2004 will be remembered as a year of surprises in sports. One curse ended, but others began, as scandals over doping and out of control behavior by players and fans took over the headlines.
Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox, perhaps plagued by the "Curse of the Bambino," had not won the World Series in 86 years. And no team had ever battled back from being three outs away from a sweep in the League Championship Series to win.
But the 2004 Boston Red Sox ended years of frustration by stunning the New York Yankees in the ALCS, before sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series for the most amazing comeback in baseball history.
Meanwhile, Boston's neighboring New England Patriots won the National Football League's Super Bowl en route to a record 21-game straight wins. Other teams sharing the spotlight in 2004 were the National Basketball Association champion Detroit Pistons, who defeated the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in the best-of-seven finals series.
|Shaquille O'Neal (File photo)|
"When he was fired without my knowledge I knew things were changing and I did not want to be a part of that. So I asked to be traded," O'Neal explained.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, from the sunny state of Florida, surprised everyone by hoisting the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup.
In one of the biggest shocks ever at a major football (soccer) championship, Angelos Charisteas scored a second half goal to beat host Portugal 1-0 and give 80-1 long shot Greece the Euro 2004 title. Portugal became the first host nation to lose a UEFA European Championship final.
"I played pretty good for the last two years. And just keep plodding along and trying to win golf tournaments. And here I am," he said.
There were other surprises - The University of Connecticut captured both the men's and women's collegiate basketball championship tournaments - a feat no other school has ever accomplished.
Switzerland's Roger Federer ended the year as the top-ranked tennis player in the world. He also became the first man to win three Grand Slam titles in one year since 1988, and did it all without a coach.
2004 will also be remembered for the rise of Russian women in tennis, as they took three of the Grand Slam events. Anastasia Myskina won the French Open, while Maria Sharapova captured the Wimbledon title and Svetlana Kuznetsova earned the U.S. Open crown.
Perhaps it was less astonishing to see Lance Armstrong of the United States pedal to a record sixth straight Tour de France victory, or German Michael Schumacher win his seventh Formula One title. Armstrong says he will compete for another Tour de France crown.
"I will be back here. I cannot say for sure that that is next year , but I will absolutely be back to try and win a seventh Tour," he said.
Interest in Major League Soccer got a boost from the league's top draft pick, as Ghana-born 14-year-old phenom Freddy Adu made his debut in April. He became the youngest professional player for an American team since 1887, when 14-year-old Fred Chapman debuted for Philadelphia of major-league baseball's American Association.
At the Athens Summer Olympics, American swimmer Michael Phelps earned eight medals, including six gold, barely missing countryman Mark Spitz's record haul of seven individual golds in 1972. Hicham El Guerrouj showed why he is considered the greatest middle-distance runner of all time. He won the Olympic 1500 meters then added the 5,000-meter title - a double that had not been accomplished since Paavo Nurmi of Finland did it in 1924.
But those highlights were not enough to overcome the embarrassments, scandals and violence that marred the sports world in 2004.
Janet Jackson brought the phrase "wardrobe malfunction" into the vernacular along with waves of condemnation from critics, when her right breast was exposed to a television audience of 90 million during the Super Bowl halftime show.
Former major league baseball star Pete Rose finally admitted betting on the sport and his team, the Cincinnati Reds, after 15 years of denials. He remains banned from the game and ineligible for the Hall of Fame enshrinement he earned on the field.
The NBA's Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault. The married Los Angeles Lakers star claimed to have had "consensual" sex with a teenaged clerk at a posh Colorado resort. The prosecution dropped the charges when the young woman decided not to participate in the trial, but she is pursuing damages in a civil case.
Meanwhile, the National Hockey League disappeared from view when team owners locked out the players to press their demands for a salary cap. Unless the two sides settle their impasse, the 2004-05 season will not be salvaged.
The name BALCO, which stands for the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, has become synonymous with doping in sports. An investigation into the company, which started 18 months ago, was fueled by recent allegations from founder Victor Conte. He claimed to have provided illegal substances to star American sprinters including Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, as well as pro football and baseball players.
Doping scandals enveloped the Athens Games before the opening ceremony, when the top two Greek runners, Kostis Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, missed a series of doping tests. They said they had been involved in a motorcycle crash, but are now charged with faking the accident. Some two-dozen athletes tested positive for drugs in Athens - more than twice as many as at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
There were more player-fan confrontations in sports and racist chants in football stadiums across Europe. But no incident was uglier than the brawl that broke out between the NBA's Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons fans on November 19. Five Pacers players and five fans were charged with assault in connection with the incident. It started when a fan tossed a drink at Indiana's Ron Artest, who then leaped into the stands and began beating another fan. A melee ensued and the game was ended early.
NBA Commissioner David Stern announced Artest's punishment says the league must move in a better direction.
"Indiana's Ron Artest has been suspended for the remainder of the season," Stern announced. "We must affirm that the NBA will strive to exemplify the best that can be offered by professional sports and not allow our sport to be debased by what seem to be declining expectations for behavior of fans and athletes alike."
To many, the near riot is symbolic of much of what is wrong in professional sports. Athletes corrupted by too much money and untamed egos, and fans enflamed by too much alcohol.