The past year in New York sports has been filled with triumph, record-breaking performances, milestones, high-profile acquisitions, sad departures, playoff games, unbelievable comebacks, disappointing seasons, retired numbers, a couple of league lockouts and, unfortunately, A.J. Burnett. And another unfortunate occurrence (or nonoccurrence would be more accurate) was the lack of a New York/New Jersey championship once again. That's two consecutive years that a local team hasn't won a title. George Steinbrenner wouldn't put up with a drought like that, and his ghost must be haunting the holy heck out of Brian Cashman right about now.
The New York Jets made it the furthest of the nine teams, going all the way to the AFC Championship Game in January, and the New York Knicks, New York Yankees and New York Rangers also qualified for the postseason, but they were all one-and-done this time around. The New York Mets have been nothing but a sad story lately (and may not even exist anymore by the time you read this), and the New York Giants and Jets are still writing the ending to their 2011 seasons. The New Jersey Nets, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders all fell short of contending by the time the spring of '11 came around (though the Devils had an impressive turnaround the second half of the season but just couldn't complete their miracle run to the postseason), and they are all in different phases of rebuilding or competing now that the year is coming to an end.
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Here's a look back at the top stories of the year, though they won't be ranked, as a Knick fan's top story will be different than a Met fan's main concern -- so why end the year quibbling about order (they'll be sort of listed chronologically)? And no, Kris Humphries' tabloid marriage to what's-her-name doesn't count as a sports story.
The Jets Fall to the Steelers: After defeating two of their arch rivals in the Colts and Patriots in the first two rounds of the playoffs, who both happened to have two of the greatest quarterbacks in football history, the Jets took on the Steelers in their second consecutive AFC Championship Game, on January 23, 2011. They spent the first half of the game looking like the 1996 Rich Kotite 1-15 Jets, missing tackles left and right, fumbling the ball, tripping over their untied shoelaces and committing other types of buffoonery. But in the second half, they stormed back, and resembled the 2010 Jets that earned the right to play in the conference title game. Losing 24-3, they scored 16 unanswered points (Mark Sanchez touchdown passes thrown to Santonio Holmes and Jerricho Cotchery sandwiched around a Mike DeVito safety). But when they failed to score with four chances inside Pittsburgh's 10-yard line late in the game, they were finally doomed and their comeback fell five points short, losing 24-19. After the game, Rex Ryan predicted that they would still win the Super Bowl, though.
Carmelo Anthony Comes to New York: NBA fans suffered through months of will-he-or-won't-he-be-traded Anthony rumors, and when the dust settled the Denver Nuggets got a king's ransom from the Knicks for their star forward (well, at least a lot of players), and the circus came to Madison Square Garden. Anthony (and Chauncey Billups) instantly made the Knicks playoff contenders (though they were doing ok with a scrappy cast of youngsters and unknowns leading up to the transaction). If Amar'e Stoudemire was the new face of the franchise, Anthony became 1-A. They formed a Big Two, but with a lack of practice time and training camp, it was tough sledding at times as they all learned to play together as a team. But Stoudemire was spot-on, when he claimed, back in the summer of 2010, that the Knicks were back.
Deron Williams Comes to New Jersey: After being involved in the Carmelo Anthony drama, and losing out to the Knicks, Billy King and the Nets surprised everyone by swinging a deal for Utah's star point guard, sending the Jazz Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, two first-round draft picks and $3 million. Many didn't even know Williams was up for grabs (and just as many didn't know that the Nets were still in the league -- "Didn't they defect back to the ABA?" asked one rival executive). Williams has become the Nets' Big One, as they hope to re-sign him and add at least one more star to the mix, though they're in a holding pattern as of the present moment. They did double their win total in 2010-'11, though, from 12 to 24.
