraine put everyone on edge. It’s sad that a host country given seven years to prepare for the Olympics could spend $51 billion (the most, ever) and still botch everything so badly.

Although Lindsay Vonn couldn’t compete, America still sent 230 athletes to Russia and brought back 28 medals (9 gold, 7 silver, and 12 bronze), good for 2nd among all competing nations. Russia, Norway, and Canada won the race for gold, a result of host nation advantage and, well, Norway and Canada being really good in the Winter Games. Regardless of where the U.S. placed in the Sochi games, America is still ranked 2nd overall in Winter golds and 2nd in total Winter medals. Nobody comes close to the U.S. in Summer Game medals.

Another thing I’ll remember about Sochi is this priceless quote from the Dutch speed skating coach, Jillert Anema, who probably shouldn’t be allowed to talk to the media:

“You have a lot of attention on a foolish sport like American football and you waste a lot of talent, athletic talent, on a sport that is meant to kill each other, to injure each other. … You’re so narrow-minded, and then you want to compete against the world [in other sports] when you waste a lot of time, good talent on a sport that sucks.”

In another interview, Anema went on to say that Americans “always believe that they’re right, always believe that they’re the best,” even in sports like soccer, when they’re not even in the “Top 30 of the world.” He said he likes the commercials during American football games, but that too much talent is lost to football that might otherwise go to speed skating.

Anema’s platitudes might be amusing if they made any sense. He kept saying the U.S. didn’t have any medals, yet they ended up with more than Netherlands (even in gold). I’ll be the first to point out that all Dutch medals were in a speed skating, while the U.S. medaled in nine different events. One of those nine events was a silver in short track speed skating, in which Netherlands took bronze. If anything, it’s the Dutch who are athletically “narrow-minded,” and we still beat them at their own specialty. I won’t even dignify his football comments with a response, but how about this: the December 18, 2014 FIFA rankings show the USA at #27 in the world.

 

  • Lebron Spurred to Leave Miami

Immediately after “The Decision” in 2010, shit got real in Miami. As much as we all hated the Miami Heat, they were good…like, really good. They immediately finished the 2010-11 season with a .707 record and made the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Dallas Mavericks (the team they’d beaten in 2006). The next year, El Heat posted a .697 winning percentage, and beat a spunky Oklahoma City Thunder in the finals. In 2012-13, Miami outdid themselves with an .805 record and a second straight NBA Finals title, this time over the San Antonio Spurs. The upcoming season presented the opportunity to join the Threepeat Club.

Threepeats are hard to pull off in any sport, and professional basketball is no exception. The Lakers did it in 2000-02. The Bulls did it twice in the 90s. The Celtics somehow won eight in a row through the 1950s-60s. The common denominator in these dynasties was talent and coaching. The Lakers had Kobe/Shaq (the latter of whom helped the Heat win in 2006), the Bulls had Jordan/Pippen, and the Celtics had Russell/Cousy. Coaching these teams were two of the greatest basketball minds ever, Red Auerbach (Celtics) and Phil Jackson (Bulls and Lakers). Erik Spoelstra is only 44, so it’s difficult to compare him to those guys, but his flair for coaching basketball was certainly amplified by the talent in Miami from 2010-14.

Whatever the reason for the Heat’s success from 2010-13, it wasn’t sufficient for the threepeat. While the aforementioned great teams went on championship streaks, no team since Jordan’s retirement has been as fundamentally good or relentlessly hard-working as the San Antonio Spurs. Sure, the Lakers ripped off streaks of championships in the early and late 2000s, but the Spurs have placed 1st or 2nd in their division (and made the playoffs) every single year since Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan arrived in 1996-97. In fact, Duncan is the only NBA player in history to start on a championship team in three separate decades.

The Spurs are riding 17 straight playoff seasons, five of which resulted in championships, and the Spurs are five playoff seasons away from an NBA record. It’s not so shocking when you think about it, but Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have the most playoff wins of any threesome in NBA history. That maturity, experience, and chemistry played a role in their dismantling of the Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals. The 2014 Spurs hold the NBA Finals records for highest FG% (52.8%) and highest margin of victory (14.5). It was this team that defeated one of the finest assemblies of talent in NBA lore, and drove Lebron back to Ohio with only two rings.

 

  • Germany Wins Fourth World Cup

I was furious when Spain knocked Germany out of the 2010 World Cup. For one, I never really liked Spain, or any Iberian team for that matter. Furthermore, Germany had not won a World Cup in 20 years, when current U.S. coach (Jürgen Klinsmann) was in only his third international year. The West German victory in July 1990 was bookended by the reopening of Berlin’s borders eight months prior and formal German reunification three months later. In a fitting statement, mass demolition of the Berlin Wall began during the World Cup. In short, it was good to be German in 1990, but the victory also emphasized for the sporting world what Western-style elections in the Baltics, Caucuses, and ‘Stans were showing, namely that the West had won.

The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact may have brought Germany back together, but the ensuing European identity crisis favored chaos, and it would be fellow ex-Pacter Bulgaria who would derail Germany in 1994. Four years later, another byproduct of East Bloc disintegration, Croatia, would do the same thing, but in both cases the World Cup title went to Western countries.

