A year to savor for the underdogs in sports

By Julian Linden

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Decades of frustration gave way to wild celebrations across the United States this year as three struggling teams won their professional league championships to give new hope to the battlers in an age where money and commercialism rule supreme.

New Orleans, still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, was transformed into one huge Mardi Gras that never looked like ending after the Saints won the National Football League's (NFL) Super Bowl for the first time.

Chicago's disappointment at being overlooked as the host city for the 2016 Olympics was erased when the Blackhawks won the National Hockey League's (NHL) Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years.

Only the Los Angeles Lakers, inspired by their evergreen shooting guard Kobe Bryant, offered some predictability in a year where nothing else went according to the script.

The Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in June in a classic National Basketball Association (NBA) final series that went the full seven games.

There was no championship ring for LeBron James but the NBA's two-time Most Valuable Player (MVP) still provided the most talked about and scrutinized moment for American sports fans when he walked out on his home town of Cleveland to join the Miami Heat.


James and his handlers kept the public guessing for months about his plans before he revealed his decision in an hour-long broadcast shown live on national television. Millions of viewers tuned in to watch the announcement but what was supposed to be a marketing coup turned into a public relations disaster.

Once the pride of Cleveland, James was instantly re-branded a traitor after deserting a city already battered by unemployment, high taxes, lousy weather and poor sports teams. Even basketball fans who did not support the Cavaliers turned on him, deriding the manner of his announcement as arrogant and tasteless.

Stung by the criticism, James later said that if he had known what the response would be like, he would have taken a different approach.

"If I had to go back on it, I probably would do it a little bit different," he told NBC. "But I'm happy with the decision I made. There's always going to be a misunderstanding. I don't know what I would (have done), but I definitely would have changed it."

While James offered the most unsavory moment for American sports fans in 2010, the Saints provided the most heartwarming, defeating the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in the Super Bowl in Miami in February.

For five years, the Saints had been a ray of hope for a Louisiana city still rebuilding after the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. They were a team who had enjoyed little success, derogatorily referred to as the "Ain'ts," but defied the odds and a 10-0 deficit in the final to land the biggest prize in American football.

"Not only were we rebuilding an organization and a team, but also a city and a region," said quarterback Drew Brees, the Super Bowl's MVP. "It was a mentality that we've been through so much yet we're going to come back stronger."


The Giants last won the World Series in 1954 when they were still based in New York but had not tasted success again since moving to San Francisco four years later.

Few people gave them any real hope this year as they struggled just to make the playoffs, securing their spot only by winning on the last day of the regular season.

However, they saw the fruits of their investment in a charismatic team of players, including The Freak, bearded closing pitcher Brian Wilson and slugger Aubrey Huff, who revealed that he had been dressing in his wife's red underwear for the last two months of the season because he thought it would bring luck.

The Giants reached the World Series with an unexpected but comprehensive win over the Phillies in the National League conference decider then proved too strong, winning 4-1 in November, against a Texas Rangers team who had enjoyed a roller-coaster ride to their first World Series, winning the American League crown over the New York Yankees, whose long-time owner George Steinbrenner died in mid-season.

The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961 after beating the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 in June, clinching the win with Patrick Kane's sudden-death overtime goal in Game Six.

Not since the days of Hall of Famers Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and goalie Glenn Hall had the Blackhawks hoisted the giant Cup, and they ended a drought that was the longest of any franchise in the 30-team league.

"It would be a storybook ending to a good Hollywood script," Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz said. "Who would have thought we could do this?"

(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email