Sports highlights brighten a tough year

Staff WriterDecember 31, 2008 

No way around it: 2008 has been a tough year. But sports can sometimes provide a haven from economic nastiness, and we needed that more than ever this year.

So here are my favorite sports moments from 2008. My only two criteria: I had to see these events or these people in person, and their accomplishments had to make my heart beat faster.

Come with me on this look back and you'll catch a glimpse of well-known names such as Michael Phelps, Stephen Curry and John Kasay, along with a former major league baseball star celebrating his 100th birthday and a teenager with Down Syndrome who made his first football tackle.

BEST RELAY RACE (AUGUST): I spent three weeks in Beijing in August covering the Summer Olympics. All of it fascinated me, but a few performances linger. One was the 4x100 men's freestyle relay. It featured Michael Phelps as its headliner and Cullen Jones -- the former N.C. State star who spent all summer training in Charlotte -- in a supporting role.

After 395 meters of that 400-meter race, France was first and the U.S. second. The French sent out their best swimmer, Alain Bernard, as their closer. Bernard was extremely arrogant, having told reporters before the race: "The Americans? We're going to smash them. That's what we came here for."

Instead, American swimmer Jason Lezak overtook Bernard by a fingernail at the wall. Phelps let loose a primal scream of celebration. Were it not for this race, Phelps wouldn't have collected all eight of those gold medals.

BEST INDIVIDUAL RACE (AUGUST): Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt was a revelation in Beijing, breaking world records in the 100 and 200 meters. I liked Bolt's 200 race the best, because his astounding stride (Bolt is 6 feet 5) was on fuller display. He gobbled nothing but chicken nuggets before the race, then ran it in 19.30 seconds and proclaimed: "I blew my mind. And I blew the world's mind."

BEST BREAKOUT STAR (MARCH): Davidson guard Stephen Curry belonged to the Carolinas until the NCAA Tournament, when he went national with a series of amazing performances. My favorite was his 25-point second half against Georgetown on Easter Sunday in Raleigh. Davidson came back from 17 down to win.

You could list a half-dozen Curry performances here. My second favorite was far more recent. Curry scored 44 to beat N.C. State this month in Charlotte with LeBron James as his celebrity fan, watching from the front row.

BEST BIRTHDAY (JUNE): Bill Werber, the oldest living former major league baseball player, turned 100 years old in June in a south Charlotte retirement community. I spent a wonderful afternoon with Werber -- who was also Duke's first basketball All-American -- just prior to that birthday. Werber told me stories about playing alongside Babe Ruth 75 years ago, taking me back to a time when haircuts cost 35 cents and baseball on the radio was king.

BEST VISUALIZATION: Shalane Flanagan, a champion long-distance runner who graduated from North Carolina and now lives in Pittsboro, wasn't favored to win any medal in the women's 10,000 at the Olympics.

But when she started feeling pain, Flanagan forgot about China and pretended she was on some of her favorite running trails in the Research Triangle.

"I went to my happy place," Flanagan said. "When I started to hurt, I pretended it wasn't this huge stage with all these people watching. I visualized some of my training in North Carolina -- running among the trees. It helped."

Flanagan ended up winning a bronze and was as thrilled about that as any gold medalist in China.

BEST TAPE RECORDER (NOVEMBER): I had tried off and on for several years to get an exclusive interview with Charlotte Bobcats executive Michael Jordan, but it never happened. Finally, in early November, Jordan consented to a 30-minute interview with me.

I had bought a new tape recorder the week before. About halfway through the interview, Jordan dropped a bombshell, saying he would one day like to buy the Bobcats from majority owner Bob Johnson.

Right when he said that I had an awful thought: What if my new tape recorder wasn't working? I had stopped taking notes: Jordan was talking too fast. I couldn't see the red light to tell whether it was on or not.

Thankfully, it worked. But next time, I'm bringing two tape recorders anyway.

BEST TACKLE (NOVEMBER): Justin Weisner, a 17-year-old junior at Newton-Conover, was the ballboy and waterboy for the varsity football team there in 2007. But in 2008, Justin, who has Down Syndrome, wanted to play football himself -- despite not having any experience.

Because of big assists from his family, his doctor and his coaches, Justin did. He played sparingly on the JV team.

And on the last play of Newton-Conover's last home game, Justin made his only tackle of the season -- then was mobbed by teammates. To make the season even better, with Justin still serving as waterboy, Newton-Conover's varsity later won its first state championship.

BEST REDEMPTION (DECEMBER): The Panthers frittered away a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter at New Orleans three days ago, then won 33-31 when John Kasay hit a 42-yard field goal in the final seconds. The thrilling victory clinched a first-round playoff bye for Carolina. And it was sweet redemption for Kasay, who had missed a 50-yarder that would have beaten the New York Giants the week before. In a fantastic Panther season, I thought it was the biggest moment -- so far. or 704-358-5140

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