The Knicks Make the Playoffs: Not only were they back, but the Knicks actually qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and finished above .500 (42-40) for the first time since 2001, officially wiping out the Isiah Thomas reign of terror once and for all. They faced their old-time rival, the Boston Celtics, in round one, and had a chance to upset the aging team, but lost in the waning seconds twice, Stoudemire and Billups were injured and they went on to get swept. The series was much closer than a sweep would indicate, though, and just the fact that New Yorkers had postseason basketball and a competitive team to root for was enough in the spring of 2011.
Bernie & the Mets: The Mets came into the 2011 season dealing with the fallout from Fred Wilpon tangling himself up in Bernie Madoff's web of deceit -- and for Wilpon, not being born yesterday, this is actually the second time he's fell for the old trick of a pyramid scheme, so you can't fool him more than three or four times. After all the Wilpons (even including cousin Oliver) insisted that the Madoff mess would have no bearing on or have any implications to the Mets, the team has been hemoraging money and cutting costs ever since. They've taken out loans galore, a deal to bring in David Einhorn as a minority owner fell apart and they're now still looking for more minority owners as a way to bring in some cash, along with eliminating a minor-league team. And to make matters worse, Sports Illustrated quoted Wilpon insulting his own players last spring. Though the Mets were devasted with injuries (Johan Santana missed the whole season, Ike Davis missed most of the season, David Wright missed a chunk of the season), the team, full of gritty overachievers and led by the enthusiastic Terry Collins, swam above water for the first half of the season, but once Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez were dealt, and the dismantling began, the team lost any hope of being in the wild card race and finished in fourth place.
The Rangers Sign Brad Richards: In the past, when the Rangers brought in a big name, whether as a free agent or in a trade, it usually didn't work out (except for Mark Messier, of course). They were throwing out big money and grasping at straws at the same time. Ken Hodge cursed all who followed him. But the 2011 Rangers are a different breed. Glen Sather has finally learned from all his mistakes (or maybe he got desperate and this was his last choice/chance) and has put together a team built with homegrown players. Of course, that doesn't mean one has to ignore free agency all together. He just has to make sure they're the right ones. And Richards was the right one. Signed to a reasonable contract, he was brought in to complement Marian Gaborik. Well, that pairing was quickly scrapped, but with the separation the team found success. Richards has produced nearly a point a game on the second line, with Ryan Callahan and the left wing du jour (currently Carl Hagelin), while Gaborik has thrived on the first line, with Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov. The summer signing of Richards has worked out perfectly, just not as initially planned. And the Rangers didn't have to trade Rick Middleton to get him.
A Summer of Pinstripe Milestones: Juxtaposed with Jorge Posada's temporary snit-filled insanity when he staged a one-game walkout in his waning days as a Yankee, two of his longtime teammates reached milestones this past summer, and continued their careers as ultimate professionals (ok, Posada has mainly been nothing but professional despite that one incident). Derek Jeter recorded his 3,000th hit on July 9th. And because Derek Jeter is the most perfect man alive (and I say that out of respect and awe, not sarcasm), that milestone hit was a home run, and he went 5-for-5 in the game and also came up with the game-winning hit (and won the lottery that day and saved a litter of puppies from a burning fire). It was a day straight out of a Hollywood movie. On Sept. 13, Mariano Rivera notched his 600th save, on the 17th he tied Trevor Hoffman for the all-time save record and two days later he broke the record with a save against the Twins, striking out Chris Parmelee for the last out. And, of course, there were no gyrations, dances or look-at-me poses -- just the usual class from a regal, classy guy.
Plaxico Burress Joins the Jets: On June 6, 2011, Plaxico Burress walked out of the Oneida Correctional Facility in Rome, New York, and immediately shot himself in the leg again (ok, he didn't actually do that, and no, "She Caught the Katy" wasn't playing in the background and Elwood Blues wasn't there to pick him up, either). A month and a half later, after flirting with the Giants, Burress signed a one-year $3.017 million contract with the Jets. He's had an up-and-down season in 2011, as was to be expected, but he did have a few highs, which included a three-touchdown game against the Chargers in October. And he was made to look like the good guy, when Buffalo's Stevie Johnson did his impression of Burress' self-inflicted gunshot incident after scoring a touchdown. As the two teams walked off the field, though, Burress shot Johnson in the leg as payback (ok, ok, he didn't do that).
