“2016 was the worst year ever” has become the token cliche that you’ll find in just about every one of these retrospectives for the year that was. And while 2016 certainly wasn’t all peaches and cream, it was actually an extraordinary year at least in the sporting realm. While the year wasn’t without its share of tragedy, loss and scandal off the field, the year also gave us some unforgettable that reminded even the biggest cynics among us of why we fell in love with sports as kids.
Here are my picks for the 10 biggest sports stories of 2016, at least so far. Let the debate begin.
10. Colin Kaepernick national anthem protest
I originally penciled in Peyton Manning riding off into the sunset in this spot, but after giving it a little more thought it became clear that Kaepernick taking a knee for the national anthem was the bigger story.While Peyton Manning winning the Super Bowl in his last season was no doubt incredible, once the new season kicked off everyone quickly moved on. In contrast, the discussion regarding Kaepernick- even if it’s not quite as ubiquitous as when it began- remains embedded in the national political discourse.
Even the president gave a take on Kaepernick’s protest, saying “I’d rather have young people engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than those who are just sitting on the sidelines.” I’m not the first to point out the irony that what Kaepernick did was literally to sit on the sidelines.
I’m not going to get on the hot take carousel by either lionizing or demonizing Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the national anthem, but it’s undeniable that the act achieved its goal of provoking a conversation about police abuse. Even if you think what he did was disrespectful, you have to admit that Kaepernick was able to incite an emotional reaction in a way that athletes usually don’t.
9. Jose Fernandez Dies In Boat Crash
Jose Fernandez’s shocking death in a boat crash in Miami Beach in September at just 24 years old was one of the saddest stories of the year.
The Miami Marlins ace had fled to America from Cuba as a teenager after three failed attempts, and thus emerged as a beloved figure in Miami with its massive community of Cuban exiles.
In the Marlins emotional first game after his death, teammate Dee Gordon paid tribute to Fernandez in the greatest way possible. In a moment that was straight out of a movie, the Marlins leadoff man blasted just his ninth career home run on the game’s first at-bat.
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t also mention the plane crash carrying the Brazilian football club Chapecoense that killed 71 of 77 people on board. Another truly heartbreaking story.
8. Ronda Rousey gets annihilated by Amanda Nunes at UFC 207
Ronda Rousey had the entire world watching on Friday night to see if she could put her November 2015 knockout loss to Holly Holm behind her and reestablish her dominance in the bantamweight divison. It didn’t take long to find out that Rousey was a shadow of her former self, and Amanda Nunes took advantage by pummeling Rousey with minimal resistance until the Brazilian current champion was deemed the winner by TKO after just 48 seconds.
Rousey had been (over)hyped as the most unstoppable combat athlete of all time, so the loss to Holm had been an absolute stunner. Rousey was crushed by the Holm loss, even saying that she considered suicide afterward, so skeptics wondered if she’d be the same fighter upon her return. And from the moment her fight against Nunes began, it was clear that Rousey had indeed lost her mental edge.
After such an unstoppable rise, Ronda Rousey’s precipitous fall was a sight to behold. It seems likely that we’ll never see Ronda Rousey compete in the octagon again.
7. Villanova wins NCAA Championship on Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater
This was, for my money, the play of the year in sports.
It looked like overtime was in the cards for the NCAA title game when UNC’s Marcus Paige hit a hanging 3 pointer to tie the game at 74 with just 4.7 seconds left. But then Kris Jenkins hit what will go down as one of the most famous shots in the history of college basketball, drilling a buzzer-beater three-pointer to win the national championship.
6. The good, the bad and the ugly of Olympics 2016
It’s too difficult to narrow an entire Olympics down to one or two stories, so I’m going to cheat a little and group everything Rio 2016 into this spot.
On the field there was plenty of good, including Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt adding to their legends, and Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky burgeoning into American heroes.
Off the field though there was a heavy dose of bad. The heavy price tag of hosting the Olympics has contributed to political and economic turmoil in Brazil. And after Russia’s state-funded systematic doping scandal emerged before the Olympics, the presence of Russian athletes in Rio was marred in controversy.
Then there was the ugly. For starters, Ryan Lochte nearly caused an international incident after making up a story about getting robbed at gunpoint at a gas station when he was really just being a drunken idiot. And then there was this moment, where a Mongolian wrestling coach went nuts and took his clothes off.
5.Kevin Durant signs with Warriors
I still can’t believe this happened.
Just months after the Kevin Durant-led Thunder blew a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, the former MVP joined forces with 2-time defending MVP Stephen Curry and his Golden State team that won a record 73 games last season. The move was only made possible by an unprecedented spike in the NBA salary cap, and now the Warriors will be the championship favorites every season for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, back in OKC Russell Westbrook is plotting his vengeance.
4.LeBron James leads Cavs to NBA Championship
After more then a half-century without a title, Cleveland was brought an NBA championship by northern Ohio native LeBron James in truly epic fashion. The Cavaliers famously came back from a 3-1 lead against a team the greatest regular-season team in NBA history, and LeBron solidified himself as one of the greatest basketball players of all-time.
In crunch time of game 7, LeBron had the defining play of his career when he blocked Andre Iguodola out of nowhere, and then Kyrie Irving hit a 3 over Steph Curry to take the late lead en route to the championship.
This year’s NBA Finals was dripping with narrative, and in the end it was Cleveland coming out on top for once. These two teams appear on a collision course to lock horns again this season, and with Kevin Durant now in the mix we should be in store for even more great drama.
3. Muhammad Ali dies
You don’t need me to tell you how great Muhammad Ali was in the ring or how important he was off it. “The Greatest” was the most iconic sporting figure of the 20th century for good reason, so his death in June hit people all over the world hard.
While Ali is no longer with us in body, his legend will live on forever.
Other sporting giants we lost in 2016 include Arnold Palmer and Pat Summit. May they all rest in peace.
2. Leicester City defies 5000-1 odds to win the English Premier League
All throughout last season in the English Premier League, everybody waited for Leicester City’s fairy tale season to come crashing down to reality at some point and for one of the big boys to usurp them at the top of the table. But then they just kept winning. And winning. And winning.
Led by Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, Claudio Ranieri’s club that had just barely escaped relegation the season before were 10 points clear of 2nd place Arsenal at season’s end.
This was the most improbable championship in the history of professional sports, and proof that small clubs can still compete with their richer counterparts if they play their cards right.
1. Cubs win World Series after 108 years after epic game 7
After 108 years the Chicago Cubs are World Series Champions. And while that accomplishment itself would have merited a spot on this last, the way they did it by winning the most exciting game 7 in World Series history earns the Cubbies the top spot on this list.
The Cubs had been the best team in MLB all season but everybody think it would sting more when they inevitably blew it. And it looked like the curse of the billy goat was back at it when the Cubs fell behind 3-1 in the series, and then again when they blew a 3-run lead in the 8th inning of game 7. But after a rain delay, and an inspirational speech by Jason Heyward, the Cubs found a way to win 8-7 in the 10th inning in Cleveland.
There was just no other option for the biggest story in what was arguably the best sports year so far in the 21st century.