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Moments that shaped L.A. sports in 2009

12/20/2009

The major events in Los Angeles sports in 2009 are obvious. The Lakers winning the NBA championship and celebrating with a parade down Figueroa, both the Angels and Dodgers advancing to their respective league championship series, and USC failing to win the Pac-10 football championship for the first time in eight years were all huge happenings in the City of Angels.

But there are moments in 2009 that precipitated those major events, and might serve to shape the Los Angeles sports landscape for years to come. Here they are: The decisions, the harbingers of successes and failures, and the flashes of greatness that shaped an amazing sports year in L.A.

Feb. 12: Abreu signs bargain-basement deal with Angels

Angels general manager Tony Reagins proved to be an alchemist with his signing of Bobby Abreu. The Halos went panning for gold at the tail end of the free-agent season and found Abreu, who had just completed a six-year, $76 million contract with a solid 2008 season for the Yankees (.296, 20 homers, 100 RBIs). In a historically bad economy and with a glut of free-agent outfielders on the market, the former Home Run Derby champion signed a one-year contract for a modest $5 million.

The veteran outfielder from Venezuela could have been bitter about his dramatic pay cut, but delivered with a spectacular .390 on-base percentage and an OPS of .825. Getting on base with great regularity does not grab headlines the way a 40-homer season does, but I would argue that Abreu's greatest value was the transformational power he had on the team as a whole.

Over the years, the Angels had taken on the personality of the free-swinging Vlad Guerrero at the plate. But suddenly, every player in the Halos' lineup was showing greater selectivity at the plate. As it turns out, plate discipline is contagious, and the result was the most productive offense in baseball. Abreu's new two-year deal with the Angels is well-deserved.

April 9: UCLA's Holiday declares for NBA draft

The UCLA Bruins' streak of appearances at the NCAA Final Four ended at three, as they were unceremoniously bounced from the 2009 Big Dance in the second round by Villanova. That was a disappointing exit for coach Ben Howland's squad given that his top three scorers were experienced seniors: Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya. But there was reason for hope with Jrue Holiday, the 2008 Gatorade High School Player of the Year, returning for 2009-10.

Holiday had an underwhelming freshman season for Howland, averaging only 8.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game. It made sense for him to spend at least one more season to polish his considerable skills and improve his NBA draft stock. He was poised to take over the point guard role for UCLA. At the time, he did not hire an agent, but said, "If you have the possibility of being a lottery pick, why not try it?"

As it turns out, Holiday missed the lottery (he was selected 17th by the Philadelphia 76ers), but he left UCLA anyway. That sealed the deal on what is clearly a "rebuilding" season for the Bruins. And with starting center Drew Gordon's sudden decision to transfer earlier this month, the job became even tougher for Howland.

May 27: Brown posterizes Birdman

It was Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, and the Lakers were coming off a 120-101 loss at Denver. With the series even at 2-2, the soon-to-be world champions were looking for a spark. Down five points with 4:16 left in the third, Pau Gasol made an outlet pass to reserve guard Shannon Brown, who crushed Chris "Birdman" Anderson on a fierce dunk. From that point forward, the purple and gold outscored the Nuggets 35-21, coasting to a 103-94 win at Staples Center. With its will seemingly broken, Denver was blown out by 27 on its home floor in Game 6.

June 11: Fisher's dagger forces overtime in Orlando

Entering Game 4 of the NBA Finals at Amway Arena in Orlando, Fla., point guard Derek Fisher was shooting a miserable 36 percent from the field in the Lakers' 20 playoff games and an even worse 27 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He had become, in some circles, the designated whipping boy, the weak link, the vulnerability that could keep the proud Lakers franchise from claiming its 15th world championship. But D-Fish has an amazing knack at knocking down 3-pointers when there are less than 10 seconds on the clock and the world is riding on it. Not only did the 34-year-old force overtime with a stunning laser-shot 3-ball with 4.6 seconds left in regulation, he drilled another with 31.3 seconds to play in overtime, lifting the Lakers to a 99-91 victory and a 3-1 lead in the series. That overtime, however, never happens without Fisher's somewhat improbable make at the end of regulation.

July 2: Ariza hesitates, winds up in Houston

The 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers could very well have been the same group of guys who earned a parade at the end of last season's heroic playoff run. Trevor Ariza blossomed over the course of the season, from a useful role player to an integral piece of the Lakers' championship puzzle. The Westchester High and UCLA product shot 47.6 percent (40-for-84) from beyond the arc in 23 postseason games, and on defense, his speed and ability to anticipate allowed him to steal two inbounds passes in the Western Conference finals at critical moments in Games 1 and 3.

There is little doubt that the Lakers made an offer to bring the 23-year-old back. The proposal likely called for $28 million over five years, but Ariza's agent, David Lee, believed that constituted only a first -- not final -- offer. When Ariza hesitated, GM Mitch Kupchak moved immediately to Plan B, which was securing the services of Houston free-agent All-Star Ron Artest for $18 million over three years. In the end, Ron-Ron and Ariza essentially switched places.

July 29: Phillies acquire Lee from Indians

While the rest of baseball's general managers circled the Toronto Blue Jays trying to figure out how to steal ace Roy Halladay at baseball's trade deadline, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. pulled off a coup that would carry his Philadelphia team to its second consecutive World Series appearance.

