Naming the Athlete of The Year in 1999 is no slam dunk.

This was a year we tended to focus on who wasn't on the playing field rather than who was. It seemed every time we turned around we were losing someone dear. First, Michael Jordan retired, then John Elway and Wayne Gretzky. Joe DiMaggio, Wilt Chamberlain, Walter Payton and Catfish Hunter passed on. Payne Stewart was killed in a plane crash a short time after he won the U.S. Open and helped win the Ryder Cup. The year ends with jolting incidents of athletes at their worst: Rae Carruth being accused of murder and John Rocker erupting with bigotry.

But when a glass is half empty, it is also half full. There were moments, as there always are, of brilliance and joy. The U.S. Women's World Cup team already has been given credit for everything from tax reform to curing smallpox. Beyond them there is Kurt Warner's ongoing Horatio Alger story. Last year Warner was playing on the Iowa Barnstormers in arena football. This year he's having an MVP season in the NFL, on a level with Brett Favre in 1995 and Steve Young in 1994, and approaching Dan Marino's astonishing numbers in 1984.

There was Tiger Woods winning eight tournaments, and gaining momentum toward becoming the first legend of the 21st century. There was Pedro Martinez, the most important single player in any team sport this year, having one of the greatest seasons of any baseball player in the past 30 years. There was Lance Armstrong, going into a hostile environment and winning the grueling monthlong Tour de France that only one other American had ever won. That alone would have been enough to celebrate--but he did it while recovering from cancer that almost killed him.

Still, 1999 gave us one athlete who so embodies the spirit of readiness, competition and, as you'll see, stick-to-itiveness, that we're naming University of Kansas defensive end Dion Rayford our Athlete of the Year.

It was Rayford who became so enraged at a Taco Bell for failing to include a chalupa in his order that he attempted to climb through the 14-by-46-inch drive-thru window to get his food. Alas, at 270 pounds, Dion got wedged in! (So in a real sense the glass was half full.)

If you close your eyes, you can hear that miserable little dog saying, "Drop the chalupa!"

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to Dion Rayford. And to:

Charles Barkley, Steffi Graf, Julie Krone, Don Haskins, Reggie White, Wade Boggs; Steve Young.

Bill Polian.

The good people at 24-Carat Ferret Rescue.

John Berry. The Columbine High School football team.

Alexandra Stevenson. Paul Lawrie.

Jim Leyland, Danny Ainge; John Thompson.

Brandi Chastain, Justin Leonard, Robin Ventura, David Cone, Brett Hull, Kristine Lilly, Kevin Johnson, Terrell Owens, Todd Pratt, Casey Calvary, Sergio Garcia.

Alexei Yashin, Barry Sanders; Joey Galloway.

Danny, Teddy, Jonny; The Abester, who said, "The interview I had with Gar Heard blew me away. It's amazing what he came to the table with." What, his own cutlery?

Cal Ripken Jr., Dick Vermeil, Jim Mora, Laffit Pincay Jr.

Eugenia Williams, Jean Van de Velde, Richie Phillips, Kevin Steele, Joe McIlvaine; Matt Turk.

Howard Milstein and John Kent Cooke, Howard Milstein and Charley Casserly, Charley Casserly and Norv Turner. Dave Checketts and Ernie Grunfeld, Dave Checketts and Jeff Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy and Ichabod Crane. Martina Hingis and Amelie Mauresmo, Martina Hingis and the Williams sisters, the Williams sisters and the Osmond brothers. Dan Reeves and John Elway, Dan Reeves and Mike Shanahan, Mike Shanahan and Bubby Brister.

Chris Kelley. Tamir Goodman.

Joe Torre, Tony DiCicco, Phil Jackson; Kurt Rambis, Tom Gullikson.

Eugene Robinson, Clem Haskins, Jim Miller; Derrick Coleman, Larry Foster.

Chris Antley. Peter Warrick.

Ray Buchanan, who--while wearing a dog collar!--said Shannon Sharpe "looks like Mr. Ed."

Rick Hunt, Guy Martin; Sam Grossman.

Moochie Norris. Orlin Norris. Chuck Norris.

George McPhee and Lorne Molleken, Fluff and Tiger, Orlando Brown and Jeff Triplette, Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon, Larry Brown and Allen Iverson, Rod Strickland and Gar Heard, Dan Marino and Jimmy Johnson, Steve Francis and Canada, George Steinbrenner and Hideki "Fat Toad" Irabu, Jim Gray and Pete Rose, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, Latrell and P.J. (still), Albert Belle and Mike Hargrove (redux), Anthony I. Kornheiser and John "Junior" Feinstein, Tim Tschida and Chuck Knoblauch, Bobby Bo and everybody.

Steffi and Andre.

Nupur Lala.

Stephen Davis, Tre Johnson, Brad Johnson; Mike "Hey! I'm Trying To Make The Pro Bowl Here" Westbrook; Percy Ellsworth, Jake Delhomme.

Kimberly Dunbar, Rachel Myrtil.

Jim Brovelli, Ken Broo, Ray Miller, Frank Wren, Stan Wong; Isiah Thomas, Doc Rivers.

Maurice Greene, Michael Johnson, Khalid Khannouchi, Hicham El Guerrouj; Alan Webb.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who did it again, though nobody noticed. June Jones and Jeff George. Derek and Nomar. Chamique Holdsclaw and Rita Williams.

George King, LaVelle Neal.

Mariano Rivera, Michael Vick, Jaime Moreno, Peyton Manning, Vince Carter, Wally Szczerbiak; Roger Clemens.

Susan O'Malley. Mike O'Malley.

Darrell Green, Adam Oates.

Littwin, Schaap, Ryan, Lupica, Albom, Conlin, Jacobson, Chad; Dowd, Barry.

Andy, Kevin, Denis, Roderick, The Duke.

Mount Union. Grand Union. Union Station.

Vinny Testaverde, Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson; Lorenzo Williams.

Tiger Stadium, Astrodome, Kingdome, Fabulous Forum; The Parquet.

Luke Recker, Chris Burgess; Corey Maggette, Elton Brand, William Avery--Mike Krzyzewski needs a hug.

Your Danish Fighting Chicken Dogs.

Juan Antonio Samaranch and distinguished members of the International Olympic Committee, for changing the Olympic motto from "Faster, Higher, Stronger" to "Leave It In My Room."