Coronavirus dominated the year in sports, too

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SPORTS DIGEST

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Just like it was in the news pages, coronavirus was the sports story of the year in 2020.

The pandemic brought the sports world to a screaming halt in the middle of March when the NBA and NHL seasons were suspended, the NCAA canceled its March Madness basketball tournament and Major League Baseball shut down spring training, all within a couple of days of each other.

Major League Soccer and all other college sports as well as the spring sports season for high schools also shut down.

Local high schools still haven’t resumed their sports seasons and those athletes who were going to use their 2020-21 fall and winter seasons to secure college scholarships may be left out in the cold.

The professional sports leagues eventually resumed their schedules in late July and early August in bubbles set up to keep the players as safe as possible.

In a bubble in Orlando, Florida, the Lakers went on to win the NBA title, their 17th NBA championship, which ties them with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in league history.

The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Star in six games to win the Stanley Cup in hockey in a similar bubble in Toronto.

Both leagues played in empty arenas.

Major League Baseball began its season in late July, playing an abbreviated 60-game season with an expanded playoff. Like basketball and hockey, the games were played in empty stadiums.

The National Football league canceled its exhibition season, but began its regular season on time. Like the other major sports, safety protocols were established to keep players, coaches and staff as healthy as possible, but some teams have been impacted by the virus more than others.

The college football season, which operates under an umbrella separate from the NCCA, started the season late and most schools played only conference opponents all year. The Pac 12 was the last conference to start, beginning a six-game schedule the first week of November, but not every school got their six games in due to coronavirus outbreaks.

The Rose Bowl, which was scheduled to host one of the College Football Playoff semifinals Jan. 1 in Pasadena, lost the game because state and county health officials wouldn’t allow fans inside the stadium. The game, between Alabama and Notre Dame, will be held in AT&T Stadium in Dallas Jan. 1.

The NBA, which ended its 2019-20 season in October, began the 2020-21 season Dec. 22. The league will play a 72-game schedule, as opposed to the normal 82-game schedule.

The NHL will begin its season in January and also will play a shortened season.

Other top sports stories for 2020 included

2. Dodgers end World Series drought. The Dodgers finally won a World Series title again after going 32 years without one. The Dodgers defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in six games in Arlington, Texas, to win the series after escaping a 3-1 deficit against the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series.

Shortstop Corey Seager was the most valuable player in both the league championship series and the World Series, but right fielder Mookie Betts won games with his glove and his legs and young left-hander Julio Urias finally showed the ability the Dodgers’ front office had lone predicted for him.

Manager Dave Roberts, who couldn’t please fans despite getting to the World Series for the third time in four years, finally got over the hump, possibly because he learned to keep Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning of close games.

The Dodgers had the best overall record in the Major Leagues during the regular season and were the class of the post-season as well.

3. Lakers win NBA title. When the NBA season started in October 2019, the Clippers, not the Lakers, were favored to win the NBA Western Conference.

But after losing the season-opener to the Clippers, the Lakers with superstar Anthony Davis joining LeBron James put together an outstanding season. They were the best team in the west when the season was postponed in March and maintained the best record for the final eight games leading into the playoffs.

The long-anticipated series between the Lakers and Clippers didn’t materialize in the Western Division finals. Instead, the Denver Nuggets rallied to defeat the Clippers in the last three games of their series only to get blown out in five games by the Lakers.

The Miami Heat defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the best overall record during the regular season, in the second round of the playoffs and then beat the Boston Celtics in six games in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Lakers then defeated the Heat in six games for their first title since 2010.

4. Death of a legend. Radio talk show hosts are rarely at a loss for words. But Fox Sports Radio personality Steve Hartman was stumbling all over himself Jan. 26.

It was hard to figure out what he was trying to say, probably because it was unbelievable. Lakers legend Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash.

As the news unfolded, it was learned that Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were killed when the helicopter they were taking to a basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks had crashed into a fog-covered hillside in Calabasas.

Bryant wasn’t raised in Los Angeles but he grew up here as an NBA player making the jump straight from high school. During his 20 years with the Lakers, the team won five NBA championships and made the finals two other times.

