Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nadal-Federer sucks you in like Tiger in a major


Generally, I regard my weekends as a chance to live a normal schedule, an opportunity to hit the sack before 3 in the morning.

As someone who works overnight shifts during the week, I consider my Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights as go-to-bed-before-the-sun-rises nights.

That likely won't happen tonight.

Not when Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are exchanging ground strokes and scintillating rallies Down Under. After having to watch their last grand-slam final — remember that five-setter at Wimbledon? You know, the greatest match of all time — on the day after it went down, there's no way I won't catch this battle of the titans live.

If the final pitted, say, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, watching it a day later during normal-people hours wouldn't be a problem. But there are certain athletes competing in certain events that take competition to another level.

The obvious one is Tiger Woods.

When Woods is in contention at a major, it's can't-miss television. Will Tiger hold on? Will Tiger finally come back and win one? What amazing, you-gotta-be-kidding-me shot will Tiger put in the hole?

There is great drama and intrigue when the sport's greatest player is roaming the course with fire in his eyes.

Rich Beem and Jim Furyk don't create that kind of excitement.

The same electricity is in the air when Federer and Nadal take the court in a grand-slam final, as will be the case for the seventh time tonight/tomorrow in Melbourne. (Nadal has won four of the six.) The intensity is ratcheted up and, most important, the quality of play on both sides of the net can't be matched by any other combination of players.

They're so evenly matched, any break of serve is seen as a huge advantage. And yet as predictable as a match can get — service games are won, the players go back and forth — a Federer-Nadal match never gets boring, never becomes mundane because you never know what they'll pull out of their trick bags.

On one point, it might be Nadal curving an impossible-looking forehand up the line. On the next point, it could be Federer lacing one of his impeccable one-handed backhands past a charging Nadal.

You never know what's going to happen each point. You can never count out either player because of their in-a-class-of-their-own ability and unbreakable confidence. How else can one explain Federer coming back from two sets down to beat Nadal in back-to-back tiebreaks and take that memorable Wimbledon match to a fifth set?

These factors combine to make Nadal-Federer can't miss television. But there's another reason to skip sleeping for watching these two battle inside Rod Laver Arena.

They won't be around forever.

Just like the PGA must dread the day when Tiger leaves, the men's tennis world can't be looking forward to Federer's retirement — which is probably within five years.

Sure, there are plenty of up-and-coming talented young players today — such as Djokovic and Murray — and Nadal, just 22, will be around for several years to come. But unlike in golf, riveting tennis requires two players to concoct a rivalry such as the one Federer and Nadal have created.

So once Federer has eclipsed Pete Sampras' record of 14 grand-slam titles — he can tie it tonight — and decided to move on to life's other treasures, this era of men's tennis will likely never be the same.

We are privileged to live in today's sports world. We got to watch Tiger win the U.S. Open on one leg. We got to see Michael Phelps do what no one thought possible in the pool. We got to see an NFL team come within a game of going undefeated, scaring the '72 Dolphins to the brink of losing their place in history.

These aren't accomplishments to be taken for granted, and athletes such as Federer and Nadal should be just as cherished.

They — and the excitement, drama and tension they create on the court — are a special sight to behold.

A very good reason to stay up well beyond bedtime.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Aussie Open a true fitness challenge for world's top players


In the not-so-distant past, there have been no paucity of questions concerning Andy Roddick's fitness and — thus — dedication to his sport of tennis.

His weight was an issue, there was no way you'd see anything close to a six- or two-pack when he lifted up his shirt to wipe the perspiration off his face, and he became weaker during the final sets of long matches.

But on a blistering-hot Tuesday in Melbourne, Roddick put all that talk to rest and showed off his new — and very improved — fitness level. Unfortunately for viewers like myself anticipating a hotly contested four- or five-set quarterfinal match, the tournament's defending champion Novak Djokovic must have eaten a few too many palacinkes and not spent enough time training.

Because after winning an extremely entertaining first set under the piercing afternoon sun — as a former visitor to Australia, I'd recommend sun screen as essential item No. 1 — in a tiebreak, Djokovic was never the same.

He took an allowed respite from the action during the second set, which has to be one of tennis' dumbest rules since Roddick was clearly ready to continue playing. But it didn't matter. The young Serb simply didn't have it the rest of the match.

