What’s the best year for Boston sports in the last two decades?
By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
As we enter a new decade as Boston sports fans, it’s tempting to wonder what the coming years have in store.
It stands to reason that things can’t get any better than what we’ve already seen. With 12 major professional championships since 2002, we’re pretty spoiled.
But we’ve also seen the other side. Part of the historical experience of Boston fandom involves a period we no longer talk about – the ’90s – when nobody hoisted a trophy; the schoolyard largely devoid of Boston team Starter jackets. The Bruins and Patriots were the only two among the Big Four to play for a league championship, and both were soundly defeated. That futility was later baked into Saturday Night Live sketches that shined a light on the misplaced confidence of a fan base that hadn’t won anything since 1986.
It made what we observed over the last 18 years all the more sweet.
At the close of 2019, it’s time to reflect. I reached out to a number of Sports Hub personalities over the holidays to talk about their favorite teams and moments in an effort to select THE single best year for Boston sports in the last two decades.
The Starting Point
The dawn of a new century provided few hints of what was to come. In fact, it was more of the same. Consider:
Bill Belichick replaced Pete Carroll as coach of the Patriots on January 27, 2000, with the Pats relinquishing a first round draft pick to the rival New York Jets. New England went 5-11 in his inaugural season.
Over on Causeway Street, the Bruins welcomed the new millennium by trading franchise icon Ray Bourque. When Bourque won a Stanley Cup the next season with Colorado, the city gave him a parade. Coach Pat Burns was fired Oct. 25, 2000, just eight games into the season. The coaching carousel brought five more names to the Boston bench in the next six NHL seasons.
On December 12, 2000, the Red Sox lavished an eight-year, $160 million contract on free agent slugger Manny Ramirez but despite back-to-back postseason appearances to close out the ’90s, the BoSox failed to reach October for three consecutive years.
Finally, on Jan. 8, 2001, Rick Pitino resigned as head coach and top executive of the Celtics, less than four years after arriving as the perceived savior who would turn the franchise around following the retirements of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale and the tragic death of Reggie Lewis.
Our Finest Years…
On September 23, 2001, a chilling shoulder block by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis threatened the career (and life) of New England franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Former sixth round pick Tom Brady took over under center, and just over four months later, the Patriots were on the right side of the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.
For a generation of fans, it was the first time a Boston team climbed the mountain. Nobody knew it would be the first of a dozen pro sports titles before 2020.
Of course, we probably also thought we’d have flying cars by now.
“The Patriots started it all,” said Sports Hub host Joe Murray.
With an improbable six-game winning streak to close the regular season, an incredible “Snow Bowl” victory over the Raiders, Troy Brown’s punt return TD and Bledsoe finding David Patten in the back of the end zone in Pittsburgh, the Pats went from dead in the water to the toast of the NFL, squeaking past the high voltage Rams to hoist their first Lombardi Trophy.
“They weren’t supposed to be there” reflected Billy Lanni, Director of Communications for Felger & Mazz. “Preseason odds had them being a sub-.500 team. The star quarterback goes down, sixth round pick comes in; they’re 14-point dogs against the ‘Greatest Show on Turf,’ and beat them.”
The defense didn’t allow more than 17 points in a game after Week 10. The offense, largely devoid of household names, got the job done week after week.
“Terry Glenn held out, Richard Seymour was a rookie,” Murray mused, rattling off some of the unsung heroes of the run. “Who the hell were David Patten, Jermaine Wiggins and Antowain Smith?”
“They came out of nowhere and were the true definition of a team,” said Pats fan Brian Brickley.
“I love the story of Bledsoe and how he didn’t break the team apart when he lost his job. He could have easily caused problems in the locker room, or not been ready when called upon in the AFC Championship Game. Brady did a great job leading them, but without the professionalism of Drew, that team doesn’t win.”
Later that spring, the Celtics went on a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they rebounded from a 25-point deficit to win Game 3 before falling to the Nets in six games. It would be a couple of years before another Boston team joined the Patriots on the podium.
On October 5, 2003, a gorgeous Sunday in New England, the Patriots powered past the Titans 38-30 at Gillette Stadium. Former Boston College standout Mike Cloud rushed for two TDs. The Pats wouldn’t lose again until the following Halloween.
Their NFL record 21-game winning streak included a 32-29 shootout win over the Panthers in February of 2004 for their second Lombardi Trophy in three years.
But Boston was still a Red Sox town. And they were on the cusp of baseball immortality.
“I grew up a baseball fan and I’ve always been a baseball fan first,” said James Stewart, executive producer of Felger & Mazz.
“I lived and breathed the Red Sox,” agreed Sports Hub producer and Fantasy Football Show co-host Tucker Silva. “The Aaron Boone walk-off against Tim Wakefield in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS still haunts me to this day. It was literally the first, and only, time I cried at a loss. That one hurt bad.”
“I sort of remembered the Patriots losing Super Bowl XXXI to the Packers, but Aaron Boone was my first real taste of sports heartbreak,” said Sports Hub Patriots writer Matt Dolloff. “I grew up a Red Sox fan first, so despite all the great Patriots moments it’s hard to beat the 2004 Sox getting back and finishing the job to break the curse. The ALCS comeback, the bloody sock, Joe Buck going ‘Back to Foulke!’ … That ’04 Sox team is really the only one that can hold a candle to the most memorable Patriots runs.”
“The story from 2003 to 2004 was so compelling. The Red Sox didn’t tuck and run,” said Stewart. “They changed managers from Grady Little to Terry Francona. They got Curt Schilling via trade, Keith Foulke via free agency and, in-season, dealt Nomar away.”
They also found themselves in a 3-0 hole against their primary antagonist, the Yankees, in the ALCS, before the local nine roared back in dramatic fashion.
“I had seats on the Green Monster with my father for Game 5 of the ALCS, which is a memory we’ll always cherish,” Silva recalled. “You can find me on the replay with my hands in the air in celebration when Big Papi’s eighth inning home run slapped off of the Volvo sign. Then of course, he had the single up the middle in extra innings, pushing the series to 3-2.”
October of 2004 was like the most wonderful fever dream. Everything you ever wanted was happening all at once. The Sox vanquished the Yankees, then charged past the Cardinals in a sweep for the right to pop the champagne.
“On a personal level, seeing the Red Sox finally win the championship was amazing,” said Stewart. “On a professional level, I was part of the radio broadcast for more than 40 games including six of the seven postseason (home games), so I felt like I was part of the championship experience on some weird level.”
“I had three good friends over at my apartment the night of Game 4 in St Louis and we did shots for each for the last three outs and a final shot of Patrón tequila for the win. I still have the scorecard signed by Jerry Trupiano and it hangs proudly above my office desk. It’s the favorite piece of sports memorabilia that I own.”
There are thousands, perhaps millions more unique stories from that autumn. The weight of 86 years of futility – haunting our collective memories and even etched on area tombstones – vanished overnight. Boston fans awoke on October 28, 2004 to a brave new world.
Just over three months later, the Patriots wrapped up a second consecutive 14-2 campaign, capturing their third Super Bowl in four years with a 24-21 win over the Eagles.
The defense was again one of the league’s best, even with receiver Troy Brown moonlighting in the secondary amid a rash of injuries. On the other side of the ball, new arrival Corey Dillon rushed for 1,635 years, adding an explosive new dimension to the offensive attack.
Who’d have believed it would take nearly another decade for the Patriots to get back in the winner’s circle?
The Celtics tanked, got the fifth pick in the draft, traded that for Ray Allen, then moved five players for Kevin Garnett. Celtic Pride was back.
The Bruins brought in Claude Julien as coach, a move that returned them to the playoffs, but took a bit longer for the big payoff.
We’ll get to those.
In the meantime, fans were treated to one of the greatest autumns in Boston sports history.
The retooled Red Sox took the AL East for the first time since 1995, rebounded from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS against the Indians, then swept the Rockies in the World Series. With a new batch of mostly homegrown talent supporting holdovers like David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, the Sox are the first team to win multiple World Series titles in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the Patriots were on what Marshall Hook calls the “no apologies tour.”
“The original ‘Spygate’ had just begun. The reaction of the team was, it seemed, to blow everyone out of the water. While the rest of the country was calling then cheaters, Belichick was punishing teams week after week.”
“The Red Sox clinched the World Series on Sunday, October 28 and earlier that day, I sat in a bar in Denver, Colorado watching the Patriots absolutely eviscerate the Redskins by a 52-7 final. While people whined about the Patriots running up the score and showing no respect for Washington coach Joe Gibbs, I sat like the Emperor Palpatine and let the hate wash over me.”
“I wanted this team to be firing deep passes until the clock ran out. I wanted Nintendo scores. I wanted 77-0 and still going for it on fourth down. It was glorious.”
That same week the Red Sox hoisted the trophy, the Boston College Eagles were the #2 ranked team in college football. The New England Revolution were playing for the MLS Cup. To the chagrin of the rest of the sporting world, everything was coming up Boston.
Says Hook, “The Patriots spent an entire season raising a middle finger to the NFL and all its fans and save for one ridiculous helmet catch, it would have been the greatest season the league had ever seen.”
But it wasn’t.
After two decades wandering in the desert, the Celtics won their first NBA title since 1986. The road to the Larry O’Brien Trophy included a 66-win regular season, a classic duel between Paul Pierce and LeBron James in the second round of the playoffs, and a Finals win over the hated Lakers, chock full of signature performances.
“It was a fun group of guys to watch,” said Sports Hub producer Kristen Surman. “They understood the culture, respected the history, and wanted to win.”
“I was especially happy for Paul Pierce that year. He had quite the journey in Boston, so when he finally became a world champion, it was really sweet to see.”
The Boston College men’s hockey team pulled down their second national championship of the decade. The Red Sox had a chance to return to the World Series, but Ramirez shoved his way out of town and Ortiz injured his wrist before the Sox ceded the American League to the pesky Rays in Game 7 of the ALCS.
Meanwhile, Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard, in the words of Big Jim Murray’s “The Ruiner,” “broke the leg of Tommy Brady, crunch, snap,” radically altering the trajectory of the Patriots’ dynasty.
The Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since 1972. I watched the final game with two of my best friends – died-in-the-wool Bruins fans – and their dad.
Said one of those friends, Jay Hall: “Growing up in a hockey family and being able to watch that on TV with my dad and brother was special. It’s been amazing to witness the greatness of the Patriots and multiple Red Sox championships, but the Bruins win meant everything.”
It was also the end of the city’s second-longest title drought.
“In the same vein as the 2004 Red Sox, the 2011 Bruins exorcised the demons of the franchise,” brother Brandon Hall opined. “The stars were aligned. It was destiny. But they earned it, too.”
The run featured a seven-game first round victory over the hated Canadiens, a revenge sweep of the Flyers following a turtle job in 2010 and a classic seven-game Eastern Conference Finals victory over the Lightning. They followed that up with a Game 7 clincher Vancouver to raise the Cup.
Tim Thomas pitched four shutouts in the last two playoff rounds. Milan Lucic was the only 30-goal scorer, but both the offense and defense were among the best in the league. The B’s were solid, top to bottom, and it allowed them to outclass, out-hustle, and outlast the competition when the chips were down.
“I don’t think I’ve ever loved a team as much as I loved this one,” Brandon recalled. “Boston became a hockey city again. I truly believe we are only now just feeling the impact, because the run this decade has built rinks and launched youth hockey programs across the Commonwealth.”
The year began with the NHL mired in another lockout. Rajon Rondo tore his ACL on January 25, effectively closing the window for the Celtics. In April, sports and real life converged at a tragic intersection, as a terrorist act rocked the city’s signature event, the Boston Marathon. Though shiny trophies can never replace what was lost that day, the championship quests of two Boston sports teams helped with the healing.
“Just two days after the Boston Marathon bombing, the Bruins hosted the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden,” remembered Hub personality Mike “Sarge” Riley. “The Garden that night was the old meeting house – the church on the corner where the community went in a time of need.”
“Former Bruins PA Announcer Jim Martin welcomed and asked the crowd for a moment of silence. It would be far from silent moments after, when Garden fixture Rene Rancourt took to the mic for the Star Spangled Banner with members of the Boston Fire honor guard by his side. Rancourt only said “Oh say, can you see…” and the rest was taken over by the crowd with everyone standing to their feet. I don’t think there were many dry eyes in the house that night.”
Though the Bruins lost 3-2 in overtime, Riley recalls that night as a powerful example of sports bringing people together.
Three weeks later, the Bruins roared back from a three-goal deficit in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup first round, to defeat the Maple Leafs in OT.
Howie Sylvester, executive producer for Bruins, Celtics and Patriots broadcasts, was at the Garden that night with the play-by-play team of Dave Goucher and Bob Beers.
“I’m usually able to control my emotions during a game. Actually, I’m usually too busy to root for one team or another. If you listen to the original highlight, right after Gouch yells, ‘BERGERON! BERGERON!’ You’ll hear a single clap. That was me. That third period was just crazy, and the Garden exploded like I had never heard it after the game-winner.”
“My brother was at the game, and he told me he looked up at the booth right after the game-winner, and all three of (Goucher, Beers and Sylvester) had our arms raised. Just a great moment.”
The B’s rode a wave to the Stanley Cup Final, where they surrendered a late lead of their own in losing Game 6 and the series to the Blackhawks.
The city looked up and found the Red Sox, galvanized by David Ortiz’s “this is our (bleeping) city” speech, in first place. A fun mix of young guys and veterans, many of them with beards, clinched the World Series that October under a full moon at Fenway Park.
The Patriots had gone 110-34 with two Super Bowl and five AFC Championship Game appearances since their last title in the winter of ‘05. But they hadn’t been able to get over the hump. And through four games in the autumn of 2014, the national media was having a field day with Tom Brady.
Then, Bill Belichick declared “we’re on to Cincinnati,” and the rest was history.
“We’re on to Cincinnati’ was followed by a stretch of dominant play that flowed into an incredibly entertaining playoff run and the best Super Bowl I’ve ever seen,” recalled Jim Murray.
“I think that’s a wildly underrated championship,” said Tim McKone, who was unaware that several of his colleagues felt the same way. “As great as the Patriots have been for the last 20 years, the reality was, they hadn’t won a Super Bowl in a decade. I’ve always thought Tom Brady is the best quarterback in history, but for him to win three in his first four years (as a starter) and then never win again – it would have felt like an unfulfilled end to the Pats dynasty.”
The Pats needed a furious second half comeback and a crucial contribution from an undrafted rookie to seal the deal.
“I cried hysterically with joy after Butler’s interception,” remembered Sports Hub producer Mason Sousa.
“I was out of my seat with my arms in the air before my brain even comprehended what Malcolm Butler had done,” said Dolloff. “My friends and I spent the previous few minutes wondering why this was happening to the Patriots, again, for the third straight Super Bowl. Then we were confused why Bill Belichick wasn’t calling a timeout with 20 seconds left. Then it happened. Still the most unbelievable moment of my sports lifetime.”
“I don’t even want to think about the ‘Deflategate’ narrative had they had lost that game,” said McKone.
Sylvester had a great view:
“There were about 10 of us crammed into the broadcast booth in Arizona. Our location sucked; we were in the corner of the end zone, so I’m amazed that Bob (Patriots play-by-play man Bob Socci) did as good a job as he did calling the game. But that corner was where the Butler interception happened – right in front of us. It was just a great game, a great comeback, and a lot of fun to be around.”
