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Top Five Chicago Sports Stories Of 2010

It's that time of year, Chicago sports fans. A time when year-end lists are required by local, state and federal laws. Did you really think we'd be any different? Don't be silly. In this week's Top Five, we pick the top Chicago sports stories of the year. You may not be surprised, but you will be entertained.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. On second thought, 2010 wasn't really the worst of times for anyone. Even fans of the Chicago Cubs would probably admit that they've endured far worse seasons, while fans of the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox have all had their respective shares of thrilling moments -- some more thrilling than others, of course.

In fact, all things considered, we're about to close down a pretty damn good year in Chicago sports. (Hey, let's make that our tagline -- "2010: A Pretty Damn Good Year, All Things Considered.") But, seeing as how this is the Top Five, we've got to pick the biggest stories that we, as fans, will likely look back on when we get a yen to recall 2010. Here are our picks:

1. The Blackhawks Win The Stanley Cup

We will make no apologies. We will offer no excuses. There can be no other. In 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks won Lord Stanley's Cup, the ultimate championship of the highest professional level of their sport. Theirs was the greatest story of the year because, at the end of the day, popularity be damned -- fans want a winner; we want something we can be proud of. And, in June, the Blackhawks gave us that.

That team, now largely a memory, was chock-full of great characters: the hard-partying Patrick Kane, the captain Jonathan Toews, the young crooner Kris Versteeg, the teeth-sacrificing Duncan Keith, the bruising Dustin Byfuglien and of course "He Who Proclaims No" -- Antti Niemi. Their race to the postseason was pretty dominating. The Blackhawks went 52-22-8 with 112 points last season. And, aside from a couple bumps in the road in the middle of the final series against the Philadelphia Flyers, they didn't let up when they got to the playoffs.

Then there was the parade. Two million (give or take) fans crowding Michigan Avenue and the surrounding streets. Memorable speeches galore. A spectacle not seen since the White Sox won the World Series five years earlier. And, all through the summer, we enjoyed pictures of the Stanley Cup making its way around the country and the world in further celebration.

Since then, Blackhawks fans have, understandably enough, had a bit of a hangover. While the Cup was making its rounds during the warmer months, general manager Stan Bowman walked the salary cap tightrope, sending many beloved players plummeting the nets below. And the 2010-11 season has been a pretty rough road, thus far. Injuries and under-performance have taken their toll, though, don't look now, but the Blackhawks are back in second place and trailing the Detroit Red Wings by only seven points. (Okay, maybe we're stretching with that "only" in there.)

Whatever happens this season, however, won't change the fact that we enjoyed a true championship in 2010. It's an achievement that the city will treasure for decades to come.

2. The Bears Win The Division

Sure, it's not a championship -- yet. But the 2010-11 Chicago Bears have, for many fans, come out of nowhere to be one of the most exciting football teams of our young century. And, on Monday, Dec. 20, they did something that seemed virtually impossible after an overly discussed 0-4 preseason: They won the NFC North by demolishing the division-rival Minnesota Vikings 40-14.

It was, in many ways, a virtually perfect football game. Jay Cutler made three amazing touchdown passes. The defense forced five turnovers and, most dramatically of all, bashed Brett Favre out of the game. Oh, yeah, and no Bears victory would be truly complete without a thrilling Devin Hester punt return. Done.

What made the game even better was that it took place against the backdrop of the roof collapse of Minneapolis' Metrodome and an arctic swirl of insane winter weather. Plus, the blowout win was a perfect way for the fans and team to recover from a drubbing at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots a week earlier.

What a fascinating season it's been for the Bears. As mentioned above, expectations hit the turf after a disappointing preseason. And there was so much early uncertainty that one would've thought the team started the season 1-6 instead of 4-3. But a bye week thereafter gave the brain trust a chance to start firing some winning synapses, and the team's been almost perfect (in terms of wins & losses) ever since. No one knows exactly what the future holds but, when we look back, we'll remember this regular season and its big division win fondly.

 3. The Bulls Lose Out On LeBron (But Come Out Swinging Anyway)

There was an odd period of time this summer when the thought of LeBron James in a Bulls uniform actually seemed possible and, well, good. Granted, it feels a bit silly now, in retrospect. But the salary was there (theoretically, at least); a young core of good supporting players was there; a substantial, vocal fan base was either present or ready to be awoken. There was just one problem: LeBron was more interested in assembling a night clubbin' dream team that would allow the spoon feeding of his own voracious ego than he was in truly cementing his status as the new MJ.

