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Year in review: Nation's top 10 sports stories of 2012

Triumph and tragedy. Stars were born, and legends were toppled. As always, there seemed to be as much news, controversy and intrigue away from the playing arena as there was inside of it this year.

Today we count down the biggest national sports stories of 2012, from a kid you had never heard of becoming a household name to a household name crashing to the ground. We also learn a couple of new words along the way.

We start with one of those words at No. 10.

10. Linsanity

Even those who follow the NBA fairly closely hadn't really heard of Jeremy Lin, a product of Harvard who was riding the bench with the Knicks. Because of injuries, Lin got a chance to play. Coming off the bench Feb. 4, Lin scored 25 points to go along with seven assists and led the Knicks to a comeback victory over the Nets. He was just getting started. Lin scored at least 20 points in eight of the next nine games, including a 38-point performance against the Lakers. The Knicks won seven in a row, and a star was born. He went on to sign with the Rockets as a free agent after the season.

9. NHL lockout

These knuckleheads aren't going to do this again, are they? In 2004-05, the NHL became the first of the major North American sports leagues to lose a season because of a labor dispute. The owners locked out the players, and a season was lost. Now they are at it again. Once again owners have locked out the players. Games have been canceled through mid January, and time is running out to save the 2012-13 season.

8. Penn State fallout

The Penn State football scandal stemming from former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's molestation of young boys first made news in 2011, and before last year was done, it had led to the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno. This year, Paterno died of lung cancer at 85 in January. An eight-month Penn State investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh determined several school administrators, including Paterno, knew of Sandusky's actions and did not do enough to stop him (Paterno's family disagrees). The NCAA delivered football sanctions to Penn State just shy of a death penalty, including no bowl appearances for five years, a severe reduction in scholarships and fines totalling $60 million. Also, Penn State had to vacate 111 victories from 1998-2011, meaning Paterno went from first to 12th in NCAA football career wins. In June, Sandusky, 68, was convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years and in October was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.

7. The return of Notre Dame football

Notre Dame is one of the legendary programs in college football history. But when was the last time the Irish were really relevant? They haven't won a national title since 1988 and haven't finished the season ranked in the top 10 since 1993. Before this season, the Irish had gone 86-62 since 2000. But with Brian Kelly in charge, the Irish are on the comeback trail. And when they beat Southern Cal on Nov. 24, it put the finishing touches on their first undefeated regular season in 24 years. Now Notre Dame moves on to play for the BCS national title against Alabama, another traditional power. No matter what happens in that game, Notre Dame's return to glory is the story in college football in 2012.

6. Conference realignment

Let me get this straight. So now Syracuse, which is in upstate New York, is considered a part of the Atlantic coast. Pitt, too, is a coastal city. Texas A&M is now a part of the southeastern U.S. And Boise State and San Diego State are soon to be considered in the east. Forget traditions and even locations. Conferences in college sports are now dictated by money. And you can't seem to go a day without another team jumping to a different conference. Lost are great rivalries such as Syracuse-Georgetown and Missouri-Kansas in basketball, and Pitt-West Virginia and Texas-Texas A&M in football.

5. LeBron wins a title

NBA star LeBron James took his talents to South Beach after he was unable to lead his sort-of-hometown Cavaliers to a title. Joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat, James predicted he would win one, two, three, four or more titles. He was ridiculed when the Heat was upset by the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. But James showed why he is the best player in the world when he came through in the clutch and led the Heat to the 2012 title over the Thunder. It was part of James' spectacular year, which also included a season MVP award, a Finals MVP award and an Olympic gold medal.

4. Replacement referees

The NFL season started with the referees being locked out by the league because of a labor dispute. In their place was a group of officials that regularly called at best really low-level college games. One even worked for the Lingerie Football League. The first two weeks of the season had a few boneheaded calls, such as giving one team an extra timeout, and lengthy replay reviews, but nothing too, too bad. That changed in Week 3. On a nationally televised Monday night game, the Seahawks beat the Packers on a Hail Mary even though it was clear the ball was caught by a Packers defensive back. That became the straw the broke the dispute. A few days later, the NFL and its regular officials reached a collective bargaining agreement.

3. American women dominate the Olympics

While Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and American swimmer Michael Phelps added to their Olympic legacies during the London Games, it was the American women who were the real story. Every time you turned on a TV, they were doing something great. There was Gabby Douglas and the gymnastics squad. There were swimmers Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt. There were track and field stars Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross. There was the beach volleyball team of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Jennings Walsh. And of course there were the soccer and basketball teams. When the Olympics were over, the American women had won 29 gold medals. Only one country had more golds than they did: China with 38.

2. Bountygate

In March the NFL came out with a chilling report. It said the Saints, one of its most-liked teams in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, were running a bounty program that awarded players cash for knocking opponents out of games with injures. Coach Sean Payton, top left, was suspended for the season. Then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, middle — the ringleader, the report said — was suspended indefinitely. GM Mickey Loomis and assistant coach Joe Vitt, bottom, were suspended for part of the season. Four players were suspended for various lengths. There were various appeals, and the players' suspensions were vacated. But the scandal left a stain on the Saints organization and added a word to our vocabulary: Bountygate.

And the national sports story of the year …

1. The fall of Lance Armstrong

He was considered the greatest cyclist in history, but that hardly describes Lance Armstrong. After overcoming cancer and continuing his unprecedented career, he also raised millions for cancer research through his charity. But allegations of performance-enhancing drugs dogged him for years. Time and time again he pointed to his never having failed a drug test. But in August the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said Armstrong was banned for life and would be stripped of his record seven Tour de France titles after it concluded he used banned substances, based on evidence it said came from more than 12 witnesses. Armstrong said he would not fight the decision. He even resigned from his charity. It was a sad, discouraging end to what we had always believed was sports' most inspiring story ever.

Year in review: Nation's top 10 sports stories of 2012 12/26/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 27, 2012 1:23am]
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