It was one of the most memorable years the sports world has ever seen. Here are the 16 greatest moments from a phenomenal 2016.
Kobe's drops 60 in last stand
If you shoot it, they will come. Points, that is. In a finale befitting a man who never met a shot he didn't love (or want to buy a $4 million ring), Bryant capped his Hall of Fame career by dropping a cool 60 on the Utah Jazz. Forget that he did it by taking 50 shots from the floor, the most in 30 years (he only needed 46 in his famed 81-point game), forget that it capped the worst season in Lakers history - don't you know this was all about Kobe?
His final season was less efficient than a Hummer - the 17.6 points-per game were overshadowed by his 16.9 shots-per game. The basketball was unwatchable at times. No matter; the Lakers celebrated like they'd won a championship. And in Kobe's eyes, they kinda had. Mamba out.
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Only the Bengals. In January's wild-card game, Cincinnati had come back from a 15-point deficit against Pittsburgh and had a lead, and the ball, in Steelers territory with 90 seconds left. Then came a self-induced meltdown that's already in the annals of NFL history. The Bengals had knocked Ben Roethlisberger out of the game and later appeared to have clinched their first postseason win in 26 years when, holding a one-point lead, they picked a Landry Jones pass deep in Pittsburgh territory with 1:36 left. But Jeremy Hill fumbled on Cincinnati's first play giving Pittsburgh back the ball, a long way from field-goal territory. With 22 seconds left, the Steelers were out of timeouts and 15 yards out of Chris Boswell's range.
Then, on a deep pass to All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown, Cincy linebacker Vontaze Burfict came in, head first, crown-to-crown, to make the tackle. It was an attempted football decapitation. Burfict was given a 15-yard penalty that would have given Pittsburgh a solid, if still lengthy, kick for the win. But in the ensuing scuffle, Pacman Jones earned another flag for getting in the face of the former Steelers rabble-rouser turned coach Joey Porter, who goaded Jones into throwing with that impish, troublemaking grin. It was a tough call. Why was Porter on the field? Was Jones Jones was profiled for his past? By the time anyone had answered those questions, Pittsburgh had kicked a game-winning field goal.
Serena gets No. 22
After three straight failures (two in the first two major finals of 2016 and the other three sets short of a historic Grand Slam in 2015), Serena Williams went into the Wimbledon final one Slam short of Steffi Graf's Open-era record of 22 major titles. Her opponent was Angelique Kerber, who defeated Serena in the Australian Open final, dethroned her from the No. 1 ranking and would win the U.S. Open later that summer. But there would be no upset this time: As had happened countless times before, Serena's serve propelled her to victory, the seventh at the world's most prestigious tennis tournament. Steffi and Serena, side-by-side at last.
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Texas A&M's ridiculous record comeback
In a game that will forever be used as the example that a basketball game is never over until the clock shows all zeroes, Texas A&M made history with a stunning NCAA tournament comeback to advance to the Sweet 16 to beat would-be Cinderella Northern Iowa. The Aggies were down 12 with 44 seconds left and, even more impressively, faced a 10-point deficit with less than 30 seconds remaining. (Wrap your head around this: The previous NCAA record for largest comeback - in all games, not just the tournament - was 11 points in the final minute. Texas A&M was down 10 with 27 seconds on the clock and five with 13 seconds remaining.)
There's a reason the climactic moment in Hoosiers is Jimmy saying "I'll make it" rather than a double-digit comeback - it's beyond believable. Those final seconds went down as such: NIU turned it over three times, committed an and-one foul, actually scored a bucket to staunch the bleeding for a moment and then saw A&M tie with three seoconds left. The Panthers didn't fold in OT, draining a go-ahead three-pointer with 29 seconds left to send the game to double OT where they finally could hold on no longer. The irony of it all: Northern Iowa was only in the game because Paul Jesperson drained a half-court buzzer beater to beat Texas in the first round.
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Michigan vs. Ohio State
Remember all those folks who said the college football regular season would be ruined by the playoff? Well, so much for that. In one of the best games of the 113-year history of the greatest Big Ten rivalry, Ohio State outlasted Michigan in double-overtime to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff and thwart the Wolverines' hopes for the conference title that's eluded them since 2004. The team battled to a second overtime, where Urban Meyer left his offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 from the 16 rather than attempt a game-tying field goal with a kicker who'd already missed two chip shots. OSU handed off to J.T. Barrett, who went through the scrum and got the ball over the line - barely. The spot was reviewed, srutinized and upheld. Despite the controversy and Jim Harbaugh's comments - "that was not a first down; I'm bitterly disappointed with the officiating today" - it appeared to be the right call. The Buckeyes were in the playoffs and with Harbaugh and Meyer on the sidelines, the best rivalry in college football was back in business.