When Germany finally made it back to a Cup final in 2002, it was against one of the best Brazilian teams in FIFA history. While Germany had more shots on goal and a longer ToP, Brazil came out on t-o-p (2-0). One of my German friends remains convinced that Ronaldo stepped on Oliver Kahn’s hand intentionally. After two more Cup losses in 2006 and 2010 to two EU members it is now propping up economically, Germany finally made it to their second World Cup final of the 21st Century. This time, the German team was one of the best in history, and the 1-0 score (in extra time) belies their advantage in both ToP (60% vs 40%) and shots on target (7 vs 2).

The 2014 World Cup was also a testament to just how long four years really is, let alone six times that. Defending champion Spain embarrassingly failed to make it out of their own Group, and perpetual challenger Brazil got annihilated 7-1 by the Germans in the semifinal. Meanwhile, Lionel Messi managed to navigate Argentina past Switzerland in the 1st Round (1-0), Belgium in the 2nd (1-0), and Netherlands, who lost in as dramatic a fashion as they had won the previous match. Despite the final game being penned as The Best Player vs. The Best Team, the Argentinians never really stood a chance. Glückwünsche Die Mannschaft!

 

  • The Kansas City Royals

I hate baseball, but 2014 was a redemption year for America’s erstwhile pastime. A-Rod’s suspension opened the season on a depressing note, and Derek Jeter’s retirement echoed the changing of the guard. Even outside of New York, new blood was flowing. The Royals ripped off long win streaks in June and August and finished the regular season 89-73. They won a dramatic wild card game, and entered the playoffs for the first time since 1985. Royals Manager, Ted Yost, said the wild card game was one of the most exciting he’d ever been a part of, but even he didn’t expect the electric playoff run that would lead all the way to a Game 7.

While the hopes and dreams of many Royals fans were crushed in the final game of the World Series, the game itself was magnificent. We saw a pivotal call overturned by instant reply, the first in World Series history, and probably the most captivating young pitcher since John Smoltz cut his teeth on a Game 7 against Jack Morris in 1991. The great Curt Shilling called Madison Bumgarner’s playoff efforts (which included a Game 5 shutout, and Game 7 closing on only 2 days rest) the “best post season performance, ever.” Even my girlfriend, who had never watched baseball before, was on the edge of her seat after that 9th Inning error in left field. This all makes it sound like it was The Giants’ year, but the only reason I was watching the game was because the Royals made it.

 

  • The Inaugural College Football Playoff

The 2014 college football year will go down as a major turning point in the sport for a variety of reasons. It all began with the end of the 2013 season: the SEC’s 7-year streak of national championships ended, Northwestern University dubiously (but fittingly) decided to unionize, and the first openly gay player was drafted into the NFL. The spring and summer off-season included high-profile coaching moves. Traditional powerhouses Texas, Penn State, and Southern Cal all hired new head coaches, one of those vacancies providing Nick Saban with a new offensive coordinator to tap yet another #1 recruiting class at Alabama.

The 2014-15 college football season would also launch the new playoff system, which replaced the maligned BCS. As might be expected, a subjective panel of experts picking four teams to compete for the national championship ended up being just as (if not more) controversial than unbiased computers picking two teams. Various conferences were shunned, including the Big12, who was on track to send as many as two teams into the playoffs. It turns out having a conference championship is a defining factor in the new playoff system, as all four teams competing for the trophy won theirs.

By kickoff in August 2014, the playoff was the light at the end of a pretty hazy tunnel. The defending champions were in the midst of yet another PR crisis stemming from their quarterback’s behavior. Alabama had lost their defensive captain and their veteran QB in the offseason, and weren’t expected to make it out of conference play. The preseason AP Poll was rather bland, and included only one risky name (UCLA) in the Top 10.

The season itself shocked only on occasion. The state of Mississippi surprised everyone. Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina, and Auburn imploded, while Arizona, Georgia Tech, and Missouri all made their conference championships (and lost). But here we are at the end of the season, and the four teams playing for a national championship were all in the AP’s Preseason Top 5. While we don’t have a playoff precedent for context here, I can tell you that only 10 national champions in college football history were preseason favorites, the last one being Southern Cal in 2004. What’s more surprising (or not) is that two of the preseason Top 5 teams expected to fall out of the running by many are probably the teams best equipped to make it to the title game for an intriguing showdown.

It seems that Alabama and FSU were destined to meet. Even if they don’t, they’ve had quite a road to the playoffs. They’re easily the two most physical teams in the playoffs, and both coaching staffs know how to win big games. The ‘Bama defense will play a third-string Ohio State QB, and although Urban Meyer has been on this stage before, he possessed a much more talented Florida team at the time. FSU pulled Oregon in the semifinal, and has the best chance to lose given their close escapes all season to worse teams. Still, Oregon is smaller, the defense gives up a ton of yards, and they have a penchant for losing big games near the end of the season. Anyway, regardless of how the 2014 season pans out, the Alabama and FSU narratives leading up to the inaugural playoffs are enough to put it in my Top 5.

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