No No. 28 for the Yankees: After watching their arch nemesis, the Boston Red Sox, author the biggest choke in baseball history, the Yankees quietly finished the season with the best record in the American League, and second best in all of baseball. Sure, Joe Girardi had a few spats, one with Posada and another with Burnett, who may or may not have disrespected his manager while getting yanked from a game, but with Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano having MVP-type seasons, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon resurrecting their careers and Ivan Nova winning 16 games, the Yankees made the postseason for the 99th time out of the last 100 years (or something like that). But, for the second straight year, they couldn't reach their goal of a World Series, falling three games to two to the Detroit Tigers, despite having to face Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander only once in the series, thanks to rain wreaking havoc with the schedule.
Good-bye Jose, and Thanks for All the Triples: The Mets never really had a chance. Besides not having any money left, Sandy Alderson and the braintrust in Queens probably didn't want to dole out in the neighborhood of $100 million for five or six years to someone whose bread and butter are his legs, but said legs possess rickity hamstrings. Jose Reyes left the Mets with a flourish, though, batting .337, and becoming the first-ever batting champion in franchise history. His last game was one to forget, though, when he bunted for a single in the bottom of the first inning, and then removed himself from the game. He gave Met fans nine years of excitement and a plethora of stolen bases (370 to be exact) and triples (99), along with some crazy handshakes, frustration and head-scratching moments thrown into the mix.
The Frontcourt Is Complete: Once the Knicks realized that they didn't have the trade chips for Chris Paul, and that Paul would undoubtedly not reach free agency in the summer of 2012, they did the next best thing (or maybe a better thing is more like it) by trading for Tyson Chandler, on December 9th. After winning an NBA Championship last year with the Dallas Mavericks, Chandler gives the Knicks the defensive presence they were sorely lacking (actually the Knicks just now discovered that they were allowed to defend their opponents last season). If the Knicks were just glad to be back in the playoffs last season, this year they are a legitimate Eastern Conference power with the addition of their new center.
The Battle of New York: Not since Air Supply got into a knife fight with Seals & Crofts over who rocked the softest has there been a battle to the death, but fought with many mistakes, between two hated foes. Though both the Giants and Jets had memorable, important games this year (and each still has one to play on Sunday), this was the game everyone will remember from 2011. In their 29-14 win, the Giants were just a little tougher, made a few more big plays and talked just a little less leading up to the game. Victor Cruz was the star (there's something about the Jets that brings out the best in him), and Rex Ryan had to eat his words yet again. When the Giants pulled the curtain back, displaying their logo and Super Bowl trophies near the locker rooms, when the game was over, the big brother showed once again that you can't wipe out 86 years of history and almost a century of building a fan base by making bold, empty predictions off the field of play.
Other Memorable Happenings: Joe McKnight set the Jets' record for longest play when he returned a kickoff 107 yards, breaking Brad Smith's mark from 2009, Darrelle Revis tied Aaron Glenn's Jet record with a 100-yard interception return, Patrik Elias broke John MacLean's all-time Devils goal-scoring record, Brandon Jacobs broke Tiki Barber's all-time Giant rushing touchdown record in 2011, Victor Cruz broke Amani Toomer's single-season Giant record for receiving yards this year (and his 99-yard touchdown vs. the Jets was the longest pass play in franchise history), Eli Manning set a team record for passing yards and Scott Niedermayer and Ed Westfall had their uniform numbers retired by the Devils and Islanders, respectively.
R.I.P.: And finally, the notable New York-related athletes who passed away this year: Duke Snider, Joe Frazier, Andy Robustelli, Derek Boogaard, Matty Alou, Hideki Irabu, Armen Gilliam and Ryne Duren.