Starr: Top 10 Sports Stories of 2008

10) The Fastest Man on No Legs
For Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee known as "Blade Runner," the biggest victory came not on the track but in court. Last March the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that there was insufficient evidence that his artificial legs provided the sprinter with any advantage, making him eligible to compete in open competitions including the Olympics. But Pistorius's best efforts in the 400 meters came up 0.7 seconds short of Olympic standards. Instead, Pistorius competed in the Paralympics in Beijing, where he swept the 100, 200 and 400 meters. Another South African, Natalie du Toit, who lost a leg in a scooter accident in 2001, qualified for the Olympics in the 10-kilometer open swim and finished 16th. She remained in Beijing for the Paralympics where she won five gold medals.

9) A Comeback to Remember
Since it is, above all, a gambling event, the 2008 NCAA men's basketball tournament proved something of a snoozer. Only Davidson, a 10th seed which reached the Elite Eight, made any real upset noise, and, for the first time since complete tournament seeding began in 1979, all four No. 1's reached the Final Four. It didn't get any more exciting when both semifinals were double-digit romps—for Memphis (over UCLA) and Kansas (over North Carolina). And the final didn't appear destined to provide any dramatics either as Memphis was cruising with a nine-point lead with a couple of minutes remaining in the game. But while Memphis stumbled down the stretch at the free-throw line, Kansas hit all its shots—including a Mario Chalmers three-pointer with two seconds left to send the game into overtime. The Jayhawks then coasted to a 75-68 victory, the school's fifth national championship and its first in 20 years.

8) You Can Now Spell Team ' U-S-A '
After a long stretch of international competition in which American national teams had become something of an embarrassment, losing crown after cup after championship in sports that our country had invented or at least dominated, the Beijing Games signaled a welcome reversal of fortune. Led by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the U.S. men's basketball team, which had won back-to-back bronze medals at the previous Olympics and worlds, played like a dream and bested world champ Spain for the gold medal. The U.S. women's soccer team won gold, too, beating Brazil 1-0 in overtime to avenge a thrashing in the 2007 World Cup. The most remarkable U.S. triumph belonged to the men's volleyball team, which had last won a medal—and that one a bronze—in 1992, The team went undefeated, rallying behind its coach, Hugh McCutcheon after his father-in-law had been stabbed to death by a deranged man at a Beijing tourist attraction. A month later at the Ryder Cup, the Tiger-less American team, which had lost three straight and five of the last six competitions to less ballyhooed Europeans, romped to victory. Among the unlikely heroes: Hunter Mahan, Anthony Kim and Boo Weekley.

7) Finally, Philly
The World Series was a lackluster affair, thanks to bad weather, late night (or early morning) finishes and a rules confusion that proved another embarrassment for Major League Baseball. While four of the five games were competitive, the Series drew the lowest TV ratings in its history. What excitement there was revolved primarily around the two teams. For the Philadelphia Phillies, the triumph snapped an unusual civic losing streak. Philly's four major teams had not won a title since the 76ers won the NBA crown in 1983. But the loser's story was more remarkable: the first winning season in franchise history for the Tampa Bay Rays was a worst-to-first leap that sent the Rays past their powerhouse division rivals, Boston and New York.

6) Roger Down, But Not Out
Roger Federer ruled the tennis roost for a record 237 weeks, until late this year when he finally lost his No. 1 ranking to Spain's Rafael Nadal. Nadal earned his ascension, once again beating the Swiss superstar on clay at the French Open, then besting him for the first time on grass at Wimbledon, where Federer had won five straight titles. It was a one-for-the-ages final that took almost five hours before Nadal prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. Federer's season wasn't a total loss, though. In September, he breezed to his fifth straight U.S. Open title; his 13th Grand Slam championship put him just one behind the record held by Pete Sampras.

