The Deadspin staff pick their favorite sports moments from 2016, and explain what made them so special. Here they are.
I realize this looks like a very stupid selection, given that this almost-play came after The Block, The Shot, and The Stop, but it’s a moment from this year’s Game 7—probably the greatest basketball game I will ever see—I keep coming back to.
I think I keep coming back to this moment because it was the one that allowed me to crawl back into my head and really think about all the things I had seen over the previous two minutes. I had just watched three plays that, had they occurred on their own, would have a place among the best in the history of sports. But I watched them happen seconds apart from each other; it was simply too much to handle, and it wasn’t until LeBron took a few seconds to collect himself after the failed dunk that I found myself with my hands on my head, finally processing everything that had just happened.
And I come back to it because I still to this day have no idea what I would have done if LeBron had actually managed to yam that ball on Draymond’s head. I watched the game in an unremarkable hotel bar with about 20 other people who didn’t seem all that interested, and so I mostly stayed quiet as LeBron and the Cavs pulled off the greatest comeback in NBA history. But if he had made that dunk? I don’t know, man, I think I would have tossed my barstool through the window, showered myself in Bacardi 151, and lit a match.
It would have been an historic, universe-altering dunk. It would have punched a hole in the veil between this dimension and the next. It would have brought 1,000 years of peace. Draymond Green would be in hell. We were this close to having all that, and I’m still mad we missed out. This is an objectively entitled and whiny thing to say given all the great moments that Game 7 did give us, but dammit, it’s how I feel. - Tom Ley
A thing about sports fandom is that it works best if you can simultaneously believe that a single game is an individually worthwhile, self-contained masterpiece while also buying into whatever overarching, media-manufactured narrative it supposedly exists within. Although I love baseball to an almost unnatural degree, I’m not great at leaning into this. Even in high-stakes games, I worry too much about the psyche of the losing team and whether it’s all worthless.
I’m not religious or superstitious and I try not to be precious about my fandom (despite, you know, choosing an ultimately meaningless win by my favorite team for this exercise). Beyond that, I’m not sure anyone of sound mind really thought the Giants had an edge over the other 29 teams this year because 2016 is an even number. But for the five hours and four minutes it took to play Game 3 of the NLDS, I almost did.
The Cubs, the objectively better team, won the series in four games. They also, for what it’s worth, had historical significance on their side. But it really felt—as the game stretched out into the middle of the night, as Madison Bumgarner gave up a home run to the opposing pitcher, as the replay umps got a call overtly wrong, as first Aroldis Chapman (giving up three consecutive hits to left-handers including Conor Gillaspie) and then Sergio Romo (in fitting, second-half of San Francisco’s season form) blew saves—like if they could only pull off this one highly improbable win, the Giants would be on their way to fulfilling some grand Even Year destiny.
I was wrong, of course, to feel that way. The Giants’ 10th straight postseason win while facing elimination would be their last, but I couldn’t know that yet. The game felt interminable—in a good way (sorry, beat writers). Each independently-entertaining wacky turn of events felt like a potential highlight in a hypothetical version of the playoffs that didn’t come to pass. But I had a lot of fun pretending for a few hours. - Hannah Keyser
It’s the hug that gets me. After Aly Raisman turns in one of the greatest floor performances of all time, Simone Biles upstages her with the single greatest floor performance of all time and then awaits for her score with her teammate. They hug, and then Biles has a moment to herself but, screw it, she has Raisman join her so they can hug again.
Two American women, crushing the rest of the world in women’s gymnastics. I’m old enough to remember when it was the Soviets who ruled women’s gymnastics, when no American woman had won the coveted all-around gold when facing off against the pesky USSR, (Mary Lou, no offense, won in an Olympics without the Soviet Union), when the Team USA victory in 1996 felt like a fever dream. Kerri Strug celebrated that final vault on an injured ankle to seal the gold by going on Beverly Hills 90210, because that’s how impossible it all seemed.
I dreamed of being a gymnast as a little girl because, well, who didn’t? It was the 1980s, there was no WNBA, no ESPN broadcasting women’s college sports (yet, we got it eventually), and soccer was starting to come around in America. Dreaming of athletic glory meant you wanted to be an Olympian, and dear God did I want to be a gymnast. It just seemed so doable. There are no balls flying at you, no heavy bats, no pounds of padding or equipment. At its essence, gymnastics is you and a mat, a practice as old as civilization itself. How hard can it be?
