This year, 2009, was the year of non-surprises in sports.
Think about the most popular sports league organizations in the United States – the NFL, MLB, NBA, NCAA Basketball and NCAA Football. A key factor in what makes each of these organizations so entertaining to watch is the idea of competition and parity, something that has been HORRIBLY lacking in each of those organizations in 2009.
In the NFL and MLB, the vast majority of the playoff races (should they even have been called ‘races’?) were decided WEEKS before the season ended, providing almost no drama at all to the close of their respective seasons.
In college football, SIX different programs reached championship week as undefeated teams, and FIVE are entering bowl games still undefeated. Why? Because those teams did not play anybody good. The most dominant programs in the country were provided very weak competition, which completely stripped the fun out of watching late season college football. In all seriousness, I am BEGGING someone to tell me why Florida and Alabama, two of the PREMIER programs in the nation in 2009, both scheduled non-conference games against Florida International and Chattanooga, respectively, on November 21st. Ironically it was the Pac-10, which has traditionally been the LEAST interesting conference to watch because of Southern Cal’s dominance, that provided the most drama and excitement.
Nowhere was the separation of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ more evident than in college basketball. The 2009 March Madness tournament (note that even the name of the tournament implies that a spectator should EXPECT excitement and drama) provided almost none of the ‘Madness’ we have come to expect. In fact, out of all the teams reaching the Sweet 16, only ONE of them was seeded higher than fifth in the bracket (Arizona). Now compare 2009 to the 2008 tournament when four teams seeded higher than fifth reached the Sweet 16. Not that it would have mattered if any other ‘Cinderella’ teams HAD reached the Sweet 16. From the opening tip-off of the tournament it was clear that the entire 65-team event was nothing more than a prelude to North Carolina and Tyler Hansbrough cutting down the nets. During the entire duration of the tournament, no team even came CLOSE to stopping the Tar Heels, a dominant team that would go on to win each of its tournament games by AT LEAST 12 points.
Simply put, 2009 was a year lacking any real excitement or mystery in sports.
Why, then, should the NBA be considered the best league of 2009? The Los Angeles Lakers were CLEARLY destined for the Finals out of the Western Conference. In the East, the only question was whether it would be the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, or Orlando Magic playing in the league championship. With the remaining 26 teams in the league simply providing fodder for the top four teams to feast on until the Finals rolled around, it seemed as though the 2008-2009 season was merely a formality that must be endured before a champion could be crowned.
Despite that seemingly pre-determined conclusion to the season, the NBA still managed to make the expected into something UN-expected, and it happened in the Eastern Conference Finals. The unexpected came when the Orlando Magic, behind Dwight Howard’s defensive presence and can’t-miss three-point shooting by players like Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers TWICE in Cleveland (the Cavs were practically invincible at home during the regular season) en route to a six-game upset of Cleveland.
That excitement, though, was not nearly enough to make the NBA the best league of 2009. The REAL reason that the NBA was the best league of 2009, despite the lack of parity that it shared with its athletic brethren, can be summed up in two words – LeBron James.
James singlehandedly provided some of the most exciting and interesting story-lines of the entire year. First was the drama of the MVP race. “LeBron versus Kobe” was talked about at every water-cooler in corporate America. This race was such a heated topic that it actually became the basis for two MAJOR advertising campaigns (Nike and Vitamin Water), and many hoped that the media battle would ultimately play out on the court of the NBA Finals.
After the Orlando Magic stunned the Cavaliers in the Conference Finals, speculation began to swirl about whether or not LeBron, whose is due to become a free agent at the close of the 2009-2010 season, would remain in Cleveland – and the courtship of LeBron officially began.
Where LeBron ends up after the 2009-2010 season will ultimately shape the NBA for the next 5-10 years, and everyone will be watching very closely as the season plays out. For their part, the Cleveland Cavaliers made a ‘huge’ offseason move by bringing Shaquille O’Neal into the team as “Witness Protection.” Al the while, teams around the league are clearing space on the roster (and on the payroll) in the hopes of wooing James away from Cleveland.
In a year where very little excitement happened ON the court or field in sports, it was off-field drama that provided the most interesting story-lines of 2009. No league matches the intrigue and suspense that LeBron James is providing for the NBA.