2012 in American Sports: The Winners

2012 Calendar

Oh sure, everybody says "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game". But nobody really believes it.

Sports are all about winning and losing. So as 2012 comes to a close, it's time to separate the year's winners and losers in US sports. Here, we consider the winners.

Obviously the list is incomplete, so feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

Tomorrow we will have a run-down of 2012's biggest losers.

LeBron James

It's pretty much impossible to come up with an American sports figure who had a better year than LeBron James of the Miami Heat. First, he was the regular-season MVP as the Miami Heat proved themselves the best team in the East. Then, he won his first ring and silenced an army of critics when he helped to defeat a very dangerous Oklahoma City Thunder team featuring his arch-rival, Kevin Durant. Then he lead Team USA to a victory over the entire world (possible overstatement) in the London Olympics. Then he came back with the Heat just as motivated as ever, re-establishing them as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. He's Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, the best basketball player on the planet and he even shut Skip Bayless up for a few days. Finally we can call LeBron James a winner without sarcastically snickering – not even a little.

New York Giants

Personal sympathies aside, there's no doubt that the Giants' second Super Bowl win at the expense of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots put Eli Manning into the "elite" quarterback discussion, completed the transformation of Tom Coughlin from embattled head coach to possible Hall of Famer and made the Jets look even worse by comparison. The Giants didn't take the easiest route to the Super Bowl, coming into the playoffs as the fourth seed after a regular season that included a four-game losing streak, but after their improbable Super Bowl win in 2008 no one was taking them lightly. Who would have thought that Eli would now have twice as many Super Bowl rings as big brother Peyton? It looks like the Giants are again going through the process of bumbling towards the end of the regular season, but nobody's falling for that "drunken master" trickery anymore.

Barry Zito, Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro

It would be easy just to list the World Series-winning San Francisco Giants as the big winners here, but just from a misfit sports narrative standpoint it's worth noting three of the Giants' biggest postseason contributors. Before this postseason, Barry Zito was known for having one of baseball's worst contracts – he was so bad that he was left off the 2010 championship team playoff roster. Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval has gone through such long slumps that he's spent as much time as a de facto team mascot as a productive hitter. Marco Scutaro was traded by the Boston Red Sox for salary relief and then let go by the mediocre Colorado Rockies after failing to hit even in the hitter's paradise that is Coors Field.

We all know how this movie went. Zito pitched maybe his best start of the season in an elimination game against the St Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series. Scutaro, who seemed to have a knack for driving in timely runs whenever needed, was named NLCS MVP. All Zito did next was outduel the Detroit Tigers' Justin "Reigning AL Cy Young and MVP" Verlander in game one of the World Series. In that game, Sandoval hit three home runs, tying a World Series record and putting him in the company of Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols. The Giants beat the Tigers in four games. Who drove in the series winning run in extra innings in game four? You guessed it, that would be Scutaro. End credits.

The David Beckham Experiment

David Beckham's career in the USA began in massive hype and almost immediate letdown, but it ultimately ended on a satisfactory note when he won his second MLS Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy. While Beckham didn't quite manage the huge task of pushing Major League Soccer to the heights of the big four leagues (the NFL, MLB, the NBA and the NHL), he has left US soccer better off and proved himself to be more than just Mr Posh Spice. (Note: not that there is anything wrong with being Mr Posh Spice.)

The Guardian's Graham Parker probably summarized Beckham's US legacy best, shortly before the MLS Cup:

Beckham will leave the Galaxy on a high regardless of the result in Saturday's final against the Houston Dynamo – respected by his team-mates, the coach, Bruce Arena, and the overwhelming majority of LA fans, as a model professional whose diminishing powers have still contributed significantly to their success, rather than the superstar whose arrival threatened to turn his club, if not the league, upside down.

"He's been probably more valuable to the league than to the LA Galaxy," said Arena this week. And while there is truth in that – his former club president Alexi Lalas and the MLS Players Union chief, Bob Foose, were both emphatic about the "worldwide credibility" Beckham's arrival brought – and while it is true that the economic boon of his presence went way beyond the surge in shirt sales at the Galaxy, there is a certain quiet relief among many that at least part of Beckham's legacy here will be a sporting one.

Olympic veterans

We have come to take Serena Williams for granted. This year, she won two gold medals at the London Olympics, a fifth Wimbledon title, a fourth US Open and had maybe her 1,000th on-court controversy. Just another year in the life of one of the greatest tennis players of all time. (Fun Fact: As of this writing, the start of Serena's Wikipedia entry begins with "this article may be too long to read and navigate comfortably". That about sums it up.)

Maybe we'll pay more attention to Williams if she retires on top, like Michael Phelps did. Despite failing to win a medal in his first event, the swimmer rebounded to collect four gold medals and two silvers. The Greatest Olympian ever? That's a bit hyperbolic, considering there are more medals to be won in the pool than in most other Olympic events, but Phelps has 22 and 18 of them are gold. Who says that people who smoke pot aren't motivated?

US women's Olympic teams

The most noticeable trend in the USA's success at the London Olympics was that a lot of the victors were women. In fact, women accounted for 29 of the USA's 46 gold medals. At some point the summer games were given the nickname "the Title IX Olympics", after the idea that the current glut of talented female athletes in the USA was a direct result of the still-controversial legislation that, among other things, greatly expanded opportunities for women to pursue college athletics.

As true as this may be, validating landmark 1970s legislation probably wasn't foremost in the minds of a US women's soccer team as they sought to rebound from a heartbreaking defeat last year in the World Cup against Japan. Megan Rapione, Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and company did just that when they beat Japan 2-1 in the gold-medal match but before that they had to claw their way back again and again against Canada in the semifinals. Alex Morgan's extra-time goal won it 4-3 in one of the most exciting soccer matches in recent memory.

In gymnastics, Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross dominated and won America's heart. Collectively, they won gold. Raisman won gold in the floor exercise and bronze on the beam; Douglas won the individual all-around title and became a household name; Maroney won silver on the vault and became a worldwide meme. Collectively they were given the nickname Fierce Five, which is pretty much the most badass thing to happen in gymnastics history.

While the men's basketball team, featuring LeBron James and a group of NBA players second only in talent to the original 1992 Dream Team, got most of the accolades and attention, the women's basketball team were even more dominant. A group of all-stars featuring Candace Parker, Sue Bird and Maya Moore, the US cruised to the gold-medal game, where they beat the French in a blowout. You have to admire a team that made LeBron's squad look like it was struggling.

University of Alabama

Hate him or really hate him, head coach Nick Saban has made the University of Alabama the country's premiere college football program. Alabama began the year by defeating LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship Game. By the end of the year, there they were again in the national title game, this time against a resurgent Notre Dame. This makes 2012 the greatest year for the Crimson Tide since they were name-checked in Steely Dan's Deacon Blues, back in 1977.

Breakout rookies

We all love established stars, but sometimes all we want is something new, the thrill of watching a young player achieve his potential. Heck, we want to see great rookie classes come into the league at the same time. Uually the sports world hands us more Ryan Leafs and Greg Odens than Peyton Mannings or Kevin Durants. This year, however, featured three pairs of breakout rookies.

In football, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III went one and two in the NFL Draft, to the Indianapolis Colts and the Washington Redskins. Despite the fact that Luck was the No1 pick for anyone not related to RG3, the chatter before the season was about which quarterback would have a better year. Despite the fact that it's probably the most difficult position in pro sports, and both players were headed to highly flawed teams, fans expected Luck and RGIII to have an impact. If anything the two players have exceeded the loftiest of expectations – Luck has turned the worst team in football into a playoff contender and RG3, who is maybe the most exciting quarterback to watch thanks to his ability to make plays with his legs, has become so revered in DC that people believe his mere presence led the woeful Washington Wizards to a win.

Baseball had its own budding rivalry in 2012. The five-tooled Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper was more heralded when he made his Major League debut, but the all-everything outfielder Mike Trout ended up having the much better season, for the Los Angeles of Anaheim. Trout ended up as the hands-down American League rookie of the year, and there was a strong case that he should have been the MVP. If Harper, the National League rookie of the year, feels overshadowed, he can feel consoled by the fact that he's a year younger than Trout.

The Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving and the Minnesota Timberwolves' Ricky Rubio came to the NBA on different paths. Irving was 2011's No1 draft pick, after spending a year at Duke; the Timberwolves drafted Rubio a few years ago, but he was playing in Spain and had become something of an urban legend before 2011-12. The better all-around player, Irving is expected to lead the Cavaliers single-handedly, like some other Cav used to before he got older and moved to Florida. Rubio, whose insane assists seem to bend time and space, is there to facilitate those around him, especially rebound-machine Kevin Love. Unfortunately for the basketball world, Rubio suffered a season-ending injury, leading the way for Irving to become unanimous rookie of the year. At the start of 2012-13 Irving and Rubio were both injured, but they recently returned. The NBA is way more fun with them in it.

John Calipari

"Could you imagine a Calipari team with seniors?" It was a rhetorical question sent via Twitter, reacting to the University of Kentucky basketball team's march through March Madness. Calilpari's team, fronted by mostly NBA-ready freshmen, defeated Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals to advance to the NCAA Championship Game, where they defeated the Kansas Jayhawks 67-59.

Calipari's recruiting skills became even more apparent in June when Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague were taken in the first round of the NBA Draft. Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist became the first players from the same school to be taken first and second in the same draft. The downside to his success? Calipari had to start the 2012-13 season with basically a whole new team. But he's used to that.

New York basketball

It goes something like this: the Knicks experience Linsanity! Then the Knicks experience a coaching change! The Knicks win a playoff game! The New Jersey Nets move to Brooklyn! The Nets get Joe Johnson! And Jay-Z is vaguely involved! The Knicks become a legitimate Eastern Conference Finals threat! The Knicks and Nets begin a rivalry! Oh yeah, and somewhere along the way the Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire punched a fire extinguisher, the Nets' Kris Humphries punched Rajon Rondo and Rasheed Wallace became a Knick but didn't punch anyone or anything. Yet.

Honorable Mentions

RA Dickey (for winning a Cy Young with the New York Mets while throwing the knuckleball – also for no longer being a Met); Rob Gronkowski (for he soy fiesta); Nate Silver (for making the transition from Baseball Prospectus to being the third-most talked about person on election night); Adrian Peterson (for "holy cow he came back from that?"); Avery Bradley (for being My Guy); Johnny Manziel and Manti Te'o (for both deserving the Heisman Trophy even if only Manziel could win it); Miguel Cabrera (for winning the non-horse related triple crown); no-hitters; the return to the running game; and that one person out there who still enjoys "Gangnam Style" parodies.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Hunter Felt, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 27th December 2012 14.00 Europe/London

Tomorrow find out who the big losers were in 2012

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image: © Dan Moyle