A look back at 2001

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 2, 2002

Sports Columnist

There were quite a few events that ensured that the year 2001 would remain etched in our memories for some time to come. Besides it being the ACTUAL first year of the new millennium (do the mathjust like the year 1 would be the first year of the first millennium), the events of September 11th will never let us forget the past year. And though any sporting events that took place in 2001 greatly lose their significance when compared to that fateful day, it was quite a year in many aspects of the sporting world as well.

There were quite a few worth mentioning that we won’t attempt to elaborate on: Lance Armstrong’s third consecutive Tour de France victory after his comeback from cancer; Mario Lemieux’s three goals in his first game back on the ice in nearly four years; Cal Ripken, Jr.’s farewell tour in which he seemed to hit one last homer in each park he visited for a while, capped by a shot in his final All-Star Game; Ichiro Suzuki, the first Major League Japanese non-pitcher, becoming only the second man ever to win Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the same season.

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And of course, there were the inevitable events we’d just as soon forget, although we probably won’t: Little League World Series pitcher Danny Almonte wowing us all with his skill at such a young ageonly to find out he wasn’t such a young age; previous murder suspect Ray Lewis being named Super Bowl MVP; The XFLdo I really need to explain this one?; and let’s not forget Georgia Techer, Notre Dameer, unemployed coach George O’Leary and his embellished resume (just think, now he can add to it that he was undefeated during his career at Notre Dame).

So I decided to stick with a list of memories, in chronological order, that most of us around these parts will recall for years to come. You’ll notice the conspicuous absence of hockey references:

1. In February, NASCAR lost one of its greatest all-time drivers and ambassadors when Dale Earnhardt slammed into the wall on the final lap of the Daytona 500. To be honest, I have never claimed to be a fan of NASCAR and have never even watched a race. Yet, even I know who the "Intimidator" was, and that he drove the No.3 car. That speaks volumes for the kind of recognition and respect he brought to his sport. And although he is gone, his legacy lives on in his son, Dale, Jr., who won his first of the season on the same Daytona track, and also Kevin Harvick, who now drives the famous No.3 and was named Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.

2. Tiger Woods continued to prompt golf fans everywhere to ask, "what can he do next?", by completing his string of consecutive victories in the U.S. Open, the British Open, The PGA Championship, and the Masters. Since all four didn’t occur in the same calendar year, he isn’t officially recognized as winning the Grand Slam, but he is the only golfer in history to own all four titles at the same time. In my book, that’s the Grand Slam, and at any rate, is possibly the most amazing feat yet in Tiger’s fantastic career.

3. After enduring media scrutiny over an unwillingness to share the spotlight between their two star players, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and the mediocre season that accompanied their spat, the Los Angeles Lakers turned it up a notch at the end of the season. They won their final eight games of the season, then coasted through the playoffs. Their only setback out of 16 games was an overtime loss to the 76ers in Game 1 of the Finals. According to Shaq, "Kobe and I got on the same page, and once that happened it was pretty much all over for the rest of the league." Pretty hard to argue with their combined average of 60 points per postseason game.

4. Because of concerns about air travel, crowd security, and simply because it just didn’t seem possible to concentrate on, much less enjoy, a sporting event a few days after the terrorist attacks on September 11, six days of baseball, one week of NFL games and all 58 Division 1A college games were cancelled. When play was resumed, helmets and caps and jerseys all proudly displayed "Old Glory" in a show of unity and patriotism, and no one seemed to care if it was politically correct to sing about "God blessing America".

5. Finally bringing speculation to an end, Michael Jordan began his personal three-peat, as he came out of retirement for the second time. Why come back? Not because he needed the money, that’s for sure. It’s always been said that Jordan needs a challenge to keep things interesting for him. Well, at age 38, playing among no-names on a team that lost 63 games a year ago, he’s got it. Amazingly, he still is capable of scoring 30, playing great defense, and outplaying pretty much anyone he faces on the court. And besides, when’s the last time you saw the Wizards play on T.V. before this year?

6. With four homers in his last three starts, Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire’s three-year-old record of 70 homers by hitting 73. What many don’t realize is that in the process he also broke the Babe’s 78-year-old record with 177 walks in a season and Ruth’s 81-year-old mark with a slugging percentage of .847. Unfortunately, his attitude over his career kept most fans from admiring the feat as they did McGwire and Sosa’s chase a few years back.

7. Baseball fans everywhere were treated to the greatest World Series in recent memory. The Yankees hit two-out two-run game-tying homers in the bottom of the ninth in consecutive games to allow them to win in extra innings. Not to be outdone, Cy Young candidates Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling shut down the Yankees in the final two games to give four-year-old franchise the Arizona Diamondbacks their first World Championship.

8. The Troy Sate Trojans jumped into Division 1A with both feet by scheduling Miami, Nebraska, Mississippi State and Maryland for 2001. After impressive showings against the two teams that would eventually meet for the national championship, they shocked everyone but themselves and their most loyal fans by trouncing Mississippi State in a driving rain to ruin their homecoming.

9. First year coach Dennis Franchione and the Alabama Crimson Tide rebounded from early season disappointing losses to win their final three games and end the season with a 6-5 record. All this amid looming punishment for alleged NCAA infractions committed by the previous coaching staff. Most memorable was the re-emergence of Andrew Zow at quarterback, replacing an injured Tyler Watts to defeat Mississippi State, then humiliate Auburn 31-7, then Southern Miss to make Bama bowl-eligible, and finally to defeat Iowa State in the Independence Bowl.