This was a year of improbable feats, from the miracle catch in the Super Bowl to Rafael Nadal’s win at Wimbledon to Tiger Woods playing through the pain at the U.S. Open. But nothing could match the spectacle of the Olympic Games and Michael Phelps’ domination in the pool.
10. Nothing comes free
If the charity stripe had been a little more, well, charitable to Memphis in the finals of the NCAA tournament, perhaps head coach John Calipari wouldn’t have had to bolt to Kentucky in pursuit of his first national title.
Calipari had insisted all season long that his team’s woeful free throw shooting wouldn’t be a factor, that his team would make them when they counted most.
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Not so much.
Memphis missed four of five free throws in the last 1:12 of the game. And if they’d only missed three, then Kansas wouldn’t have been able to send the game into overtime on a last-second 3-pointer from Mario Chalmers.
The Jayhawks didn’t need any last-second heroics or foul shot ineptitude in OT, jumping out to a six-point lead and not looking back until they’d won the school’s third national championship. 9. Grass was greener for Nadal
There had been a certain predictability to the men’s Grand Slams in recent year. Rafael Nadal would dominate the red clay of Roland Garros, while the grass courts of the All-England Club belonged to Roger Federer.
In 2008, Nadal evidently didn’t get the memo.
In what was regarded as one of the greatest men’s matches of all time, Nadal outlasted Federer in the longest Wimbledon’s men’s final, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7. In doing so, he became the first man in 28 years to win both the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.
Federer, who was attempting to become the first man to win six straight Wimbledons, saw his record winning streak on grass end at 65.
8. A rivalry resumed
The Lakers-Celtics rivalry was the story of the NBA’s first 40 years, with the teams meeting in the NBA Finals 10 times during that stretch.
But it’d been 21 years since the two had played with the Larry O’Brien trophy at stake. And given how both finished the 2006-07 season — L.A. was bounced in the first round of the playoffs, while Boston missed them altogether — that didn’t seem likely to change in the 2007-08 campaign.
Enter Kevin McHale and Chris Wallace. The GMs for the Timberwolves and the Grizzlies, respectively, helped rekindle one of sports’ greatest rivalries. McHale’s off-season gift of Kevin Garnett to his former team and Wallace’s mid-season trade of Pau Gasol to the Lakers allowed both to advance to the NBA Finals.
Game 4 would prove to be the pivotal contest of the series. Playing at home, the Lakers jumped out to a 24-point halftime lead and appeared to be well on their way to evening the series. But led by Ray Allen, the Celtics mounted the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, winning 97-91 and ultimately taking the series in six games.
7. An Opening statement
The decision to award China the Games was a controversial one. And in the run-up to the Olympics, there were serious concerns about whether preparations would be complete.
But all that faded away (at least temporarily) on Aug. 8, 2008 with the Opening Ceremonies to the Beijing Games.
Mere words do not do justice to the spectacle, which reportedly cost more than $100 million to produce.
It began with 2008 People’s Liberation Army drummers lined up in formation, their LED-embedded drums and glowing drumsticks forming giant digits to countdown the final seconds before the start of the Games.
It ended with Li Ning, China’s most decorated athlete, suspended by wires, running horizontally along the walls of the stadium, lighting the Olympic cauldron.
And in between, it was nothing short of the most majestic Opening Ceremony in Olympics history.
6. A lightning Bolt
If a premature celebration and an untied shoelace weren’t going to slow Usain Bolt’s pursuit of Olympic history, then nothing was going to.
Bolt was well on his way to winning the 100-meter race (despite running with his shoelaces flapping in the wind) when he slowed in the final 20 meters of the race to celebrate … and still set a world record of 9.69.
That performance left some observers wondering how fast Bolt could go if he really tried. Of course, they didn’t have to wonder for long.
Bolt sprinted hard all the way to the finish line in the 200 and was rewarded with an Olympic and world record time of 19.30.
He would add one more gold medal — and another world record — to his haul, running the third leg of Jamaica’s winning 4×100 relay.
5. Phillies win city’s first title in 25 years
We’re not sure how the brotherly love kept flowing all these years in Philadelphia, not with their sports teams constantly breaking their hearts.
It’d been 25 years since any of the city’s four major sports teams had won a title — a run that had witnessed all four (Phillies, Eagles, 76ers and Flyers) lose at least once in the championship round of their respective sport.
