Toronto Star

Stealing real stars’ thunder nothing short of criminal


It’s all fun and games until somebody gets caught cold-cocking his fiancée in the face inside a casino hotel elevator.

That was the main problem with sports in 2014 — bleeding over onto the police blotter.

Sports writers found themselves turning into crime reporters and — a poor fit for the breed — moralizing Greek choir.

Stats sheets were replaced with charge sheets.

We had murder: Aaron Hernandez indicted for double homicide.

We had manslaught­er: Oscar Pistorius found guilty of culpable homicide in the shooting death of his girlfriend.

We had child abuse: Adrian Peterson pleading to misdemeano­r reckless assault for taking a tree branch to his 4year-old son’s legs.

We had spousal assault: Ray Rice knocking out the mother of his child.

We had sex scandal: The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees hockey team suspended for the season after two players were charged with sexually assaulting a young woman in a Thunder Bay hotel room.

We had cheats: Alex Rodriguez’s behind-closed-doors admission to federal investigat­ors of using performanc­e enhancing drugs. Knock me over with a knucklebal­l.

And myriad other stuff, the creepy offensive conduct that doesn’t necessaril­y become a matter of police probing but brings the world of sports into smackdown disrepute: Donald Sterling’s appalling racism, bribery accusation­s against FIFA awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia and 2022 to Qatar, staggering academic fraud at North Carolina, the wretched and wasteful excess of Putin’s “Oligarchy Games” — Sochi 2014 — and the four-month suspension of serial biter Luis Suarez for taking a chomp out of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini. (“I lost my balance making my body unstable and falling on top of my opponent. At that moment I hit my face against the player leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth.”) A full deck of fools and felons. You know what? Enough. In the capitulati­ng words of Roberto Duran: No mas.

Can’t take any more of the shameful, the repellant, the foul.

Because, really, that’s not the pith of sports and we need reminding of it.

Too easy, it’s become, to forget what brought us here in the first place: in the seats, in front of the TV, with an ear cocked to the baseball game on radio on hot summer nights by the lake.

Sports are where we come together to live and die in the moment, to dream; where we’re inspired and transporte­d, in awe over the athletes, that thing they do which elevates them to the firmament of legends, burnished in sweat: An Olympic moment of defining glory, an epic performanc­e on the baseball mound, the grit of an 82-game basketball season and six weeks of hockey playoff attrition, the five-set tennis match, the inconceiva­ble comeback.

Sometimes, athletes show the best of themselves when they’re at their worst, in losing and failure.

I’ve come into this story at the wrong end, actually. A look back at memorable sports moments of this past year shouldn’t be held hostage to the wanton and the degenerate. Yet again the minority — tiny numbers — are eclipsing the fine, the grand, the sumptuous sportsmen and sportswome­n who thrilled and took our breath away.

Let us celebrate the good rather than deplore the ugly who’ve left their “book ’em Dano” fingerprin­ts all over 2014. Herewith a stack, wrapped in a bow, in no particular order but decidedly from one Canadian girl’s chauvinist­ic perspectiv­e on the games and those who play them.

The long goodbye may be verging on tiresome as players announce their retirement a year in advance. But I doubt anyone would begrudge Derek Jeter his love-in farewell tour around major league ballparks. Captain Marvel personifie­d class in his 20 seasons as a Yankee, an exemplary role model on the field and off, stepping out of the frame with a lifetime .310 batting average and sixth on the all-time hit list — his final atbat in the Bronx, bottom of the ninth, a game-winning slash to right. The sun setting on his sterling career transected with home-grown Blue Jay Dalton Pompey connecting for his first major league hit at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 19 and one of those sweet unscripted moments that sports so often deliver: Jeter tossing that memento ball into the Toronto dugout and, at the end of the inning, patting the rookie on the back as they both made their way off the field. Hello and goodbye.

