Monday, December 12, 2016

2016: Good for One Thing

Posted By on Mon, Dec 12, 2016 at 9:25 AM

click to enlarge cubs_ws.jpg

It will be easy to say goodbye to 2016. From the political (Brexit) to the unspeakable (mass murder in Orlando), it has been a year in which our differences — our divisions — have been displayed in dramatic, all too often violent conflicts around the globe. Bloodshed continues in Iraq and Syria, North Korea seems ready to burst with its maniacal leadership (and nuclear weaponry), and here stateside, we Americans elected a president half the population considers unfit to run a reputable business, let alone lead the free world. Perhaps most threatening of all, 2016 is the year fake news — Oxymoron of the Century — became a thing. Trust has become the most valuable human commodity this side of love.

But the year in sports. My goodness, the year we’ve had in sports.

Had the Cleveland Cavaliers merely won their first NBA championship, 2016 would have had a star on the timeline of American sports history. But what is waiting 46 years for an NBA crown when the Chicago Cubs had to wait 108 years to reach the top of the baseball mountain? Had either of these teams erased a 3-1 deficit in their best-of-seven championship series, the event would have further cemented this year as significant. Both did.

The Cavs and Cubs somehow made footnotes of sports moments that otherwise would be leading annual reviews like this one. Villanova beat North Carolina for college basketball’s national championship on a buzzer-beating three-pointer, the kind of shot taken — and usually missed — on thousands of playgrounds and driveways . . . but in real life, with the cameras on and millions watching?

The Rio Olympics gave us Usain Bolt (again) and Michael Phelps (again). But the Games also introduced the world to Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, proving (again) that on the sports world’s biggest stage, gender is merely a classification of greatness. In a world of more-apparent divisions, we could use an annual dose of Olympic togetherness. Deep breaths, everyone, as we await the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.

No city has needed the distraction of sports more than Memphis. More Memphis lives have been taken violently this year than in any other year on record. We’re left to hope we’ve reached rock bottom in the bloody statistical category of homicide. And we turn to men in helmets and shorts to help us through.

This was the year Memphis became home to the highest paid player in the NBA. (Read that sentence again for emphasis, and know it’s quite temporary.) And when Mike Conley went down with broken bones in his back, the Memphis Grizzlies reeled off six straight wins — the sixth over mighty Golden State at FedExForum — to redefine the term “backbreaker” for good.

This was the year both flagship programs at the University of Memphis welcomed new coaches (a transition year unlike any since 1986). Mike Norvell has kept the pedal down for the football program, his team averaging a shade under 40 points per game despite Paxton Lynch now wearing a Denver Broncos uniform. And Tubby Smith has brought an almost regal feel to the Tiger basketball program, his lengthy record of success a welcome salve to a fan-base grown frustrated by, yes, divisions in the program.

We shed some tears as sports fans in 2016. Said goodbye to Muhammad Ali, then Gordie Howe, then Arnold Palmer. (Had but one of these legends died, the year would merit a black arm band.) The losses seemed to parallel those in the world of music: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen. It’s as though the year thirsted on pain.

Sunnier days are surely ahead. The Tiger football team will play its bowl game next week in Boca Raton, for crying out loud. Come December 31st, I’ll raise a drink to the year just passed, as I always do. But it will be a hard one. And I’ll chase it with an extra dose of firewater. I’ll then thank the heavens for, at the very least, giving us games to play.

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