After Roddick won the second set 6-4, he coasted through a 6-2 third set and was up 2-1 in the fourth when Djokovic called it quits. It must have been difficult for last year's champ to throw in the towel, but I don't blame him. Only a Roddick collapse — literally or figuratively — would have allowed Djokovic back in the match.

So because of his superb play, but even more so his superior endurance, Roddick is one win away from his fourth grand-slam final. And even if he meets Roger Federer, like expected, don't rule him out.

When a player gets better as a match progresses, even under brutal conditions, he's dangerous. It means losing an early set — or two — won't get him down, won't lower his level of play. That's where Roddick is right now, and he knows it.

"I worked pretty hard during the offseason, and that was for days like today," Roddick said. "I was pretty disciplined. I was at the track every morning at 8 (a.m.)."

Roddick went on to say that he practiced three hours each day and watched his diet. Add up those routines, and you've got a 26-year-old man in arguably the best tennis-playing shape of his career.

"I felt all right," Roddick said after the match. "To be honest, when I listened to the forecast they were forecasting death for a lot of people because of the heat."

Djokovic, luckily, didn't suffer any symptoms other than having to give up. Not that it will make the supremely talented 21-year-old feel better, but that isn't so uncommon Down Under. It's not exactly fair, but the year's first grand-slam tournament is by far the most grueling.

Just as players are getting themselves into tennis shape, just as they're getting focused on the year ahead, they must play in the midst of the Australian summer — often times under the brightest, baddest sun in the world.

While the real temperature inside Rod Laver Arena was in the low- to mid-90s during the match, the feel-like temperature, according to ESPN2's coverage, was 140 degrees. I can't even imagine playing two sets, let alone five, under those conditions.

Because of the heat, players having to withdrawal isn't so uncommon. And there are also more injuries — possibly due to the sweltering conditions. Just Monday, three competitors had to cut short their Round of 16 matches — two sustained wrist injuries and another had what was determined food poisoning.

Maybe they were completely isolated from the heat. After all, it wasn't quite as steamy Monday. But there's something in the water Down Under that makes surviving several rounds of the Aussie Open, not to mention the great players one faces, the most difficult task in tennis.

Sure, the French Open isn't kind to poor clay-court players. And, yep, if you're no good on grass, you won't be in the running at Wimbledon. But the year's first major isn't just about the surface. It's about the heat pounding Melbourne's hard courts, turning a seemingly indomitable first-set Djokovic into an "it's time to quit" fourth-set Djokovic.

Sadly, Tuesday wasn't the first time he's cut a grand-slam match short. He went out early against Rafael Nadal during the 2006 French Open — with the way Nadal plays on clay, can you blame him? — and he also retired early against the Spaniard during the '07 Wimbledon tournament.

But the quarterfinal result was as much about Roddick's stamina as Djokovic's lack thereof. So give credit to Roddick. The man is in great shape.

And — on a light note — even if that doesn't mean his second career major title, it should at lest impress his soon-to-be wife, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue model Brooklyn Decker.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Marvin Harrison: The NFL's quiet bad boy


Marvin Harrison is not your typical controversial NFL player.

He's never shot himself in a crowded New York City nightclub.

He's never called one quarterback gay, alienated himself from his next QB (and team) and done push-ups in his driveway while being interviewed.

And, no, he's never rained money on Las Vegas strippers.

But if the recent stories are true — and I, for one, think they are — Harrison isn't the quiet, goes-about-his-business, role-model type player he's always been perceived to be.

What he's accomplished, actually, is quite amazing. And I'm not talking about his prodigal 13-year NFL career that has included eight pro bowls and will certainly boost him up and into Canton one day.

It is remarkable, to me, that Harrison has managed to keep his profile under the radar his entire career. Even when he was hauling in hundreds of passes and catching every ball gunned his way by Peyton Manning, we never heard anything about Harrison's personal life.

Or his off-the-field personality.

Or ... as reported by a recent ESPN The Magazine article, the not-so-pristine incidents involving the so-called "good guy."

The story reported that in 2003, before an AFC wild-card game, Harrison grabbed a New York Jets ball boy by the throat after a ball the kid was fielding violated Harrison's "personal space" as he played catch with Manning. Later, at a medical station, the boy's neck showed marks from Harrison's choke job.