When I failed to land a somersault (still can’t!), my realistic Olympic dreams died. But the unrealistic ones in my head? They lived on. I watched every moment of the Atlanta Olympics. I remember my disbelief when Carly Patterson won the first all-around gold for an American woman in an Olympics that included those Russians, and getting overwhelmed when Gabby Douglas became the first African-American to win the all-around gold.
But Raisman and Biles? I don’t know how my heart didn’t give out these Olympics. There are much smarter writers (like Dvora Meyers) who can explain for you how and why these two women dominated this year, with Biles just about breaking her sport and rebuilding it in her image. But it’s when they hug, and they hugged a lot, that I utterly lose it. I admit I work for a website that tends to roll its eyes at narratives about teamwork, chemistry, and good guys always beating the bad guys. Life’s just more complicated than that. But when Raisman and Biles hug? Screw that. Forgive me, Deadspin elders, but I’ll take the narrative of two women kicking ass together, winning together, and staying friends all the way through. - Diana Moskovitz
Hating on Steph Curry is cool now, and I get it, he seems very punchable. But if Steph is not the most exciting player in the NBA anymore there’s still nobody who is routinely stopping the world like he did last season, when he essentially seemed to have broken the sport of basketball. The apex of his powers was of course when he casually drained a game-winning 30-footer in Oklahoma City like he was fucking around at the end of a practice. Still my favorite part of the play was not the shot itself but Mike Breen’s perfect call of it, in which his signature “bang!” catchphrase was pitched at a level you might expect if Christ had just been resurrected on the court. Which... - Jordan Sargent
Thirty years from now, you can ask me who won the MVP awards in 2016, and I’ll give you a blank stare. You can ask me who made the final out of the World Series, and I won’t even pretend to take a guess. But if you ask me which player decked which other player so hard that his helmet spun around above his head like something in a Chuck Jones cartoon, I’ll smile, and nod, and direct you to the newly built wing in Cooperstown that just has this playing on loop:
Visually, it’s almost too perfect not to be CGI. José Bautista’s sunglasses fleeing the scene; Rougned Odor’s chain rotating at the same rpm as—but the opposite direction from—Bautista’s helmet; Adrián Beltré entering the frame, promising more mayhem; the fan in the bleachers, realizing before anyone that shit is going down.
Basebrawls are designed to let us down. There was history here (2015's best sports moment), but every time we expect fireworks we never get them. Even when there are brushback pitches, umpires usually nip it in the bud before it explodes. Even when someone charges the mound, there’s usually just a lot of shoving and yapping and no actual brawling. Even when punches are thrown they rarely connect cleanly. Odor-on-Bautista surpassed anyone’s wildest expectations.
The reaction might have been even more incredible. For something that ostensibly concerned the game’s “unwritten rules,” there was little-to-no pearl clutching from fans and media members, no tiresome debates about leadership and chemistry and the appropriateness of decking a dude in the face. Instead, a series of totally straight, increasingly delightful headlines: “Rougned Odor punches Jose Bautista in face,” “Watch Jose Bautista get punched in the face,” “Rougned Odor still isn’t sorry about punching Jose Bautista.” Maybe this was an anomalous vertex too absurd for takes to penetrate. Or, more likely, maybe everyone was kind of glad that José Bautista got punched in the face. - Barry Petchesky
There have been very few moments in my life where I have held even a sliver of belief in some sort of a god, and watching stick-thin Dee Gordon crank a home run the day after his teammate and close friend José Fernández died is chief among them.
When I woke up on Sept. 25 and learned José had died, I revisited Jordan Ritter Conn’s story about José’s successful defection from Cuba and how he jumped over the side of the boat to save his mother, who’d fallen overboard, before he knew it was his mother. Next, I watched the video of José being given a surprise reunion with his grandmother, who, back in Cuba, would climb to the roof of her house to listen to his games on the radio.
