The final day of Major League Baseball’s All-Star break annually qualifies as the quietest day on the American sports calendar. With no major U.S. sports in session, it marks the perfect day for ESPN to bring stars from all sports together for its annual night of recognition, the ESPY Awards.
The winners will be determined by fan voting on ESPN.com, and the verdict will be announced on Wednesday night. Before that occurs, this is my take on who truly deserves to take home 11 of the night’s major awards.
Other Candidates: Novak Djokovic, Aaron Rodgers, Justin Verlander
Prior to the 2011-12 season, LeBron James of the NBA’s Miami Heat had already won two MVPs, been named to five All-NBA teams and won a scoring title, among many other accomplishments and achievements.
This past season, however, he had his most significant achievement by leading the Miami Heat to an NBA Finals victory, good for James’ first title after eight ring-less seasons.
For James to establish himself as the NBA’s best player and one of the world’s greatest athletes, he had to become a champion. After years of being criticized more than any other athlete in the world, he silenced his doubters by not just winning a title, but becoming the undisputed leader of a championship team that also includes Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
James became a member of an elite group by being only the 10th player to be named NBA MVP and NBA Finals MVP in the same season. James averaged 27.1 points per game in the regular season, then led all postseason scorers with 30.3 points per game.
If James does not win the award, it will be because he remains one of the public’s most hated athletes. All four of the nominated athletes were tremendous in the past year, but Djokovic has lost the No. 1 world ranking in tennis, while Rodgers and Verlander did not lead their teams to championships.
James holds the distinction of being both the best player and the only nominee who was a champion in his sport for the past year, and that is why he is the deserving winner of this award.
Other Candidates: Maria Sharapova, Lindsey Vonn, Abby Wambach
Brittney Griner is not yet a professional athlete, but there is little doubt that she will soon continue her stardom in the WNBA. Griner’s star, however, may never be bigger than it is right now at Baylor, where she set herself apart last season as a dominant figure among female athletes.
At 6’8’’, Griner stands tall above her competition not only in height, but also in skill. In her junior season, Griner was a force on both ends of the floor for the Baylor Bears, averaging 23.2 points per game, 9.4 rebounds per game and 5.2 blocks per game for the season.
Griner’s play led the Bears to an undefeated season and a national championship last year, and for her efforts, she was named National Player of the Year.
All four women have been remarkable in the past year, but the other three were all defeated at points during the year. Griner never was, and her dominance should earn her this award.
Other Candidates: LeBron James, Eli Manning, Jonathan Quick, Tony Stewart
LeBron James is the favorite to win this award as well, but no championship performance was more remarkable than that of St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese during the 2011 MLB postseason.
Sometimes, the championship glory we remember most is when an unheralded player emerges as a hero in his sport’s biggest stage. That was exactly what Freese did during last year’s World Series.
The Cardinals’ backs could not have been any more against the wall when Freese first struck magic. The Cardinals were trailing 7-5 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series. They were trailing 3-2 in the series, so they were one out away from elimination.
Freese saved the Cardinals’ hopes with a two-run triple that sent the game to extra innings.
That one play kept the Cardinals alive, but when Freese hit a game-winning, walk-off home run in the 11th inning to force Game 7, he truly cemented his legacy in St. Louis sports history.
Things got even sweeter for Freese in Game 7. He set the postseason record for runs batted in in that game, finishing with a total of 21, while the Cardinals went on to win the title. Freese was named World Series MVP, following up on winning the NLCS MVP award.
As already mentioned, James had a tremendous season in leading the Heat to an NBA title. Eli Manning proved himself as an elite NFL quarterback by leading the New York Giants to a Super Bowl championship for a second time, while goalie Jonathan Quick led the Los Angeles Kings to a shocking Stanley Cup title with his dominance throughout the NHL postseason.
Freese’s performance, however, will go down as one of the greatest displays of unsung heroism in baseball history.
