Ranking the top 10 sports stories of the past decade

2000-2009: Triumph, tragedy and lots of joy

December 27, 2009|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Did the past decade really go by this fast? Wasn't it just yesterday when the parade celebrating the Ravens' Super Bowl victory rolled through downtown with 200,000 packed in along the route? Maybe it just seems like it because the Ravens teased us last season before falling one game short of a return trip to the biggest dance.

Over the past 10 years, we have seen unbridled joy - remember Michael Phelps cheering on his relay teammates during the 2008 Olympics and Kimmie Meissner skating to a world title - and sadness - John Unitas and Jim McKay dying, Barbaro going down in the Preakness - and triumph - Maryland men's basketball and Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse winning NCAA titles.

One thing the decade of 2000-2009 can boast: It sure was fun. We take a look back at the decade and rank what we consider to be the top stories. We're sure there will be debate about the ranking of the stories, and we might even have forgotten something, so feel free to weigh in at baltimoresun.com/sports.

Will the next decade top this one? Who knows? But the Ravens have reloaded so they can make Super Bowl runs year after year; the Orioles have the right blend of youth and experience to make the next several years interesting in the American League East; and the 2012 Olympics in London will most likely be Phelps' final Games.

Fasten your seat belts.

1. The Ravens win Super Bowl in January 2001
It's not often that an NFL team truly embodies something about its city. But that was certainly the case in 2001, when the Ravens won the Lombardi Trophy and, in the process, healed some of the deep wounds caused by the departure of the beloved Colts. It wasn't the perfect team, just as Baltimore has never been the perfect city, but in the same way you can't have a credible debate about the "best show in the history of television" without mentioning "The Wire," you can't have a debate about the best defenses of all time without bringing up the 2000 Ravens.

The cover of Sports Illustrated said "Baltimore Bullies," and at first it felt like a backhanded compliment, another slight against a city and a franchise that never felt that it had earned the respect of the country at large. But the more you took the phrase out for a walk, the better it seemed to fit. Football, ultimately, is about exerting your will over an opponent, mentally and physically. And few teams in NFL history bullied their opponents the way Ray Lewis, right, and the Ravens did in 2000. It didn't matter, in the end, that Lewis was cast as the villain by the national media, or that Trent Dilfer would be dubbed one of the worst Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks of all time. They belonged to us, however briefly, like family. Because on that night in Tampa, Fla., a decade and a half of hurt was replaced by pure, unbridled joy.

2. Michael Phelps wins a record eight gold medals in Beijing
A small part of Michael Phelps is always going to feel like the awkward teenager with big ears who was told by a teacher, at a young age, that he would never accomplish anything because he couldn't focus on his goals. It was that slight, and so many others filed away over the years, that fueled his quest to become the first man to win eight gold medals in a single Olympics, and become perhaps the greatest Olympian ever. For two weeks in August 2008, the whole world watched as the kid from Rodgers Forge left everyone gasping for air and mumbling in awe. He won races by huge margins, and he won by the length of an eyelash, a fingertip touch at the wall in the 100-meter butterfly that couldn't be seen by the naked eye. But he accomplished the unthinkable, ultimately, because he wasn't afraid to try something that previously seemed impossible. It didn't matter that he wasn't the perfect role model, as a published photo of him holding a bong soon proved. In Beijing, he proved that perfection, in the athletic arena, was possible.

3. Terps men's basketball team wins the 2002 national championship
When it was over, when Juan Dixon fired a basketball toward the heavens, when Johnny Holliday squawked: "The kids have done it! The kids have done it!" and when Gary Williams bit down on his lower lip to fight back tears, it was clear that nothing would ever be the same in College Park. A program that had so often been dismissed as the inferior sibling to the North Carolinas and the Dukes of the college basketball world could again hold its head high. Maybe the scars of Len Bias would never fade completely, but for the first time Maryland basketball could define itself with triumph instead of tragedy. The 2002 Terps weren't the most talented team in the country that season, or even the most talented team Williams had coached, but they understood the concept of team better than any who have passed through College Park, before or since.

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