clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Sports Saturday

A look back at Chicago sports in 2021

Chicago sports fans went through all the extremes in 2021 — and only some of them were related to the pandemic.

Justin Fields
Justin Fields #1 of the Chicago Bears celebrates a win against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775676533
Chris Unger/Getty Images

Better things awaited us in 2021, or so we were told.

A new president took office. A vaccine was doled out — to the glee of some and the dismay of others.

But as the year progressed, it became clear that 2021 would be much of the same as 2020, albeit with fewer restrictions and more pretending that life had returned to normal.

Part of that normalcy meant our favorite teams and leagues again played full schedules and stadiums filled to capacity.

In Chicago, sports fans felt the full spectrum of emotions.

The Sky gave Chicago championship bragging rights for the first time since the Cubs’ World Series title in 2016. Both of chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s teams — the White Sox and the Bulls — offered much to celebrate, with the Sox winning their division title and the Bulls creating hope with a series of new additions that have reshaped the team.

Like the Sky, the Red Stars were a team worth cheering for after a midseason turnaround led them back to the NWSL Finals.

But as any sports fan knows, you have to take the good with the bad, and in Chicago, there was a lot of it.

Selecting Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields with the 11th overall pick in the NFL draft was the highlight of the Bears’ year, which saw them nose-diving to new levels of failure once play began. And still, coach Matt Nagy wasn’t fired before 2022 arrived.

Aside from the mess the Bears made, there was the Sox’ early exit in the postseason and a Cubs fire sale in July that left fans crushed by the breakup of the team’s 2016 World Series core.

The Blackhawks were embroiled in scandal when a former player accused former video coach Brad Aldrich of sexual assault. Before the year ended, two lawsuits were filed and a settlement agreement was reached with one victim, Kyle Beach. Actual hockey took a back seat.

Major League Baseball ended the year in a lockout. The NHL postponed its season and pulled out of the 2022 Winter Olympics because of rising COVID-19 cases, while the NBA announced it would continue business as usual despite the virus surging through the league.

So with the pandemic still wreaking havoc, here’s a look back at Chicago’s 2021 sports landscape:

Sky

In February, the Sky scored one of the biggest free-agent signings in WNBA history in Naperville native Candace Parker. The result: their first WNBA title in October.

But 2021 wasn’t all confetti and sellout crowds. Coach/general manager James Wade’s team stumbled to a 2-7 start before going on a seven-game winning streak. Once the playoffs began, the Sky were only at .500 with two single-elimination games ahead.

Veteran point guard Courtney Vandersloot made history in the semifinals against the Connecticut Sun, becoming only the second player in league history to record a playoff triple-double. And first-time All-Star Kahleah Copper’s MVP performance in the best-of-five Finals lifted the Sky past Diana Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury, solidifying the Sky’s place in the city’s sports history.

In the 2021 Chicago sports highlight reel, the Sky were the highlight.

Bears

The least popular decision of the year goes to chairman George McCaskey — by his own admission — when he announced in January that coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace would stay in their jobs.

Pace provided a jolt of excitement when he moved up nine spots in the draft to take Fields at No. 11. Four weeks earlier, the Bears had been willing to trade a number of draft picks and players for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Pete Carroll, the Seahawks’ coach and executive vice president, declined that offer, leaving the Bears to swiftly shift to a lesser Plan B: signing veteran Andy Dalton to a one-year deal while they developed Fields, who ended up starting sooner when Dalton was injured.

In June, the Bears submitted a bid to buy the Arlington International Racecourse property in northwest suburban Arlington Heights, then signed a $197.2 purchase agreement in September, allowing them to start planning a new stadium. Soldier Field has been their home since 1971; their lease on the lakefront runs through 2033. Negotiations between the city and the Bears are still possible to keep the team downtown, but if momentum is an indicator, it’s not looking good.

A 20-9 road win over the Raiders on Oct. 10 gave fans just enough to dream: Could the Bears find success this season? But a five-game losing streak followed, effectively answering that question. By Week 15, the Bears were eliminated from playoff contention and Nagy was barely clinging to his job.