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A divisional-playoff classic
Back in 2010, Green Bay traveled to Phoenix for a wild-card game and the teams played one of the greatest games in the history of the NFL, with Kurt Warner leading the Cardinals to a 51-45 overtime win on a staggering 29/33 for 379 yards and five touchdowns. The 2016 rematch - this time in the divisional round - was a worthy successor. Aaron Rodgers heaved it 60 yards on a fourth-and-20 with 55 seconds left, then unloaded a Hail Mary from 41 yards that was caught by Jeff Janis in the end zone to force overtime. On the first play of the extra session, Carson Palmer, not exactly known for his slipperiness, wiggled his way out of a sack then threw against his body to find a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald, who sprinted 75 yards before getting tackled at the five. A shovel pass to Fitzgerald on the play's second drive gave Arizona another overtime victory over Aaron Rodgers and a place in the NFC championship.
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Spieth's Masters collapse
Greg Norman, eat your Aussie heart out. Jordan Spieth, the closest thing golf has had to Tiger Woods since Tiger Woods, had a five-shot lead at the turn on Sunday afternoon at The Masters, trying to join Nicklaus, Faldo and Woods as the only back-to-back winners in Augusta history. Five shots? Nine holes? The best golfer in the world? It was all over but the walk up the 18th fairway.
Not so much. On No. 12, the short par-3, Spieth hit a fade off tee that landed short of the pin and rolled back into Rae's Creek. Suddenly, we had a tournament. Getting up and down for a double would be bad but not disastrous. But Spieth's wedge from 80 yards didn't even make it halfway to the green, plopping in the middle of the creek, an unfathomable sequence that felt like a dream and left the patrons in a deafening silence. And suddenly we had one of the greatest collapses the Masters has ever seen.
"I’m not really sure what happened," Spieth said later of what's perhaps the worst shot ever hit by a Masters leader. "I just hit it fat." Spieth made a quad seven and fell from first to fourth. He got back on track, somehow, and had a ticklish little putt on the par-3 16th to get within one of the lead he'd handed to Englishman Danny Willett. But there would be no "yes sir" from Verne Lundquist this year. Spieth missed and Willett cruised to a three-shot win. Amen Corner had claimed another victim.
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The miracle in Leicester
The biggest football league on the globe has a mind-numbingly boring system for crowning a champion, which, as some will tell you, is fitting for a dull sport. (Okay, as I'll tell you.) They play 38 games and whoever has the most points (three for a win, one for a draw, nothing for a loss) wins. So when Leicester City, the 5000/1 underdog and team frequently on the fringes of relegation (admission: relegation is awesome; imagine the Browns and 49ers playing for the right to stay in our real football league) won the Premier League, it was more of a slow burn than a blast of fireworks. That made the upset all the more impressive though. Anyone can win a game or a race on any given day. To stay on top over a nine-month season? That's an almost incomprehensible feat, even if the biggest reason Leicester won is because all the big guys (Man U, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, etc.) were pretty bad.
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Manning beats Brady for final time
The Super Bowl was like those of the 1980s and early 1990s - entirely forgettable (although with the AFC prevailing this time around). Cam Newton's press conference is just about the only thing anyone remembered one month later. It was a great end to the career of Peyton Manning, who desperately needed that second ring to avoid a lifetime of "yeah, but" arguments about his place in history.
The biggest moment of the run came two weeks before, however, when the Broncos stopped a Patriots two-point conversion that would have tied the AFC championship with 12 seconds left. Manning had the worst season of his career and, by some metrics, the worst season by any quarterback in the 2015 season. But the old man got the job done, with an 18-yard scramble (yes, a Peyton Manning run) serving as one of the biggest plays of that win over the Pats. He didn't have much, if any, arm left but Manning was still able to throw the kitchen sink when he had to.
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Katie Ledecky's dominance
It was a performance so dominant it made the U.S. basketball team seem pedestrian. The teenaged Katie Ledecky, who burst onto the international scene in 2012 had spent the three years in between Olympics as the most dominant athlete in the pool. In Rio she tried for a feat that hadn't been accomplished in nearly 50 years - winning the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle, which is a little like a runner winning a gold medal in the marathon and the mile. She won each with ease (and added a gold and silver in the relays for good measure, making her the most decorated American woman at any single Olympics) but the 800, usually a sleepy race not given much attention in the U.S. even during the swim-happy Summer Games, was her masterpiece. She has the 10 fastest times in history in the event and has lowered the world record by about 10 seconds since first breaking it in 2013. In Rio, she shattered her unbreakable mark again with a first 400 that was so fast it would have won the gold medal in that distance. By the end she looked like Secretariat at the Belmont, compared to both the other swimmers and the trailing world-record line.
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U.S. wins the Ryder Cup (finally)
There was a certain poignancy to the U.S. taking back the Ryder Cup for the first since 2008 and just the second time this century. Arnold Palmer had died earlier in the week and his presence loomed at Hazeltine - his bag stood on the first tee, a powerful reminder of the power of The King. Then Team USA swept the opening four matches on Friday morning, the first time that had happened since 1975, which happened to be the last time Palmer served as team captain. Patrick Reed was the star of the show and loved every minute of it. His 3.5 points led the U.S. and by Sunday evening he could boast victories over the British Open champion (Henrik Stenson), the Olympic gold medalist (Justin Rose) and some guy named Rory.
