2016 was a great year in sports, full of intense games, and unbelievable underdog stories. It saw the rise of many stars of tomorrow and the careers of some all-time greats come to a close. As we welcome in the new year, I’d like to reflect back on some of the truly special sports events of the past 12 months. Here are my top 10 sports moments of 2016.
10. Broncos win Super Bowl 50 in Peyton Manning’s Final Game: There is no better way to end a career than winning a championship, and that’s exactly the opportunity Peyton Manning had entering Super Bowl 50 against the Panthers. As one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, Manning immediately turned the Broncos into Super Bowl contenders when he joined the team in 2012. However, while he rewrote the record books and led Denver to at least 12 wins every year, Manning hadn’t yet lifted the Lombardi Trophy for his new team. By the 2015 season, father time had finally caught up to a 39-year-old Manning, who missed six games due to injury and suffered the worst statistical season of his career. Still, the Broncos’ defense became the most feared unit in the league and helped lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl, giving them a chance to avenge their loss in the Big Game from two years earlier.
The Super Bowl was a defensive showdown, as Manning and Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton combined for the lowest total passer rating for both starting quarterbacks in Super Bowl history. The difference maker and eventual MVP of the game was Von Miller, who finished with 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, one of which was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown to give the Broncos a 10-0 first half lead, and another that ended a potential game-winning drive and set the Broncos up for their only offensive touchdown of the game. Led by a defense that recorded seven total sacks, Denver won 24-10, giving Manning his second career Super Bowl in his final game, repaying the favor for all Manning had done for the team.
9. Basketball Hall of Fame Speeches: The 2016 class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is one of the most memorable in history, headlined by three legends of the game: Yao Ming, Shaquille O’Neal, and Allen Iverson. Each player gave a speech true to their personalities we’ve come to love over their careers. Yao spoke first, and immediately had the crowd dying from laughter with his opening line, when he suggested he thought the honor of going first belonged to “the great Allen Iverson…because I needed more practice than him.” Yao was charismatic and showed his appreciation for everyone who helped him grow into the player he became and transitioning to America. And of course, there were more jokes.
Shaq gave an entertaining, larger-than-life speech, layered with personal anecdotes from everything from his time spent in Germany to his recruitment to the fact that he didn’t know Yao spoke English for Yao’s first three years in the league. He joked about Kobe Bryant as the player that forced him to be traded from the Lakers and his famous Buick commercial. There’ll never be a player quite like Shaq again.
Allen Iverson’s speech was truly a sight to behold. The pure emotion and passion for the game were palpable as AI gave his all in a speech that will be remembered for years to come. Things weren’t always easy for Iverson, and he led off by thanking former Georgetown coach John Thompson for “saving his life”. Iverson thanked his family, his friends, the fans, the Georgetown practice squad player who taught him the crossover, his favorite artists for being the theme music for his career. Iverson was moving, and it’s something you need to see for yourself.
8. Dee Gordon’s Leadoff Home Run: The true power of sports is evident when what happens on the field takes on a symbolism and become something more. Tragedy struck the Miami Marlins and the sports world as a whole with the death of pitcher Jose Fernandez in a boating accident. The 24-year-old had already become one of the game’s most dominant pitchers and had the potential to do great things. On September 26, just one day after the tragedy, the Marlins took the field, all wearing Fernandez’ #16 jersey to honor their fallen teammate and friend. On the first at-bat of the game, Dee Gordon blasted his first and only home run of the season, a tribute so perfect it couldn’t be scripted any better. Gordon broke into tears and the image of Gordon pointing up to the sky before being comforted by his teammates was a beautiful moment to behold.
7. Iceland’s Run at Euro 2016: When Iceland, a country of just 323,000 people (roughly the size of Corpus Christi, Texas), qualified for the 2016 UEFA European Championships, it became the smallest country to ever qualify for a major international soccer tournament. But they weren’t done yet. Originally seen as a team destined to be walked over by Group F, the team immediately proved themselves worthy of being in the tournament by drawing eventual champions Portugal. Following a draw with Hungary and a defeat of Austria thanks to a breathtaking run in stoppage time, Iceland found themselves tied for the group lead and into the knockout stages. In the round of 16, the feisty bunch was matched with England, a traditional powerhouse with a population over 170 times that of the island nation. Once again a huge underdog, Iceland pulled out a miraculous 2-1 victory to stun the heavy favorites. Although they fell to eventual runners-up and host nation France in the quarterfinals, Iceland had an inspiring run in the tournament. Their fans were so passionate, it was rumored 10% of the entire population of Iceland traveled to France to watch their team’s fantastic run.
6. Leicester City Wins the Premier League: No doubt you’ve heard the number before, but it’s just so breathtaking I’ll repeat it again: 5000-1. Yep, those were the odds of Leicester City winning the Premier League. Just the fact that a team could have such long odds shows how top-heavy English soccer has become, yet a remarkable season that stunned the world led possibly the most unlikely championship victory in sports history. I’ve already written about just how miraculous the season was, and how people doubted the team would hold on even when they were top of the table by a large margin here. Essentially, the world just kept waiting for Leicester to slip up, and the collapse simply never happened.
5. Kobe Bryant Scores 60 in Final Game: If this list was based purely on individual, single-game performances, Kobe would take the top spot. Kobe wasn’t particularly efficient in the game, scoring his 60 points on 50 shots. For the most part, Lakers-Jazz felt more like an exhibition designed to get Kobe the ball more than anything else. If you wanted the best game, there are plenty to choose from: Auston Matthews scored four goals in his first NHL game, and James Harden posted a 53/16/17 line just last night to name two. However, that’s not the point.
For 20 years, Kobe Bryant was the face of the Lakers. He helped guide the franchise to five NBA titles and was named an All-Star 18 times. Throughout his career, Kobe was known as one of the most clutch players to ever play. For the majority of the game, the story was about how many points Kobe would score rather than the Lakers winning the game. However, trailing by 10 with three minutes left, Kobe went to work. He scored 15 points down the stretch without missing a shot, an electrifying performance that gave the Lakers the win and Kobe a ridiculous 60 points. The Jazz were stunned, and the crowd exploded. Despite being a polarizing player, it seemed everyone was rooting for Kobe, and he delivered perhaps the most “Kobe” performance of all. The best part? His final career stat was an assist.
4. Villanova Wins March Madness on Buzzer-Beater: For me, the most exciting sports event of the year is March Madness, and 2016’s edition definitely delivered. The earlier rounds of the tournament provided plenty of excitement, from #15 seed Middle Tennessee State’s upset of #2 seed Michigan State to Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson’s half-court buzzer beater to sink Texas and UNI’s collapse against Texas A&M in the following round, losing in overtime after leading by 12 with 44 seconds left. However, the biggest moment of all came in the championship game.
The entire title game was a tightly contested offensive masterpiece, and while Villanova appeared to be pulling away late, North Carolina came back to trail 74-71 in the closing seconds of the game. First, UNC’s Marcus Paige hit an unbelievable deep, off-balance three-pointer to tie the game with just four seconds left. Then, with little time to respond, Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono sprinted up the court to the three-point line before passing to Kris Jenkins who drained the game-winner. It was one of the greatest finals in March Madness history and it ended in dramatic fashion.
3. The 2016 Summer Olympics: Honestly, I could make an entire top-10 list with just moments from the Olympics. Simone Biles won four gold medals in gymnastics, and Team USA’s “Final Five” dominated the competition. Michael Phelps picked up five more golds in swimming to extend his record of 23 Olympic golds while Katie Ledecky continued to defeat her competition in the pool by record margins. Usain Bolt retired on top by winning golds in the 100 and 200 meters, as well as the 4×100 meter relay, finishing his career going 9/9 in Olympic finals. Rio also saw the Olympic return of golf, and Brazil win the men’s soccer tournament in their home country.
Of course, while we had great moments, there were also controversies. Fears of the Zika virus prevented many athletes from competing in the games. Others, most notably from Russia, were banned due to doping. There were also the arrests of four American swimmers, most notably Ryan Lochte, and Lochte’s subsequent fabricated story of the events.
Every two years, the world is captivated by the Olympic Games, and 2016 proved no different. The world came together to admire some of humanity’s best athletes, and it was a thrill to see everything unfold.
2. Cavaliers Win NBA Finals After Trailing 3-1: Despite having three major sports teams (the Browns, Cavaliers, and Indians), Cleveland entered 2016 with a 52-year championship drought dating back to the Browns’ victory in the 1964 NFL Championship game. LeBron James had reached the finals with the Cavaliers in 2007 and 2015 but failed to bring a title to the city. In 2016, the Cavaliers faced the Warriors in a rematch from the previous season.
After dropping game 4 at home, the Cavs trailed 3-1 and needed to win three straight games, including two on the road, to avoid coming up short for the second consecutive season. No team had ever overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, but after Draymond Green’s suspension led to a Warriors loss in game 5 and the Cavaliers took care of business at home, a game 7 was required. Possibly the best game of the whole season, an incredible block from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving’s game-winner sealed the deal and made history for one of the saddest cities in sports.
1. Cubs Win the World Series: I know what Cubs fans were thinking when the Cavaliers snapped Cleveland’s title drought: 52 years? That’s nothing! The Cubs hadn’t won the World Series since 1908 prior to this season, and with painful missed opportunities over the years, many thought the Cubs would never be kings of the baseball world again. Similar to the Cavs, the Cubs trailed 3-1 in the World Series against the Indians, coincidentally another Cleveland team. This time, it was Cleveland blowing the lead as the Cubs eventually won game 7 in a bizarre yet amazing extra-innings affair which featured a rain delay after the ninth.
Immediately, the celebrations began as over a century of waiting was finally over. The Cubs victory parade had an estimated five million people in attendance, making it the seventh largest gathering in human history. The Cubs may have been World Series favorites for most of the season, but I don’t know if anyone actually thought they would pull through. They did, and their victory is my #1 sports moment of the year.