What I felt the day José Fernández died was nothing short of grief, and still, there was a certain sadness to that, too. I know nothing of the grief felt by the people who knew him and the Cubans who, until that day, must have felt so fortunate to have him pitching in Miami. My heart broke, and breaks, most of all for his mother and his grandmother, who surely must have felt that finally, for all their pain, they had finally, mercifully, found the good life together.
At a time like that, baseball feels almost repulsively insignificant, and I felt sick thinking about his teammates collecting themselves throughout Sunday to hit the field again Monday, only some 36 hours after learning of their teammate’s death. In that, I was being unfair to José. His teammates pulled themselves together, collectively donned their No. 16 uniforms, and told the media, and themselves, that baseball was José’s great love, and to show up and play with passion was the best way to honor him.
(The Marlins had wanted José to start Monday against the Mets, who they were still technically chasing in the wild card race, so they pushed back his Sunday start by a day. There is a nauseating alternate history in which that start is held, and José gets rested for the matinée instead of going out on his boat.)
After a haunting and powerful pregame ceremony the day after José’s death, tiny Dee Gordon stepped up to the plate against Bartolo Colon to lead off the bottom of the first, and on a 2-0 count, hit that baseball into the sky. If you were holding it together until that point, you were certainly holding it together no longer. I can instantly call to mind Gordon’s face as he sobbed while rounding the bases, tapping over his heart and raising his fist to the sky as he headed back to the dugout. His teammates pounded on the dugout railing, a homage to José’s own reactions to home runs. After a couple days when most of us tried to keep it together, as corny as it sounds, that home run felt like permission to fall apart.
After the game, Gordon told reporters: “I ain’t never hit a ball that far, even in BP. I told the boys, ‘If you all don’t believe in God, you better start.’ For that to happen today, we had some help.”
I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in this: José Fernández loved baseball, and Gordon’s home run felt like a sign that baseball loved José back. - Lindsey Adler
Marcus Paige was supposed to be shit in 2016. This was it. He broke out as a sophomore, busting on the scene as a skinny, creative scoring presence with a penchant for acrobatic drives, filthy handles, and clutch long balls.
Now, backed by a stacked UNC lineup, he was ready to rule college basketball and lead his team to the title. But instead of fulfilling his destiny of becoming a silky, dominating senior, he took a small, but noticeable, step back. His shooting percentage and scoring production both dipped, and Paige ended the season scoring 12.6 points per game while shooting 35.6 percent from three-point land and 45.9 percent from the field.
The first month of ACC play, Paige was repeatedly pitched as a nice-ass car that just wouldn’t crank; his shooting slump was profiled and profiled and and profiled and profiled. But North Carolina was still a loaded veteran squad, so Brice Johnson’s lanky, leaping ass assumed the role of the team’s top scorer and rebounder, with Paige hopping in the backseat in between Joel Berry and Kennedy Meeks. And for Paige, that was fine. He seemed to genuinely accept that his three-ball wasn’t dropping like it should have been, and that letting Johnson cook in the paint was the way to win. His feet started moving once the Big Dance came around, though—he dropped 21 on Indiana, going 6-of-9 from long range and scored in double-digits six-straight times (his longest streak of the season) to help UNC score a matchup with Villanova.
I was raised an N.C. State fan before spending four years rooting for and covering Duke. If ever there was a moment where I should have been sipping on the schadenfreude, it was 4.7 seconds later when Kris Jenkins let his nuts hang and drained the best game-ending shot in 33 years. But when Paige pulled up, jumped, pumped, hit the pause button in mid-air, then let the ball fly (and you knew the shit was going in), I found myself standing in my living room honestly wanting him to drain it. It was the kind of shot he spent the past several years building his reputation on: when Kennedy Meeks was fouling out and Justin Jackson wasn’t dropping floaters, UNC still had Marcus.
So even having spent the past four years just 20 minutes down the road watching nearly all of his games and rooting against him, the Dookie and Wolfpack fan in me still wanted his ass to drain the shot because on top of him being a good guy and dope basketball player, truly amazing sports moments, for me, still have the ability to transcend common fandom. And dammit, this looked like it would be part of the perfect ending. Instead, Jenkins gave the game an even better one. This is all a sappy way of saying Paige’s shot was dope and made me pee myself a little. - Nick Martin
While it’s a thrill to watch an athlete like Le’Veon Bell effortlessly slash through a defense’s second level, it’s also a delight to watch a hockey player, whose body type resembles the drunk Islanders fan at the end of your row, puff down the ice and set up a goal for his linemate. This is part of why Phil Kessel is so beloved, and why it was so satisfying to watch him win a Stanley Cup.
