LOS ANGELES, Dec 15 (Reuters) – The Los Angeles Rams got their Hollywood ending, the Golden State Warriors proved the doubters wrong, and the Houston Astros won a World Series untarnished by a cheating scandal in the “big three” U.S. sports leagues this year.
February saw Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford engineer a come-from-behind, 79-yard, fourth quarter drive that was capped off by Super Bowl Most Valuable Player (MVP) Cooper Kupp’s leaping touchdown catch in the end zone to beat the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20.
The game, played on the Rams’ home field, marked the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship since returning to Los Angeles in 2016 and gave their brand a massive boost in the crowded L.A. sports marketplace.
The game also provided the world a view into team owner Stan Kroenke’s state-of-the-art, $5 billion SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, which will host World Cup matches in 2026 and Olympic events in 2028.
The more than 70,000 sun-soaked fans at the game enjoyed effectively zero COVID-19 restrictions in stark contrast to the Beijing Winter Games, playing out simultaneously on the other side of the Pacific amid heavy curbs.
And the National Football League (NFL) drama was not limited to Hollywood.
Tom Brady, widely considered to be the greatest quarterback of all time, in March announced his stunning decision to un-retire, 40 days after signaling he was done, to rejoin the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whom he had led to the title at the end of the 2020 season.
In the National Basketball Association (NBA), analysts had written the Warriors dynasty’s obituary after the team, which had won titles in 2015, 2017 and 2018, finished with a league’s worst record in 2020 and missed the playoffs in 2021.
But with a chip on their shoulder and health finally on their side, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, along with a cohort of rising stars, rolled through the playoffs and into the finals.
The Warriors were once again considered underdogs against a young and hungry Boston Celtics squad but the Golden State’s championship pedigree shone through on the sport’s biggest stage.
The finals will be best remembered for Curry’s 43-point masterpiece in the hostile environment of Boston’s TD Garden to level the series 2-2.
The Warriors would go on to win the best-of-seven series 4-2 and Curry would finally add an elusive first finals MVP award to his crowded trophy case.
ASTROS REDEEMED, JUDGE RISES
In Major League Baseball (MLB), the Astros beat the Philadelphia Phillies in November’s World Series to help rebuild the franchise’s reputation after a cheating scandal tarnished the crown they won five years earlier.
An MLB investigation found that the team had illegally used technology to steal opposing teams’ signs during their 2017 championship season in a scandal that made them one of North American sports’ most hated teams.
In an effort to change course they brought in 73-year-old manager Dusty Baker, a beloved figure who baseball fans anywhere outside of the Philadelphia metropolitan region could not help but root for as he finally claimed his first title as skipper.
“The boos and the jeers that we got all over the country, it bothered these guys, but it also motivated them at the same time,” Baker said after the Astros won three straight games to close out the series 4-1.
Baseball fans were also captivated by Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, who broke the American League (AL) single season home run record in early October when he smashed his 62nd long ball over the left field wall in Arlington to break the record set by Roger Maris in 1961.
That would prove the high point of the year for Judge, however, as his Yankees went on to be swept by the Astros in the League Championship Series later that month.
Judge, who took home AL MVP honors, signed again with the Yankees on a nine-year, $360 million deal earlier this month, ending an extended period of rampant speculation of where the sought-after free agent would land.
Sports outside of the big three also produced remarkable results this season.
Los Angeles FC came out on the winning side of the most entertaining championship match in Major League Soccer’s 27-year history when Gareth Bale tied the game 3-3 with a dramatic header in extra time in front of an electrified L.A. crowd.
That set up a penalty shootout where backup goalkeeper John McCarthy, who came on for Maxime Crepeau after he broke his leg saving what would have likely been a game-winning goal for Philadelphia earlier in the match, shut Philly out 3-0.
And the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche defeated two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning to win the Stanley Cup in June, coming from behind on the road in Game Six to capture the franchise’s third championship.
Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles;
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne
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Los Angeles-based sports reporter who interviews the most impactful athletes and executives in the world. Covers breaking news ranging from the highs of championship victories to the lows of abuse scandals. My work highlights the ways in which sports and the issues of race, gender, culture, finance, and technology intersect.