The year that was 2009 sports was marked by a lot of traditional teams winning championships. But the highlight was a decidedly non-traditional team getting on a big run and capturing the nation’s heart in the process.
Hurricane Katrina leveled the city of New Orleans and the region at large in August 2005. A long rebuilding process begin. The rise of the New Orleans Saints became oddly metaphoric and uplifting for the area. The leadership of Sean Payton and Drew Brees brought the Saints their first-ever Super Bowl championship, with most of America pulling for them to do it.
There were two other great stories in the Midwest during the NFL season. The Indianapolis Colts won their first fourteen regular season games and looked poised to match the achievement of the New England Patriots two years earlier and complete a regular season at 16-0. And since the Patriots had ultimately lost in the Super Bowl, the door to be the first team to 19-0 was wide open for Peyton Manning and the Colts.
But the Colts backed down. Concerned more about injuries to starters, they decided to keep their focus squarely on winning the Super Bowl rather than doing so undefeated. In the end, they got neither, losing to New Orleans.
The NFL is a young man’s league, but no one could guess that by watching 40-year-old Brett Favre play for the Minnesota Vikings in 2009. Favre had one of the great years of his career and the Vikings reached the NFC Championship Game before coming up short to the destiny wave that was the Saints.
There were traditional powers looking to get back on top in the NBA, college football and major league baseball. The New York Yankees hadn’t won a World Series since 2000, an interminably long time for an organization known for its impatience and free spending. The Yankees did it in 2009.
The same goes for Alabama football, who hadn’t even won a major bowl game—much less a national title—since 1992. And though the Los Angeles Lakers had won the NBA title as recently as 2002, their ’09 breakthrough marked the first time Kobe Bryant had won a ring without Shaquille O’Neal.
North Carolina basketball didn’t have a long time on the outs—they had won the NCAA title as recently as 2005. But the Tar Heels do fit the mold of a traditional team winning a title, so we’ll include them on the list with the Yankees, Lakers and Alabama football. In fact, UNC hoops was arguably the most dominant champion of any team sport in 2009, winning all six NCAA Tournament games by at least twelve points.
The Stanley Cup Finals also pitted two proud franchises against each other and it was a rematch no less. The Detroit Red Wings had beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008, a good six-game series. It was so good that the same teams came back and this time went the full seven. And this time the Penguins got their revenge, winning the city their first Stanley Cup since the Mario Lemieux era.
Read more about the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals
One story that seems somewhat ironic and out of character five years later came in the NBA playoffs. The Eastern Conference Finals matched up the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers. The star players were Dwight Howard and LeBron James. These two men have gone in opposite directions when it comes to how they’re perceived both on the court and off, a perception that decidedly favors James.
But in their only playoff confrontation, it was Dwight’s Magic that pulled off the upset of LeBron’s Cavs, winning in six games and denying the NBA its coveted LeBron-Kobe matchup in the Finals.