The top stories of 2004

The Red Sox hadn’t won a title in 86 years. Phil Mickelson? He
hadn’t won a major title, ever. Those were two streaks that came to
an end in 2004. And naturally, both make our list of the top
stories of that year.


10. Wie-mania hits the PGA

For years, golf fans had been
searching for the next Tiger Woods. In 2004, they at least briefly
considered the possibility that it could be a 14-year-old girl.

Michelle Wie had already made a splash in 2003, becoming the
youngest player to win a USGA event (the Women’s Amateur Public
Links Championship) and playing in the final group of the LPGA
Kraft Nabisco Championship.

But she took it one step further in 2004. After being given a
sponsor’s exemption for the Sony Open — becoming just the fourth
woman to play a PGA Tour event, as well as the youngest — she
proved she deserved it.

Wie’s second-round 68 was the lowest round shot by a woman in
PGA Tour play and very nearly helped her become the first woman to
make the cut in a Tour event.

9. A new No. 1

For a little more than five years, Tiger
Woods had reigned atop the golf world.

Well, to be perfectly honest, he’d done it for longer than
that. But for 264 consecutive weeks, Woods had found himself atop
the world golf rankings — a run that Vijay Singh brought to an end
on Sept. 6, 2004.

And no one could say Singh hadn’t earned it.

Not only did the Fijian win nine times in 2004, including the
PGA Championship, but he beat Woods head-to-head while playing in
the final group at the Deutsche Bank Championship, literally
wresting the No. 1 ranking away from Woods.

8. Nipple-gate

It’s not often that the Super Bowl
finds itself overshadowed by the halftime act. But then, it’s not
often that a major recording star exposes her breast on live
television during the aforementioned halftime act.

While performing alongside Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson
experienced what would come to be known as a “wardrobe
malfunction.”

While Timerblake sang the lyric “gonna have you naked by the
end of this song” he allegedly was supposed to pull away Jackson’s
bustier, leaving her red-lace bra intact. But instead, he tore her
top open, exposing her right breast.

The incident cost Jackson an appearance on the Grammy Awards
show and — if the FCC had gotten its way — would have cost CBS
$550,000.

7. Phelps chases history

The U.S. softball team won (like
it always did), the U.S. men’s basketball team lost (which it had
become quite unaccustomed to doing), but the story of the Athens
Games was Michael Phelps, who was attempting to equal Mark Spitz’s
record haul of seven golds from the ’72 Games in Munich.

Phelps’ rival, Australian Ian Thorpe, proclaimed the feat
“impossible” when he was told of the $1 million bonus that awaited
Phelps if he could accomplish the task.

And Thorpe himself contributed to Phelps’ failure (if you can
call it that) to match Spitz’s mark, defeating Pieter van den
Hoogenband and Phelps in the finals of the 200-meter freestyle —
dubbed the “race of the century.”

But even though Phelps came up short, he did win eight medals
(six golds and two bronzes) — tying the mark for most medals in a
single Games, set by Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin at the 1980
Olympics in Moscow.

And the 19-year-old also had fans looking forward to Beijing
and another run at the record.

6. Junior wins at Daytona

NASCAR has always been — and
probably will always continue to be — a sport of fathers and sons.
Famous families from the Pettys to the Allisons to the Frances have
been part and parcel of the sport’s history.

But maybe none more so than the Earnhardts.

And so it was only fitting that while driving a car whose
number honored his grandfather at a track his father had dominated,
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500.

That it came six years to the day after his father’s only
Daytona 500 win and just three years after Dale Earnhardt Sr. lost
his life in a last-lap crash at Daytona only made the moment even
more poignant.

5. The Lakers dynasty implodes

When 2004 began, the Los
Angeles Lakers had the two best players in the game, arguably the
greatest coach of all time and every reason to believe they’d be
contending for titles for the foreseeable future.

When it ended, they were down to just one superstar, had
forced their Hall-of-Fame coach into retirement and had no hope of
adding to their collections of Larry O’Brien trophies anytime soon.

Despite the ongoing feud between stars Shaquille O’Neal and
Kobe Bryant, the Lakers still managed to play their way into the
NBA Finals, where they were heavily favored to beat the Detroit
Pistons and claim their fourth title in five years.

But three days after the stunning five-game series defeat at
the hands of the Pistons, the Lakers announced Jackson would not be
returning as head coach.

Later that summer, with Bryant threatening to leave as a free
agent — adding insult to this potential injury, he was
contemplating signing with the lowly Clippers — the Lakers traded
O’Neal to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and Caron
Butler.

And the rest of the Western Conference rejoiced.

4. Pat Tillman dies in Afghanistan

When Pat Tillman decided
to forgo his pro football career and enlisted in the Army in the
aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, he was hailed as a symbol of
sacrifice, willing to forgo fame and fortune in the name of a
higher cause.

When he died on April 22, 2004, he became a symbol of
something far less noble.

The Army initially claimed Tillman died in a friendly fire
incident after he and his unit were attacked near the Pakistan
border and posthumously awarded him the Silver Star and Purple
Heart awards.

Eventually, however, it was revealed that Tillman’s unit
never faced enemy fire and that Army medical examiners were
suspicious about the nature of the fatal wounds — enough so that
they tried to get authorities to investigate Tillman’s death as a
crime, without success.

