Even for casual fans, watching a sporting event can provide a several-hours long respite from the more serious realities of the world. For that small increment of time, the woes that plague humanity slowly begin to dull and distort like that moment in the bath tub when the water presses up against one’s ear drum and all that is left is a warbling not dissimilar to a roaring crowd.
Although 2016 will probably be best remembered for Donald Trump’s historic Presidential victory which shocked us all, it was also a year in the sporting realm where other long shots climbed to the pinnacle of their respective sports much to the adulation of their supporters and disdain of their ardent haters.
But if hard pressed to pick out the 15 most memorable, here is what 2016 was defined by.
Peyton Manning Goes out a Super Bowl Champion
When: February 7, 2016
While it certainly won’t go down as one of his strongest statistical games of his career (13-for-23 for 141 yards), Peyton Manning joined a list of other Hall of Famers like Michael Strahan, John Elway and Jerome Bettis who counted Super Bowl victories as their final NFL game action.
A month after the Super Bowl, Manning made it official, saying, “When I look back on my NFL career, I’ll know without a doubt that I gave everything I had to help my teams walk away with a win. There were other players who were more talented but there was no one could out-prepare me and because of that I have no regrets.”
Nate Diaz Silences Conor McGregor
When: March 5, 2016
When Conor McGregor speaks, his voice rings out like a bullhorn with an Irish brogue. As undoubtedly the biggest name in combat sports since Floyd Mayweather retired, McGregor spent all of 2015 pummeling opponents like Dennis Siver, Chad Mendes and José Aldo and only needed a combined 7:04 seconds to do so.
However, McGregor’s undefeated UFC streak was ended when he ran up against Nate Diaz – a larger fighter with an extensive jiu-jitsu background.
Diaz, a late replacement for the injured Rafael dos Anjos, was a four-to-one underdog and was taken to task during the first round. But as the blood flowed from his head, his confidence actually grew and he managed to take McGregor’s back for a rear naked choke.
“I’m humble in victory or defeat,” McGregor said afterwards. “My respect to Nate. He came in and took the fight on short notice, came in at 170 [pounds] and did the job. He was efficient. I wasn’t efficient.”
Villanova’s Buzzer Beater
When: April 5, 2016
Whether you grew up in the States, or on some far off island in the South Pacific, every single child has imagined a scenario at some point in their life where their team is down, time is ticking off the clock, and the ball is in their hands.
But for Kris Jenkins, this wasn’t some childhood dream in his driveway. Rather, it was in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game.
With 4.7 seconds left, Jenkins passed the ball to Ryan Arcidiacono who then took six dribbles and gave it back to him after the defense had collapsed on him.
What was Jenkins believing when the the shot went up?
“Ball game,” he said.
When: April 13, 2016
On November 29, 2015, Kobe Bryant revealed to the world his intentions to call it a career, stating in a poem, “This season is all I have left to give. My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”
And thus began Bryant’s farewell tour around the NBA where fans who would usually shower the superstar with boos actually cheered for him as a sign of respect for a monumental 20-year career as a Los Angeles Laker.
When it came time for Bryant to play his final game at Staples Center, most assumed he would put up as many shots as humanly possible, but there was no indication it would be a truly historic night.
Rallying the Lakers from a 15-point deficit to win the final game of the worst season in franchise history, Bryant managed a whopping 50 shots en route to a 60 point performance.
Although it wasn’t his most efficient performance of his career, there was vintage Mamba on display down the stretch – notably making a 3-pointer with 59 seconds left and another with 31 seconds to play which put the Lakers ahead 97-96.
“The perfect ending would have been a championship,” Bryant said. “But tonight was (me) trying to go out, play hard and try to put on a show as much as I possibly could. It felt good to be able to do that one last time.”
The Golden State Warriors Best the 95-96 Chicago Bulls
When: April 13, 2016
The Golden State Warriors began the 2015–16 season by winning their first 24 games – surpassing the previous mark for consecutive victories to start a season of 15-0 which had been set by the 1948-49 Washington Capitols and 1993-94 Houston Rockets.
The sheer dominance on display made many question whether the Warriors could surpass the 72-10 record of the Michael Jordan-led 95-96 Chicago Bulls who are still widely-believed to be the greatest NBA team ever assembled.
Ultimately, the Warriors rewrote the record book after defeating the Memphis Grizzles 125-104 on April 13 which gave them their 73rd win of the season.
