Was 2008 the best sports year ever?
There is no greater abuser of superlatives than me -- no greater practitioner of "instant history," either.
And even I would call this a stretch. It's funny: These days, every year is the best year ever. I've been preaching that for... well, years.
I will say this: It's easy to throw around superlatives when the year in question included (1) the greatest individual accomplishment in sports history (Phelps); (2) the greatest Super Bowl ever; and (3) the greatest play in NFL history.
Everything else -- the Celtics' title, the Rays (and, yeah, the Phillies), Mario Chalmers' shot and Stephen Curry's tournament, "45-35" and Michael Crabtree's "Catch," Tom Brady's injury and Brett Favre's return -- they were great, but not quite "all-time best-ever."
Or was it?
Wasn't Tom Brady's injury the most shocking ever? Wasn't Crabtree's catch the most dramatic and impactful in modern college football history? Weren't the Rays the greatest baseball Cinderella story of the ESPN Era?
OK: So there were a lot of super-duper-highlight moments. And so 2008's Top 5 was pretty sick; they are all moments that fans will remember for a long time -- in some cases, sport-defining moments.
And that's where 2008 got me: Manning-to-Tyree -- and the Giants' subsequent OMG! upset in the Super Bowl -- feels like a million years ago, but you can't discount just how unbelievably all-time great it was: The single greatest play in NFL history, resulting in the greatest Super Bowl in history.
Phelps feels a little more removed: The Olympics are, well, Olympic, but they are like an asterisk in sports: No one really cares about them outside the two weeks they happen every four years, and the sports with the highest profile -- like swimming -- simply don't resonate otherwise.
That's sort of what made Phelps' accomplishment so epic: He managed to make everyone care. His races were insanely dramatic (and, very very very very importantly, LIVE). He gives good spectacle.
I don't think I was over the top in labeling him the greatest athlete of all time for his performance.
(I would also argue that sports -- basketball's -- place in the mythology of Barack Obama's history-making Presidential campaign was a HUGE sports story in '08. To wit: He was my Sportsman of the Year. I know most of you disagree, so I'll just note it here and move on.)
But if you remove the Olympics and Obama, the year was defined by that single magical play -- "Manning to Tyree." The greatest play ever in the biggest U.S. sports event of the year.
It was so big that, with that single moment as the anchor, we can even entertain the discussion that 2008 was the greatest sports year ever.
I have been writing about sports at the national level every day for the last 6 years. And when people ask if it is hard, I respond that the hard part is saying something fresh -- you can judge for yourself if you think that I manage to pull that off (and at what rate).
The easy part is that just when you think things can't get any more dramatic or any more epic or any more superlative -- there is always something else. It is entirely renewable, virtually daily.
Instant history (and, yes, even "Best. Whatever. Ever." superlative) is a reflection of that. It means that every new twist has a chance at being unique, at capturing our attention.
It is why you can't help but look forward to 2009, even though -- on its face -- the NFL can't possibly compete with last year's best-ever Super Bowl... no athlete's individual accomplishments could possibly compete with Michael Phelps... no Celtics title in '09 could possibly compete with the title in '08... no Rays sustained excellence could compete with last season's Cinderella story... no BCS controversy in '09 could compete with the absurdity of the Big 12 round-robin and "45-35" this year... Stephen Curry can't repeat the novelty of last year's Tourney run... the list goes on.
But with the exception of Phelps -- and even the level of uber-dramatic excellence he reached couldn't quite have been imagined -- and perhaps the NFL, there is plenty of room for more.
Not knowing what it is yet is entirely the point. But it will happen. Years don't make history; moments do. And we can always count on the superlative moments; they are the only thing that we carry with us from old year to new year.
Happy new year everyone. Please be safe tonight, and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2009. I cannot express my gratitude and appreciation for your continued support and attention this year.
Continuing the tradition, tomorrow I'm going to try very hard to publish my annual "What's Hot/What's Not" list for 2009. Stay tuned.
UPDATE: Commenters were all over this point -- I neglected to consider/count two huge events, arguably the best ever in their respective sports: Tiger's US Open win on a gimpy knee and the Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final, widely considered the greatest tennis match ever. Obviously, both of those two things nudge 2008 toward "Best Sports Year Ever." Or maybe they simply affirm my theory that several sports had their Greatest Moment Ever -- not too bad.