As far as top 10 lists go, this one is lacking.
In 2020, the sports world was decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The NBA, NHL and MLB seasons were cut short, fans were not allowed to attend (save for a handful of scarcely spaced out Eagles games) for much of the year, and an argument could be made that there were far more bad moments for Philly sports fans than good ones.
In fact, it took a considerable amount of effort to even remember 10 good things that happened in Philadelphia sports in 2020. A “worst moments list” would have a lot of competition to weed through, from the Eagles falling apart, to the Sixers forgetting how to play basketball in the bubble to the Phillies continued bumbling of the J.T. Realmuto contract situation.
But the arrival of 2021 offers a clean slate and optimism, even after what was one of the worst years in the history of civilization. The following list of the 10 best sports moments in the city provides a little such optimism, but also underlines the sheer putridness of the year as a whole better than any “worst moments” list could.
If these are the 10 best things that happened, man, it must have been a horrible year.
10. Phillies shake up front office
This moment is the first of a handful of positives that are on our list because they correct incredibly discouraging negatives. The Phillies saw their tight grip on a playoff spot completely collapse this past summer, as the worst bullpen in the history of baseball was the team’s undoing in a third straight season that saw the Phils choke with a playoff berth in their grasp.
The floundering team demoted GM Matt Klentak a few weeks after the season, and was able to somehow talk two-time World Series-winning executive Dave Dombrowski into taking over to try and help stop a sinking ship. The Phillies have income issues, they have a relatively awful farm system and no real direction to competing for titles. Dombrowski knows how to turn teams on the verge of competition into real competitors, and his hiring gives Phillies fans some much needed hope.
9. The Shake Milton game
As far as actual on-the-court basketball goes, this may have been the highlight of 2020, which goes to show that, well, it was a pretty crappy year for the Sixers. With the world gleefully ignorant of the pandemic just around the corner, the Sixers were in L.A. playing the Clippers and a little short-handed. That’s when Shake Milton, a late second-round pick whom few knew much about, exploded for 39 points and nine three pointers, nearly single-handedly beating a foe favored to win the NBA title.
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This was back on March 1. A week and a half later, the NBA was suspended, and a few months after that the Sixers sleep-walked out of the bubble in a first-round playoff exit. With the 2020-21 season currently underway, Milton is a fan favorite and has solidified himself as a top option off the bench.
8. Phillies have two true aces
Back before the Phillies were losing hundreds of millions of dollars, they were allocating them to big, splashy free agent signings. Zack Wheeler’s five-year, $118 million contract seemed like it may have been a stretch last offseason, as the former Mets hurler had never really shown to be an ace worthy of that kind of money. But in 2020 during the COVID-shortened season, Wheeler and Aaron Nola proved to be a potent one-two punch atop the rotation.
Wheeler had a 2.92 ERA in 11 starts (71 innings) struck out 53 and walked 16. Nola, in 12 starts and about the same number of innings had a 3.28 ERA, 96 strikeouts and 23 walks. Both received Cy Young votes, and will give the Phillies a strength to build on in 2021.
7. Travis Fulgham comes out of nowhere
The Eagles had what can only be described as a lost season in 2020. And one of the few bright spots from it may be a complete flash in the pan, which is a real shame. With injuries forcing the Eagles to promote practice squad wideout Travis Fulgham to the active roster in Week 4, the journeyman wideout burst onto the scene catching a 42-yard touchdown pass to help the Birds beat the Niners in San Francisco.
In his first five games, Fulgham caught 29 passes for 435 yards and four touchdowns, and looked like a clear top wideout for the team for years to come. But then, for whatever reason, the Eagles decided to replace Fulgham with Alshon Jeffery, and Fulgham’s 44 targets through those five games went down to just 21 in the next seven games, with just eight total catches. Here’s hoping Fulgham is given a real shot in 2021.
6. Sixers jettison Al Horford
We won’t waste too much of your time with this one. Al Horford signed a four-year, $109 million contract with the Sixers and looked like he’d continue to be either a terrible fit with Joel Embiid or a ridiculously overpaid backup center for years to come. Until Daryl Morey flashed some muscle and was able to ship him to the Thunder for sharp-shooter Danny Green.
It was just one of a handful of impressive moves made by the Sixers’ new president of baseball operations on draft night 2020.
5. Carter Hart is a franchise goalie
It’s really been decades since the Flyers have been confident in both the present and the future of their goaltending situation. But that feeling is worthy in and of itself of making the top 5 on our list. Hart followed up a solid rookie campaign with a 24-13 (regular season) record in net in 2019-20, with a 2.42 GAA and .914 save percentage.
But the real proof of his franchise-goalie moniker came in the bubble, as he was one of the brightest stars of the NHL’s postseason. The 22-year-old went 9-5 in the playoffs, saving an incredible 92.6% of shots on goal with a GAA of 2.23. He single-handedly lifted an offense that was struggling with back-to-back shutouts in mid-August. He may be the player with the highest ceiling in the entire city.
4. The Union win some hardware
By most standards, the Union performed in a way most would expect their favorite teams to perform. They had the best record in the entire MLS a few months after making a run at the MLS is Back Tournament, advancing through to the semifinals. But the Union, in their 11 year history, have continually underachieved.
Finally in 2020, the city’s pro soccer franchise won its first trophy, the Supporter’s Shield before faltering in the first round of the MLS playoffs. The successful season is, fans of the team might hope, the start of a continued push to compete for a championship, and one that will bring more fans to join the Sons of Ben in the near future.
3. Sixers add Doc Rivers, Darryl Morey
Talk about an upgrade. The Sixers replaced Brett Brown with NBA Championship-winning coach Doc Rivers, and brought in Morey above inexperienced Elton Brand. Rivers has already, in four games, helped transform the Sixers into a team that brings out the best in Joel Embiid, day in and day out.
Morey, in addition to the aforementioned trade of Horford’s ugly contract also brought in sharp-shooter Seth Curry (for Josh Richardson) and led the team to draft Tyrese Maxey, a rookie with the potential to be a true NBA slasher. And there could be more to come.
2. Jalen Hurts emerges
The Eagles shocked the world by drafting Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Just how many were equally as shocked when he replaced Carson Wentz as the Eagles starting quarterback depends on how you first viewed the situation, but the Eagles franchise has been completely thrown upside-down after Wentz fell off the face off the face off the earth by playing like the worst starter in the entire NFL.
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With the opportunity to lead the Eagles, Hurts showed true potential with both his legs and his arm, leading the Eagles to what is no doubt their best moment of the year, beating the Saints at home to keep themselves alive in the race for the lowly NFC East. Hurts could be the franchise quarterback in Philadelphia, and gave everyone a preview in 2020.
1. Red hot Flyers overachieve
“The Flyers excitement was legit for a hot minute.”
That’s a direct quote from Jimmy Kempski, PhillyVoice’s Eagles beat writer and a good gauge of the increased popularity of the Flyers, a team that usually sits behind the Sixers, Eagles and Phillies in the city’s sports hierarchy. That flipped in 2020, as the Flyers exceeded even the highest of expectations.
Expected to perhaps slide into the playoffs as a young team on the rise, Alain Vigneault took over as new head coach and led the team to the second best record in the Metro division, including an impressive nine-game winning streak and 14-4 record in February and March before the pandemic shut the NHL down. In the bubble later in the summer, Philly won all three of the “seeding games” and entered the playoffs as the East’s No. 1 seed. They took care of the Canadiens in Round 1 before running out of gas in seven games against the Islanders in the second round.
The Flyers are ahead of schedule, and bring with them high expectations when the 2021 season, a shortened 56-game sprint, begins on January 13.
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