Tillman’s uniform and body armor was burned, in violation of
protocol and his comrades were ordered to lie to the family at the
memorial service about the circumstances surrounding his death. In
fact, the family did not learn that Tillman was killed by friendly
fire for more than a month after his death.

The family has long contended that the cover-up was designed
both to protect the Army’s image, as well as its recruiting
efforts.

The last thing Tillman wanted to be was a poster child for
recruitment, turning down many requests to use his celebrity to aid
the effort. Unfortunately, in his death, the Army was determined to
make him just that, regardless of the truth surrounding his tragic
passing.

This hero deserved a far better end than that.

3. Mickelson finally gets his major

Phil Mickelson held the
title of Best Player to Never Win a Major until he was arguably
relieved of that “honor” without the benefit of, you know, actually
winning a major.

To be fair, there were personal reasons to explain away his
career-worst 2003 season (his wife Amy and their newborn son Evan
had almost died in labor and it showed as Phil struggled through a
winless campaign and dropped to No. 15 in the world rankings).
Still, with Mickelson approaching the back nine of his career, it
was fair to wonder if it was ever going to happen.

But there was still hope at Augusta, where Mickelson had
finished third in each of his three previous trips. And thanks to
some of the most disciplined golf of his career, Mickelson held a
one-stroke lead after 54 holes.

Of course, that’s when Lefty began to play like, well, Lefty
typically played when major glory was on the line. He missed a
short par putt on No. 3, then left a bunker shot in the bunker on
No. 5. By the time he hit the heart of Amen’s Corner, Mickelson was
three strokes behind Ernie Els and looking a extending his streak
of major futility to 0-for-47.

That’s when Mickelson channeled his inner Arnold Palmer (who
earlier in the week had bid farewell to Augusta National after his
50th Masters) and birdied four of the next five holes to pull even
with Els and set up a dramatic 18-foot putt on No. 18 for his first
major championship.

When it dropped, Mickelson scooped up his daughter, Sophia,
and exclaimed, “Daddy won! Can you believe it?”

No, we couldn’t.

2. Malice in the Palace

It’s a cute nickname. I mean, it
rhymes and all. But there was nothing cute about what transpired on
November 19, 2004.

It started innocently enough … at least, relatively
speaking.

In the final minute of the game Indiana’s Ron Artest
committed a hard foul on Detroit’s Ben Wallace, igniting a minor
skirmish. In fact, Artest had already extricated himself from the
fight and was lying on the scorer’s table when a fan threw a cup at
Artest, hitting him in the chest.

Artest promptly went into the stands after the fan, but
mistakenly punched another spectator. Artest’s teammate, Stephen
Jackson, also made his way into the crowd, forcing many fans to
spill onto the court. Two of those fans would later confront
Artest, resulting in another fight in which Pacers forward Jermaine
O’Neal punched a Pistons fan in the jaw.

Nine players would be suspended for a total of 146 games, led
by Artest’s season-long suspension (he would miss the final 73
games of the regular season, plus 13 postseason games — the
longest fight-related penalty in NBA history).

1. The curse gets reversed

The Boston Red Sox won the World
Series for the first time since 1918, ending 86 years of the most
tortured existence in all of sports, a run punctuated by too many
near-misses and heartbreaking defeats to count.

And yet somehow, the moment itself seemed almost
anticlimactic. To be sure, part of it could blamed on the four-game
sweep of the overmatched Cardinals sucking any and all drama out of
the proceedings.

But mostly, it was because the ALCS victory that had preceded
it was so incredible — not to mention, improbable — as to render
anything that followed a mere afterthought.

Boston trailed New York in the series 3-0. And given that the
Yankees had just demolished the Red Sox in Game 3, 19-8, it was
going to be difficult for Boston to muster the resolve to extend
the series to a fifth game.

But the Red Sox not only extended the series to Game 5, they
did what no team had ever done, overcoming a 3-0 deficit to win a
best-of-seven series. Here’s how they did it:

  • Game 4: Down 4-3 in the ninth, Boston tied the game off
    vaunted closer Mariano Rivera. A key steal by pinch runner Dave
    Roberts allowed Bill Mueller to send the game to extra innings
    with an RBI single. David Ortiz then won the game in the 12th
    with a two-run homer. 
  • Game 5: Another game, another late rally, another
    extra-inning affair. The rally came one inning earlier, with an
    Ortiz homer and a Jason Varitek sac fly erasing a 4-2 deficit in
    the eighth. But the game wasn’t won until the 14th, Ortiz driving
    in the winning run for the second straight game. 
  • Game 6: Bothered by a torn tendon in his right ankle, Curt
    Schilling had been rocked in Game 1. He had no such problems in
    Game 6, however, throwing seven inning of one-run ball with three
    sutures in his ankle.
  • Game 7: Johnny Damon’s second-inning grand slam broke the
    game open, Derek Lowe gave up just one run in six innings of work
    and the Red Sox made MLB history with a 10-3 win.

After that, a World Series win seemed a foregone conclusion.
Even if it had taken the Red Sox 86 years to get to that happy
ending.

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