Monday, December 26, 2011

Who Are the Real Sportsmen of the Year? Part III

1991 Michael Jordan. The best player in basketball at the time, he finally led the Chicago Bulls to their 1st NBA Championship. Can't disagree with this one.

1992 Arthur Ashe. Another lifetime achievement award (LAA) that SI gave out for SOTY. As I said in Part II, they should have given it to him in 1975, when he deserved it a whole lot more than Pete Rose. Ashe died of complications from AIDS early the next year, and is the most recent SI honoree to die (though not the one who is the most recently deceased).

Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins coached his 3rd Super Bowl winner in 9 years. If SI wanted to go for an achievement of clean consistency by a thoroughly decent man, there's one. Clarence "Cito" Gaston of the Toronto Blue Jays became the 1st black man to manage a World Series winner. If SI wanted to go for a civil rights achievement, there's one. Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins won his 2nd straight Stanley Cup, then, just before the calendar year ran out, came back from Hodgkin's disease to play again. If SI wanted to go for a champion dealing with a potentially fatal illness, there's one -- and this one not only lived, but returned to play at a Hall of Fame pace.

All were worthy of SOTY. Considering that Ashe should have been honored 17 years earlier, and that I've already reflected this fact in my own picks, I'm giving it to Lemieux.

1993 Don Shula. The Miami Dolphins boss surpassed George Halas of the Chicago Bears to become the winningest coach in NFL history, but this was another LAA, and it came 20 years after he could have been so honored, following the Dolphins' 1973 achievement of the undefeated season.

Jacques Demers overcome a learning disability, which prevented him from learning how to read until he was already an NHL coach, to lead the Montreal Canadiens to their 24th Stanley Cup -- their 23rd World Championship meant that they were the most successful franchise in North American sports from May 1986 to October 2000 when the Yankees won their 25th World Series. And they did it the hard way: Beating their Provincial rivals, the Quebec Nordiques, in 6 games including 3 overtime wins; sweeping the Buffalo Sabres but needing 3 more overtime wins; overcoming the New York Islanders (the last time that franchise has gone this far) in 5 games but needing 2 overtime wins (one in double OT); and topping the Los Angeles Kings in the Finals, losing Game 1 and then winning 4 straight, the 1st 3 in OT before winning in regulation at the Montreal Forum.

It was fitting that hockey's greatest franchise won the 100th Anniversary Stanley Cup (especially since the 1st Cup, and several others before the 1909 founding of the Canadiens, were won by teams from Montreal). A team that included such legends and stars as Patrick Roy, Guy Carbonneau, Denis Savard, Vincent Damphousse, Kirk Muller, Mike Keane, John LeClair, Mathieu Schneider and Eric Desjardins had a soft-spoken, determined leader who knew what it was like to refuse to quit. Demers is now a member of the Canadian Senate.

1994 Bonnie Blair and Johan Olav Koss. For the 1st time, the Winter Olympics were held in the even-numbered year between leap years, while the Summer Olympics continue to be held in leap years. SI honored 2 superb speed skaters: Blair remains, to this day, the most successful American female athlete in Olympic history; and Koss thrilled the home crowd at Lillehamer, Norway with his Gold Medals.

In a year that began with the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and the Dallas Cowboys (ugh) winning the Super Bowl, reached its midpoint with the O.J. Simpson murder case and the New York Rangers (ugh-squared) winning the Stanley Cup, and ended with Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig cancelling the postseason due to a strike in which the players, however greedy, had the comparative moral high ground, Blair and Koss were superbly sportsmanlike, and I do not question this decision by SI.

1995 Cal Ripken Jr. Whether Babe Ruth "saved baseball" after the 1920 Black Sox Scandal is dubious. Even more so, Ripken, the Baltimore Orioles shortstop, didn't "save baseball" by continuing to play until breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak of 2,130 games (especially since, due to the strike, while he played in every game available to him, he didn't play from August 12 to the intended end of the season on October 2, or from the intended start of the next season on April 3 through April 24).