Leicester City Wins the EPL
When: May 2, 2016
After almost being relegated the season before after spending 140 days in last place, it took the Foxes winning seven times in their last nine matches just to move up to 14th place and enjoy the safety of another year in the Premier League. Thus, bookmakers put the odds of Leicester winning the EPL the following year at 5,000-1. The only clubs that were deemed less likely had just been promoted: Watford, Norwich and Bournemouth.
To put that in perspective, the same oddsmakers gave a better chance for the Loch Ness Monster being discovered (500-1), Hugh Hefner admitting he’s a virgin (1,000-to-1) and Kim Kardashian becoming President of the United States (2,000-1).
Despite the odds, there was renewed optimism for Leicester after the way they had finished under manager, Nigel Pearson. However, Pearson was fired and replaced with Claudio Ranieri – who had been the manager for 14 different clubs and had never won a top-level championship at any of them.
Leicester had a strong start to the 2015-16 season as striker Jamie Vardy scored in a record 11 consecutive Premier League games – after playing nonleague football for Fleetwood in 2012 – and the Foxes finished the year tied for the lead with Arsenal.
As the calendar flipped, they continued their winning ways.
Then the stars officially aligned for the squad.
After Leicester drew 1-1 with Manchester United, Tottenham needed to beat Chelsea to keep their own title race hopes alive but could only manage a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Up seven points with only two matches left to play, Leicester had done the unthinkable.
Billion Dollar ‘Bron
When: May 17, 2016
When we first reported on LeBron James’s monstrous lifetime deal with Nike in 2015, financial terms were thought to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million USD or $30 million on an annual basis.
However, James’s business partner, Maverick Carter, revealed in May of 2016 that the deal was actually worth more than $1 billion USD, saying, “Yeah. It’s a fantastic deal. Nike feels great about the deal. That’s the most important thing. As great as I feel, as great as LeBron feels—Nike feels fantastic about it. It’s the largest deal in the history of the company. Their hope is he makes even more. And our hope is that, too, obviously.”
The Cleveland Cavs Complete Epic Comeback
When: June 19, 2016
Despite the Warriors regular season prowess, the Playoffs proved to be much more consequential in exposing their flaws as a unit – specifically their troubles with the Oklahoma City Thunder who pushed them to the brink of elimination before the Warriors righted the ship and advanced to the NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers.
After the first four games of the series, people were ready to start printing back-to-back champions T-shirts. But the Cavs had something to say about that.
With resounding 15 and 14 point victories in games 5 and 6, the stage was set either for the Warriors to complete a historic season, or the Cavs to rewrite history and become the first team to come back from 3 games to 1 down in the NBA Finals.
After consecutive 41-point performances, LeBron James finished with a triple double – scoring a key block and a clinching free throw – while Kyrie Irving matched James’s theatrics with a dagger of a three-pointer with the game tied at 89.
Iceland’s Historic Run at the Euros
When: July 3, 2016
One of the everlasting images from the Euros this year besides monumental goals from the likes of Dimitri Payet, Xherdan Shaqiri, Luka Modric, Radja Nainggolan and Hal Robson-Kanu was Iceland’s cinderella run which included draws versus Portugal and Hungary and wins against Austria and England before ultimately losing to France in the Quarterfinals.
Aided by a raucous support system made up of 8 percent of the entire population of the Nordic island, most will take away their Viking Thunder-Clap celebration which was adopted by Icelandic club Stjarnan on a trip to Scottish side, Motherwell, and further utilized at the Euros not only by Iceland, but Wales and France as well.
KD Leaves OKC
When: July 4, 2016
Kevin Durant’s tenure in Oklahoma City didn’t show any signs of ending despite a crushing Western Conference Finals defeat to the Golden State Warriors after going up 3-1.
With him and Russell Westbrook already making up a “big 2,” general manager Sam Presti also brought in a key piece in Victor Oladipo and saw Steven Adams make improvements to solidify the frontline.
At his MVP speech in 2014, Durant showcased his love for Oklahoma City, saying, “You get knocked down, but you keep getting back up, keep fighting; it’s the perfect place for me. The grass isn’t always greener somewhere else.”
As it turns out, Durant saw things decidedly different in the summer of 2016 when he opted to join Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Greene, writing on The Players Tribune, “It really pains me to know that I will disappoint so many people with this choice, but I believe I am doing what I feel is the right thing at this point in my life and my playing career.”