In the wake of losing out on James, as well as Chris Bosh and so-called Chicagoan Dwyane Wade, the Bulls went from potentially being an NBA Finals contender to, well, a good team with a whole lot of potential. And, to their credit, they've lived up to that potential ... and then some. As of this writing, the Bulls are 19-10 heading into tonight's match-up with the Milwaukee Bucks. They're a dominant 11-3 at the United Center and a perfect 4-0 in their division. Plus, they've done all this while dealing with a debut-delaying hand injury to power forward Carlos Boozer and, now, a surgery-inducing thumb injury to center Joakim Noah.

We've said it before and we'll say it again: The Bulls took a big step out of the shadows in 2010. They're winning again with regularity and showcasing some players that can truly win back the hearts and minds of sports fans who may have strayed from the team over the last decade. Derrick Rose is the real deal. Noah is fun as hell to watch. And Boozer is quickly showing himself to be a high-scoring, level-headed veteran who can help the team in many, many ways. Frustratingly, they're still at least a shooting guard short of true elite status. But the loss of LeBron may well turn out to be a good thing for the Bulls as a whole in the long run.

4. The Ozzie & Kenny Show

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has always had a contentious relationship with his boss, general manager Kenny Williams. But this was the year it really seemed to take center stage. Let us count the ways:

  • A reality TV show aired on MLB Network lent fans unprecedented insight into their behind-the-scenes dynamics.
  • During spring training, Ozzie stuck up for his son, Oney, who was fired by Williams for making disparaging remarks about the Sox organization on Twitter.
  • In early June, before the team reeled off one of their three notable winning streaks, Williams remarked publicly of needing to undertake an "evaluation" to determine whether he could continue working with Guillen.
  • In October, a rumor hit the news that Williams had held discussions with the Florida Marlins about trading Ozzie Guillen for a player. Although the discussions were eventually denied, Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf did admit, "'The Marlins asked for permission to talk to Ozzie, and we told them we'd let Ozzie go if they gave us a particular player.''
  • Finally, in November, the two reportedly had dinner and, during baseball's winter meetings, Williams loudly and defiantly shut down any further discussion of his alleged battles with Ozzie. More important, the GM went out and signed two big bats for the middle of Guillen's lineup: luring free agent Adam Dunn and re-signing beloved first baseman Paul Konerko.

Indeed, when it comes to the 2010 Sox, fans will remember a team that succeeded in spite of the drama surrounding it. After a dismal start, the South Siders used an 11-game interleague-fueled winning streak to get itself back into contention and then another nine-game streak to put itself atop the AL Central. These were truly Ozzie's guys, an interesting mix of veterans and younger players that he defended early on as a team that could compete in its division -- and it did ... for a good while at least.

Meanwhile, Williams made his presence known by making a highly beneficial trade deadline deal for starting pitcher Edwin Jackson and, late in the season, snagging veteran slugger Manny Ramirez off waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The latter move, a risky one that still made a lot of sense given Manny's clutch reputation, didn't pan out.

Still, Sox fans enjoyed winning baseball this year and were treated to an off-season that, at least in its early weeks, has been nothing short of thrilling. So, while the Ozzie & Kenny Show may appear to be over for the moment, something tells us there's an exciting episode or three on the way.

5. A Year Of Departures

For the Cubs, the top story of 2010 was the early departure of manager Lou Piniella. But, really, it was a year of departures for the North Siders.

Sweet Lou left first. Citing the need to care for his ailing mother, Piniella managed his final game with the Cubs and probably of his career on Sunday, Aug. 22, with his team falling 16-5 to the Atlanta Braves. Next to depart were well-liked and respected players such as Derrek Lee and Ted Lilly. At season's end, the Cubs lost the winning record their fans had enjoyed over each of the previous three seasons. The team finished 75-87 after putting together a bittersweet 24-13 run under third-base-coach-turned-manager Mike Quade. Finally, and most tragically of all, on Dec. 3, Cubs broadcaster and great former player, Ron Santo, died in an Arizona hospital. It was a huge loss for the organization and its fans.

As things turned out, the tears that Lou Piniella shed both on the field and during his last post-game press conference proved fitting in many ways. They summed up not only his own sadness at leaving the game he loved, but also the frustraton of a fan base left to watch its team play out yet another string -- a harsh way to conclude a decade that was, in fact, one of the organization's best in many, many years. The six out of 10 winning seasons between 2001 and 2010 is the best "in decade" record the North Siders have put up since their nine out of 10 winning seasons between 1931 and 1940. And Santo's death was a particularly cruel twist of the knife during a slow-developing off-season.

But, as mentioned in our opening, it could've been worse. The Cubs appeared headed to a 60-some-loss season early on and, for any struggling team, change is good. A new, low-profile manager such as Mike Quade; a handful of good, young players in the organization; several expensive contracts soon to expire (post-2011); an ownership group that's publicly committed to developing from within. These are all things that should bring hope to those who devotedly follow the team. Like any fan base, Cubs fans just want to win. They just want something to be proud of.