Ripken was a very good player for a long time, and while 3,000 hits was enough to make him a legitimate Hall-of-Famer, let's tell the truth: That streak, and the ego he maintained to maintain it, ended up hurting his team.

The real Sportsman of the Year was Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets, whom he led to a 2nd straight NBA Championship, this one (unlike the 1st) alongside his college teammate Clyde Drexler, who, like Hakeem, had previously been 0-for-2 in NBA Finals (in his case, with the Portland Trail Blazers) and had joined with Hakeem to lead the University of Houston's "Phi Slamma Jamma" team to 3 NCAA Final Fours, including 2 Finals, but lost them all.

Hakeem's acts of charity were already well-known, and bringing Clyde the Glide back to his hometown was no act of charity: It was a masterstroke, as the Rockets, who struggled to beat the Patrick Ewing Knicks in 7 games the year before (avenging the NCAA Final to Ewing's Georgetown 10 years before), swept the Shaquille O'Neal-led Orlando Magic.

1996 Eldrick "Tiger" Woods. Tiger won the NCAA individual golf championship at Stanford University and the U.S. Amateur. He had not yet won a professional major, although he would do so in (pardon the pun) roaring fashion at the next year's Masters.

Even if you believe that golf is a sport (and it most certainly is not), this award was premature at best and massively dubious at worst. This was Joe Torre's year to get the award.

1997 Dean Smith. In what turned out to be his final year as a college head coach, the North Carolina boss guided his team to a 13th ACC Tournament Championship and an 11th Final Four, and surpassed Adolph Rupp to become the all-time winningest men's college basketball coach. (He has since been surpassed by Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski.) He won 2 National Championships and coached the U.S. team to the Gold Medal at the 1976 Olympics.

If SI had a separate LAA, the Dean would have been an easy choice. But while he was a fine sportsman who had a great year, it didn't make sense to name him Sportsman of the Year.

After coming close 3 times with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jim Leyland finally got to, and won, a World Series with the Florida Marlins. Coach Mike Holmgren, quarterback Brett Favre, and defensive end Reggie White led the Green Bay Packers to their 1st Super Bowl win in 31 years. Steve Yzerman led the Detroit Red Wings to their 1st Stanley Cup in 42 years.

Despite what we later learned about Favre and White, and the Marlins' spending spree with the promise of breaking them up in the off-season -- leading Dave Rosenbaum to title a book about the team If They Don't Win It's a Shame: The Year the Marlins Bought the World Series -- any of these potential selections would have been better for a single year. I'm going with Yzerman, the longest-serving Captain in NHL history, and a total class act for nearly 30 years now.

1998 Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. So Ripken didn't quite "save baseball," but the Mac & Sammy Show did? What we now know about Mac, and what we now suspect about Sammy, should be irrelevant, every bit as much as what happened to Pete Rose didn't cause SI to strip him of his 1975 honor, or what O.J. did in 1994 would not have made a difference had he gotten SOTY for his 2,003-yard rushing performance in 1973.

But did Roger Maris get SOTY for hitting 61 homers in 1961? No. Did Hank Aaron get it for reaching 715 homers in 1974? No. Even if you believe Jerry Lucas in '61 and Muhammad Ali in '74 were worthy honorees, the fact remains that Maris and Aaron were not so honored, and Maris, at least, won the World Series. Sosa did get the Chicago Cubs into the Playoffs, but McGwire's St. Louis Cardinals... Refresh my memory, did McGwire hit 70 homers while the Cards won 83 games, or did he hit 83 homers while the Cards won just 70? For all practical purposes, there's no difference: In spite of his individual achievement, his team did not reach the postseason.

Having already given the award to Torre for 1996, I'm not going to give it to him for 1998. Derek Jeter? Not just yet. How about John Elway? He finally got his ring, and then led the Broncos to a 14-2 regular season in what everyone presumed (correctly, as it turned out) would be his last season. A LAA? Not really: Had Elway been named SOTY, it would have been totally deserved. He was a winner and a sportsman.

