10. World Cup—The World Cup doesn’t garner the attention in the States that it does abroad, but more than a few Yanks were captivated in June when USA team-leader Landon Donovan netted a 91st-minute goal to deliver the Americans a first-place finish in Group C and berth in the round of 16.
9. Olympic Hockey—Like soccer, hockey isn’t necessarily America’s favorite game, but the Yanks can skate with the best of ’em. In a thrilling men’s final at the Winter Olympics in British Columbia, the hometown Canadiens eked past the Americans in overtime on a goal by favorite son Sidney Crosby.
8. Chicago Blackhawks—We’re constantly hearing Chicago bemoan the travails of the beloved Cubbies, who are at 103 years (and counting) of solitude without a title. Well, the Hawks, one of the NHL’s storied franchises hadn’t captured one since 1961, but they ended that drought this year, bringing home Lord Stanley’s Cup to the Windy City.
7. Cliff Lee—The Yankees had two cracks at the cool and smooth Lee—first by potential trade and then on the free-agent market—but came up short both times. Instead, the well-travelled Lee ended his protracted march to free agency by choosing to sign with a surprise suitor in the Phillies, with whom he played in 2009.
6. Michael Vick—Love him or hate him, Vick’s journey from mega-star athlete to inmate and back to the top of the football world is astonishing. The Eagles quarterback returned to the NFL in 2009 after being incarcerated for dogfighting but mostly warmed the bench. This year, he reclaimed a starting job—and our awe—as a lethal dual-threat quarterback whose wheels are as swift as his arm is strong. It climaxed Nov. 15 vs. the Redskins, when Vick went 20-for-28 with 333 yards passing, four touchdown tosses, 80 yards rushing and two rushing scores—all on national television on Monday Night Football.
5. Reggie Bush—The big man on campus suddenly seemed very small. Bush forfeited his Heisman Trophy five years after claiming the honor as college football’s dominant dynamic force while a running back and kick returner at USC. The school had already been penalized by the NCAA on account of Bush receiving improper benefits during his playing days with the Trojans, and rather than risk bringing further shame to exclusive Heisman fraternity, he returned the hardware. Bush called the decision “difficult.”
4. San Francisco Giants—Speaking of title droughts, the Giants hadn’t claimed one since 1954, at which time they still resided in Washington Heights. Call it the West Coast Curse, if you will, but a lot of great players—Mays, McCovey and Bonds, to name a few—had come through San Francisco without bringing home a World Series title. That is, until 2010, when a scary-good pitching staff and a rag-tag crew of veterans came together and toppled the Rangers. Moonlight Graham would be so proud.
3. Tiger Woods—The bizarre story of Woods’ infidelity and eventual divorce actually began around Thanksgiving 2009, but it took off once the calendar flipped. Woods was minding his business as the world’s top golfer and highly recognizable pitch man until the salacious details of his various trysts began leaking out. He was absent from the tour until the Masters, when he returned amid much buzz. The season yielded no major titles for Woods, but he emerged from it all contrite, divorced and building a new public image—the kinder, friendlier Woods is now cracking jokes to his fans on Twitter!
2. The Saints—New Orleans bottomed out—as a city and as a team—with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Crescent City was ravaged by the catastrophe, and its favorite squad, the bumbling Saints, were effectively rendered homeless when the Superdome was damaged. The Saints rebuilt themselves in the years that followed, as has much of the city, and it all culminated with a win over the favored Colts and their surgical leader, Peyton Manning, in Super Bowl XLIV. Once known as the ’aints for their wretched on-field travails, the Saints rode golden-boy quarterback Drew Brees and a surprisingly stiff defense to glory.
1. The Decision—It spurned an entire city and spurred a cottage industry of lame copy-cat spoofs. Preposterously billed as The Decision and televised accordingly during primetime, LeBron James’ long-awaited date with free agency culminated with him announcing that he was “taking [his] talents to South Beach” to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. Previously above the fray, James was the target of vitriol from jilted Clevelanders and critics who thought that he had turned a cold shoulder to his hometown Cavs. Whether marketing, winning or something else entirely was at the heart of his decision, James garnered plenty of headlines—but few friends—with The Decision.