There’s a tendency to admire athletes who don’t “look” athletic: Fat guy touchdowns, paunchy baseballers, and Boris Diaw, for example. Sometimes, that admiration drifts into the territory of creepy fan fiction, where Bartolo Colón really is your dad, plucked out of the seats because the team had no one left to pitch. In reality, Colón could break your fucking head with one of his pitches, because under a layer of poorly defined muscle, there’s still a body with outstanding reflexes and instincts capable of feats worth millions of dollars.
Kessel, a forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins, is one of these cases, to the point where after he was traded from the Maple Leafs, it was plausible when a Toronto Sun columnist claimed that Kessel would stop by a vendor near his residence for a daily hot dog. (The story, like some of the meat within a frank, appears to be bullshit.) The NHLer left the criticism of Toronto for a talented and less scrutinized team. In one season in Pittsburgh, Kessel contributed to a championship, adding to his Bill Masterton Trophy and three All-Star appearances.
The guy who openly has no desire to deal with media, even his own team’s; the guy who was once called a “fat fucking fuck”; the guy who knew his breath reeked—he won a Stanley Cup. He appeared overwhelmed but ecstatic at the parade. And when he visited the White House in October, he looked like the hard-partying business administration major you knew in college who cleaned himself up for a job interview:
Sports do not favor the affable, only the talented. Phil Kessel happens to be both. - Samer Kalaf
You don’t see complete and utter domination in sports too often these days. The difference between the greats and the pretty goods is small, just tenths of seconds or millimeters. And then there is Katie Ledecky, who has spent four years crushing long-distance swimming events, culminating—for now—in a four-gold performance at the Olympics. She set world records in her signature long-distance freestyle events, and continued her march towards owning the short-distance freestyle events too. It was wonderful to watch her compete. - Kevin Draper
2016 is the year Twitter announced it was killing Vine, and so I’m drawn to recognize a moment that was so perfect for the doomed format. Here we have perhaps the greatest American professional athlete in history getting drilled in the face with a basketball. Thanks to the Vine format, it loops forever. I’ve made hundreds of Vines since the platform was introduced—it would take more than 20 minutes to watch all of the six-second clips in order—but nothing we’ve ever Vined has been so urgent and necessary as watching LeBron James get drilled in the face with a basketball. Don’t ignore that it happened at a Sixers game, and don’t tell me the GIF version is better—it isn’t. The lasting image of what 2016 did to us as a country and as a company is LeBron James getting drilled in the face with a basketball. - Tim Burke
Of course it fucking rained. Of course, after Chicago had to wait 108 years and then dig out of a 3-1 hole, the skies would open right after the ninth inning and every Cubs fan on the planet—along with the casual fans like me swooping in to take a sudden interest—was confronted with a rain delay that could potentially last hours, if not scuttle the night altogether. I remember Twitter having a collective meltdown—one of many Twitter experienced this year—when they busted out the tarp. Just a cascade of “NO!”s straight down the feed. It’s always fun when all those voices say the same thing at the same moment: a mindmeld of the drunk and lonely. I remember I was home, shitfaced, and started laughing out loud when it happened. It was wholly appropriate to draw out the Cubs’ moment of catharsis to near-tantric levels, but it was still one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever witnessed as a sports fan. I fully expected the power to go out, and the dinosaurs to rise out of the fucking turf. I shouldn’t remember it fondly. But it felt like God saw Anthony Rizzo tell David Ross that he was an emotional wreck and then decided to jack The Machine up to 50, just to see what would happen. - Drew Magary
Villanova meant next to nothing to me; in fact, that school’s 1985 team might be my least favorite college team of all time, having defeated the Georgetown Hoyas led by Patrick Ewing, my favorite college team ever. I didn’t go to Georgetown except to drink, and watched the 1985 championship game in the pub in the Georgetown student union building. (This was so long ago that the legal drinking age was still 18, so campuses typically had large bars.)
But regardless of my feelings for his school, I was all in for Kris Jenkins.
