A career of observing sports has left me with a top five and in this order: 1. baseball; 2. golf; 3. halfpipe (snowboarding); 4. football; and 5. basketball.

It took only a few hours at Utah's Park City Mountain Resort in February 2002 to realize that halfpipe belonged on this prestigious list.

The structure these magnificent athletes used as a launch to soar and somersault sat at the halfway point of a hill. Below, there were thousands of spectators, and only a few of us were on the wrong side of 25.

The novice from Minnesota found himself standing in the media area next to a fellow who seemed knowledgeable. He had several visible piercings and a distinctive hairdo that was described in the next day's Star Tribune:

"The young journalist had his head shaved, except for a tiny, black mat of hair that could have passed for a Hitler-style mustache, if it had been above his lip and not the middle of his skull."

The lad was skeptical when the visitor with no need to shave to show off his skull started a conversation. Eventually, he started explaining the differences between a fakie, an Indy, a McTwist, a fresh fish, a stale fish and a roast beef.

When the afternoon's derring-do was over, there was a patriotic pride that couldn't have been exceeded by anything that took place the last time the Winter Games occurred on American soil in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y.

The Yanks swept the podium, with Ross Powers getting gold, Danny Kass getting silver and J.J. Thomas getting the bronze. There wasn't a dry nose ring in the crowd as the young fans snuffled their way through the playing of the national anthem.

Later, the medal winners were taken to the media center, where dozens of middle-aged reporters who had not taken the bus ride to Park City were able to ask their questions.

Kass was asked if he had watched the halfpipe competition four years earlier when it was an Olympic event for the first time in Nagano, Japan.

"I wanted to, but I couldn't," Kass said. "Too much curling. I'd come from school, turn on TV and there would be curling."

The sweep of medals was the first for the U.S. in the Winter Olympics since men's figure skating in 1956.

"I don't know how you're going to compare us ..." Kass said. "They probably didn't have a blowup doll for a team mascot."

I was watching on TV when Shaun White took the halfpipe to greater prestige at the 2006 Games in Turin. Then on Wednesday, the Flying Tomato gained his second gold medal and helped produce spectacular ratings for NBC's primetime show.

The Yanks also claimed the bronze at these Olympics with Scotty Lago from Seabrook, N.H. As a devoted teammate, Lago decided to stick around Vancouver to cheer on other American athletes.

Scotty was justifiably proud of his medal and wanted it available to show interested parties. Yet, it would have seemed tacky to wear it around his neck, so Lago came up with a clever solution: He tied the ribbon around his narrow waist, so as to make the bronze prize less obtrusive.

He was out mingling with the civilians at night when a young woman -- on an impulse -- decided to bite the medal to determine if it was made of actual bronze. The lady's harmless act of curiosity was caught on a cell-phone camera and the photos surfaced on TMZ.

The stuffed shirts at the U.S. Olympic Committee saw the photos, went "tsk, tsk" to the snowboard bureaucrats, they confronted Lago and Scotty made the magnanimous decision to leave the country.

Apparently, the USOC's view is that our athletes are supposed to collect all these medals and then hide them away, rather than share the glow with the celebrators of these Vancouver Games.

The disappointment is that Kass, my favorite Olympian ever, didn't make this squad, because Danny would have had Lago's back. Best I can tell, the last headlines Kass made involved a pair of spats with New Zealand authorities back in August.

First, he beat a marijuana possession rap along with Louie Vito (fifth in this Olympic halfpipe). Then, Danny was pinched for trying to drive his van up a crowded ski run at the Cardona Alpine Resort.

What's a world-class snowboarder supposed to do when there's a long line at the lifts ... wait?

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • preusse@startribune.com