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St. Petersburg Times' top 10 national sports stories of the year

1. LeBron James' 'decision'

These picks are not our favorite stories because, goodness knows, this wasn't our favorite story. But it was the most prominent. For weeks, anyone with a Twitter account predicted where James, arguably the NBA's best player, was going to end up as a free agent. Would he stay with his home state Cavaliers? Would he go to New York? Chicago? New Jersey? In the end, he schemed behind the scenes with Toronto's Chris Bosh and the Heat's Dwyane Wade to take his talents to Miami. He made the announcement in a grossly arrogant one-hour special on ESPN. When it was done, James and ESPN (along with the show's host, Jim Gray) were ripped universally for their roles in the made-for-TV abomination. And now, Heat games have become the marquee games of the night.

2. Saints win the Super Bowl

Let's not forget how much the Saints' victory in February's Super Bowl meant to the people of New Orleans still recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. The Superdome, the epicenter of all that went wrong when Katrina hit in 2005, was now the home of quarterback Drew Brees, above, and the Who-Dat Saints. In addition to Katrina, the football fanatics of the bayou country had suffered through 42 mostly losing seasons, including the days of the 'Aints when fans wore bags over their heads. But the Saints brought their first Super Bowl title to the French Quarter with a 31-17 upset win over the Colts.

3. Tiger Woods returns

It ramped up in February with a surreal 13-minute statement that looked as rehearsed as a community theater play. It continued at the Masters, when he handpicked writers to ask him softball questions. Arguably the most talented golfer of all time wasn't standing over a putt or in the tee box, and yet he became the center of the sports world and gossip pages as he tried to explain his addiction to sex and countless affairs with a variety of women in one of the biggest sports scandals ever. Back on the course, Woods struggled, going winless during the PGA Tour season for the first time in his career. He and his wife, Elin Nordegren, divorced and by year's end, Woods had lost his No. 1 ranking. But everything he did (and didn't do) in 2010 made news.

4. Underdog Giants win the World Series

While all the focus was on the mighty Yankees, the scrappy Rays, the pitching-heavy Phillies and a Rangers team full of feel-good stories such as Josh Hamilton, the Giants were squeaking into the playoffs. They knocked off the Braves then the Phillies to reach the World Series. Playing the role of underdog to the Rangers, this group of misfits, castoffs and journeymen played a style that left their fans gasping for air every game. But in the end, the Giants won their first World Series since moving to San Francisco in 1957, and their first overall since 1954.

5. Americans catch soccer fever

The United States still is not a soccer hotbed, but the country took notice in June when the national team competed in the 2010 World Cup. More than 13 million tuned in to watch Clint Dempsey, above, and the United States draw 1-1 with England. Then, in perhaps the most thrilling match the United States has ever been involved in, the Americans fell behind Slovenia 2-0 and rallied to a 2-2 draw thanks to a goal in the 82nd minute. The Americans advanced to the knockout stage with a thrilling victory when Landon Donovan scored in extra time to beat Algeria 1-0. The Americans were knocked out by Ghana 2-1 in the round of 16, but it capped a month when the United States was caught up in the world's biggest sport.

6. Canada beats U.S. for gold in Olympic hockey finale

The men's hockey tournament has become the signature event of the Winter Olympics, and 2010 saw the most dramatic game since the "Miracle on Ice" team beat the Russians in 1980. In the gold-medal game between heavily favored Canada and the upstart Americans led by the incredible goaltending of Sabres star Ryan Miller, the two teams produced a classic. The Americans tied the score late to send it to overtime, but the Canadians won 3-2 when NHL superstar Sidney Crosby slipped a puck past Miller. To show you how much Americans rallied behind their team, Miller received a standing ovation in Pittsburgh when the teams returned to NHL action, while Penguins star Crosby was booed.

7. Brett Favre's crazy season

The polar opposite of last year when the iconic NFL quarterback returned to lead the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. Favre's 2010 started with the usual will-he-or-won't-he-play soap opera. After Vikings teammates talked him into returning, the 41-year-old finally looked his age, seemingly getting injured in every game as the Vikings struggled out of the gate. Then came a scandal when a former Jets employee alleged Favre sent her inappropriate texts. Finally, Favre's record of starting 297 consecutive regular-season games ended this month. Still, it was nearly impossible for ESPN's SportsCenter to go more than 10 minutes without talking about Favre.

8. Jimmie Johnson wins fifth consecutive NASCAR championship

This NASCAR driver can now be listed among the greatest in the history of motorsports. Johnson nailed down his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup title even though he struggled for much of the season. In fact, Johnson became the first driver in the Chase's seven-year history to trail in points going into the final race. Meantime, in what was probably the dominant story of the racing season, NASCAR again saw its popularity decline.

9. UConn women's basketball streak

UConn's win against Florida State on Dec. 21 was its 89th consecutive victory, breaking the record of 88 straight in Division I basketball set by the UCLA men in the early 1970s. The streak ended at 90 games Thursday with a 71-59 road loss at No. 9 Stanford. How UConn's women's record in the 2000s stacks up to UCLA's men's record of the 1970s can be debated. What cannot be debated is we're looking at the greatest women's college basketball dynasty ever assembled.

10. The imperfect game

On June 2, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, above right, was one out from throwing the 21st perfect game in MLB history. On a grounder to first, replays showed the Indians runner was out, but umpire Jim Joyce, left, blew the call, calling the runner safe and ending Galarraga's bid at history. But the story ultimately had an inspirational ending. Joyce was devastated by his blown call and tearfully apologized, while Galarraga gracefully accepted Joyce's apology and moved on. It can be argued that how Galarraga and Joyce handled themselves in the aftermath was even better than a perfect game.

Our selections for the top 10 national sports stories of the year:

St. Petersburg Times' top 10 national sports stories of the year 12/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 11:53pm]
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