The year in sports: 2003 marked by scandals, glory and thrills

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Deliciously scandalous, terribly tragic, and occasionally comic, the sports world in 2003 boiled over with stories of murder, rape, drugs, cheating, gambling, boozing and buffoonery.

Sports beats merged with police beats in strange places:

A rock quarry near Waco, Texas, where the body of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy was found;

A courthouse in Eagle, Colo., where Kobe Bryant faced a charge of sexual assault;

A laboratory and grand jury room in San Francisco, where Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and dozens of other pro and Olympic athletes were linked to a probe involving steroids;

The coaching ethics-challenged campuses of Georgia, St. Bonaventure, Fresno State, Michigan, Iowa State and Washington;

And, not to be forgotten, a strip joint in Florida where Mike Price partied too heartily and lost his Alabama football dream job even before he settled in.

The sports landscape oozed muck from coast to coast, January to December.

Yet get past the garbage and 2003 was a year of uncommon glory and thrills in all the right places:

Lance Armstrong, climbing the Pyrenees and cruising into Paris for a fifth straight Tour de France.

The soul of a champion shone through when Armstrong took a spill in the hills. Clipping a road-hugging fan's bag, he fell over, bloodied his left elbow, grazed his hip, and wiped out another rider, the clatter of bikes scratching against the roar of the crowd.

Armstrong's fight-or-flight instincts kicked in, his heart pumped faster, and he felt ''a big, big rush of adrenaline.'' For days he had looked haggard. Now he fought and he flew, a mad man six miles from the finish on a grotesque 99-mile climb through the Pyrenees.

''Lance,'' he told himself, ''if you want to win the Tour de France, do it today.''

He did it that day and promised to do it again next year.

Annika Sorenstam, all poise and joy in her PGA Tour adventure.

She won two majors to complete the LPGA career Grand Slam and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, but nothing compared to that historic moment in May when she became the first woman in 58 years to tee off on the men's tour.

She wasn't trying to prove anything to others as much as she was seeking to measure herself, yet she did more for women's golf with that drive at the Colonial than Martha Burk had hoped to do at Augusta National.

For two days, the course crackled with electricity and the galleries grew to eight deep on some holes. She shot 71-74 and missed the cut, but no one, except perhaps male chauvinist Vijay Singh, considered her performance under extraordinary pressure anything less than a triumph.

''I've climbed as high as I can,'' she said, ''and it was worth every step.''

Ohio State battling Miami in double overtime to win the college football championship at the start of the year; Oklahoma, LSU and Southern Cal tangled in a Bowl Championship Series mess at the end of the year.

For 3 1/2 seconds in January at the Fiesta Bowl, Miami was national champion once again. Then a flag came flying, the celebration was halted and one of college football's greatest games kept going and going and going.

When it finally ended, Ohio State winning 31-24, no one was quite sure which play was the biggest. In all, there were 32 plays that could have been the final snap of the game.

''I just said somebody has to make a play, let everyone step up,'' Ohio State All-American safety Michael Doss said. ''At least once a week we have one play where it's the last play in the world and it means everything. We stepped up to the challenge.''

Tiger Woods shooting blanks at all the slams but still grinding out enough incredible golf to win his fifth straight PGA player of the year.

''There's a tremendous amount of satisfaction because it just shows that guys on the tour respect that I was consistent, that I've won numerous times,'' Woods said.

He hardly slumped, as some claimed, despite failing to win a major for the first time since 1998. Most golfers would give anything for an ''off-year'' like his, with a tour-leading five victories.

Andy Roddick, the glib dude with the huge serve, the pop star girlfriend and the wily guru, winning the U.S. Open and finishing the year No. 1.

''Maybe I snuck up on some people,'' Roddick said. ''I'm ecstatic about it.''

Roddick's rise coincided with Pete Sampras' official retirement and cushioned for American fans the absence of injured Serena and Venus Williams from the U.S. Open. Serena won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, but the No. 1 ranking went to Justine Henin-Hardenne, who beat Kim Clijsters in all-Belgian women's finals at the French and U.S. Open.

The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, trying to shake their hated image as lovable losers, struck down in seven-game playoffs by the finger of fate and the hands of a fan.

They came so close to meeting each other in the World Series in a kinship of mutual suffering. Instead, they each found ways to lose again.

Indecision by Boston manager Grady Little and too much pride by pitcher Pedro Martinez brought the Red Sox down even after they led 5-2 in the eighth inning against the Yankees in Game 7 of the AL championship series.

At Wrigley Field, the Cubs, were five outs from their first World Series in 58 years, leading 3-0 in Game 6, when left fielder Moises Alou lost a foul fly to a fan and shortstop Alex Gonzalez made an error. Eight runs later, the Cubs were good as gone.

The Florida Marlins winning the World Series with young Josh Beckett on the mound, old Jack McKeon in the dugout and a low-budget team that beat the haughty Yankees in their own house.

''You'll believe me now that anything can happen,'' the cigar-puffing McKeon said after the 23-year-old Beckett threw a five-hitter on three days' rest to close out the Yankees 2-0 in Game 6 of the World Series. ''This guy has the guts of a burglar.''

The burglar walked away with the Series MVP.

Roger Clemens going out grandly even in defeat, throwing a 94 mph fastball for a strikeout in the series to cap a Hall of Fame-bound career with 310 victories and 4,099 strikeouts.

The stadium sparkled with flashbulbs as thousands of fans photographed his first and last pitches. Clemens acknowledged the crowd in Miami with a curtain call, doffing his cap to the fans and to several Marlins who had tipped their caps to him.

''When you battle like I have over my career and you get the respect from your peers, that's all you can ask for,'' Clemens said.

Bonds playing to the point of exhaustion, watching his father-coach Bobby die from cancer and honoring him with a sixth MVP season.

Funny Cide on the track and Seabiscuit in a book and movie, two marvelous horses for the common people giving Thoroughbred racing a badly needed boost.

The Tampa Bay Bucs, led by genius du jour Jon Gruden, making the Oakland Raiders look bad in the Super Bowl, then looking miserable themselves this season.

''There's a fine line between winning and losing. It's a hard lesson that we've learned if some of us didn't understand that,'' Gruden said. ''But we'll regroup. We'll respond. We'll reload if we have to, and we'll come back next season better than ever, I hope.''

Tim Duncan and David Robinson, showing their class and teamwork on the way to the NBA title.

LeBron James growing up fast with the Cleveland Cavaliers after wrapping up a high-flying high school career with his Hummer, throwback jerseys, nationally televised games, $90 million shoe deal, and the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

Syracuse surprising everyone at the Final Four, and Carmelo Anthony coming out strong in the pros, playing ''Top This'' with his buddy LeBron.

Diana Taurasi taking Connecticut to the top again in the women's Final Four.

''I don't know what the limit is anymore,'' UConn coach Geno Auriemma said in April. ''I watched my good friend Jim Boeheim win a national championship (at Syracuse) and he's been coaching 100 years and he finally got what every coach in America dreams of.

''Here I am sitting here, for us to have four of them, and thinking, you know, now I've got to do more than that.''

One day everything in sports was lovely, and the next day there was scandal and panic. The year lurched from celebrations to arrests and firings and back again. It was the kind of year when it paid to have a selective memory, filtering out the ugly and remembering only the grandeur of the champions and games.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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