Of course, that was nothing new for the city. In 1980, all four teams played for titles, but only the Phillies prevailed.
Which brings us to 2008 version of the Phils, which ended the city’s long championship drought by defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.
But you can’t have a drought end without a little rain. So it was only fitting that the decisive Game 5 was suspended — then delayed another day — due to inclement weather.
We’re guessing Philly fans didn’t mind waiting the extra couple days to celebrate. After all, they’d been waiting 25 years.
4. Favre retires, but it doesn’t take
After flirting with the moment for years, Packers quarterback Brett Favre officially retired on March 4, 2008. While proclaiming himself physically still able to play, Favre said he was just too "mentally tired" to come back for an 18th NFL season.
Which must mean the next three months were a nice mental cat nap.
That’s how long it took before Favre approached Green Bay GM Ted Thompson, first about a possible return to the team, then to request his unconditional release so he could sign with another team (widely rumored to be Green Bay’s biggest rival, the Minnesota Vikings).
The Packers weren’t excited about either possibility. They’d already handed the reins of their offense to quarterback of the future Aaron Rodgers, but weren’t particularly enthralled about the possibility of Favre showing up at Lambeau field in a Vikings uniform.
It wasn’t until Favre forced the team’s hand by reporting to training camp — to a hero’s welcome, courtesy of the NFL’s most loyal fans — that a trade was engineered to the New York Jets.
3. Tiger limps to the win
Heading into the 2008 U.S. Open with 13 major titles (and too many memorable moments to even count) to his credit, it had almost become impossible for Tiger Woods to amaze us.
Woods was coming off arthroscopic knee surgery and, given the way he was limping around Torrey Pines, the consensus was that he had returned too soon. But it wasn’t revealed until after the tournament that Woods had torn his ACL and sustained a double stress fracture of his tibia.
The last thing Woods needed under those circumstances was an extra 18 holes of golf, but that’s exactly what he got, as Tiger forced a Monday playoff with Rocco Mediate with a birdie putt on the final hole.
And come Monday, 18 holes still weren’t enough to determine the champion of the 108th U.S. Open. It wasn’t until Mediate missed his par putt on the first sudden death hole that Woods could finally claim victory … and put his leg up.
Woods himself would call this his greatest major triumph. And we’re not going to argue.
2. Almost perfect
The quarterback was under duress, literally in a defender’s grasp at one point and only barely escaped the pressure long enough to heave a desperate pass downfield.
The wide receiver only really got both arms around the football at the very end of the play, instead pinning it against his helmet with one hand while one of the game’s fiercest hitters wrestled him to the ground.
This is the play that kept the New England Patriots from becoming the first team in NFL history to go 19-0?
For the record, Plaxico Burress’ 15-yard touchdown reception would provide the necessary points for the Giants to complete a 17-14 upset of the previously unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLI.
But it was Eli Manning’s improbable (you could even say impossible) 32-yard hookup with David Tyree on the game-winning drive that really broke the Patriots’ hearts.
1. Great eight
Simply eclipsing Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals would have been dramatic enough to land Michael Phelps atop this list.
But the fact that he needed two of the greatest finishes in Olympic history to do it? That’ll have it landing atop lists like this for many years to come.
Phelps’ bid for history almost didn’t make it past his second event, the 4×100 meter freestyle relay.
Heading onto the final leg, it appeared the Americans would have to settle for silver, as Phelps’ teammate Jason Lezak trailed France’s Alain Bernard (only the world record holder in the 100 meter freestyle) by more than half a body length.
For a moment, Lezak would later admit, even he gave up hope. But only for a moment.
Hugging the lane line and drafting off Bernard, Lezak steadily cut into the Frenchman’s lead. In the final stroke, Lezak lunged ahead, out-touching Bernard by a mere eight hundredths of a second.
Unbelievably, that wouldn’t be Phelps’ closest call.
With six golds already in his possession, Phelps was battling Milorad Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly final. And he was losing.
Cavic dominated the race, leading it the entire way. But with one final half-stroke, Phelps eeked out a win by the slightest of margins — just .01 of a second. Omega, the official timekeeper of the Games, would later admit that Cavic had likely touched the timing pad first, but that Phelps had hit it with greater force, causing it to stop that mere fraction of a second sooner.
One day later, Phelps would win his eighth gold — a haul that would have placed him tied for ninth among all nations in that category.