I’m a D.C. guy and have always been obsessed with local sports, and Jenkins was one of our own. I’d followed him throughout his schoolboy hoops career, and even knew about his playing days back to middle school, where he was part of a dynastic team at Mater Dei, a toidy all-boys Catholic school in nearby Bethesda where his teammates included Nate Britt. When they were in their teens, Britt’s family became Jenkins’s legal guardians. I’d also seen both Jenkins and Britt play as high school teammates on ridiculously talented squads at Gonzaga, one of the city’s premier secondary schools. Gonzaga has been around almost 200 years. The alumni roster of the all-boy institution, located mere blocks from the U.S. Capitol, is full of politically famous folks, including failed presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Martin O’Malley and failed drug warrior/gambler William Bennett, plus successful presidential assassin David Herold. In recent years, Gonzaga’s also cranked out athletic superstars, particularly in basketball, long the city’s favorite sport. As a junior in 2012, Britt was named Gatorade’s high school basketball player of the year for talent-heavy D.C.; Jenkins took that honor as a senior in 2013.
The brothers split apart at the next level, with Britt going on to star at North Carolina, and Jenkins choosing to play college ball at Villanova. That gave the 2016 NCAA title matchup, which was played in Houston, one of its greatest story lines.
I was as big a sap as anybody for the buddies-turned-brothers-turned-rivals story line told throughout the championship game, which was played in Houston and which I listened to on the radio in bed. North Carolina’s Marcus Paige hit a circus shot from beyond the three-point arc to tie the game, 74-all, with just 4.7 seconds left. I was hanging on every word from Westwood One’s play-by-play man Kevin Kugler as he called the final seconds. Jenkins inbounded the ball to Ryan Arcidiacono, then streaked behind him past half-court. I heard Kugler yell, “Flips to Jenkins!” just as the buzzer sounded. Then, after what initially seemed like a huge gap in time but in reality was mere tenths of a second, Kugler shouted “It’s good!” and repeated it enough times to give me as many goosebumps as sports can possibly give a radio listener.
Less than a second after the big shot, however, the thrills were interrupted by several loud and scary bangs that drowned out Kugler and the roaring crowd. Kugler went silent for a couple seconds after the booms. With no visuals to let me know what was actually taking place in Houston, visions of bombs and terror-related horrors flew through my head, and my heart sank.
I jumped out of bed and turned on a TV and immediately saw that the explosions came from confetti cannons, not terrorism. I watched replay after replay of Jenkins shooting and squatting while watching with the rest of the world to see what happens, and Wildcats coach Jay Wright taking in the last shot while walking slowly away from center court and appearing to say, “Bam,” without an exclamation. And I began to process that Jenkins had just earned college basketball immortality for himself, Wright, and his whole team.
There was plenty enough glory to trickle down to his high school, too. Gonzaga staffers began designing a celebratory banner within hours of the buzzer-beater, which took place late on a Monday night. They had it produced and hung at the school’s main entrance before the end of the week. I got downright weepy the first time I saw this massive tribute to Jenkins. The banner, featuring an enormous illustration of Jenkins and “CONGRATS KRIS” in Gonzaga purple, was still hanging the following month, when the team was invited to the White House and heard President Obama praise Jenkins for making a shot “that was like a Christian Laettner shot, like a Jimmy V running up and down the court shot.” The banner was taken down in June, after Gonzaga’s graduation weekend.
I drove past the Gonzaga campus this weekend. Even though the banner is gone, the sight of the entrance where it used to hang still brought back memories of Jenkins and that amazing finish. I imagine they’ll come back whenever I drive past the school. What a shot. What a moment. - Dave McKenna
For the last few years, the Chicago White Sox have been about as frustrating a team as there is to follow in any sport, partly because after five losing seasons in six they no longer even deserve the credit for being virtuously semi-competent at worst that they once did, and partly because the last few losing seasons have come despite having one of the better cores of talent in the game. Give pretty much any idiot two of the best 10 pitchers in baseball, an All-Star outfielder, a slugging first baseman, a top closer, and other useful players besides, and they should at least be able to crack .500; the Sox, though, haven’t even been able to find such an idiot. Call it bad managing, bad luck, or whatever, but watching a potential playoff team get dragged down to the depths of hell year after year by an utter inability to coax tolerable or even replacement-level performance from various theoretically useful players gets really fucking old, and ends with you being indifferent, the last thing you want to be as a baseball fan.
