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.