Serena Williams Makes Grand Slam History
When: July 9, 2016
Serena Williams’s Wimbledon win not only gave her a seventh singles trophy at the All England Club, but it also launched her to new heights by tying Steffi Graf for most singles championships in the Open Era with 22.
Tom Brady Accepts Deflategate Suspension
When: July 15, 2016
After 544 days of defiance, Tom Brady finally gave in and accepted a four-game suspension for a scandal which had become known as “Deflategate” that involved suspected under inflated footballs from the 2015 AFC Championship against the Indianapolis Colts.
Following a ruling by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals which denied a petition by Brady and the NFL Players Association to rehear his suspension case – following a reinstatement of his punishment by Roger Goodall after Brady avoided any missed games in 2015 – the quarterback announced he was giving up the fight, saying he has “made the difficult decision to no longer proceed with the legal process.”
Michael Jordan Speaks Out
When: July 25, 2016
Michael Jordan has often received flack from his peers for his unwillingness to take a stand or even issue a statement as it relates to happenings in the world for fear that it would impact his ability to sell shoes to the masses – perhaps best immortalized in the 1995 book, The Second Coming, that he didn’t support a senate run by Harvey Gantt because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
In one of the most outspoken instances in his career in basketball, Jordan went on the record to issue his opinion on the string of unprovoked police shootings in the African American community.
“As a proud American, a father who lost his own dad in a senseless act of violence, and a black man, I have been deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers,” Jordan said. “I grieve with the families who have lost loved ones, as I know their pain all too well.”
“I was raised by parents who taught me to love and respect people regardless of their race or background, so I am saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late. I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent. We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers – who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all – are respected and supported.”
“Over the past three decades I have seen up close the dedication of the law enforcement officers who protect me and my family. I have the greatest respect for their sacrifice and service. I also recognize that for many people of color their experiences with law enforcement have been different than mine. I have decided to speak out in the hope that we can come together as Americans, and through peaceful dialogue and education, achieve constructive change.”
“To support that effort, I am making contributions of $1 million each to two organizations, the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The Institute for Community-Police Relations’ policy and oversight work is focused on building trust and promoting best practices in community policing. My donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the nation’s oldest civil rights law organization, will support its ongoing work in support of reforms that will build trust and respect between communities and law enforcement. Although I know these contributions alone are not enough to solve the problem, I hope the resources will help both organizations make a positive difference.
“We are privileged to live in the world’s greatest country – a country that has provided my family and me the greatest of opportunities. The problems we face didn’t happen overnight and they won’t be solved tomorrow, but if we all work together, we can foster greater understanding, positive change and create a more peaceful world for ourselves, our children, our families and our communities.”
Michael Phelps’s 23rd Olympic Gold
When: August 13, 2016
There are Olympians, and then there is Michael Phelps. With a career that spanned five Olympics, Phelps had already become the most decorated swimmer in history – with 27 medals (22 gold) – before he entered into what would become his final race.
Phelps’s historic 23rd gold came as part of the American relay comprised of Ryan Murphy, Cody Miller and Nathan Adrian.
He dove into the pool on the third leg as the U.S. trailing by .61 seconds. When he touched the wall after his 100 meters of butterfly, the relay team was ahead by almost a half-second.
This is special because I’m just able to start the next chapter of my life,” Phelps said afterwards. “I’m retiring, but I’m not done done with swimming. This is just the start of something new.”
The Chicago Cubs Break the Curse
When: November 2, 2016
A 108 years of waiting is literally a lifetime for not one but two generations of Chicago Cubs fans who have been dreaming of the day that the lovable losers from the Northside finally raised that “W” flag for a World Series championship.
In typical Cubbies fashion, they didn’t make it easy on their fanbase. In the NLCS, they went down 2-1 before defeating the Dodgers in six games.
In the World Series, the Cubs went down 3-1 before forcing a game 7. Just when things were looking like they were finally going to end the curse – up 6-4 with Aroldis Chapman on the mound – Rajai Davis deposited a 98 MPH fastball over the wall and tied the game.
But these were not the Cubs of yesteryear who usually cracked in the face of pressure. They rallied once again, and finally brought a title back to the Northside.
- Featured/Main Image: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports