Our society loves a fall from grace just as much as the ascension to glory. We take a sick pleasure in watching champions crumble. It’s a feeling of karma; a notion that comeuppance has been delivered.
2011 offered a slate of teams that followed in the footsteps of Icarus, flying too close to the sun. They were talented and seemed destined for greatness, but failed to win when it mattered. The Canadian Junior Hockey team watched their gold medal slip away in just 20 minutes in the gold medal game of the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championships. The Miami Heat, rich with skill, turned a dream season into a nightmare, falling just short of destiny. The Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves both collapsed, unable to maintain comfortable leads in their respective MLB Wild Card positions.
But sometimes it’s not about the fall. Sometimes it’s about the rise of new champions.
This article celebrates the top teams of 2011, as selected by select writers and editors of TheGoodPoint.com. It features teams that overcame demons and adversity; that gave something positive to a city of deprived sports fans.
So while we analyze and relive the downfall of certain giants, let us take a moment to honor the organizations that actually accomplished the ultimate goal.
Dallas Mavericks – National Basketball Association
Selected by Mark Milner
In Mark’s words:
Forget the redemption storyline. Forget how LeBron or Wade choked. Remember this: Dallas making the NBA Finals was itself a surprise of pretty large proportions. All season, the talk had been on the Eastern side of things: Talk about how worthy Derek Rose was of being named MVP; talk about the Knicks and Celtics alleged rivalry; talk about multiple titles in South Beach.
Meanwhile, six of 12 ESPN analysts didn’t even think Dallas would get out of the first round.
Dallas’ run through the playoffs was tremendously fun basketball to watch. They outlasted the Trailblazers in six, swept the Lakers – a series every ESPN analyst had Los Angeles winning – and blew the doors off the upstart Thunder in five tightly contested games.
In the Finals, they met Miami and the series played out like an Aesopian fable about counting rings before they’re won: Miami won big in game one, Dallas won big in game five and games two, three and four were decided by a single basket, with the Mavericks coming out on top twice. Late in game six, Dirk Nowitzki hit a jumper to extend Dallas’ lead to 10.
After hitting the shot, he raised his fist and the series was all but over. Dallas’ win wasn’t just an upset, it was vindication. Not just for 2006, not just for the arrogance shown by Miami the previous summer, but for Dirk, who had always been labeled a choker in the postseason. On basketball’s biggest stage, he played some of the best basketball of his life.
Toronto Rock – National Lacrosse League
Selected by Eric Rosenhek
In Eric’s words:
The last few years have not been kind to Toronto’s professional sports teams. Poor showings and underachieving had become the norm. In fact, a fan survey on ESPN’s SportsNation website placed the Blue Jays, Raptors and Maple Leafs at or near the bottom of their respective leagues.
But there’s change afoot.
Both the Jays and Leafs appear to have things turned around and the Marlies are one of the top teams in the AHL. However, if this is the start of a renaissance, the beginning can be traced to the NLL’s Toronto Rock.
After missing the playoffs in 2008 and 2009, the Rock made it to the 2010 Champion’s Cup final, despite a 9-7 record, only to lose the title to the Washington Stealth.
2011 turned out to be the year of the Rock. They finished the regular season with a record of 10-6 and returned to the NLL final after two close victories over Rochester and Buffalo in the playoffs. Once again, Toronto met Washington and finished on the right side of a hard-fought, 8-7 result. It was the Rock’s sixth championship and perhaps, the first of many achievements Toronto sports fans will celebrate over the next few years.
St. Louis Cardinals – Major League Baseball
Selected by Rob Boudreau
In Rob’s words:
When the St. Louis Cardinals were virtually out of playoff discussion in late August, sitting 10 and a half games back of the Braves for the Wild Card, nobody gave them a second though. Of course, they battled tough while Atlanta choked and did what was thought to be the impossible and earned a playoff berth.
While their American League counterparts in the tampa Bay Rays had a similar entry, the Rays went out with a whimper, but the Cardinals showed remarkable perseverance. We all watched as good friends Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay threw one of the best pitchers’ duels in recent memory. We saw Albert Pujols capture his second World Series championship. We sat in awe of St. Louis native David Freese, who almost single-handedly won the incredible seven-game series against the Rangers.
We always hear players and coaches talk about team wins, playing hard and never being satisfied. These are not what make sports great. Nor is it the statistics, the fantasy leagues, or even the commercials during the Super Bowl.
What makes sports great is the storylines; the reason to get up and watch game after game year round. And this year, the St. Louis Cardinals gave us a crescendo of storylines that culminated with the greatest climax of all: the World Series.
Butler Bulldogs – College Basketball
Selected by Austin Kent
In Austin’s words:
To qualify for the national championship finale in college basketball’s illustrious March Madness tournament is one thing, to battle back for a second year in a row? Entirely more impressive. Somehow, despite a humble roster with less NBA-ready talent than the Toronto Raptors, Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs snuck back into the national spotlight.
Regardless of whether they find themselves back in the bracket next spring (it’s currently unlikely), the Legend of the Bulldog is sealed. After coming up a half-court heave shy of the national crown in 2010, the Bulldogs kicked their 2011 tournament off in style. By the end of their first week of tournament action last March, the forgettable force from Indiana had ousted the No. 1 seed in their bracket (Pitt).
Led by Academic All-American Matt Howard and NBA-bound Shelvin Mack, the Bulldogs would go on to bounce the No. 2 and No. 4 seeds in their division before returning to the big game. Eventually, in the same place they fell the year prior, Butler came up short against Kemba Walker and the Connecticut Huskies.
What’s most impressive about the Bulldogs’ return to the national championship isn’t that they excavated a handful of contenders from the perennially-star-studded bracket, but that they did so without the element of surprise that had made them such a significant force in 2010. Sure they came up short in an unfortunately disappointing championship match, but not before reminding college basketball fans what the tournament is all about.
Since the introduction of the age limit to the NBA, NCAA basketball has been a turnstile of apathetic professional prospects en route to pay day. It may be adding an influx of talent to the game, but taking away part of it’s charm. Howard, Mack (and even Gordon Hayward from 2010) may never vie for any significant hardware in the big league, but for at least one magical month in March they were the perfect source of madness.