Until reading the article, I had never heard of such an incident. I read the sports page every day.

Maybe that's because the boy never pressed charges. All he asked for was an apology, which he never received.

And that's not all. The story reported that in 2005, three nights before the Pro Bowl, Harrison again grabbed the neck of an innocent teenager. This time, the kid had shown the audacity to keep pestering Harrison for an autograph. So what was the Pro Bowler's response?

He took a swing at the kid, "then grabbed him by the throat and put an arm around his neck." After some more physical play — hey, maybe Marvin thought he was on the football field, right? — Harrison and his friends ran off.

And, yep, I never heard of this, either, at the time. Hey, maybe I'm simply forgetful or ignorant. But something tells me I'm not the only one who thought, until recently, that Harrison was a quiet, minds-his-own-business class act. Reticent and reclusive, yes, but a good person, a good citizen.

(In case you were wondering, no charges were pressed in the Honolulu beatdown.)

Hopefully, now, people are starting to realize that the Marvin Harrison we think we've known all these years is a disguise. Not the football player — the man wearing No. 88, who's made all the great catches, ran all the identical routes and caught all the touchdowns is real. There's nothing fake about Harrison's on-field performances, nothing to diminish his storied career.

But Harrison the man is simply not who we've thought he was.

He may even be a criminal.

No charges have been brought — isn't that a theme here? — but it is believed by many in Harrison's home neighborhood in North Philly that after a minor argument last April near one of many businesses owned by the Philly native, he fired several shots in his home streets. He, allegedly, was aiming at the man whom he'd argued with, but instead struck a bystander in the back and shattered the windows of a car in which a 2-year-old kid and his father sat. Thankfully, no one was badly injured.

Later, police matched five shell casings found in the area of the shooting with a model of a gun registered to the wide receiver. The gun is a Belgian-made semiautomatic that, apparently, is a military-type pistol which, according to the magazine, "fires bullets that pierce 48 layers of Kevlar."

In one word, dangerous. It is a popular gun because it's easy to conceal. Now doesn't that fit Harrison?

Nothing has been proved. Harrison acknowledge the argument but denied firing the gun. And so on. A typical story involving an athlete denying any wrongdoing. That's the boring part.

What's interesting is the shock the story created. When I first read, in April, about the incident, I almost dropped my cup of tea. Was it a typo? Marvin Harrison, shooting? Pacman Jones, sure. Chris Henry, no surprise. But with all the wide-receiver divas in the NFL, Harrison was the last guy I'd suspect of being involved in such a thing.

Others were just as surprised. Even to this day, the story hasn't gotten nearly the attention of a Terrell Owens press conference. Or take the Plaxico Burress saga. Sure, Plax is an idiot for taking a gun into a club and somehow shooting himself in the leg. Now, he'll more than likely spend time in jail instead of catch Eli Manning passes.

But consider this: If the story involving Harrison is true, which man committed a greater fault: the guy who shot himself or the guy who shot at another man? It's an easy answer, folks.

I won't even get into comparing Harrison and Owens. T.O. epitomizes the word "diva," but he's never come close to committing a crime, let alone nearly choked a ball boy.

We've always loved Harrison for his business-like approach to the game while loathing Owens' look-at-me persona. Fair enough — Harrison probably remains to this day a better teammate.

But now it's time Harrison be judged for his actions.

Any innocent can hide in the shadows. But when his innocence enters a gray area, even a quiet recluse like Harrison must be put under the microscope.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Cardinals make pundits appear, well, stupid


In case you've been shacked up for the last 30-plus hours, the Arizona Cardinals are headed to the Super Bowl.

OK, let me repeat myself: The Arizona Cardinals — that team that pundits wrote off as "done" in late December; that team that pundits said had "no chance" at winning a playoff game; that team that pundits labeled "soft" — are headed to the Super Bowl.

The Cardinals will take on the mighty, tradition-filled Pittsburgh Steelers. They will, undoubtedly, be a big underdog come Feb. 1. People in the media will say things like, "The Steelers are simply too physical, too strong, too tough for them." And on goes the blabber machine...

