Top 10 D.C. sports stories of the decade
After nearly two weeks of your voting on the local athlete of the decade, here's my list. And I cleverly decided to change some of the choices since allowing you to vote, so my list is better than yours.
Also, CSNWashington is doing something similar, and the author, Chase Hughes, introduced his piece by writing "this past decade has been unprecedentedly miserable for a sports town with a tradition of winning teams." In that cheerful spirit, here's my list.
10. Michael Jordan's comeback (Reader rank: 6*): This is the perfect way to begin this list, because the theme of the 2000s was unrealized promise. Many of the top moments of the decade were supposed to signal the beginning of something great, but instead wound up signaling the beginning of a swim into filthy excrement, leaving the beginning as the best part. Still, Michael Jordan--maybe the most famous athlete in the world at the time of his comeback--packed the house for two years, and made us feel like D.C. sort of mattered.
9. Ovechkin the Icon (7) I'm using this as code for a few things: Ovechkin's drafting, and Ovechkin's Rookie of the Year, and Ovechkin's rivalry with Sidney Crosby, and Ovechkin's rise to the top of the D.C. sports landscape, peaking with the 2009 run to the second round of the playoffs and his second straight MVP award. There's no great way to sum up the Ovechkin phenomenon, but the notion that a hockey player could be roundly acknowledged as the city's most popular athlete would have seemed absurd 10 years ago, and Ovechkin's reign needs somehow to be on this list. .
8. Redskins 2005 playoff run (19) There are slim pickings in the "playoff run" category, but this one was pretty swell. Entering December, the Skins had lost three straight games by a combined 10 points, and the jokes were descending. Then, out of nowhere, they won five straight, the last three double-digit wins over the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles. They were running the ball down people's gullets, and even though the win in Tampa was about as attractive as a sauna filled with offensive linemen, it was a playoff win. People went into that offseason filled with hope. Until everything got blown up again.
7. Wizards beat the Bulls (20) Another 2005 playoff success, another first-round win that raised massive hopes about the future, and another team that would never advance past the first-round again. Still, when Gilbert shot the Wizards past the Bulls, for the Wizards' first playoff victory in more than 20 years, it seemed like a renaissance. The playoff crowds at Verizon Center that year were loud, and enthusiastic, and gave you chills. It definitely felt like the start of something special.
6. Sean Taylor's death (3) There's not really a great way to rank this among other events that involved joy, but there's also no way to rank the decade's top stories without mentioning this. Tens of thousands of people just sat at their computers hitting refresh, or listened to sports-talk radio for hours in a row. It was absolutely the sort of thing D.C. sports fans will never forget
5. The last-to-first Caps (N/A) I should have offered this as a choice for readers, and I didn't, instead mentioning the seven-game win over the Rangers. But the rise of the Caps happened in February, March and April of 2008; everything after that was frosting. As recently as the fall of 2007, national voices were mocking the Caps for their dead building and moribund fan base; by the next Spring, "Rock the Red" and "Unleash the Fury" had happened, and we were writing A1 stories on how the Caps were the hottest game in town. Combine that with the coach who came out of the minors, and the unprecedented rise from 14th at the season's midpoint rise to the playoffs, and the 11 wins in their final 12 games, capped by the insane win over the Panthers. Yeah. Good.
4. The return of Joe Gibbs (4) I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Gibbs was returning. I remember exactly where I was during Gibbs's introductory press conference. I'm not sure if I could say the same thing for any other coaching change I didn't personally cover. The media coverage--RETURN OF THE KING and all that--certainly helped puff up the magnitude of this event, but Redskins fans felt an almost indescribable glee when Gibbs agreed to come rescue them. The franchise was probably in worse shape then than it is now, and yet it felt like an NFC championship appearance was almost guaranteed with Gibbs back in town.
3. The arrival of the Nats (5) For more than 30 years, D.C. had no baseball. I'm not one of the misty-eyed baseball-as-metaphor-for-life types, and I didn't care about being "a Major League City," but there's only a dozen U.S. cities with pro hockey, pro basketball, pro football and Major League Baseball. D.C. deserved to be on that list, no matter what jokes I might have made about the Nats.
2. George Mason's Final Four (1) The Patriots' win over U-Conn. at the Verizon Center will likely never be topped as the best sporting event I've ever covered. Not long after that game ended, Barry Svrluga sent me an e-mail. "Enjoy this," he wrote. "You might never get to cover a story this good." It was historic, and it was national, and it was more feel-good than a pot full of narcotics. So much of it was perfect: the fact that Billy Packer had criticized the Patriots' selection to the tournament, the fact that they had to beat the bluest of blue bloods to get to the Final Four, the fact that all five of Mason's starters came from Maryland, the fact that their regional final came right smack in D.C., the fact that Jim Larranaga was molded after "Coach" from those Applebee's commercials--with his corny sayings and his sideline whistling and his wholesome sons in the stands. It was all perfect.
1. Maryland men's basketball (2) And yet I'll take the Terps as the decade's finest sports moment. Not everyone in D.C. roots for the Terps, and the championship game was pure anti-climax. But it was a grim decade, almost entirely absent of titles, and Maryland won its first basketball title ever. "Ever" is a longer wait than the gap between mid-majors in the Final Four, or between baseball's appearances in D.C., or between Joe Gibbs's two runs as head coach. There were a few other titles this decade--D.C. United won its fourth MLS Cup, Maryland men's soccer and women's basketball and field hockey teams won titles. But in the sports that dominate national media coverage, this was Washington's first national championship since the Redskins' third Super Bowl win, and the only such occasion of a bad decade. That puts it on top.
* - Reader rankings based on these poll results, as of 4 pm on Dec. 23
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