As we continue our “Best of the Decade” series, we move into the 2000s
For the millennials of my era, the 2000s remind us of our love for sports. The decade provided the moments that allowed us to fall in love with competition and understand the severity of what these moments mean personally and communally.
There were questions entering the 2000s for every sport. Star athletes from every major league were retiring or just getting older. Michael Jordan was no longer the face of the NBA. Joe Montana, who was recognized as the best quarterback in NFL history at the time, retired in the 90s. Even Wayne Gretzky retired when the decade came to an end.
The start of the century brought a new era for sports, which resulted in some of the greatest moments that sports fans have ever seen. Here is a list of some of those moments from each major league.
NFL: The Helmet Catch (2008)
The catch itself was spectacular. The circumstances surrounding the catch makes this moment comparable to folklore.
Let’s make this clear, the 2007-08 New England Patriots were the most dominant team in league history. Quarterback Tom Brady had just reached his peak. A receiving duo of Randy Moss and Wes Welker provided dangerous targets. They also had a defense stacked with talent in Junior Seau, Tedy Bruschi, Vince Wilfork, Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison. The greatest coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick, stood on the sidelines. Oh, and they went a perfect 16-0 in the regular season.
In Super Bowl XLII they faced a New York Giants team who had the fifth seed in the NFC. Eli Manning was a solid NFL starter at the time, yet his 23 touchdowns compared to 20 interceptions that season was unimpressive. Also, their offense lost star running back Tiki Barber during the offseason. It seemed like a dream that they even found their way to the biggest game of the season. To defeat the Patriots, they would need a miracle.
Luckily, they got it.
There was 1:15 remaining with New York trailing 14-10. In shotgun formation on 3rd and 5, Manning hiked the ball and almost simultaneously the pocket collapsed. Despite having defensive end Jarvis Green’s hand clutching his jersey, Manning escaped the pocket and threw the ball in the middle of the field looking for David Tyree. While being defended well against Harrison, Tyree was able to corral the pass for a 32-yard gain by pressing the ball against his helmet.
The play allowed for the drive to continue, and just four plays later Manning found receiver Plaxico Burress open in the endzone for the game winning touchdown. But none of it would have been possible without the now famously-titled “Helmet Catch.” The catch ultimately halted history after the Giants stopped New England from reaching a perfect 19-0 record and created its own history by being recognized as one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.
MLB: Boston Red Sox comeback down 3-0 in ALCS (2004)
Hope was lost in the city of Boston. In 2003, the rival Yankees had defeated their Boston Red Sox in seven games to advance to the World Series, which they also won. Just one year later, the Sox found themselves in the same series, yet things looked even worse. In the first three games, they were unable to secure one victory. No team in MLB history had ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit. It seemed like an inevitability that the Yankees were heading to their 40th World Series in franchise history.
Game 4, despite being a must-win, did not have a feel of confidence for these Red Sox. They were steamrolled in Game 3, losing 19-8 at Fenway. In Game 4, the Yanks were up 4-3 entering the bottom of the ninth. Second baseman Dave Roberts was put into the game as a pinch runner for Kevin Millar, who hit a single. The speedy Roberts stole second base, which allowed him to score and tie the game after a single from Bill Mueller. The Sox won the game in the bottom of the 12th after a walk-off two-run homer from David Oritz.
Game 5, which was going to be the last game at Fenway, was once again a comeback win for Boston. Down 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth, the efforts of Ortiz and Jason Varitek, who hit a sacrifice fly against Mariano Rivera, the best closer in baseball, tied the game at four. Extra innings ensued, and this time it lasted past midnight when once again Ortiz came in the clutch, hitting a solo shot to send the series to Game 6.
Sixteen hours later Game 6 commenced in Yankees Stadium. Remembered as “The Bloody Sock Game,” Sox pitcher Curt Schilling started despite an injury to his right ankle. Throughout the game, a spot of blood was visible on his sock, yet he executed brilliantly, throwing seven innings and only allowing one earned run. The Sox tied the series at three after a 4-2 victory. With all the momentum on their side, they answered in Game 7 with a dominant performance, winning 10-3 and advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1986.