1999 U.S. Women's Soccer Team. They won the World Cup, in front of the highest live attendance (90,185 at the Rose Bowl) and the largest TV audience ever for a women's sporting event, and offered what should be the final proof that a woman can be athletic and feminine at the same time. Or, as Rick Reilly put it in SI:

Admit it. You were thinking, Joe Torre in heels. You figured when a U.S. women's team finally broke through, one that made even the truck drivers care, it would be a bunch of women with Bronko Nagurski shoulders and five o'clock shadows. Well, the revolution is here, and it has bright-red toenails. And it shops. And it carries diaper bags. The U.S. women's soccer team is towing the country around by the heart in this Women's World Cup, and just look at the players. They've got ponytails! They've got kids! They've got (gulp) curves!

Captain Carla Overbeck crawls across a magazine page in a leopard-skin dress. Midfielder Julie Foudy calls the team "booters with hooters." Lethal scorer Mia Hamm makes PEOPLE'S 50 Most Beautiful. Midfielder Brandi Chastain shows up in the pages of Gear wearing only a soccer ball, which gets her on Letterman, who sends Late Night shirts to the whole team, which snaps a picture of the players apparently wearing only the shirts and cleats, which causes Letterman to refer to them forevermore as "Babe City."

"Hey, I ran my ass off for this body," says Chastain. "I'm proud of it."

This team is a wonderful combination of Amazonian ambush and after-prom party. "We're women who like to knock people's heads off and then put on a skirt and go dance," says Chastain.

With all due respect to what Derek Jeter, Kurt Warner, Tim Duncan and anybody else achieved in that calendar year, this was the year a soccer ball shattered the glass ceiling. I dare you to tell Chastain her team didn't deserve the Sportspeople of the Year award. She's 43 now, still playing, and broadcasting, is married with 2 kids... and could probably throttle you if she so desired. Go ahead, tell her, I dare you.

2000 Tiger Woods. This is the only time SI has given the award to a previous winner. He won the last 3 of the 4 majors, and then won the Masters the next year to become the 1st-ever holder of all 4 titles, even if he didn't quite do it all in the same year to form a true "Grand Slam." (This became known as the "Tiger Slam," which is certainly better than the infamous "Saturday Slam" of Greg Norman.)

But until Tiger, or any other golfer, tries to take a shot with Justin Verlander throwing the ball at him at 95 miles an hour, or with Ray Lewis bearing down on him at full prowl, or tries to put the ball in a hole guarded by Dwight Howard or Tim Thomas, he is playing a game... not a sport. You don't give Sportsman of the Year to a poker player, do you? No matter how successful.

Only one man has ever won the Most Valuable Player award of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game and its World Series in the same year. That's Derek Jeter of the 2000 World Champion New York Yankees. Derek would be honored by SI in 2009, but this was the year he deserved it most.

2001 Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. As dominating as they were in the 2001 World Series, to call either man a "sportsman" is absolutely laughable.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of choice. The Super Bowl MVP was Ray Lewis, who was coming off criminal charges. The NBA Finals were won by Shaq, Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers -- no sportsmen they, and of course they cheated again. There was no Triple Crown winner in horse racing, no Olympics, no World Cup, and boxing was a mess, as it had pretty much been for the 10 years before and the 10 years since.

And to give SOTY to Ray Bourque, whose achievement of finally winning the Stanley Cup after 22 years of superb hockey, and still being a major contributor to his team, while not entirely undeserved would, essentially, have been another LAA. I could give it to the Colorado Avalanche's Captain, Joe Sakic, instead of teammate Bourque. So I'll go with Sakic, who was also, in this year, selected as Canada's Captain for the upcoming Olympics, which they won.

2002 Lance Armstrong. Since I've already honored Yzerman, none of the Anaheim Angels was a standout choice, the Lakers won again, we now know that the New England Patriots are a bunch of dirty cheaters, and not that many Americans knew Ronaldinho's name (or nickname), and we still don't know for sure that Armstrong was doping, I'm going to let this one stand.