Other Candidates: Anthony Davis, Rob Gronkowski, Jeremy Lin, Alex Morgan
Before the 2011 college football season, Big 12 football fans certainly knew who Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III was, but it was not until last season that he became a national household name with the simple acronym "RG3."
At this time last year, when looking ahead to the 2012 NFL draft, many draft experts doubted that Griffin would project to play quarterback in the NFL, including ESPN’s Todd McShay, who thought he'd be a wide receiver.
Come April 2012, Griffin was the No. 2 overall draft selection by the Washington Redskins, where he is now the franchise quarterback.
This was all a result of a fantastic junior season in which Griffin proved he was not just a great athlete, but a tremendous quarterback. Griffin threw for 4,293 yards and 37 touchdowns en route to winning the 2011 Heisman Trophy, while leading Baylor to its first 10-win season since 1980.
Of any of these athletes, RG3 had the biggest breakthrough because of the way he completely changed expert perception. While Anthony Davis, Rob Gronkowski and Alex Morgan all had yet to become household names a year ago, those who paid attention to them already knew they could be destined for stardom.
Griffin was not even viewed as an NFL quarterback prospect, yet he alone raised questions of whether Andrew Luck, the consensus projected No. 1 overall pick two years running, was the top quarterback in the draft class.
Other Candidates: Mike Krzyzewski, Mariano Rivera, Lexi Thompson
Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino had one of the greatest NFL seasons of all time in 1984, when he set the single-season record of 5,084 passing yards. That record stood for 27 years, until it was finally broken last season by Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints.
Already a Super Bowl MVP and NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Brees was paving his path to Hall of Fame status, but his 2011 season all but assured that he will one day be enshrined in Canton.
Breaking Marino’s record did not even take Brees the entire season, as he completed the task in a Week 16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football. At the conclusion of the season, Brees ended up with 5,476 passing yards.
Krzyzewski would certainly be a deserving candidate to win this award as well, having reached a benchmark of excellence in coaching by breaking the all-time record for most wins in men’s Division I college basketball history.
However, his record-breaking performance did not hold as much historical prestige because he broke Bob Knight's record of 902 wins that was set in 2008, while Brees broke a major record that had been set 24 years prior.
Other Candidates: Iowa State over Oklahoma State, Lehigh over Duke, Norfolk State over Missouri
There are few things more exciting than watching a shocking upset take place in the NCAA tournament or in a major college football game, but one of those things may be when a No. 8 seed in its conference shocks an entire league by winning the championship.
That is exactly what the Los Angeles Kings did in the 2011-12 NHL season. In an improbable run, the Kings knocked off the Western Conference’s No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in succession, then upset the New Jersey Devils in six games to win the Stanley Cup Final.
In many cases, upsets are a scrappy effort where a team sneaks up on a clearly better team, but in the case of the Kings, they were a dominant team that was not supposed to be. The Kings only lost two total games in the first three rounds of the playoffs, and from the beginning, they looked more like a No. 1 seed than the eighth seed they actually were.
Iowa State’s upset over Oklahoma State certainly has a strong case for this award as well, as it completely changed how the end of the college football season played out.
Both Lehigh and Norfolk State’s stunning first-round victories in the NCAA tournament would be worthy winners as well, but each upset lost a bit of its individual prestige, since two No. 15 seeds won in the same tournament.
Other Candidates: Missouri vs. Kansas college basketball, Rangers vs. Cardinals, World Series Game 6
The game that resulted when the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints in the 2012 NFC divisional round was everything that an NFL fan should hope any playoff game will be.
It was a game that turned out to be a back-and-forth affair, especially in a high-scoring fourth quarter that included four touchdowns in the game’s final three minutes and 34 seconds.
The final score came on a 14-yard touchdown pass from 49ers quarterback Alex Smith to tight end Vernon Davis, capping a clutch performance for Smith that proved he has the mettle to win big games.