Baseball gave us countless narratives this year that belong on the memories trophy shelf, from the dominance of L.A. pitcher Clayton Kershaw — the NL MVP who led the majors in wins and complete games, threw his first no-hitter and collected his third Cy Young Award— to the inspiratio­nal saga of Guilder Rodriguez, who finally got the call-up to The Show with Texas on Sept. 9 after playing 1,095 games in the minors, the most ever without a single bigleague appearance. But the iron-fisted exploits of Madison Bumgarner on the hill for the Giants in Game 7 of the World Series eclipsed everything that came before. On two days’ rest, after winning Games 1 and 5, the flame-throwing lefty starter emerged from the bullpen to hurl five shutout innings in long-longer-longest-ever World Series relief for San Francisco against the Royals, stranding the potential game-tying run at third base and clinching his club’s third championsh­ip in five years. In doing so, the 25-year-old now has the lowest career World Series ERA in history — a puny 0.25 — among pitchers with at least 30 innings on the resume. In post-season October, Bumgarner struck out 45 batters, threw two shutouts and unspooled that one guts-and-glory clutch save, posting a 1.03 ERA. Mercy.

Mercilessl­y, just to tease us, the Blue Jays were in first place for 61 days in 2014, before it all went pearshaped.

His ’n’ hers tennis stars nascent put Canada on the map in a sport of glitz and glamour.

Eugenie Bouchard brought the glamour, albeit leavened with nice girlnext-door ingenuity; Milos Raonic brought the aces stud. Together they muscled the racquets game onto the Canadian sports topography as genuinely internatio­nal phenomena, each pulling down athlete of the year honours from award tabulators.

Tennis fell in thrall to luminous breakthrou­gh starlet Bouchard, the 20-year-old beauty from Montreal who ventured where none of her Great White North sorority had gone before: a Wimbledon final. In one remarkable season, Bouchard, with her swinging blonde braid, reached the semifinals of three Grand Slam tournament­s, rose to No. 5 in the WTA rankings and is poised to assume the crown from Maria Sharapova as a sports-meets-pop-culture idol and endorsemen­t magnet.

She was a shocking splat at the Rogers Cup in her hometown, ousted in her first match and shortly afterwards halted in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Last month, she parted ways with longtime coach Nick Saviano, which raised eyebrows, although such abrupt schisms aren’t uncommon in tennis. We wait with bated breath to see what I Dream of Genie will do for an encore in 2015.

On a similar arc, if not quite so blazingly fast-tracked, just-turned 24-year-old Raonic became the first Canadian male (in the Open era) to reach the men’s singles semifinal of a major event by making it to the Wimbledon final four, falling in straight sets to Roger Federer. Wasn’t pretty, admittedly, as Federer schooled the Thornhill native. But Raonic avenged himself afterwards by beating the Swiss legend at the Paris Masters. Raonic — developing the mental toughness that fits his towering frame and wicked serve — finished the season ranked eighth in the world.

At the other end of the career spectrum, laurels to Serena Williams, who’s endured both sudden injury and chronic wear-and-tear obsolescen­ce. Teenage beads long banished, along with the tiaras and platinum tresses of her later metamorpho­ses, Williams has persevered through daunting physical tribulatio­ns. Hard to believe Williams the Younger out of Compton is now 33. In 2014, she was bounced early from the Australian and French Opens, lost in the third round at Wimbledon to the 25th seed, and then looked so disoriente­d and spastic in a doubles defeat with sister Venus that she was forced to deny rumours of drunkennes­s and pregnancy. (Vertigo was the culprit.) Yet the reputedly washed-up Serena stormed back, cutting a swath through the U.S. Open opposition to capture her 18th Grand Slam title — tied with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilov­a for second-most in the Open era behind Steffi Graf. “I wanted it so bad.”

Happily ever after is actually guaranteed for only two years — the short-term $42.1-million contract LeBron James signed with Cleveland in his rejoicing all-is-forgiven return to Ohio. A strategic move no doubt because King James will just as doubtlessl­y be worth a lot more once the NBA’s new TV deal begins in 2016. But for once in pro sports it at least felt like money wasn’t the bottom-line factor for a free agent who could have commanded a king’s ransom from any of multiple suitors. Instead, LeBron chose home, winding his way back to a city where they’d burned his jersey for abandoning them four years earlier.

He came back a wiser man with a couple of championsh­ip rings on his fingers from the horizon-expanding road taken to South Beach. All the hatchets were buried, as were the harsh words — because rejected parties usually lash in hurt — from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. LeBron broke the bombshell in an essay he penned for Sports Illustrate­d: “People there have seen me grown up,” wrote the Akron native, vowing to bring a championsh­ip ring to a battered city that hasn’t won a title in any major sport in half a century. “My relationsh­ip with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

In Toronto, the relationsh­ip between a city and its basketball team ascended to a whole new stratosphe­re, surpassing even the giddiness of the happiest days of the Vincent Carter epoch, and encapsulat­ed in the “We The North” mantra — launching not just a brand new era but a new brand era. (Whoever coined that sassy battle cry deserves a honkin’ huge raise.) Led by Kyle Lowry — who came, conquered and decided to stay – the Raptors gave Toronto a taste of that winning flavour with a division title and thrilling seven-game playoff loss to the Brooklyn Nets. For a whole lot of jubilant fans, the Raptors were the sports story of 2014, as one season ended and the next season soars even higher. Rapturous.

