The biggest Southland sports stories of 2012

With 2012 coming to a close, FOX Sports West looks back at the biggest storylines of the year.

1) New ownership rejuvenates Dodgers
In a year in which the Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, the Angels reaped the benefits of Albert Pujols and the Galaxy continued to get good mileage out of David Beckham, no other sports development seemed to typify the Los Angeles sports scene as much as Guggenheim Baseball Management’s immense infusion of capital into a Los Angeles Dodgers team that had seen its pristine Dodger Blue fade somewhat over the final years of the McCourt regime. Following the $2 billion-plus transaction, general manager Ned Colletti immediately began bolstering the team, extending Andre Ethier (5 years / $85 million), signing prospect Yasiel Puig (7 years / $42 million), trading for Hanley Ramirez ($31.5 million still owed through 2014) and orchestrating arguably the biggest trade in Los Angeles sports history when he acquired Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto (and their contracts, which add up to roughly $262.5 million dollars) from the Boston Red Sox. With co-owner Magic Johnson serving as the revered face of the team and a refreshing antidote to the failed final years of Frank McCourt, the team’s public and community relations helped return attendance – and the Dodgers brand – back to pre-McCourt levels, an endeavor aided by the unsung contributions by new fan favorite infielder Luis Cruz and ideas as simple as bringing back the Cool-A-Coo ice cream sandwich. Though the team won nothing in 2012 and was forced to watch the hated Giants win the World Series for the second time in three years, the structure and operation of an iconic Southland institution changed drastically through Guggenheim’s investment and makes the Dodgers’ capital improvements the biggest Southland sports story of 2012.

2) Kings win the Stanley Cup
If the Eskimos have dozens of words for “snow,” then the Los Angeles Kings fans must have dozens of words for “painful, debilitating losses” – at least until the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs that they took hostage. Reshaping the history of a 45-year old franchise that had experienced a surplus of missed opportunity and fleeting moments of triumph interrupted by long periods of irrelevancy, the Kings – the Kings! – leapt out to 3-to-0 series leads against the President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks, the St. Louis Blues, the Phoenix Coyotes and eventually the New Jersey Devils in a Stanley Cup Final they won four games to two. The playoff rally captivated Southern California sports fans, raising the level of hockey excitement in the area to levels only seen at the height of Wayne Gretzky’s tenure in Los Angeles. To top off the greatest spring in Kings history, the team celebrated its first championship on home ice and paraded the Stanley Cup around the Staples Center ice surface as thousands of fans stayed for the party, cheering and snapping pictures. With the same strong roster returning, the Kings may not drop that far on the list of next year’s biggest sports stories – assuming that an agreement is reached to end the NHL lockout.

3) Lakers drama
Los Angeles’ most entertaining soap opera hit new levels of volatility in the fall of 2012. Steve Nash was acquired in a sign-and-trade with Phoenix, setting the stage for a trade that finally brought in coveted center Dwight Howard and sent Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia. With a roster that included Howard, Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, the Lakers were seen as legitimate challengers to the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs in yet another strong Western Conference. After a winless preseason gave way to a tepid early season in which Nash was injured with a non-displaced leg fracture before November started, head coach Mike Brown was fired after five games and owner Jim Buss bungled his awkward courtship of Phil Jackson. Former Phoenix and New York coach Mike D’Antoni was hired to coach the team; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a statue unveiled outside of Staples Center; Jamaal Wilkes had his jersey retired; Kobe became the fifth member of the 30,000 points club – all this and the club is just 15-15. If this team isn’t able to improve its defense – the Lakers’ 100.1 points allowed per game ranks 25th in the league – it’s a soap opera that runs the risk of being canceled come April.

4) Clippers become LA’s/NBA’s best
No Los Angeles Clippers team has finished above fifth place in the Western Conference. Try telling that to a team that won its 17th straight game on Sunday, completing a perfect 16-0 December. It’s the longest professional basketball winning streak in Los Angeles in 13 years. Having turned the team’s biggest weakness in 2011-12 – its bench – into its greatest strength, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have been immensely aided by the contributions of super subs Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford, the latter of whom is putting up a strong case for his second career Sixth Man of the Year Award. Swagger and confidence overflows amongst this tightly-knit bunch, which all sported CP3-approved gaudy Christmas sweaters when talking to the media after their 12-point win over Denver on Christmas Day. Among those impressed: Dodgers co-owner and Lakers great Magic Johnson. “I thought I would never, ever see Showtime again, and I was the architect of Showtime,” Johnson said last week. “The Clippers? That’s Showtime.”

