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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

By Dan Steinberg  |  December 23, 2009; 5:18 PM ET
Categories:  Decade's Best  
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Next: Farewell to the Sports Machine


I agree completely with this list, good work Steinberg.

Posted by: Hobes | December 23, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

WHOA hold a second! What about the Lady Terps Basketball team winning the NCAA tournament during this decade or Maryland Men's Soccer winning 2 NCAA National Soccer Championships.

Posted by: 40acres | December 23, 2009 7:40 PM | Report abuse

It's a good list and the number one is right on the money for on court moments of the decade. Number one for off the field moments has to be the Gibbs return. I can't count how many people said at the time "this is the best day of my life." It was euphoria. Just like Dan, I remember exactly where I was when I first heard, at about 2 a.m. the night before the rest of the DC area woke up to the rumors, I was on the WaPo homepage and there was a story about how Snyder was in discussions with Gibbs. I didn't sleep that night...or the next. It still remains one of the greatest days of my life.

If you're a MD alum, the ACC championship in football/Orange Bowl has to be on the list, as well as the 2001 final four, and the 2004 ACC tourney championship--and 2002 championship is rightly number 1.

Completely agree there's no way to rank the Sean Taylor story, but it has to be on the list--no question.

I'm a big Nats fan, have had tix for all 5 years in DC, but I still don't think they belong that high on the list.

Overall, a good list Steinz.

Posted by: Barno1 | December 23, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the first three but not the order in which you've placed them. To me they should be ranked:

1)- The arrival of the Nats

2)- George Mason's Final Four

3)- Maryland's NCAA Title

You Maryland fans have been very vocal about your opinions but in my opinion it is just not as big a story as the other two when a basketball team from a conference which traditionally is dominant in that sport wins an NCAA title.

And as a baseball fan who waited more than three decades, desperately longing to once again hear the words "Play Ball" in the District of Columbia, that moment when baseball returned is by far D.C.'s greatest sports moment of the decade to me.

I and a dozen friends of a similar state of mind traveled to Philadelphia in 2005 to be there for the Washington Nationals' first official game. Then we were at RFK the night of their first home game.

I am unashamed to say I watched both first pitches through tears of joy.

Plus, as I've mentioned a couple of times before in past discussions of the past ten years, I'm nominating an honorable mention addition to Steinz's list.

That would be the NCAA "Frozen Four" hockey championship at Verizon Center earlier this year. No local teams were involved (unless you include the Naval Academy's role as host) but that was one of the most thrilling and enjoyable sports events I've attended in more than half a century of going to all sorts of athletic competitions in all sorts of sports.

It had an electric, vibrant atmosphere with enthusiastic and spirited fans, and maybe the best underdog of the decade in any NCAA tournament -- the Cinderellas on skates from Bemidji State University. (The lowest seed in the tourney, BSU's Beavers made the final four by beating both the number one and number two seeds -- what would be the reaction in the world of college basketball if that tournament's #64 seed did that?)

Most of all, there was some great hockey.

I mean, when you have sudden death overtime for a national title after one team erased a two-goal deficit in the final sixty seconds of regulation to tie the game -- you don't even have to be a hockey fan to go "WOW!", do you?

Posted by: greggwiggins | December 23, 2009 10:12 PM | Report abuse

Excuse me, where's the Catholic University Men's Basketball's 2001 national championship????

PS. The chess team won it all that year too.

Posted by: bukiak_2000 | December 24, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

I agree with this top 10 much more than I agreed with the readers' choices. Same goes for the top 10 athletes list. Nice work.

Posted by: DCUMD | December 24, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

GMU goes at the top. Bigger upset, MD has been knocking on the door for years, it was just a matter of time. GMU may never go back so EVER applies here also.

Posted by: mikey999 | December 24, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

My favorite story of the decade was Art Monk and Darrell Green going into the Hall of Fame together. I will never forget being in Canton and the ovation Art received when he stepped up to the podium.

Posted by: oconnra8 | December 24, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

What about Osaka?

Posted by: jestomwil | December 24, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

If you are going to start listing all the 4 UMD national titles, how about the 6 down at UVa?

Posted by: FlyersSuck | December 24, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

GMU had a lucky run. They played above their talent and with a purpose. However, they DID NOT deserve their spot in the Big Dance. In a year where 4 teams in the CAA had 20 or more wins, they were the 3rd or 4th best team. They never should have been there and for that reason they will never crack the top 3 in stories in my book.

Posted by: LurkerNowPoster | December 24, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

Re item #5 (last-to-first Caps): Well, maybe for you it started in February, but for anyone paying attention (then a tiny minority in this town), the resurgence began the afternoon after Thanksgiving (Bruce Boudreau's debut, an OT win in Philly) and rampaged with a vengeance through December and January. Perhaps you and the rest of the Post (aside from Tarik) deigned to sort of notice in February, after the Caps got Fedorov (whom casual sports fans had heard of). In fact the Caps' run was far more remarkable than item #4, and your choice of items #1-#3 depends on your sports preference.

Posted by: jhershb | December 24, 2009 9:33 PM | Report abuse

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays sports Fans.

Posted by: quinn5459 | December 25, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

this is all nice, but the question remains:

if **it hits the fan - and the Skins win the SB and the Caps win the Cup in the next decade:

which story is #1?

i know, the Skins have no shot in hell under Snyder, but we still need to know your priorities.....

Posted by: CF11555 | December 25, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

I think the Great Evaportation of the Washington Post's sports section should be in here somewhere. What's the over/under in total reading time for a typical weekday Post sports section read? Five minutes? Three minutes? One minute.

If you're under 40 and still working for a newspaper, run as hard as you can in the opposite career direction.

Posted by: Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me | December 25, 2009 11:47 PM | Report abuse

Your Maryland bias is obvious as is your sexism. The Terps are a school with a narrow local following, and while their NCAA men's basketball win was significant, it was a marginal, fleeting story compared to others. And if the Terps are so important to the area, why didn't you list their Women's NCAA win equally? Gender bias? I hope you don't think of yourself as being progressive, 'cause you have a ways to go.

Posted by: Mathonwy | December 26, 2009 9:12 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and here's the CORRECT list of Top Three DC Sports Stories of the Aughts:

1) Clearly the return of baseball to DC was the biggest story of the decade. All the ancillary stories (stadium, on-field performance, ownership sale, front office shake-up) demonstrate this. By not listing this as No. 1, you really showed your lack of sports reporting chops.

2) The rise of the Capitals, although only in the last two years, is obviously the second biggest story. A moribund franchise which suddenly rockets to the top of the NHL, igniting a sleeping giant of a fanbase in the process and pushing the Redskins to the second story, is second only to the Nats arrival.

3) George Mason's cinderella ride to the Final Four is a much bigger story than Maryland's NCAA win. How do I know? No one outside of YOU includes Maryland's win on their list, but EVERYONE includes Mason. You're such a homer.

Posted by: Mathonwy | December 26, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

"Not everyone in the DC roots for the Terps". Then why did you place it as #1 Dan?

Posted by: tbanderson1980 | December 27, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Ok, I'll take these one at a time.

@Sunshine etc, I grant you that's a big story, but it's a story that's happened in every market, and with every section of every paper, etc. Also, strikes me as more of a media story than a sports story. As the bosses always say, more people are reading our stuff than ever before, it's just making less money, and the print product is obviously declining.

Still, not many papers continue to boast a stable of columnists like Jenkins/Wise/Wilbon/Boz/Hamilton, so I'd say our decline has been far, far less than average.

Posted by: DanSteinberg1 | December 27, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

@oconnra8 That very well might deserve to be here. I considered it. I'm not sure that post-career honors can compare with these other things, but it was a seminal moment for a lot of Skins fans.

Posted by: DanSteinberg1 | December 27, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

@jhershb Slings and arrows gladly accepted. I just checked the archives, and it appears I posted 16 Caps items in Dec and January of that run. Sure, they weren't about "the Caps are red hot," but that's not the sort of stuff I was writing back then. I'm guessing I noticed they were succeeding.

I think the real story with the Caps rise was the way they took over the town to an unprecedented degree, and I think that happened much later than Boudreau's hiring. If the story was just affecting "a tiny minority" of D.C. sports fans, then it sort of by definition wasn't yet a major story.

Posted by: DanSteinberg1 | December 27, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

@tbanderson1980 I'm trying to balance the rooting interests of the town and the people I interact with against national impact and lasting significance. My opinion, mentioned above, is that a national title in one of the biggest team sporting events in the country is the winner; for the rest of eternity, the list of national men's basketball champions will include the Terps, and you can only win your first one once.

If you hate the Terps, or are indifferent to the Terps, you probably wouldn't agree, but the same could be said for any of these teams if you really don't care about that sport/franchise. If fan interest were the only qualification, then the entire Top 10 list would be Redskins-related, and that's not an exaggeration.

Obviously, rational people can disagree on this, but the only national title of the decade in a real general interest sport won be over.

Posted by: DanSteinberg1 | December 27, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

@Mathonwy I can't imagine what my Maryland bias is, since I didn't go to school there, didn't grow up there, and have absolutely no ties to the University of Maryland, save for two first cousins who are graduates, I guess. I've frequently been accused of having an anti-Maryland bias, for whatever that's worth. I'd argue that no men's national championship in basketball is marginal or fleeting. And I'd argue that saying Maryland men's basketball is important to the area does not necessarily mean Maryland women's basketball is of equal importance. Check the attendance. Check the TV ratings. Check the Web traffic. I also didn't include the Maryland men's soccer national championships, which were of less importance than the women's hoops title. I'd say this has nothing to do with my level of progressiveness, but you're free to disagree.

As for your list,

1) This area has had more baseball teams than men's Division basketball titles. The ancillary stories prove nothing; every franchise has ancillary stories. This is an opinion thing, nothing about reporting chops; many measures of fan interest (TV and radio ratings, Web traffic, season ticket sales) would suggest that the Nats level of interest does not justify the rating I gave them.

2) "Pushing the Redskins to the second story?" By what measure could you possibly claim the Caps have pushed the Redskins to the second story? This is absurd.

3) "No one outside of YOU includes Maryland's win on their list, but EVERYONE includes Mason."

It's my opinion, so I don't see how that much matters, but I've seen/heard plenty of D.C. decade lists that include the Terps. Mason's story probably did resonate more nationally, and "the George Mason of...." is a forever sports term. But how much did it resonate locally? Has Mason's program been transformed? Has attendance changed in any massive way? It's still an extremely niche team.

Look, I was the beat writer for that Mason team. I rode the team charter to Indy for the Final Four. If I have a bias here, it's in favor of that group, many of whom I knew fairly well. When pushed, I just opt for a national championship. You disagree, and that's fine.

Posted by: DanSteinberg1 | December 27, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

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