I had asked Dodgers GM Ned Colletti on multiple occasions about Cliff Lee and what he offered the Indians in exchange for the 2008 AL Cy Young winner. Colletti never divulged what prospects he packaged in his effort to secure a true No. 1 starter for L.A.'s postseason run, but he contends it was a very competitive offer.

Lee was nothing short of dazzling for the Phillies, with a 7-4 record and a 3.39 ERA down the stretch. More impressive was his 4-0 postseason mark for Philadelphia, including two victories against the Yankees in the World Series. Had Colletti added one more prospect or changed a name in his trade offer to snag Lee, the Dodgers might have advanced to the World Series for the first time in two decades. They also would have had a premier lefty at the top of the rotation with a cost-controlled $9 million salary for 2010.

Aug. 11: USC's Corp cracks his fibula

Aaron Corp had won the starting quarterback job for the USC Trojans during spring practice. It was his turn to take the reins of the powerful USC juggernaut. There was no real reason to think that true freshman Matt Barkley would unseat Corp as Carroll had never wavered on his starter once he won the job in the spring.

There was plenty of speculation that Barkley was gaining on the redshirt sophomore from Orange Lutheran over the summer, and it was clear Carroll was enamored with Barkley. But if Corp had not cracked his fibula, I believe that he, not the Mater Dei superstar-in-the-making, would have been the first-string signal-caller against San Jose State on Sept. 5 and at Ohio State on Sept. 12. The Trojans' season would have been different, though not necessarily better.

Maybe Corp would have had a short leash, and Carroll would have gone with Barkley to start the second half of the game in Columbus. Or maybe, just maybe, Corp could have been forged into a dual-threat star at the famed Horseshoe, and with that confidence, he could have guided the Trojans to a win at Washington a week later. Instead, with Barkley questionable all week with a bum shoulder, Carroll waited until the last possible moment to name Corp the starter for the Trojans' Week 3 game in Seattle, and USC stumbled to a 16-13 loss.

There will always be a question about the 2009 season. Barkley was clearly USC's quarterback of the future, but did Carroll and the program get ahead of themselves when Corp broke his leg?

Oct. 14: Dodgers co-owners head for divorce court

Strangely, this will always be one of my "I remember exactly where I was" moments from 2009. It was the eve of the start of the National League Championship Series, and the Dodgers were preparing to square off against the defending pennant winners, the Philadelphia Phillies. Many members of the Los Angeles media, including myself, were at a huge party at The Mirage in Las Vegas hosted by the Lakers as they prepared to kick off their new season.

I received a text, possibly the first at the star-studded party to receive the news that Frank and Jamie McCourt were divorcing. At first I thought that it had to be a rumor, but after some checking, I realized that, in fact, a marital civil war had begun. I began flashing my phone around the party, and mouths dropped.

My feelings for the McCourts have not changed. I liked them as a couple, and I still like them individually. How this divorce will affect the future of the historic Dodgers franchise is one of the most important sports questions that we will wrestle with in Los Angeles in 2010, and possibly beyond.

Oct. 22: Schwarzenegger clears way for NFL's return to L.A.

The NFL will potentially return to Los Angeles as soon as the 2011 season, thanks to a swipe of the pen by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Governator signed a bill that eliminated the frivolous lawsuit filed by eight residents of Walnut, Calif., clearing the way for Ed Roski's Majestic Realty to finalize plans for a new 75,000-seat stadium in the City of Industry.

This underreported moment could dramatically reshape the Los Angeles sports scene in the coming years, with Roski beginning substantive talks with prospective teams, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers and others. Majestic will not break ground on the new stadium, near the intersection of the 57 and 60 freeways, until it has an agreement with a team.

As for the proposed new stadium, it will be loaded with the necessary luxury suites, and will be incredibly eco-friendly, actually built into a hillside about 25 miles east of Los Angeles. The return of the NFL to Los Angeles will create as many as 18,000 new jobs and put the city back on the map with America's most powerful sport.

Oct. 31: Masoli shreds USC defense with 26-yard run

With about eight minutes to play in the third quarter at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., the USC Trojans got a 39-yard field goal to pull within a touchdown of the Oregon Ducks. Remember, both teams were 6-1 at that point in the season and the winner would have the inside track for the Pac-10 championship and a berth to the Rose Bowl.

This was the moment for Pete Carroll, a master of second-half adjustments over the years, to get his young defense to stiffen its spine and find a way to stop Chip Kelly's high-powered Ducks offense. A stop is what the Trojans needed. A three-and-out at that point in the game could have changed the complexion of USC's season.

Instead, Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli found a wide-open seam and darted for 26 yards. My sense, from having been around the USC program a lot the past few years, is that this particular play was when the dam broke. For eight years, Carroll's defenses had always found a way to play big in seemingly every big moment of every big game. Here is where everything changed -- at least for this season.

The Ducks would go on to roll up more than 600 yards in total offense in a 47-20 rout. Oregon would go on to win the Pac-10 and represent the conference in Pasadena, while USC would lose two more games, including an even more ineffectual performance against Stanford two weeks later.

Steve Mason is co-host of the "Mason & Ireland Show" on ESPN Radio 710.