5) Mike Trout’s historic season
Though the Angels finished a disappointing third in the four-team AL West race, there was still a collection of compelling stories that maintained the Halos’ relevance. Northridge native Jered Weaver spun the team’s first individual home no-hitter since Nolan Ryan in 1975. Albert Pujols shrugged off a slow start to hit 30 homeruns in his first season in the American League. But of all the individual efforts on all Southland-area teams, nobody in any sport produced the type of numbers 21-year old rookie Mike Trout did. Joining the Angels from Triple-A Salt Lake on April 28 to spell an ineffective Bobby Abreu, Trout bat .326 in 139 games while clubbing 30 homeruns and stealing an AL-best 49 bases. Easily winning the AL Rookie of the Year, Trout finished as runner up in MVP voting to Miguel Cabrera while earning a Silver Slugger award and an All-Star Game invite. His five-tool ability and meteoric rise amongst baseball’s royalty makes him a legitimate superstar.

6) UCLA football up, USC down
UCLA’s 38-28 win over USC at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 17 was a fair representation of the two schools’ trajectories in football under their respective head coaches. While USC coach Lane Kiffin dealt with numerous off-the-field controversies and saw his preseason No. 1 finish pick up five losses and finish out of the top-25, UCLA head coach Jim Mora was at work changing the character and culture of a football program that hadn’t exactly been a paragon of accomplishment, going 56-58 between Bob Toledo’s firing after the 2002 season and Mora’s hiring last December. With a new staff and a heralded incoming recruiting class, Mora subjected his team to a demanding training camp under triple digit temperatures in remote San Bernardino, a far cry from the leafy surroundings of comfortable Westwood. With future NCAA superstar Brett Hundley at quarterback, the Bruins responded with their second nine-win season in 14 years. The season ended under a cloud of slight disappointment when they were routed by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl – the team’s third straight loss – but considering the uneven environment he inherited, Mora’s ability to guide the Bruins within a field goal of the Rose Bowl speaks of the change in expectations in UCLA’s program and the narrowed distance between a pair of programs on opposite sides of the city.  

7) Angels/Dodgers offseason arms race
Following a season in which each Southland club finished below its lower-spending Bay Area divisional counterpart, the deep-pocketed Angels and Dodgers doled out a combined one-third of a billion dollars on Hyun-Jin Ryu (Dodgers; 6 years / $36 million + $25.7 million in negotiation rights), Zach Greinke (Dodgers; 6 years / $147 million) and Josh Hamilton (Angels; 5 years / $125 million). For the Dodgers, the most interesting offseason in recent memory wasn’t a surprise due to the exorbitant financial backing provided by Guggenheim Baseball Management, and general manager Ned Colletti did what was widely expected: he netted the top arm available in free agency. Angels owner Arte Moreno and general manager Jerry Dipoto engineered a different type of coup. One year after inking Albert Pujols to a $254 million dollar deal, the duo snatched Hamilton away from a divisional rival during an offseason many expected would be fairly quiet, thus assembling what appears to be the greatest lineup in Halo history. As the Yankees and Mets shed salary and the Boston Red Sox still have a ways to go after hitting the reset button last year, all hot stove baseball conversation seemed to gravitate around the hyper-active front offices in Los Angeles and Anaheim creating huge expectations for both clubs and talk of a Freeway Series World Series.

8) Southland Olympians win Gold
According to UCLA urban planning doctorate Patrick Adler, the Los Angeles area’s tally of 45 medals was four times as many as any other city’s medal inventory. Had USC competed as its own country at the London Games, it would have finished sixth in gold medals won and 11th in total medals. Track star Alyson Felix represented USC well with three gold medals, while UCLA boasted two members each on the gold-winning men’s basketball team (Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook), women’s soccer team (Lauren Cheney, Sydney Leroux) and women’s water polo team (Courtney Mathewson, Kelly Rulon). And, of course, there was the third consecutive Olympic gold medal won by beach volleyball partners Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, leading to a proud moment in the Dodgers’ clubhouse when catcher Matt Treanor, Misty’s wife, emotionally followed the internet feed of his wife’s gold medal match from 6,000 miles away. There were other sentimental moments of Olympic homecoming: when Brenda Villa brought her water polo gold medal back to the City of Commerce, the entire city practically showed up for the celebration and the renaming of the city’s aquatic center in her honor. “She has put us on the map, and brought back world recognition,” City of Commerce Mayor Lilia R. Leon said of Villa.  

9) Beckham ends Galaxy run with MLS title
The full impact of David Beckham’s L.A. tenure was aptly described by Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan in the lead-up to the 2012 MLS Cup in which Los Angeles beat Houston 3-1 at the Home Depot Center, “we went up to Seattle on Sunday and played in front of 45,000 people and that didn’t happen before he got here.”. Certainly, that big-picture thinking is the prime indicator of Beckham’s success in growing the interest of soccer north of the Mexican border. While his U.S. experience was interrupted by injury and a middling team early in his MLS tenure, by Year 6 the Galaxy had moved closer towards becoming the closest thing the league had to an internationally-recognized entity. There’s still a long, long way to go before they’re on equal footing with the top European clubs that barnstorm the continent while posting crooked preseason scores, but that’s not as important as the overall growth of both the league and the sport itself as Beckham, Donovan and head coach Bruce Arena engineered the third and fourth championships in Galaxy history – and excitement in the sport throughout Southern California. When Beckham announced that he’d be departing the Galaxy after the MLS Cup, there was universal approval of his North American efforts. “I felt that I came to the decision solely because I’d felt I’d achieved everything that I’d wanted to achieve with the Galaxy — on the field and off the field,” Beckham said.  

10) UCLA basketball malaise
Coming off another disappointing season in which UCLA missed the NCAA tournament and had to weather the storm created by the dismissal of Reeves Nelson and a shocking Sports Illustrated investigation that shined a light on the current state of the program, the Bruins opened up the 2012 campaign with high expectations following a top notch recruiting class – highlighted by Shabazz Muhammad – a top-25 ranking and the unveiling of a $136 million dollar face lift for Pauley Pavilion. But this winter saw more of the same from Ben Howland and UCLA. Muhammad’s debut was delayed until Nov. 19 following an investigation into receiving travel benefits. Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb transferred out of the program in November, leaving the Bruins with only eight scholarship players. The shorthanded Bruins began the season 5-3 with a shocking loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. And just last week, freshman center Tony Parker used Twitter to voice his homesickness. To their credit, the Bruins have shown signs of rebounding from a challenging first half. A three-point overtime win over previously seventh-ranked Missouri on Friday was the exact type of resume-building victory needed by this bubble-residing team. Muhammad has since lived up to his lofty billing, averaging 25 points over his last four games while shooting 54.5% over that stretch. The team will carry a five-game winning streak into Thursday’s Pac-12 opener at Pauley Pavilion against Cal. Only one Pac-12 team is ranked – No. 3 Arizona – and considering the fact that only two Pac-12 teams made the 2012 NCAA Basketball Tournament, UCLA can’t afford to fall much farther than second place in conference play.

Honorable Mentions (in chronological order):
Simi Valley  native Jered Weaver tosses a no-hitter at Angel Stadium…Teemu  Selanne leads the Ducks in scoring at 41 years of age…Staples  Center hosts five Kings, Lakers and Clippers playoff games between May 17 – 20…Kings,  Galaxy, Staples Center owner AEG is put up for sale…NHL lockout  delays Kings’ banner-raising ceremony, Cup defense…Long Beach  Poly returns to prep football glory, wins CIF-SS title with 11 straight wins after 1-3 start…Notre Dame  wins at the Coliseum to advance to the BCS National Championship…Revered  Kings, Angels, Clippers PA announcer David Courtney passes away.