5) Limping the Distance and More
One couldn't imagine a more unlikely pair dueling for golf's prestigious U.S. Open title: the world's best player, Tiger Woods, pursuing his 14th major title (and Jack Nicklaus's record of 18), and Rocco Mediate, an amiable journeyman who, at 46, had six career wins on the PGA tour and whose best finish in a major was 15th place. It was actually Woods who had to sink a 12-foot birdie on the final hole to force an 18-hole playoff. Still, most fans expected Mediate to crumble, just like virtually every other golfer who has gone head to head with Tiger, and they weren't surprised when Rocco fell three strokes back after only eight holes. But once again it was Tiger who needed a birdie on the 18th—no problem from four feet this time—to force a 19th where he would finally prevail. Fans were unaware of the full extent of Woods's struggle. Woods, who had returned from knee surgery only a few months earlier was trying to hide a limp and was in pain throughout the tournament—and the Open was his last stand of the season.

4) D é j à Vu All Over Again
In the 1980s, Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird's Boston Celtics would capture eight championships between them, resurrecting a storied NBA rivalry that had seen those two teams meet in seven finals between 1959 and 1969 (with Boston winning all of them). But while the Lakers, behind Shaq and Kobe had celebrated a championship three-peat in the new millennium, the Celtics had faded into irrelevance. Even after Boston added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, to bolster Paul Pierce, nobody was sure the veteran trio of all-stars would mesh. They more than meshed, they soared, leading the Celtics to the league's best record and a meeting in the finals with a Lakers team that had breezed through the tougher Western Conference. But the underdog Celtics, with a record comeback on the Lakers' home court and astonishing 39-point demolition in the finale, took out L.A. in six games for the franchise's record 17th title.

3) Bolt of Lightning
His was the perfect name, yet it still didn't do justice to Usain Bolt's astonishing Olympic performance. The gangly, 21-year-old Jamaican became the first sprinter to shatter world records in both the 100 and the 200 at the same Olympics. He won the gold in 9.69 despite slowing and beginning his celebration some five meters before the finish—experts agreed that had he just kept running he might have run 9.55 or better. Several misguided folks, including the stodgy IOC president Jacques Rogge, criticized Bolt for showboating and displaying a lack of respect for his opposition. So Bolt toed the line in the 200 meters and—on his 22nd birthday—ran 19.30 to break Michael Johnson's hallowed record. He capped his week—another gold medal, another world record—with a brilliant leg on Jamaica's 4x100 relay team.

2) Giant Upset
It was one of the three greatest upsets in Super Bowl History, rivaling the Jets over the Colts in Super Bowl III and the Patriots over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Yet it was even more than that because the New York Giants' 17-14 win knocked the New England Patriots off an unprecedented perch. Had the Pats pulled off the first perfect 19-0 season, they would have been enshrined as the greatest team in league history with a dynasty second to none. Sure the upset required a miracle play that combined a Houdini-like escape from defensive clutches by quarterback Eli Manning and a freaky face-plant catch by spare-parts receiver David Tyree. Still, the win was no fluke. The Giants defensive line held Patriots runners to less than three yards a carry and harassed quarterback Tom Brady all night, sacking the league MVP five times. And when the Pats needed a miracle of their own in the final minute, New York shut down Brady and his record-setting offense.

1) Golden Week in Beijing
It was hardly unimaginable that Michael Phelps could surpass the legendary Mark Spitz by winning eight Olympic gold medals. After all, a year earlier, at the world championships in Melbourne, Australia, Phelps had won seven golds and only lost his shot at an almost-certain eighth after a teammate was disqualified in a relay heat. What nobody could quite imagine was the sensational way his triumph unfolded. It played out like an old fashioned serial with daily installments, highlighted by near-perfect execution—seven world records and one Olympic record—and extraordinary drama. Twice Phelps's record chase appeared in jeopardy. The first time, in the 4x100 meter relay, American anchor Jason Lezak bailed his teammate out, swimming the fastest relay leg in history to catch the French world record-holder from almost a full body length back. And in the 100-meter butterfly it was Phelps who had to do his own catching, touching out his Serbian rival by the narrowest possible margin of 0.01 seconds. Phelps achievement not only tops this list, but, arguably, stands as the greatest Olympic performance in history.

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