Let me rewind the clock a mere four weeks. On Sunday, Dec. 21, the Cardinals played the New England Patriots. Well, that's a nice way to put it. In truth, the Cardinals let the Patriots bully them all over the snow-covered field in Foxboro, Mass.

The result was an embarrassing 47-7 spanking, which amounted to Arizona's fourth loss in five games. The Cardinals had clinched the anemic NFC West a couple weeks earlier, but after the debacle at New England close to no one considered Arizona a playoff team.

And with good reason. Because that Sunday afternoon, the Cardinals played more like an 0-16 team (no more Lions references, I promise). If Arizona played close to as bad as it did against the Pats in January, its season would end rather quickly — and in ugly, sobering fashion.

But here's the thing, which the mainstream media often seems to ignore. A team should never — ever — be judged on one game, or even three games, during a 16-game season. There's a reason the Cardinals won nine regular-season games. There's a reason they defeated a super-talented Cowboys team and won at Seattle, which is never an easy place to play regardless of how bad the Seahawks are.

And, most important, they made the playoffs. The postseason, people should know by now, is a completely different season. Records should be thrown out the window come January; head-to-head results from November don't matter (just ask the bitter Eagles, who destroyed Arizona on Thanksgiving).

The evidence is glaring. Just look at two of the three Super Bowl champions: Last season, the Giants barely made the playoffs as the fifth seed and won three road playoff games; In 2005, the Steelers were the sixth seed and had to win three road games.

Even the 2006 Colts had to win three playoff games, including a road game in freezing Baltimore, and overcome mighty New England in the AFC title game to reach and win the Super Bowl.

The point is that no team can be ruled out. Not even the Cardinals. Did I think I'd see them in the Super Bowl three weeks ago? Of course not. But I certainly wasn't ruling them out at home against a young, inexperienced Falcons team. And once they built up momentum from that game, it carried over the next weekend in Carolina and then Sunday against the Eagles.

Each week, they were doubted. The "experts" picked the other team, almost unanimously. The Cardinals proved just about everyone wrong. Now those experts are lauding them, throwing out all sorts of platitudes when praising the team they thought had no chance to win a single playoff game a few weeks ago.

I know this sounds simplistic, but when a pair of teams full of players who are the best at what they do meet — anything can happen. Any group of top-notch football players and coaches, with the right mindset and confidence, can win on Any Given Sunday.

So go ahead, place your bets with the Steelers. Call that defense impenetrable. Heck, I'll probably pick them to win too.

But I won't be the least surprised, shocked or amazed if the Cardinals pull off the upset and win their first Super Bowl.

It'd be an appropriate ending to what should be called their "Prove All Those Doubters Wrong" playoff run.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Baseball players should get one shot at Hall of Fame


How many times does a man need to be rejected before he gets the point?

Once, twice, 14 times?

Sure, there are the lucky ones. But for most men, the results remain the same.

No, I'm not talking about women (I'm saving that for a future column). This is about baseball, and the ludicrous timetable the Baseball Writers Association of America has for selecting those enshrined in Cooperstown.

In case you haven't heard, former Red Sox star Jim Rice was elected into the HOF the other day ... finally. I'm happy for Rice and not nearly qualified to make an educated judgment on whether he deserves to be in the HOF.

But here's what I can say: The fact that Rice had to wait 15 grueling years to find out — for sure — if his name would be placed alongside the pastime's all-time greats is just asinine. Hell, people die during a decade and a half. Rice is 55; something could have happened to him.

Rice's story is happy; I'm sure there have been plenty of sad ones.

Here's the point: Baseball players become eligible to appear on the annual HOF ballot five years after retiring from the games. Some of them, like Rice, don't find out their fate for another 15 years. Players get 15 "chances" on the ballot. In other words, they can get less than the needed 75 percent of votes 15 times before they're finally dismissed.

Simple question, folks: Are any home runs hit five years after retirement? Are any bases stolen? I mean, I know Rickey Henderson was that good. But even Henderson, the other recently named Hall-of-Famer, hasn't stolen a single base since ending his glorious career.

So why 15 years? Why not one year, one chance, one vote? Don't tell me members of the BWAA aren't knowledgeable enough to make a decision the first year a guy's name comes up. Don't tell me they might change their mind after seven years because he's done a lot of charity work.