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Simone rules Rio
Now that gymnastics scoring has become a byzantine formula of start values, deductions, connections and artistry, it's just about impossible to figure out who did the best without adhering to the still-ridiculous judging that often ruins the sport. That wasn't a problem with Simone Biles in Rio, who was so good in her four-gold, one-silver performance that even someone who can't tell the difference between a salto and a kip knew who was best. Biles lived up to the hype and then some, not only winning four individual medals but leading the U.S. women's team to all-around team gold. Teammate Aly Raisman, who won two golds in London, was the rare two-time American Olympic gymnast. She was the even rarer three-time medalist at back-to-back Games. The only problem with the U.S. women? That nickname. "Final Five?" (It references the fact that this was the last Olympics with a national team consisting of five gymnasts.) Look, when you're that good you don't need forced monikers. Simone, Aly, Laurie, Madison and Gabby will do just fine, thanks.
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LeBron's block completes Cavs' NBA Finals comeback
In Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Andre Igoudala had a two-on-one that would lead to a layup and a 91-89 lead for the Golden State Warriors, the all-time winningest team in NBA history. But then, as Igoudala needlessly double-pumped, LeBron James came out of nowhere, much like he did with his return to Cleveland two summers before, for one of the great defensive plays the NBA Finals has ever seen. The Warriors, who had blown a 3-1 lead, wouldn't score again and the Cavs would win their first title in their 46-year history. Cleveland's basketball team never approached the pathos of other long-time losers but seeing LeBron win the title that he'd promised his hometown was one of the great sights of 2016.
Kris Jenkins, for three
Marcus Paige was immortal for approximately 90 seconds. The UNC guard hit an off-balance three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left in the national championship to tie Villanova and, seemingly, go to overtime. After a timeout, Ryan Arcidiacono took the inbound, raced across the half-court stripe and scooped it to Kris Jenkins who took the pass, pulled up for a 27-footer and calmly released over the outstretched arms of Isaiah Hicks. The horn sounded as the ball was at its peak and there was never a doubt about where it was going. For over three decades, every Villanova fan figured that, even if the team was to win another national championship, it'd be impossible to ever top its upset of Georgetown in the 1985 finals. They were wrong.
Phelps goes out on top
Phelps' eight gold medals in 2008 will be the performance by which all other Olympians will be measured. (With inferiority, it goes without saying.) But Phelps' showing in Rio - two individual golds, three relay golds and a silver in a race won by a 21-year-old who grew up idolizing him - was just as impressive, in a far different way. He was a 31-year-old in a sport dominated by college kids, who had retired, come back, received a deserved (if too harsh) suspension after a second DUI arrest, went to rehab, got engaged and had a child, all in between Olympic cycles.
"Well it's Michael Phelps," they said, "of course he won." No, he only makes it looks easy. Phelps was in his fifth Olympics. He already had twice as many gold medals of anyone in history and by far the most medals too. His races in Rio, with the exception of two relays dominated by Americans, were very much in doubt, with the 200 fly against the reigning Olympic champion Chad Le Clos (who unwisely tried to get into Phelps' head in the ready room before their semifinal, leading to the greatest Olympic meme of 2016), the 200 IM against a pre-disgrace Ryan Lochte, a 4x100 freestyle that almost kept Phelps from his eight-for-eight showing in Beijing and then the 100 fly, a crapshoot that Phelps had won in the past three Olympics by a total of 0.28 seconds. Nothing was guaranteed. Yet Phelps went three-for-four and then swam his victory laps on the final Saturday of the swimming session, with another 100 fly in the 4x100 medley relay the Americans have never lost. On top of the medal stand for the 23rd time, Phelps stood tall and waved goodbye. This time he meant it.
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The only "remember where you were" moment in American sports this year. The Cubs, who had a lengthy World Series drought you might have heard about, stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to Cleveland (a bit of asymmetry not lost to Cleveland after they pulled the feat in the NBA Finals) to force a Game 7 that had a little bit of everything. The Cubs got out to a 5-1 lead and then, as everyone had feared, Chicago's bullpen fell apart when closing ace Aroldis Chapman was hit hard after pitching, for some reason, in the Game 6 blowout the day before. He blew a three-run lead in the 8th, capped off by a frenzy-inducing two-run homer by Rajai Davis. After a scoreless 9th we had out first extra-inning World Series Game 7 in 25 years and then ... it rained. Oh, the rain. Choose your own adventure: Would it gave the Cubs a chance to regroup after blowing the World Series with four outs left or would it do the opposite - forcing Chicago to chance to wallow in the pain of it all.
The former won out. The Cubbies scored two in the top of the 10th and then halted an Indians rally in the bottom of the inning with Michael Montgomery forcing the the last out to set off a party in Chicago that will be talked about for the next 108 years.