Boston ended their World Series drought of 86 years after sweeping the Cardinals in four games. Throughout the entire series, they never trailed, and they became the first North American sports team to win eight straight postseason contests.
NBA: Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game vs Toronto (2006)
Jordan had already been retired for three years in 2006. The league was full of talent, but there were some questions about who was going to be the next face of the league. Kobe Bryant was certainly a top candidate for that position. Already a three time champion and an eight time All-Star, there wasn’t a more dynamic player in basketball than Bryant at this time.
On Jan. 22, 2006, Bryant made that leap toward complete and utter supremacy.
Facing the Toronto Raptors in front of a loud Staples Center crowd, Bryant was already experiencing one of his most impressive statistical seasons in his career. Along with this, Los Angeles was on their way to the postseason and the Lakers were looking to start the new year on a good note that would push them higher in the Western Conference standings. The game did not start with such intensity for the Lake Show.
Although Bryant was strong in the first half, scoring 26, the Lakers were losing by 14 at halftime. Yet somehow, Kobe got hotter in the second half. Actually, correction, he got a lot hotter. In the third quarter Kobe outscored his first half total, scoring 27 after going 11 for 15 from the field, including four for five behind the arc. Yet, somehow, he outdid himself in the final 12 minutes.
In the fourth, Kobe began to attack the basket and draw more fouls. Up until this point, he went six for seven from the free throw line. In the fourth quarter alone, he went 12 for 13 from the charity strip, along with adding seven more baskets. In total, Kobe had scored 81 points, going 28 for 46 from the field, and the Lakers won the game 122-104.
Wilt Chamberlain holds the record for most points scored in a game with 100. However, Kobe’s performance against Toronto is the second highest point total scored by an individual in league history, and with the way modern basketball is played, his accomplishment seems up to par with Wilt’s magnificent feat. More importantly, the performance established Kobe as not only one of the greatest Lakers of all time, but one of the truly great scorers in league history. Rest in peace, Mamba.
NHL: Crosby, Penguins claim redemption against Detroit Red Wings in Final (2009)
In 2005, the Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby with the first overall pick. It was no contest; he was the strongest prospect in hockey, and he proved his excellence early. In three years he would lead Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup Final, a first for the franchise since 1992. They lost to the Red Wings, a team that had won seven division titles in eight years. The series ended, but all it did was prove that the Red Wings were the present of hockey, while the Penguins were the future. It didn’t take long for the Penguins to exact their revenge.
The 2008-09 season for the Penguins was a roller coaster of emotions. Despite firing Michael Therrien midway through the campaign, the Pens found themselves in the Stanley Cup Playoffs again, and they surged all the way to the Final after conquering the Hurricanes in four games in the conference final. Their opponent was once again the Detroit Red Wings.
It was redemption time for Pittsburgh, and their efforts led to one of the greatest Stanley Cup series of all time. Back and forth from the start, Detroit came out with a bang after winning the first two games on home ice. The Penguins responded by winning the next two games in Mellon Arena. For an ever important Game 5, disgruntled Red Wings were energized by the return of star center Pavel Datsyuk. They shut out the Penguins 5-0, and were a game away from winning a consecutive Stanley Cup.
This is where the best of Pittsburgh keeper Marc Andre-Fleury comes into play. His 25 saves in Game 6 led to a Penguins 2-1 victory, and sent the Pens back to Detroit for a decisive Game 7. After a scoreless first period, Penguins’ Maxime Talbot scored two goals in the second. But the Penguins lack of offensive production in the third allowed Detroit the opportunity to crawl their way back into the contest. The Wings scored a goal early in the period, and they had multiple opportunities to tie the game at two.
On the final shot of the game, Detroit captain Nicklas Lindstrom had a chance at the net near the left faceoff circle. Fleury made the most important save of his career, diving to his right to stop the puck from crossing the goal line, preserving the win and ultimately the championship. The Pens had their redemption.
Evgeni Malkin became the first Russian-born player to win the Conn Smythe trophy, but the heart of the Penguins in Crosby established himself as the next face of hockey. More than that, the Game 7 victory ultimately ended an era of dominance for the Red Wings and began a new legacy in Pittsburgh that saw the Penguins win two more titles through the 2010s.