A player's eligibility should be based — solely — on his performance on the field. Nothing else. Yes, there might be a few cases when a player such as Mark McGuire ruins his candidacy by basically looking as guilty of taking steroids and lying about them as possible. But even in his case, we knew all that before the five years were up.

McGuire was heavily denied his first year of eligibility. Ditto his second. Why go through this another 13 years?

Hell, this system must even compromise some voters' choices for the HOF. No disrespect to Rice, but there's no way he should have gotten 4.2 percent more votes this year than he did a year ago. Those, to me, are pity votes. It was his last chance, and some voters gave in.

Players should get one chance. Either you're in or you're out. Then they can move on, forget about it and live their lives. After all, most baseball players retire before hitting their 40s. It's cruel for them to be thinking about this well into their 50s and even early 60s.

Let them progress nicely into the next phase of their lives.

Perhaps the saddest case is that of former pitcher Bert Blyleven. This was the 12th shot at the HOF for the man who ranks fifth all-time in strikeouts. And again he missed out, getting just 62.7 percent of the need 75 percent of votes.

But get this: In Blyleven's first year of eligibility in 1998, he received a whopping 17 percent of the votes. What the heck has changed? I'm not saying Blyleven's undeserving, but there's no way a guy should see that kind of increase in votes. He hasn't even saved a third-world country.

For Blyleven's sake and sanity, I hope he gets in soon and can put the whole thing to rest because it's killing him. In an ESPN Radio interview Tuesday after getting snubbed, he lamented, "I feel like crap" and went on to say, "I have a tough time dealing with it from year to year."

Blyleven is now 57. This should have been off his mind when he was a spry 46.

Voters need to make up their minds once for each player — and then move on.

So that the former major leaguers can do likewise.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Charges need to be earned in college basketball


The head honchos at ESPN picked a perfect night to put NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy behind a microphone inside Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Anyone who who has watched a broadcast featuring the irascible Van Gundy knows that he may be short and — to be nice — not the best-looking fellow. But he also doesn't hesitate to speak his mind, and most of the time he's right.

I was on press row for Duke's 79-67 win over Davidson Wednesday, and therefore didn't get to hear Van Gundy on the air. But I wasn't at all surprised when after the game a friend told me that Van Gundy had made a big stink about a number of charges that were called during the game.

I couldn't agree more.

And this wasn't just a case of "Duke getting all the calls." On both ends of the court, players were drawing charge while they stood, basically, under the basket. This has got to stop. While the officiating was subpar Wednesday, officials making such calls is not uncommon in the college game.

There are many things I like about college hoops that the pros need to adopt — the 1-and-1, for instance. But college basketball needs to take a hint from the NBA and institute the semi-circle rule for taking charges.

In pro basketball, a defender must be outside of the painted half-circle to draw a charge. This prevent a player from stepping in front of a player at the last second as that player is scoring a layup. It makes great sense, especially in the NBA where players are so athletic.

Can you imagine a small guard jumping in the path (or below) of LeBron James when James is in mid-air en route to a thunderous one-handed dunk ... and a charge being called? Didn't think so.

Well, there are plenty of athletic players in college. And we all know that for a lot of players, college is just a one- or two-year basketball factory before they turn pro. So why not institute an NBA rule that would not only give refs a less-arbitrary method of making the block-charge call, but also help prepare college players for the next level?

When a good pass is made to an open player in the post and he turns right into a defender and puts up a layup as the defender flops to the ground, the basket should count and play should continue. It is ludicrous for the defender to "earn" a charge, not to mention cheers from the crowd, for doing nothing but flopping.

Alas, that's what happened a couple times during Wednesday's game. Van Gundy didn't ignore the indiscretions.

The problem is how endearing of a play taking a charge is. During the early stages of a player's development — during high school or even middle school — he's encouraged to "sacrifice his body" for the good of the team, to be a "team player." Taking a charge helps build team chemistry, helps teammates believe in each other and their dedication to the team.

And that's all great and mushy, but no coach should be teaching players to attempt to take charges under the basket. Unfortunately, that's the case because the game is too often called that way — except in the NBA.

Charging calls aren't going away. Yes, there aren't as many called in the pros; instead, we have to watch the boring "block" get called more often, and who likes that? But there still are charges, those calls that pump emotion into players and fans (and even refs, it seems, as they thrust their arm forward the other way).

They, supposedly, mark special defensive plays. But I got the sense Wednesday that a charge meant hardly anything anymore. They were almost as regular and mundane as a blocking call. In fact, I think there were more charges than blocks called.

That should rarely, if ever, occur. Obviously, a change must be made.

And maybe ESPN should let Van Gundy work some more college games. Heck, somebody needs to point out the game's issues and solvable problems.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

NFL should switch to timed overtime


These days, there aren't many American sports fans who don't love the NFL.

It's America's sports league, its new pastime. Television ratings are through the roof and then through another roof, stadiums are packed almost every Sunday (except, finally, in Detroit) and fantasy football is a worldwide phenomenon.

But I'm here to tell you, something needs to change. To spill the beans — or whatever's being spilled these days — the NFL's overtime system must be modified. Only, I don't want it to be changed to resemble college football's system. They both have flaws; here's the quick rundown.

1. What's wrong with the NFL's sudden-death approach?

— Initial possession is determined by a coin flip. And the team that gets the ball first, wins the most. Just view what happened Saturday: San Diego won the toss and scored, never allowing Peyton Manning and his offense to take the field. People can say all they want about defenses getting it done, but both offenses should have a shot regardless.

2. What's wrong with college football's each-team-starts-from-the-opponent's-25-yard line approach?

— If I had to choose one of the current systems, I'd take this. But here's what reeks about it: It completely eliminates two essential elements to any competitive football game — field position management and clock management. Since teams start at the 25, only a bad sack or penalty will knock them out of field-goal range. And even then, it's not like punting is an option. They have to go for it. There's hardly any decision-making involved.

And there is no game clock. So there's no managing of timeouts, or running a quick offense, or getting out of bounds. All of those aspects of a tight football game are eliminated. So while the system is equally fair to both teams — the big advantage it has on the NFL's — it simplifies the game. Overtimes should feature everything that a typical fourth quarter involves.

The above reasons are why I propose this overtime system for at least the NFL, and possibly college football as well: A 10-minute period, simple as that.

Sure, there'd still be a coin toss to determine who would get the first possession, but when was the last time you saw a 10-minute drive, especially when teams have timeouts? Yep, both teams would be given two timeouts to go with a 2-minute warning, allowing for plenty of game-management decisions in what would surely be a dramatic final couple minutes.

Then there'd be the interesting issue of tie games. Depending on the standings, some teams desperate for a win might go for a two-point conversion instead of a tie. Others might sit on the clock deep in their own territory. Think ties are meaningless? Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles, who are still playing because Cincinnati missed a field goal at the end of the teams' overtime way back when everyone thought Philly was cooked.

A couple ties a season wouldn't hurt.

Coaches might not like it, because they'd have to make many more tough decisions. In the current system, there wasn't a damn thing Tony Dungy could do as the Chargers marched for the winning score. Heck, there could even be some firings because of decisions made under this proposed system. But that's a moot point. Job security in the NFL these days is an oxymoron.

The main improvement is that both teams would almost definitely get the ball, the clock would be a huge factor, and as a fan you couldn't ask for a much more pulse-pounding 10 minutes of football. It would hardly elongate games, either, considering that many OT periods under the current format last seven to 10 minutes.

The NFL doesn't need many changes. But switching overtime formats would eliminate all the talk-radio garbage that hits the air following finishes like Saturday's. And it would make some games even more exciting.

Heck, perhaps it would even reel in those seven American sports fans who don't regularly watch the NFL.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Lasting memories from the 2008 sports year

There's an easy way to gauge how important, or remarkable, or special a day or event was.

A year passes, five years, even a decade — and you still remember many of the occasion's details. For instance, I'll never forget learning of the 9/11 attacks from a television in my history teacher's classroom. Most Americans, I'm sure, maintain a lucid memory of that morning now seven-plus years later.

That, of course, was a tragic day. During 2008, however, there were many memorable days — for good reasons — in the sports world. While the economy turned to slush, athletes and teams put together some of the most amazing performances I've seen in my relatively short 25 years on earth.

No, '08 wasn't a normal year in a lot of ways that are transparent to all of us. To me, now just a day into the new 365-day cycle, what stands out is how vividly I remember the year's greatest moments — not just what happened on the television screen in front of me, but what was going on around me.

For instance...

Sunday, Feb. 3: I'm sitting on the couch facing our 37-inch TV, my cousin J-bo on the adjacent couch to my left. The Giants have just shocked the sports world, upsetting the mighty, seemingly indestructible Patriots 17-14. And J-bo is giving it to me, letting me know in a clear, voluble tone that he picked New York to win while I made the safe pick. Ah, whatever. It was worth it. Best. Super Bowl. Ever?

Monday, April 7:
Guess what? J-bo is right once again. This time, my friend Cosey is in town from Michigan to watch the national title game pitting Kansas and Memphis. And as Kansas brings the ball up the court trailing by three with the clock winding down (5 ... 4 ... 3), J-bo exclaims that the Jayhawks will make a 3-pointer to knot the game. And, sure enough, we watch in amazement as Mario Chalmers hits the shot of his life. It is the second championship game I've watched in 2008 — and both were the best of their kinds I've ever watched.

Sunday, June 15: I'm sitting in the living room of the waterfront community where the Lloyd Family Reunion has just begun. Family members whom I haven't seen for at least three years are streaming in, but my eyes are trained on the small TV about 10 feet in front of me. And I'm not the only one watching. Other Lloyds watch in awe as Tiger Woods calmly, daringly, dramatically sinks about a 15-foot putt to send the U.S. Open to a playoff. I'll always remember how the ball curled around the right edge of the cup before deciding to fall in. It couldn't have been better television for NBC.

Monday, July 7:
This time, it's just me. I'm lounging on my aunt and uncle's couch this afternoon, absolutely captured by what I'm watching. One minute, Roger Federer hits the nastiest backhand up the line one can hit to stave off a match point. The next moment, every Federer groundstroke is chased down by the ubiquitous Rafael Nadal. It's the Wimbledon final, and it's the best tennis match — by far — I've ever seen. I wasn't able to watch it live the previous day because I'd been on a hike-gone-bad for the weekend, but I had my aunt DVR it. Then, Sunday afternoon and night, I had to avoid using my laptop or watching our crib's TV. It was brutal not being able to see the Yankees-Red Sox game, but I couldn't risk noticing the result of the match on ESPN's bottom line. I needed the element of surprise to truly enjoy it.

That, to state the obvious, is exactly what I did for about four solid hours on that couch. I won't forget how Federer played a great final three sets, but somehow hit possibly his worst shot of the day to end the match: He plunked an easy forehand into the net. And Nadal went into the stands, with darkness enveloping Centre Court, to celebrate his first Wimbledon title.

***I was living the outdoorsy, no-TV life in beautiful New Hampshire during the entire Olympics, so I didn't see any of Michael Phelps' eight gold-medal performances or Usain Bolt's three record-breaking runs. But, no doubt, those moments will not be forgotten for as long as those records stand (and that should be a very, very long time). One thing that won't skip my mind is viewing the amazing Sports Illustrated pictures of Phelps' victory by the slightest of margins in the 100-meter butterfly. And I'll always remember that the win was by one hundredth of a second.

Sunday, Dec. 29:
Sadly, not all the memorable moments were positive. I'm at a table with my friend Bobby in the middle of Ann Arbor's Buffalo Wild Wings, an almost-empty glass in front of me and hundreds of football fans of all colors around me. Directly to my left stands a kid sports a Bears Brian Urlacher jersey. But at the moment, there is an assortment of cheers and groans. The clock has just wound down on the first 0-16 season in NFL history. And, get this, I got to witness the Lions' ultimate achievement of ineptitude from the state they call home. Only another 0-16 season could make the memory of this afternoon vague.

It's been that kind of year in sports. One full of moments that will be talked about for many years to come. Who knows? The Giants slaying of the Patriots has been called by many the greatest Super Bowl ever. Woods' performance on basically one leg was hailed as the most remarkable, brave display in golf history. And several tennis experts immediately claimed Nadal's five-set victory over Federer the sport's best match on that kind of stage — ever.

I saw most of the year's best moments. And I don't plan on forgetting where I was and what those around me and I were doing when those television screens portrayed such historical scenes.

Now 2009 has an almost-impossible act to follow.