In the fall of 2016, Tom Brady sat for four games following the bizarre “Deflategate” controversy. When he returned, the Patriots were 3-1 and Brady was hungry for a fifth title.
“He torched the Browns in Week 5, and then on a perfect fall day for Week 6 against the Bengals, Brady was welcomed home to Gillette Stadium,” Riley remembered. “I remember sitting in the press box, taking in the crowd’s reactions. This was the one where Scott Zolak had the sign “Where is Roger?” displayed on the video board when they played “Your Love” by The Outfield.”
The 2016 Patriots produced the iconic “28-3” meme, as Riley reminds me, “The Patriots had the greatest comeback in NFL history in Super Bowl 51. It was ranked as the No. 1 moment in Pats history by the fans.”
“I feel the Malcolm Butler interception is still more memorable and important than 28-3, because it was this singular moment and such a pivotal play for the narrative of the dynasty at the time. But the comeback against the Falcons is probably the most incredible team accomplishment of this entire run, perhaps more unbelievable than beating the Rams in ’01,” said Dolloff.
“So much had to go right. None of it happens without the Dont’a Hightower strip sack. But even after coming all the way back to 28-26, they needed that last two-point conversion by Danny Amendola or it would’ve all been for naught. Who knows what happens if the Falcons win the overtime coin toss instead. Just an unreal series of events. Only Tom and Bill could pull off something like that on that stage.”
“It was also vindication for Brady when Roger Goodell, a top heel for fans in New England over the previous 24 months, had to hand Robert Kraft and Brady their fifth Lombardi – to a chorus of boos,” said Riley.
Under rookie manager Alex Cora, the Red Sox won a team record 108 regular season games and steamrolled the competition on the way to their fourth World Series title in 15 years. Boston is the most decorated team in baseball during the 21st century.
Down Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, falling to LeBron one final time. But the play of Boston’s young stars gives hope for the future.
The Patriots scooped a sixth Super Bowl victory, 13-3 over the Los Angeles Rams. The game itself may have been a snoozer, but the playoff run showcased the evolution of the team from a pass-happy group built in Tom Brady’s image to a stout defensive unit with a dynamic running attack, peppered with Brady’s brilliance throwing to future Hall of Famers Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.
The Bruins once again got to the doorstep in the spring, this time falling in a seven-game Stanley Cup Final to the St. Louis Blues.
So there you have it. 11 calendar years of this century, all blessed with championships.
From a personal perspective, it’s hard not to pick 2004. It’s the only calendar year with multiple championships. It was also my defining moment as a sports fan. Like the colleagues I spoke with and countless other New Englanders, my Red Sox fandom heavily influenced my sports experience. In the 16 years of futility that stretched from 1986 (I was three) into this century, the SNL version of a Red Sox fan was pretty spot-on.
Then, things flipped in the complete opposite direction.
That’s another thing Tucker mentioned – the feeling that accompanies the chase.
“Most of all, I miss that hungry Fenway crowd. Ever since they won, the crowd has gotten softer – it’s become a place to snap social media posts. There’s no ‘Fenway buzz’ that will ever compare to ’04. That was the best crowd I’ve ever been a part of and it’s not even close.”
You never forget your first. Like the moments surrounding that great Patriots run in the winter of ’02 – sprinting barefoot around campus in the snow after the Raider game, later attending the parade on crutches (it was unrelated to the barefoot-in-the-snow thing) – and the feeling of, “is this really happening?”
It resurfaced in ’04. For Bruins fans in 2011. It’s no secret that basketball is my favorite sport – I shared the 2008 Celtics run with some great friends and watched the clinching Game 6 with my dad.
Subjective memory will undoubtedly influence which year of the last 20 you pick as the best. But the fact we’re even having this conversation is pretty remarkable given the starting point. As another decade closes, there’s reason to be thankful. We’ve come a long way.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.