2012 UPDATE: Now we know. My replacement choice is Sarah Hughes, who won the women's figure skating Gold Medal.

2003 David Robinson and Tim Duncan. They led the San Antonio Spurs to their 2nd NBA Championship, all in the last 5 seasons. Robinson retired, and Duncan would make it 4 in 9. Both are distinguished, charitable individuals whose careers have never had a hint of scandal, and all lifted a community (West Texas) which has just this one major league sports team. I cannot question this honor.

2004 Boston Red Sox. At the time, even a sick, twisted, demented Yankee Fan like myself would have had a hard time doubting that they deserved it. Now we know: They cheated, they lied about it, they got caught, and they're still lying about it. We also know that Tom Brady, honored the next year and could have been honored for this year, benefited from cheating.

I'm giving it to Joe Dumars: In the late 1980s and early '90s, the idea of anyone associated with the Detroit Pistons getting SOTY was ludicrous. But Joe put together a team that, like the early 1970s Knicks, stressed team harmony over individual egos, and they beat the Lakers, a team so loaded it was considered "inevitable" champions. You know, just like the 2011 Miami Heat.

Go ahead: Tell me that Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Lindsey Hunter, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince or Mehmet Okur is going to the Basketball Hall of Fame. At the moment, you can't. But that's 7 superb players, and they triumphed over sure HOFers Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.

2005 Tom Brady. Brady and the New England Patriots, early in the year, had won their 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years, and Brady his 2nd SB MVP. But since "Spygate," we can't taken any of the Pats' achievements in the Belichick/Brady Era seriously.

The World Series winner? The Chicago White Sox. No overwhelming star, and manager Ozzie Guillen isn't exactly a sportsman. The NBA Champions? The Spurs, and we've already honored Duncan. The BCS winners? We now know that USC was cheating. The World Cup winners? The horse racing Triple Crown? The Olympic Gold Medalists? The undisputed heavyweight champion of the world? The Stanley Cup winner? There weren't any, of any of those. (This was the year the entire NHL season was canceled.)

And while a European sports magazine might have honored Steven Gerrard for the way he willed Liverpool FC from 3-0 down to win the Champions League Final, 99 percent of Americans didn't know who he was at the time.

While I haven't given my SOTY to Dean Smith, as much as I admire him, I'm giving the 2005 edition to Roy Williams, who did in this year what Smith did in 1982: Lead North Carolina to the 1st of 2 National Championships. And, unlike Smith, Williams can still win a 3rd.

2006 Dwyane Wade. In 2011, honoring a star of the Miami Heat would have been a sick joke. In 2006, it was a good choice.

2007 Brett Favre. At the time, it seemed like a good choice, if something of a LAA. In retrospect, who's kidding who? Whereas Peyton Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to their 1st Super Bowl (their 2nd, and their 4th World Championship if you count their Baltimore years), and has been an exemplar of stellar and fair play since arriving in the NFL in 1999. He has always "cut that meat." As opposed to Favre, whom we now know to have, uh, done something else with meat.

2008 Michael Phelps. Eight Olympic races, eight Gold Medals. Good guy, too. Except for the pot. I'm not taking this award away.

2009 Derek Jeter. Great award, but I've already given it to him for 2000, so I have to give it to someone else. I'm going with Troy Polamalu, the heart and soul of the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers (2nd win in this generation, 6th overall) and probably the most famous living person of Samoan descent. Certainly, the safety is a better choice than 2 of his prominent teammates from that game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (issues with women) and Santonio Holmes (also got into criminal trouble). I could make it a joint award with Polamalu and receiver Hines Ward.

2010 Drew Brees. What he's done for the people of the New Orleans area is immense -- and that's before you get into the football playing. A completely deserving award, especially when you consider the Saints' history before he got there.

2011 Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt. As I said, 2 good choices for LAA, but neither was the sportsman of this year. Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers was -- unless he's hiding a criminal, pharmaceutical, or otherwise scandalous secret.

I'll have one final entry, as an overview.

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