CLEVELAND — After COVID-19 turned the sports calendar upside down in 2020, 2021 brought a sense of normalcy to the sports world. And from start to finish, there was plenty to talk about in the Cleveland sports scene, from a Browns playoff run to a new name for the city's professional baseball team and the emergence of a young Cavaliers core.
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As we prepare to turn the page to 2022, let's take a look back at the year that was with WKYC.com's top 10 sports stories of 2021.
10. Ohio legalizes sports gambling
More than three years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a national ban on sports gambling, Ohio joined the party, legalizing sports gaming in the state with the passing of House Bill 29. After being signed into law by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on Dec. 22, Ohioans are now expected to have the ability to legally place bets on pro and college games by Jan. 1, 2023.
9. Cleveland State goes dancing
Under the direction of head coach Dennis Gates, the Cleveland State men's basketball team put together one of its best seasons in school history, amassing a 19-8 record and Horizon League Tournament championship. As a result of their run, the Vikings punched their ticket to the big dance, earning a No. 15-seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost in the first round to Houston in the first round.
8. Cleveland hosts the 2021 NFL Draft
After being held virtually in 2020 due to COVID-19, the NFL Draft returned to being an in-person event this year, doing so in Cleveland. For three days, Downtown Cleveland served as the center of the sports universe, with the event being held just outside of FirstEnergy Stadium on the shores of Lake Erie.
Altogether, the event had a $42 million impact on the city, with 160,000 visitors attending and 40.1 million watching on television worldwide.
7. Cavs land third in the NBA Draft lottery, select Evan Mobley
While sports gambling wasn't legalized until December, the Cleveland Cavaliers didn't have to wait that long to get some luck. After finishing the 2020-21 NBA season with a 22-50 record, the Cavs climbed from fifth to third in the NBA Draft Lottery.
With the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Cleveland selected USC big man Evan Mobley. Through just the first 25 games of his career, the 20-year-old forward/center has already established himself as the best rookie in the league and the type of franchise cornerstone the Cavs have lacked since LeBron James' departure in 2018.
6. Cavs enjoy hot start, emerge as one of NBA's most surprising teams
Mobley's instant impact coupled with Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen's All-Star-caliber seasons has made Cleveland one of the NBA's most intriguing teams through the first three months of the season. At 19-13, the Cavs lay claim to the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, putting them on pace to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
5. Indians trade Lindor to Mets
After years of speculation, the Cleveland Indians finally pulled the trigger, trading All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor -- and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco -- to the New York Mets in January. After signing a 10-year, $341 million contract extension with the Mets, Lindor went on to endure the worst season of his career, hitting .230 (.734 OPS), 20 home runs and 63 RBI as New York finished the 2021 campaign with a 77-85 record.
4. Bishop Sycamore
The 2021 high school football season got off to a strange start when Florida powerhouse IMG Academy beat a mysterious Ohio-based school named Bishop Sycamore by a score of 58-0 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton. During the nationally televised contest, ESPN commentators admitted they couldn't verify that the team's roster possessed several Division 1 prospects as it had claimed, leading to questions about the legitimacy of the Bishop Sycamore program.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine called for an investigation into the matter, which ultimately found no evidence that Bishop Sycamore High School actually enrolled students or had a physical location. In a statement, Gov. DeWine said that criminal charges were being considered against those involved.
3. The end of the OBJ era
The Browns' Week 8 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers wound up having more implications than a typical defeat as wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. reportedly asked for a trade following the game. Beckham's request was only amplified when his father, Odell Beckham Sr., posted an 11-minute clip to his verified Instagram account, showing Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield missing his son on various throws throughout the 20201 season.
Unable to trade him ahead of the trade deadline, the Browns excused Beckham from their practices before coming to terms on a release. The three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver proceeded to sign with the Los Angeles Rams, with whom he has caught 16 passes for 211 yards and three touchdowns in five games.
2. Indians announce new name, get sued
By the end of 2020, the Cleveland Indians had revealed that they would be adopting a new name, although it had yet to be selected. In July, the franchise officially announced that it would be known as the Cleveland Guardians following the 2021 season.
There was just one problem -- the "Cleveland Guardians" already existed, with the city's professional roller derby team suing the baseball franchise over the matter. Ultimately, the two sides reached an agreement for both teams to use the name, with the baseball franchise officially adopting the nickname in late November.
1. Browns beat Steelers twice to end postseason droughts
Entering Week 17 with a 9-6 record, the Browns just needed to beat the Steelers to clinch their first postseason appearance since the 2002 season. With a 24-22 victory, Cleveland did just that, earning a rematch against Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round in the process.
Despite Kevin Stefanski and left guard Joel Bitonio missing the game due to COVID, the Browns went on to pick up their first postseason win since the 1994 season, beating the Steelers 48-37. Cleveland would proceed to lose to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round the following week, closing the most memorable Browns season since the franchise returned in 1999.