The Biggest Sports Stories of 2007

I used to call my year-end roundup the "Best" stories of the year. That description just doesn't seem to fit anymore. Too many of these are far closer to being "worst" and engender only unhappy feelings. So here are my 30 "Biggest"—numbers 30 thru 11 today and my Top 10 to follow next week. And here's my annual disclaimer: it's my list reflecting my opinions. It's totally subjective. Feel free to disagree and feel free to tell me about it. But let me tell you first that for all my conspicuous sophistication, I really don't care about the big cricket match. Now, the list:

30) Not Bode-ing Well Skier
Bode Miller is having his breakaway season. Arguably the best American skier ever, Miller has now glided away from the American team, with its rules and procedures, which he insists have hampered him, and gone solo on the tour. Miller and the team became an uncomfortable fit after Bode mailed it in at the 2006 Torino Olympics—no medals in five races—while winning gold on the nightly party circuit. He needs only two more World Cup wins to be the top American skier ever, but so far no good—Miller has yet to win a Cup race as an independent.

29) Only the Fans Aren't Laughing
The reign of Jimmy Dolan and his chosen boss Isiah Thomas has seen the New York Knicks transformed into the NBA's laughingstock. The team is an embarrassment on the court—and even worse off it. The franchise just settled a lawsuit by a former woman exec for $11.5 million—only not soon enough. Not before it had lost in court. And not until everybody had gotten a vision of the Garden's Animal House atmosphere and heard Thomas explain why it's OK for a black man to call a black woman a "bitch." Fans now come to the Garden bearing pink slips for Thomas.

28) The Risin' of the Green
After almost two decades of painful irrelevance, the most storied and accomplished franchise in NBA history is back. With a new Big Three—Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce—leading the way, the Boston Celtics boast the league's best record and are viewed as a contender for what would be Boston's 17th title—but its first since the Larry Bird heyday back in 1986. Credit team boss Danny Ainge, who landed perennial all-stars Garnett and Allen by trading promising kids to teams that were cleaning house. With the standards set by the Red Sox and Patriots, Ainge realized that the future is now.

27) Duck Soup
Anaheim stopped telling the hockey world it was "mighty" and finally showed it, having its way with the Ottawa Senators to win the Stanley Cup in five games. For a league that has sunk to a decidedly second tier, the NHL couldn't have been thrilled with another decidedly unsexy matchup in the Cup finals (following Carolina-Edmonton and Tampa Bay-Calgary). But then again, anything is better than a strike year.

26) Of Bars and Beams
In the previous world team gymnastics championship, the favored American women were upset by China. This year, at the worlds in Stuttgart, the American ladies returned the favor. The two teams are tops in the world, setting up what will be the most anticipated American-Chinese duel at the Beijing Olympics in August.

25) Runners-Up and Still Champions
The Rutgers University women's basketball team was still licking its wounds after losing to Tennessee in the NCAA finals when Don Imus chimed in. Imus's racist and misogynistic remarks on the lady Scarlet Knights put the coach and the team on a far bigger stage than the basketball game did. This time, with class and dignity, Rutgers triumphed. And Imus, for his sins (present and past) lost his gig.

24) Pound for Pound, Dollar for Dollar
The much ballyhooed meeting of Oscar de la Hoya and Floyd Mayweather for the welterweight championship was boxing's biggest pay-per-view seller ever. While Mayweather won the decision, confirming his stature as the best "pound for pound" fighter in the game, the fight was largely technical and light on action. Mayweather gave fans more of what they want in his next bout, knocking out undefeated Englishman Ricky Hatton. In the amateur ranks two Americans won gold medals at the World Boxing Championships—the first gold for U.S. fighters in eight years. But the most unlikely American fight news occurred in virtual obscurity, in Azerbaijan, where the American Greco-Roman wrestling team won gold at the world championships.

23) A Paralympian First
Fifteen-year-old Jessica Long became the first paralympian ever to win the AAU's Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete. Long beat out such notables as Michael Phelps, Sasha Cohen, Apolo Ohno, Joakim Noah and Hannah Teter. Long, who had both legs amputated below the knee when she was just 18 months old, won nine gold medals at last year's International Paralympic Swimming Championships and, at the time of the award held 12 world records.

