Biggest Sports Events Delivered The Goods

New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan (92) dives on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) in the second quarter during the Super Bowl XLII football game at University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 3, 2008 in Glendale, Ariz. Brady was sacked on the play.
AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
The lesson of 2008: the bigger the stage, the better the show. All through the year, the top names and most-hyped events lived up to their billing.

From Michael Phelps to Usain Bolt, from Tiger Woods to Boston's new Big Three, from the Super Bowl to the Final Four, the stars always seemed to come out at exactly the right moment.

"They wanted a show," Rocco Mediate said after Woods beat him on the 91st hole at the U.S. Open to win his 14th major, "they got one."

Or in Phelps' case, more than just one.

The lanky 23-year-old from Baltimore set his eye on the most hallowed of all Olympic marks - Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in a single Summer Games. And he took it down in spectacular style: Eight gold medals, seven world records and more drama than any reality show.

He won his seventh gold by the teeniest margin possible, a mere one-hundredth of a second. The very next day, he had to play catch-up on the third leg in a medley relay the Americans had never lost to get No. 8.

"There are moments," Phelps said with his typical understatement, "I'll never forget."

Just as memorable, but a whole lot faster, were Bolt's trio of golds.

Little known outside the track world before Beijing, the tall Jamaican sprinter burst onto the scene, shattering his own world record in the 100 meters - even managing to mug for the cameras before he hit the finish line.

He got two more gold medals - and two more world records - in the 200 meters and sprint relay, and his post-race celebrations turned the Bird's Nest into a dance party. Shimmying, shaking and swiveling his hips to the delight of the crowd, he brought a badly needed dose of levity to a sport knocked low by doping allegations, regardless of what the fun police, aka IOC president Jacques Rogge, thought.

"They come out and pay their money to see a good performance and also to see a personality," Bolt said. "So I go out there and give them a show."

The Chinese spared no expense for their coming-out party, and it was a smashing success: beautiful venues, opening ceremonies with enough kilowatt power to make Las Vegas blush, even several days of blue skies. Phelps and Bolt weren't the only athletes equal to the grand setting.

Dara Torres reminded us that age is just a number with three silver medals at 41, while Nastia Liukin was the picture of grace and elegance, on and off the gymnastics floor. The Redeem Team did everything the NBA could have asked from their multimillionaires, rolling over almost every opponent but doing it with such class you couldn't help but like them.

We felt a little unsettled once the grandeur of the Beijing Games faded, and it had nothing to do with a post-Olympic hangover, the annual dread of a BCS debacle, Brett Favre's new uniform or the knee injury that turned Tom Brady into a couch potato.

The economy is in deep trouble, and sports were quick to feel the hit. There were layoffs at the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball's Internet division, and the Arena Football League is taking a break for at least a year. There's hardly a team in NASCAR that hasn't felt the pinch.

Of course, none of that stopped the New York Yankees from showering CC Sabathia with $161 million. But then, the rich always have always been different or maybe, as baseball uberagent Scott Boras likes to point out, they just use a "very different economic model than the real world."

But no matter which model you used, 2008 delivered plenty of bang for the buck.

A Super Bowl that was expected to be the coronation of Bill Belichick's New England Patriots as the greatest NFL team ever turned into something even better, thanks to Eli Manning and the New York Giants.

Emerging from his big brother's shadow - and a pack of New England defenders - Manning and David "How did he do that?" Tyree led the Giants on a frenzied, frantic, game-winning drive that gave the Super Bowl its best finish ever. Ruined the Patriots' perfect season, too.

Said Manning, whose performance gave his family back-to-back Super Bowl MVPs: "You can't write a better script."

Maybe not. But that didn't keep Memphis and Kansas from trying in the NCAA championship game.

The title was going to Graceland until Memphis squandered a 9-point lead with 2:12 left by missing four free throws down the stretch. With 2.1 seconds on the clock and no time-outs, Mario Chalmers coolly knocked down a 3 to force overtime - the first in a title game since 1997.

Overtime was all Kansas, as the Jayhawks pulled away for their first title in 20 years.

"Ten seconds to go, we're thinking we're national champs," Memphis coach John Calipari said mournfully. "All of a sudden a kid makes a shot, and we're not."

The state of Tennessee did not go titleless, however, with Candace Parker and Pat Summit's Lady Vols winning their second in a row. Parker also picked up an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. team, and won both the WNBA's rookie of the year and MVP honors.

Going the (extra) distance was something of a theme in 2008.

The Philadelphia Phillies finally got their World Series title two days after the decisive Game 5 began. Hey, when a city's waited 25 years for a major championship, what's a little rain delay?

Dusk had turned to dark by the time Rafa and Roger's epic battle at Wimbledon was settled, the longest men's final in the history of the 121-year-old tournament. Only fitting, really. Deposing a king is never easy work, and Rafael Nadal needed a victory over Roger Federer on a surface other than clay to prove he truly is the Swiss master's equal.

Or maybe better. With his victory at Wimbledon, along with a fourth straight French Open title and gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, Nadal broke Federer's stranglehold on No. 1.

And then there was Tiger.