2010's wild, intoxicating sports ride
A look back at an embarrassment of riches for fans, from football to futbol and beyond
Following Ghana 's spirited defeat of a valiant United States side on Saturday, the more-nationalistic wedges of the American audience might be drifting away from the World Cup just as the event begins to flex its muscles, the big boys take center stage and the championship draws near.
The level of deflation following the United States' exit from the tournament was considerable, if only because of the tantalizing but ultimately dashed opportunity to watch U.S. soccer -- a squad that has been relegated to the kid's table at the world level -- pitted against the game's marquee teams (Germany, Netherlands, Brazil).
But even for the most brokenhearted, an in-depth view should reveal a certain satisfaction despite the disappointing finish in South Africa. Including the World Cup run, the American sports fan has been treated to an exceptional 2010 sports calendar, not unlike an art aficionado being handed a free year-long pass to the Louvre.
What began with the Super Bowl was followed by a tremendous Winter Olympics, a college basketball tournament that was special even by March Madness standards, classic NBA and Stanley Cup finals and now a World Cup that is providing a necessary reminder that there is more to sports than the American pro model.
Each of those niche audiences surely has been satisfied by the dramas thus far. If you watch sports for the eventual rise of the long-standing underdog, the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl victory could not have been more rewarding. In the title game against Indianapolis, the Saints were not large underdogs, if they were underdogs at all. But for the fans of New Orleans, who for decades watched the Saints falter while the 49ers and Cowboys and Steelers seemed to annually play for the Lombardi Trophy, their experience was not unlike fans of the Patriots seeing their team beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, or Arizona fans watching the Cardinals -- though they lost Super Bowl XLIII -- finally reach the Big One in 2009. For once, it was their team the country was looking at, their team in a championship conversation instead of a punch line.
Fans who believe in sports as a balm capable of healing the important real-life tragedies of the world -- and I am certainly not one of them -- received the added bonus from the Saints' victory, four and a half years after Hurricane Katrina and two months before the devastating BP oil spill. The Saints might have provided temporary joy to a ravaged region, but during the Katrina disaster, the team threatened to move. And immediately following their Super Bowl victory in February, the Saints raised ticket prices.
There is the long-suffering underdog and then there is the David vs. Goliath underdog, and 2010 has had both. Duke and Butler played an instant-classic NCAA championship game that might be a demarcating line for college basketball between true parity and the narrowing of the gulf between mid-major and major programs. Or perhaps it was merely a special tournament, and order will be restored in the form of Kansas, Duke and North Carolina resuming their dominance next season. But the theater was terrific, and the basketball just as good.
For the dynasty-lovers (and I am one of those), both the Celtics-Lakers series in the NBA and the Flyers-Blackhawks finals in the NHL were restorative. The contrast between the Celtics and Lakers in style, history, geography and culture has always been compelling. The legacy of Kobe Bryant, win or lose, was already intact; but that contrived storyline notwithstanding, the real stories of the NBA Finals -- the end of Boston's Big Three and respecting the totality of Bryant's on-court game -- carried the league to a victorious end to the season.
The word "dynasty" is often misused in sports when it refers to a team that wins a few championships in a short period. The actual meaning is "a succession of rulers from the same stock or family." Thus, by that definition, the Patriots' winning three championships in four years is less of a dynasty than the Bruins (five Stanley Cup championships) and the Blackhawks (four), though Boston's last title was in 1972 and Chicago hadn't won since 1961, until this spring.
But the rulers and stock, in memory of and influence on the NHL, have always been the Original Six. And this postseason, having Boston (a sudden Stanley Cup favorite until it blew a 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals), Montreal (a dynasty in both senses of the word), and eventual Cup-winner Chicago at the center of the hockey world provided grist and memory for the sport, while Philadelphia -- the next-closest thing to an Original Six franchise and the first non-charter club to win the Cup -- played a classic six-game series with the Hawks.
If you prefer the world game to the U.S. system, American participation in the Winter Olympics and the World Cup was wonderful. Every four years, there is a World Cup-Olympics overlap; and in 2010, it was particularly rewarding. The U.S. lost to Ghana in 2010 as it did in 2006; but this year, the national team lost with dignity.
As the competition continues in South Africa, it is clear that the U.S. is still not close to becoming a soccer superpower. The individual skill level for the U.S. players is simply not at that level, and thus the American side was forced to rely on will, teamwork and persistence, qualities that most great teams possess in addition to heightened skill. The United States, yes, is 300 million-strong in population, but the nation's best, second-best and maybe even third-best athletes aren't playing soccer at the highest level. If Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant were strikers for the U.S., the story might be very different.
But there were moments and wonderful energy which might, at this point, be more important than the final scores. Landon Donovan played as a leader, placing a recognizable face on a sport that unfairly plays in the shadows of the NFL, MLB and the NBA. Jozy Altidore showed signs of having the potential to be a big-time striker, and the Americans proved, even in defeat, to be wonderful evangelists for a sport that shouldn't be forgotten between now and 2014.
The same effect applies to Vancouver's Olympics, where the Americans lost the men's gold-medal game in hockey to Canada but perhaps gained something more important. They were players again -- in hockey, skiing, bobsled and, for the first time, the Nordic sports. Success alone does not make a sport grow. You need characters, too, and Vonn, Mancuso, the Millers (Ryan and Bode), and Holcomb represented well.
And finally, if attention to the game on the field is secondary to your interest in the game in the boardroom, Thursday began the NBA's free-agent gold rush, when the LeBron James saga will (mercifully) end with the probable emergence of a new power grid.
With Ray Allen as a free agent and Paul Pierce opting out of his $21.5 million annual salary for free agency, the Celtics might be major players. The same is true for Dallas, with Dirk Nowitzki opting out of the final year of his deal. The league is seeing a flurry of action that doesn't even include the trade market.
Some of the top NBA players seem to be coming close to colluding in their decision-making, and it is providing an interesting, if not uncomfortable, parry to the back-room cynicism taking place in college football, where money has undermined the stability of the Big 12 Conference and -- significantly and quite probably negatively -- altered the Pac-10 and Big 10.
In addition to James, Pierce and Nowitzki, other top NBA stars such as Wade, Carlos Boozer, Amar'e Stoudemire, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson are not only setting up their own paydays, but could very well be creating a powerful and dangerous new paradigm in sports -- the collective free agency period, wherein players openly leverage one another to create customized super teams. In a world of text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, private jets and unlimited wealth, an unprecedented era of player power is already dawning.
Quite a year it's been. And it's only half-over.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.