22) No Hope in China
The U.S. women's soccer team cruised into the semifinals of the World Cup in China. Then coach Greg Ryan had a brainstorm, or perhaps a brain glitch. He stunned the team by benching goalkeeper Hope Solo, who had played every minute of the tournament, in favor of veteran Briana Scurry, a hero of the 1999 World Cup. It's not clear Solo would have made any difference, though she was impolitic enough to suggest she would have. Regardless, Brazil ran circles around the American team and kicked it 4-0. The U.S. team pulled itself together to win the bronze medal for the second straight World Cup. The disappointing result, coupled with the controversy, cost the coach his job. Solo, who was booted off the team after her public complaints, is now back, playing for coach Pia Sundhage, a Swede and the first foreigner ever to lead the U.S. women.

21) An Old Favreite Revived
It had gotten to the point where each year Bret Favre would agonize over whether he would return to the NFL fray for one more season, and each year we fans would groan when he decided to play. But this year Favre—39 years old and playing his 16th season for the Green Bay Packers—has staged an extraordinary revival. Leading an unseasoned team short on veteran receivers and established running backs, Favre has passed for more than 4,000 yards (and surpassed Dan Marino to become no. 1 in NFL history in passing yardage) while leading the Pack back to the playoffs.

20) Driver Supreme
Jimmie Johnson is the undisputed king of the NASCAR circuit, catching his mentor, Jeff Gordon, with a brilliant stretch run. He won four consecutive races—nos. six through nine in the Nextel Cup series—to give him 10 victories for the season and allow him a nice Sunday drive in the season's finale to secure the Cup. There was history on the Formula One circuit, too, where Lewis Hamilton became the first black driver to capture a race and, at 22, emerged as dominant performer. But Hamilton's success was overshadowed by spying scandals involving his McLaren team. The World Motor Sports Council hit McLaren with a $100 million fine, the biggest in the history of sports.

19) Return of the Yellow
Floyd Landis still has one appeal left, but he was officially stripped of his 2006 Tour de France championship and banned from racing in France until 2009. Landis had made character a centerpiece of his defense. But that tactic crumbled when former Tour champ Greg Lemond testified at a hearing that Landis's business manager had tried to keep Lemond from appearing by threatening to reveal incidents of sexual abuse in Lemond's childhood. Meanwhile, the 2007 Tour was marred by more drug incidents, and even the winner, Spaniard Alberto Contador, faced allegations of links to a drug scandal in his home country. Meanwhile, former Danish star Bjarne Riis revealed he used illegal drugs in winning the 1996 Tour. Sponsors fled cycling in droves.

18) Tracks of Our Cheers
America's Tyson Gay restored sprinting supremacy to America by winning the 100 and 200 meters at the World Track and Field Championships in Osaka, Japan. But the biggest double came at longer distances, where America has not competed successfully for ages. Bernard Lagat, a native Kenyan who became an American citizen in 2004, became the first U.S. runner ever to win the 1,500 meters at worlds. Then he stunned the field by cruising to victory again at 5,000 meters. "A dream come true," said Lagat, who hopes to help rekindle distance running in this country.

17) The Spitz Challenge
We are heading into an Olympic year, which means swimming will once again glide onto the sports radar. Michael Phelps, the biggest pool star in Athens, with six golds and eight medals overall, is just 23 years old and ready again to challenge the legend of Mark Spitz. At the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, Phelps matched Spitz's seven gold medals from the 1972 Olympics—and broke five world records to boot.

16) Soccer Spice
The biggest name in international soccer washed up on American shores to play in the humble MLS. The big question: at 32 was David Beckham washed up? The former captain of England's squad couldn't provide much of answer, as he was injured most of the season and his L.A. Galaxy didn't even make the playoffs. But he and his wife, Posh Spice, were certifiable A-list celebrities on the L.A. circuit, hanging out with the likes of Tom Cruise. Beckham, after being unceremoniously dumped by his national team, was recalled by England for critical qualifying matches for the European championships. Alas, England flopped, losing a 3-2 heartbreaker to Croatia (at Wembley, no less) to miss out on the big tournament. In another sport Americans care even less about, England disappointed too, this time with more of an excuse. At the rugby World Cup final in Paris, England was defeated 15-6 by a powerhouse South Africa team.

15) A Terrible Gamble
NBA basketball, with its combination of speed and physical play, is a challenge for any NBA referee. But former NBA ref Tim Donaghy wasn't always trying to get it right—just to deliver the goods. Donaghy pleaded guilty to two federal felony charges related to gambling and admitted that he not only sold information to gamblers but tried to fix the outcome of certain games. The NBA and the feds concluded that the Donaghy case was no more than one rotten apple, but any rot leaves a stench. Basketball was not alone in possible gambling woes. Tennis is investigating allegations of match-fixing. And at year's end the Big Ten football conference was looking into a possible refereeing scandal.

14) Spurred On to New Heights
They are sports' least sexy champions in a league that has celebrated better days. Still, the Spurs, behind Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, embody the best of the modern game: team-oriented and top-to-bottom international. The two don't appear to be unrelated. Winning their third NBA championship in the past five seasons, the Spurs boasted players from the U.S. Virgin Islands, France, Argentina, the Netherlands and Slovenia. It was all too much for LeBron James, who, at 23 and in his fourth year in the league, showed his brilliance by leading an ordinary Cleveland Cavs team all the way to the finals.

13) Déjà Vu All Over Again
This would be a Top Tenner if it weren't so predictable. We will be writing these very same names—Tiger Woods and Roger Federer—again in 2008, just as we did in 2006. Woods, the greatest golfer in history, opened the year with his seventh consecutive tournament triumph, took the PGA for his 13th major win and captured the new FedEx Cup despite skipping one of its four tournaments. Federer, who will be the greatest tennis player in history as soon as he wins a French Open, ran his Grand Slam total to an even dozen. He did lose for the second consecutive year to Rafael Nadal in the French final. But Federer won the Australian without losing a set, beat Nadal in five sets for his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title and then added his fourth consecutive U.S. Open crown. In their respective sports Woods and Federer are in a class by themselves. There was some class exhibited on the women's side, too. Belgium's Justine Henin kept her no. 1 ranking and won two majors and more than $5 million. Each of the Williams sisters had a shining moment: Serena wining the Australian as a nonseeded entry and Venus wining her fourth Wimbledon. In golf, Mexico's Loren Ochoa topped $4 million in winnings, for a new ladies record.

12) Scorched Earth
Perfection was supposed to be a remnant of a bygone NFL era, impossible to achieve in this age of free agency, salary caps and parity. But at 14-0 the New England Patriots are two games away from becoming only the second team to finish the regular season unbeaten. (The '72 Dolphins went 14-0.) Whatever added motivation Coach Bill Belichick's team may have needed, beyond last year's disappointment in Indy, it got in the first game of this season, in which the Pats were accused of spying on the Jets and punished by the NFL commissioner. The Pats responded with nothing except an apparent commitment—with quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Randy Moss leading the charge—to punish every team they played. If the Pats go 19-0, it will be regarded as the greatest season in NFL history—and a guaranteed no. 1 in this count next year.

11) The End of a Pinstriped Era
Joe Torre had won nine straight A.L. East division titles, 10 in his 11 previous seasons at the helm of the New York Yankees. But when his 2007 version of the Yankees couldn't catch the Red Sox, Joe got an offer he could only refuse. Torre got to deliver his no-thanks to the next Steinbrenner generation, as, at season's end, owner George Steinbrenner turned over operations to his two sons. Torre wasn't unemployed for long, jumping coasts to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Leaving, and then not, was Alex Rodriguez, who earlier had appeared to be long gone after declaring free agency. But the Yankee third baseman either had a change of heart, as he insists, or a rude awakening to the possibility that the league wasn't awaiting him with open wallets. So A-Rod, who won this third A.L. MVP this season settled for another record deal—some $300 million—with the Yankees. That means he will likely be wearing pinstripes if and when he catches Barry Bonds as baseball's home run king. But the wisdom of the deal and the measure of the man will ultimately be determined by how many World Series rings he wins in New York.

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