When Jason Collins signed with the Nets in February, he became the first openly gay man to compete in any of the four major team sports in North America. That was a watershed moment for sports and for society. But the best part, arguably, is that the media circus quickly subsided. Indifferen­ce to sexual orientatio­n, even in the macho environmen­t of pro sports, means we’ve all come a long way. To the point, in fact, where defensive end Michael Sam could publicly embrace the man he loves after being drafted into the NFL in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams.

Team Russia had just been knocked out of the Olympic hockey tournament, dumped in the quarterfin­als by Finland, and an entire nation was keening, inconsolab­le. Then along came a 17-year-old figure skater to bind their wounds. Adelina Sotnikova stunningly knocked megastar Yuna Kim — expected to repeat as gold medallist — off the top podium with an exuberant near-flawless performanc­e that earned a moon-shot free skate mark, vaulting her over the South Korean. Yuna’s Olympic associatio­n filed protests, petitions flew. But even in a sport with a notorious history of scoring shenanigan­s, Sotnikova was the rightful champion, with a superior skate — technicall­y and artistical­ly — that came straight from the heart. And when it was over, she scooped up ice shavings and deliriousl­y shoved them into her mouth. Other admirable women from a year of XX chromosome plenty: Quebec’s moguls queens, the Dufour-Lapointe sisters — Justine (gold), Chloe (silver) and Maxime (12th) — in Sochi; Lindsey Vonn, rebounding from the knee injuries that scotched her Olympics, two knee surgeries in two years, leading an American sweep in a World Cup downhill at Lake Louise earlier this month, though we’re still dubious about her taste in men (Tiger Woods the arm-candy); Olympic four-peat gold for the Team Canada women’s hockey squad, after that hold-your-breath moment when American Kelli Stack fired the puck all the way down the ice towards Canada’s open net, hitting the goal-post and out, Marie-Philip Poulin scoring the tying goal seconds later and then the 3-2 OT winner; 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis, the girl on the mound, hurling a shutout at the Little League World Series, first female to earn a win in that storied tournament; and the 15 pioneering, fearless teenage girls who comprise Afghanista­n’s first-ever women’s cycling team, withstandi­ng insults — sometimes stones and rubbish — hurled at them as they train in and around Kabul.

Yeah, I know. There was a huge hoopla World Cup in Brazil and Canadian men’s hockey gold in Sochi, and riveting action culminatin­g in the L.A. Kings winning their second Stanley Cup in three years, and so much more.

But for the transforma­tive power of sports — higher, faster, stronger, braver — I’ll take this, from American Shannon Galpin, who trains that Afghan women’s cycling squad through her tiny charity Mountain2M­ountain: “Bikes equal freedom of movement and independen­t travel. They are a cheap and accessible way for women to get to schools and hospitals, and they make it harder for men to attack them.”

That’s a winner.

 ??  ?? Clockwise from top left, Ray Rice, Oscar Pistorius, Adrian Peterson and Aaron Hernandez made headlines for the wrong reasons in 2014.
Clockwise from top left, Ray Rice, Oscar Pistorius, Adrian Peterson and Aaron Hernandez made headlines for the wrong reasons in 2014.
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 ?? BRIAN CASSELLA/MCT ?? Despite protests and petitions, Olympic figure skating judges got it right when they awarded gold to Russia’s own Adelina Sotnikova.
BRIAN CASSELLA/MCT Despite protests and petitions, Olympic figure skating judges got it right when they awarded gold to Russia’s own Adelina Sotnikova.
 ??  ?? Serena Williams, top, continued her ascent among tennis giants at U.S. Open, while Eugenie Bouchard’s roll sparked crossover appeal.
Serena Williams, top, continued her ascent among tennis giants at U.S. Open, while Eugenie Bouchard’s roll sparked crossover appeal.
 ??  ?? Little League star Mo’Ne Davis
Little League star Mo’Ne Davis
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