This is why, as ridiculous as it was, Sox ace Chris Sale picking up a pair of scissors before a game this summer and cutting up a bunch of uncomfortable, ill-fitting, and just plain ugly novelty uniforms that he’d made very clear he didn’t want to wear was so great. Here was evidence that someone, somewhere in Sox Park actually gave a shit. It may not have been one of the idiot front-office types who proved incapable over a period of years of finding just one goddamn catcher who could catch a fucking baseball, and it may not have been the dipshit manager who brought all the intensity of a box of instant mashed potatoes to the dugout, but it was someone, and that someone thought the stupid uniforms were going to marginally interfere with his chance to get a win, wasn’t having it, and so did something about it. Of course these assholes traded him as soon as they could! Of course they did! - Tim Marchman
A little guiltily, I’ll confess I’d forgotten all about Juan Martin del Potro. I wasn’t alone, and it was only natural: In the casual tennis viewer’s mind, Delpo had been left for dead. Take a 6-foot-6 titan with a history of fragility, lay him low with three wrist surgeries—on both wrists—then watch him spend two years burrowing like a mole down the rankings, getting as deep as No. 1041. Even if he’d been stood as high as No. 4 before that descent, how can you reasonably expect that dude to unwrap all the gauze and casually resume a top-ten career? You need very functional wrists to spank a tennis ball the way he did. And when big bodies break at the worst possible junctures, I usually assume they’ll stay broken.
Some part of me figured he’d quietly retired in those two years of inactivity. Maybe he’d faded out, opted for an inconspicuous exit. An odd asymmetry, because his entrance was one of the most indelible moments in my sports memory. The 2009 U.S. Open final branded itself onto the brain of every budding Federer stan—count me among them—who hoped their guy would string together his sixth in a row, but instead saw this 21-year-old slug him into submission over five sets. It was my first day of college and I was parked in front of a TV in a room full of strangers, rapt, watching my king die in Queens. Seven years later that was just a nice, painful little memory. Then suddenly its antagonist showed up at the Olympics this year and beat the best tennis player in the world.
By then, in Rio, he’d flipped to protagonist: I savored his upset of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in straight sets. I gawked as he beat Rafael Nadal. He’d lose to Murray in the finals, but leave Rio clutching the silver. Then he unspooled an unlikely streak: a quarterfinals appearance back in Flushing, his first ATP title in two years, a little seven-match win streak, a decisive Davis Cup victory for his homeland of Argentina. Some aspects of his aggressive game have changed: glass wrists prevent him from driving his backhand the way he used to, so he now relies on a slice the way a retiree might a cane. But he makes it work. I’ll be rooting for him. It helps that he’s a big doe-eyed jamoke with a booming voice, weeping openly and often, never with schmaltz but always out of disarming gratitude—for getting to play this sport for a living, and for loyalty of all his devotees in blue-and-white. I can’t claim to have been the most loyal of them, but I’m very here now, and I’ll cheer his resurgence in 2017 (so long as he doesn’t run into Fed). - Giri Nathan
There’s no cockier, shit-talking-er, brasher, or more self-assuredly transcendent athlete working today than Conor McGregor. The Irishman is a legitimate superstar, the biggest in the history of the UFC, and he carries himself like he’s God’s gift to us, the peasant mortals who were lucky enough to be born in the same era as him. He throws shit at his opponents and preens in the cage over their prone bodies after he punches them out. All of which is to say, nobody in sports deserved to get the shit kicked out of them more than Conor motherfucking McGregor. And nobody could have been a better deliveryman of that beatdown than the 209's very own, Nate Diaz.
Diaz is every bit as confident as McGregor, but he carries himself completely differently. McGregor wants to rule the world; Diaz just wants to put Stockton on the map. The fight came shortly after McGregor had just won the featherweight championship in just 13 seconds, but instead of turning into another speedbump on McGregor’s path to glory, a hamburger-faced Diaz choked him out and ended up the only one to win against the UFC’s new demigod in 2016 as he ascended to his spot atop the sport. - Patrick Redford