He scored 33,643 points in his career, which was the third most all time when he retired after the 2015-16 season. Ironically, LeBron James moved past that total just days before Bryant was killed.

A memorial service was held in Bryant’s honor at Staples Center on Feb. 24. As thousands of fans waited outside, people like Shaquille O’Neal, women’s basketball star Diana Taurausi, University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, University of Oregon basketball player Sabrina Ionescu and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, Bryant’s former agent; Michael Jordan and his widow, Vanessa paid tribute to the Lakers legend.

5. An empty stadium. Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke spent between $5 and 6 billion to build SoFi Stadium, the Inglewood stadium where the Rams and the Chargers play.

Someday fans will be allowed inside.

The Rams and Chargers have almost completed their first season in the new facility, but not one fan has stepped inside to see what all that money was spent on.

The Rams and Chargers have had mixed results this year. With one game to go in the regular season, the Rams. with a record of 9-6, need a victory over Arizona to ensure they make the playoffs after losing two games in a row that would have clinched them a playoff berth.

The Chargers have spent the season blowing big leads and are 6-9 with one game remaining. The season hasn’t been a total loss for the Chargers. They apparently have found a franchise quarterback. See No. 10.

6. Playoff flame-out aftermath. Someone had to pay for the fall of the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA playoffs in Florida.

That person was head coach Doc Rivers, who was let go by owner Steve Ballmer Sept. 28. Ballmer praised Rivers for establishing a winning foundation for the franchise that was a decades-long laughing stock before he arrived.

Assistant coach Tyronn Lue was promoted to head coach for the Clippers and Rivers quickly landed on his feet, getting hired by the Philadelphia 76ers.

7. Only one loss. If this had been a regular college football season and the Trojans only lost one game, head coach Clay Helton would be earning praise from USC football fans. But in this pandemic-shortened season, the Trojans finished 5-1, losing to Oregon in the Pac 12 championship game.

The season bought Helton another year with the USC administration, but the Trojans were thisclose to a 2-4 record and the lost to the best team they faced all season.

Three of the Trojans’ five wins came in the last two minutes of games. Who knows what their record would have been if Kedon Slovis wasn’t at quarterback to lead late-game comebacks.

8. Playoff elimination. The Los Angeles Football Club managed to make the Major League Soccer playoffs even though they finished seventh in the Western Conference.

Playing without top scorer Carlos Vega for most of the season, LAFC finished 9-8-5. They lost to the Seattle Sounders in the first round of the playoffs Nov. 24, 3-1. The Sounders advanced to the MLS title game, losing to Columbus, 3-0.

LAFC also advanced to the championship game of the CONCACAF Championship League tournament, where they lost to the Tigres of Liga MX, the top league in Mexico, 2-1 on Dec. 22.

9. Championship trade. The Dodgers celebrated their first World Series championship since 1988 in late October, but they might have clinched that title on Feb. 11.

That was the day they traded for Mookie Betts. The Dodgers sent outfielder Alex Verdugo, and minor league prospects shortstop Jeter Downs and catcher Connor Wong for Betts and pitcher David Price.

Price never played in a game for the Dodgers, choosing to opt out of the short season because of concerns about the coronavirus, but Betts became a presence in the clubhouse from almost the moment he walked in while performing like an all star offensively and defensively.

He made run-saving defensive plays in three straight games in the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves and sparked the Dodgers offense from the leadoff position.

10. Franchise savior. If you watched the Rose Bowl last Jan. 1, you saw Justin Herbert lead the Oregon Ducks to a 28-27 win over the Wisconsin Badgers. Herbert’s stats weren’t great but he ran for three touchdowns and showed flashes of greatness.

The Los Angeles Chargers drafted him sixth overall in the NFL Draft, hoping they had found a replacement for longtime quarterback Philip Rivers.

Herbert wasn’t expected to play much this year, but when a team doctor punctured the lung of starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor just before the second game of the season, Herbert got thrust into action. He’s now firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback.

All he has done in 14 games is throw for 4,034 yards and 28 touchdowns. The 28 touchdowns is a record for an NFL rookie and he has one game remaining.