White Sox

From the start, the Sox were a lightning rod for hot takes. Hall of Famer Tony La Russa’s return to the dugout as Sox manager at age 76 initially brought more jeers than cheers. He was tasked with leading a young, captivating team on what general manager Rick Hahn envisioned would be a run at multiple championships.

Disaster struck early. Outfielder Eloy Jimenez ruptured his left pectoral tendon before the season began and was sidelined until late July. The Sox lost in their opener, but days later, 28-year-old rookie catcher Yermin Mercedes became the first player in the modern era to begin a season 8-for-8. By July, Mercedes had retired and unretired in a 24-hour period.

Although plagued by injuries early, the Sox still managed to hold firmly onto first place in the American League Central for a long stretch. During that time, left-hander Carlos Rodon came within inches of throwing a perfect game against the Indians on April 14 but had to settle for a no-hitter after Roberto Perez’s foot got in the way on a slider.

The Sox had four All-Stars: Rodon, right-handers Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks and shortstop Tim Anderson.

The inaugural “Field of Dreams Game” in Dyersville, Iowa, in August saw Anderson pulling off movie-quality magic with a walk-off homer into the cornfield against the Yankees.

In September, the Sox clinched their first division title since 2008, putting them in the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time. It was their second division title under La Russa, who also led the 1983 team to the top of the AL West.

A month later, the Astros bounced the Sox from the playoffs with a 10-1 win in Game 4 of the AL Division Series.

Cubs

Heartbreak was a dish best served by the Ricketts family at the trade deadline. Less than 24 hours before the July 30 cutoff, the Cubs traded their longest-tenured player, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, to the Yankees for two prospects — right-hander Alexander Vizcaino and outfielder Kevin Alcantara. Rizzo didn’t even play in what turned out to be his last game in a Cubs uniform.

By the next day, fans also were struggling to cope with the departures of shortstop Javy Baez to the Mets and third baseman Kris Bryant to the Giants.

Before the season ended, the Cubs released another 2016 hero, right-hander Jake Arrieta, and set a franchise record by losing 13 consecutive games at Wrigley Field.

On the bright side, infielder Patrick Wisdom set a Cubs rookie record with his 27th home run in September.

Talk about a roller coaster.

Bulls

How long does a rebuild take? The answer depends on who’s running the front office. With an extensive offseason roster flip, Arturas Karnisovas, the Bulls’ new executive vice president of basketball operations, and general manager Marc Eversley appear to have corrected the futile attempts that went on for years under predecessors John Paxson and Gar Forman.

The Bulls missed the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year last spring, but the season wasn’t a total bust. In their first trade deadline with the Bulls, Karnisovas and Eversley acquired All-Star center Nikola Vucevic from the Magic for Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and two first-round picks.

On July 29, the Bulls drafted hometown kid Ayo Dosunmu, the former Illinois guard, with the 38th pick. In August, real money moves were made when the Bulls opened free agency by landing guard Lonzo Ball in a sign-and-trade deal. Hours later, they added guard Alex Caruso. A day after that, they completed another sign-and-trade for guard/forward DeMar DeRozan.

The Bulls started the current season 4-0 — the first time they’d done it since 1996, when they kicked off their second championship three-peat.

Blackhawks

In May, the Hawks were sued by a former player, later revealed to be Kyle Beach, for an alleged 2010 sexual assault by former assistant Bradley Aldrich. The suit also claimed Aldrich previously assaulted another Hawks player. The Hawks responded with a statement that an internal investigation had determined no wrongdoing by the organization.

But by June, it was reported that Hawks management had been informed of the alleged assault at the time and didn’t report it to police. Before the month was over, the team had hired a law firm to conduct an independent investigation.

The findings of that probe were released in October, leading to general manager Stan Bowman’s resignation after 12 years. Two days later, Joel Quenneville — the Hawks’ coach in 2010 — resigned as the Panthers’ coach. On Nov. 3, the Hall of Fame granted the Hawks’ request to cross out Aldrich’s name from the 2010 section of the Stanley Cup. After an eight-month legal battle, Beach and the Hawks reached a settlement Dec. 15.

Back on the ice, coach Jeremy Colliton was fired Nov. 6 after a 1-9-2 start to the season — exactly three years after the Hawks fired Quenneville. Derek King was named interim head coach.

A season brightened by the return of captain Jonathan Toews after a mysterious illness was dimmed again by the NHL announcing a pause to the season on Dec. 20 in response to surging COVID-19 cases. A day later, the NHL decided its players would not participate in this year’s Winter Olympics.

Fire

The Fire started the year by ditching their “Fire Crown” logo in January. By June, the new crest, set to be worn for the 2022 season, had leaked on social media. That redesign wouldn’t be enough to establish a winning culture, but plans for a $90 million training facility in Hanson Park gave fans hope.

Within six months, those plans were dead.

Twenty-eight games into his second season, coach Raphael Wicky was fired on Sept. 30, and by mid-October, the Fire were eliminated from postseason contention.

Two bright spots were 17-year-old Gabriel Slonina’s emergence as the Fire’s goalkeeper of the future and the hiring of Ezra Hendrickson as the new coach.

Red Stars

The team began 2021 by announcing a new ownership group that includes Olympic gold medalist and Blackhawks development coach Kendall Coyne Schofield, former Bears defensive end Israel Idonije and ESPN personality Sarah Spain.

By late May, the NWSL had investigated — without taking disciplinary action — an incident of alleged racial profiling of Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden and her boyfriend by a security guard in Houston.

The Red Stars were eliminated from the Challenge Cup in the spring after going to the championship game the year before and lost midfielder Julie Ertz to a season-ending medial collateral ligament sprain.

The team made a push in the second half and ended up back in the NWSL Finals for the second time in three years. Two days after they lost 2-1 to the Washington Spirit in the title game, former Red Stars players accused coach Rory Dames of emotional and verbal abuse in a Washington Post report. Dames resigned hours before the report was published. A new coach is expected to be announced in January.

Preps

High school sports were hit hard by pandemic restrictions and postponements.

On Jan. 22, the Illinois Department of Public health announced that sports would be played in Phase 4 of COVID-19 mitigations; this included high-risk sports like basketball and football. Days later, the IHSA released a full schedule for the year, with basketball starting immediately and football in March. There would be no postseason for either sport.

By the last weekend in August, high school football was back to regular scheduling. Chicago Public Schools set a record with 24 schools making the IHSA football playoffs.

In September, it was announced that the McDonald’s All-American Game will return to Chicago in 2022 at Wintrust Arena. And high school hoops returned in November — but not before the winningest basketball coach in the state, Marshall’s Dorothy Gaters, retired after 45 years, 1,153 victories and 10 state titles.

Colleges

Before coach Porter Moser and Loyola went dancing again in March, few could have known they’d meet top-seeded Illinois in the second round, much less win to reach the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. But behind center Cameron Krutwig, that’s exactly what they did. Moser left for Oklahoma after another Cinderella run by the Ramblers, replaced by assistant coach Drew Valentine.

The Northwestern women’s basketball program made the tournament for the first time since 2015, while coach Doug Bruno’s DePaul team failed to make it for the first time in 18 years.

In his first year as DePaul’s athletic director, DeWayne Peevy fired men’s basketball coach Dave Leitao and hired Tony Stubblefield, who got the Blue Demons off to a stunning start this season.

The Notre Dame women’s basketball program, which missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995, is back in the AP Top 25 with second-year coach Niele Ivey leading the way.

Coach Brian Kelly again showed he isn’t good at goodbyes when he confirmed to his players via text in November that he was leaving Notre Dame for LSU.

Outdoors

Michael Jordan was crowned a champion again when his Catch 23 fishing boat won a sailfish tournament in North Palm Beach, Florida, to kick off the year.

For the second year, Illinois bowhunters set a record harvest, leading to a slight rise in overall deer harvest.

In March, the IHSA announced it would hold state finals for bass fishing. Chicago-area teams competing included Minooka, Taft, Downers Grove North and Antioch. Taft, the only Chicago Public School with a bass-fishing team, has qualified for state seven times in the 12 seasons the IHSA has held state finals. Moline won its second state title, and Antioch finished third.

Dr. Atul Mallik caught an Illinois-record lake trout in May. It weighed 39.16 pounds, beating a 38-pound, 4-ounce fish caught in 1999.

In November, Jarrett Knize caught a 72-pound, 9-ounce bighead carp from the Humboldt Park lagoon.