There were many exciting games in last year’s NFL playoffs, but there was not a single game in sports that had the thrilling excitement of that 49ers-Saints matchup. A heroic quarterback emerged for one team, while a record-breaking quarterback’s late-game heroics were not enough for his team.
Baseball fans will certainly argue that World Series Game 6, which featured David Freese’s game-tying and game-winning heroics, are worthy of this title. It would be hard to argue against its championship significance, but there is simply nothing in sports more exciting than a postseason football game that comes down to the final seconds, and that is what the 49ers and Saints did in 2012.
Other Candidates: Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit, Tim Tebow/Demaryius Thomas playoff overtime touchdown, Bubba Watson
I am not much of a baseball fan, but on September 28, 2011, that did not matter. That night turned out to be one of the most enthralling nights of the past year in sports.
In one crazy night, two teams’ historic collapses came to a crushing fulfillment, while two other teams completed incredible comebacks, as both the AL and NL wild-card playoff spots changed hands on the final night of the MLB season.
The Tampa Bay Rays, who had a nine-game deficit to the Boston Red Sox when September began, earned the AL berth that night with a win and a Red Sox loss. On the same night in the NL, the St. Louis Cardinals completed their comeback from an 8.5-game deficit from the start of the month to the Atlanta Braves.
All of this happened within hours; in fact, the Rays’ postseason-clinching victory came just three minutes after the Red Sox lost their game. While the three other moments were all incredible in their own right, none quite matched the incredibility, implausibility and historical significance of what took place on that night in baseball.
Other Candidates: Sidney Crosby, Johan Santana, Matt Stafford
In 2008, Maria Sharapova was on top of the tennis world. She won her third Grand Slam at the Australian Open that year, gained the No. 1 overall ranking in the world later that year and was an international superstar for her combination of tennis achievements and physical attractiveness.
Over the next three years, however, Sharapova fell far away from the top of WTA rankings and also out of the limelight, as she failed to reach even a semifinal at a Grand Slam in either 2009 or 2010.
But finally, in 2011, she bounced back. Sharapova returned to her first final at Wimbledon in 2011, then won her first Grand Slam title in four years at the French Open, with which she completed her career slam. She also regained the No. 1 spot in the world tennis rankings.
Crosby, Santana and Stafford all had impressive comebacks from injuries, but none fell out of the spotlight and then stole it back in the fashion that Sharapova did.
Other Candidates: Alabama football, Kentucky men’s basketball, Los Angeles Kings, Miami Heat, New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals
Because women’s basketball is far less marquee than all of the other sports represented in the "Best Team" category, it is unlikely that the Baylor Bears will win this award. However, they are the most deserving.
Baylor became the first team in NCAA Division I basketball history to ever go 40-0 in a season, and their domination was hardly tested, as they won all but five of their games by double-digits. That included every game of the NCAA tournament, which culminated with an 80-61 victory over Notre Dame.
The other six teams all had impressive championship seasons, but none of them held the distinction of being the best team in their sport for the entire season. The Baylor women’s basketball team did, and they never even lost a game.
Other Candidates: John Calipari, Tom Coughlin, Patrick Murphy, Erik Spoelstra, Darryl Sutter
Going hand in hand with the selection of Baylor women’s basketball as the best team, their head coach, Kim Mulkey, deserves this award.
While the key to Baylor’s success last season was undoubtedly the play of Brittney Griner, Mulkey deserves credit for building a team that was not simply a one-woman show, but an all-around basketball team that could contend with any team in women’s college basketball.
Mulkey became only the fifth coach in NCAA women’s basketball history to win multiple national championships, while leading her team to an unprecedented 40-0 undefeated record.
John Calipari’s incredibly-recruited national championship team certainly would make him a deserving recipient, while Erik Spoelstra overcame criticism of his own to lead the Miami Heat to to a title, but Mulkey is the best choice.
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