*Editor’s Note: This post was originally scheduled to be published on December 31, but due to personal sickness was delayed until now.
2016 was a crazy year in sports. From exceptional and historic championship events, to the good and bad of the Olympic Games, to saying goodbye to several big names who retired or passed away.
From the best events of the year to the biggest stories, here is a look back at the year that was in 2016:
Best Events of 2016
5. Jul. 14-17: Henrik Stenson wins The Open Championship
The Open at Royal Troon began on Thursday with Phil Mickelson getting hot on the back nine, and eventually facing a putt for a 62, which would have been a record for any major championship. The putt somehow stayed out of the hole, and Mickelson shot 63, becoming the 28th to do so in a major championship.
Swede Henrik Stenson shot 65 on Friday to pull within one of Mickelson, setting the stage for a fantastic weekend duel. Stenson shot 68 Saturday to Mickelson’s 70, giving Stenson a one-shot lead entering the final round.
In the final round, Stenson and Mickelson went back and forth, and Mickelson ended the Open with a bogey-free 65, finishing 17-under par with the best 72 holes he had ever played in a major and 11 shots clear of third place J.B. Holmes. There was only one problem for Lefty: Stenson shot 63, joining Johnny Miller as the only players to shoot the mark in the final round to win a major. Stenson took the lead for good on the 14th hole, birdieing four of the last five holes and 10 in the round to win his first major, beating Mickelson in an Open duel reminiscent of 1977’s “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.
4. Jan. 11: Alabama 45, Clemson 40 (NCAA Football, National Championship Game)
As the clear two best teams in the country fought for the national title, they produced a game that many compared to the legendary USC-Texas Rose Bowl in 2006. The two teams traded the lead throughout the first three quarters, with Alabama getting two rushing touchdowns from Heisman winner Derrick Henry, and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finding former walk-on Hunter Renfrow for two touchdowns.
After Alabama tied the score at 24-24 with 10:34 to go, coach Nick Saban made one of the gutsiest calls of his career, calling for the onside kick, which the Crimson Tide recovered, leading to a touchdown. After Clemson answered with a field goal, Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to give Alabama a 38-27 lead. A Watson-to-Artavis Scott touchdown with 4:40 left pulled Clemson to 38-33, before a long Alabama drive to milk the clock ended with the Tide putting the game away with Henry’s third touchdown.
3. Apr. 4: Villanova 77, North Carolina 74 (NCAA Tournament, National Championship Game)
After the Final Four in Houston saw two less than stellar semifinals, with Villanova beating Oklahoma 95-51 and North Carolina beating Syracuse 83-66 to advance to the championship game, the Wildcats and Tar Heels made up for it with one of the best championship games in NCAA Tournament history.
After North Carolina led 39-34 at halftime and by as many as seven points early in the second half, Villanova came back to tie the score at 44-44 and then take a 67-57 lead with 5:29 left. Then the Tar Heels came back, led by threes from Joel Berry II and Marcus Paige. After getting as close as 72-71, North Carolina trailed 74-71 in the closing seconds when Marcus Paige hit a contested, off-balance, game-tying three with 4.7 seconds left–given the circumstances, one of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen (honestly, because of the degree of difficulty, even more of a clutch shot than the one that happened next).
After a timeout, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Ryan Arcidiacono brought the ball up the floor, setting up Kris Jenkins for an open three that will forever live in basketball lore. Jenkins’ buzzer-beater gave Villanova their second national title (1985) in thrilling fashion, culminating a game CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander called “a thrilling, undeniably heart-stopping, instant classic of a title game.”
2. Jun. 19: Cleveland 93, Golden State 89 (NBA Finals, Game 7)
Game 7 had some fantastic storylines beforehand. The Cavaliers and Warriors were playing a rematch of the 2015 Finals, which had been won by Golden State. The Warriors had reached The Finals by overcoming a 3-1 deficit to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals, then they led Cleveland 3-1 before the Cavaliers fought back to force a Game 7. The Cavaliers were trying to become the first Cleveland pro sports team to win a championship since 1964, led by native son LeBron James, and doing so on the road in Oakland.
The largest lead of the game for either side was seven, which Golden State enjoyed at halftime, and the game saw 11 ties and 20 lead changes. After a Warriors layup by Klay Thompson tied the score at 89 with 4:39 to play, the teams combined to miss 12 consecutive shots, including a phenomenal James block from behind on an Andre Iguodala attempted layup. Kyrie Irving broke the scoring drought with a clutch three, over league MVP Stephen Curry, with 0:53 remaining, and after Curry missed a three, James was fouled hard on a fast break with 0:10 left, staying on the floor for a few moments before hitting one of the two free throws to give Cleveland a 4-point lead, before Curry missed again and time expired, and James fell to the floor in tears as a champion.
The story of LeBron James returning home to Cleveland and winning the city the championship it so desperately wanted was a great story to watch unfold, even as someone who was (mildly) pulling for the Warriors. As the city won its first title in 52 years, ESPN broadcaster Mike Breen proclaimed, “Cleveland is a city of champions again!”
1. Nov. 2: Chi. Cubs 8, Cleveland 7, 10 inn. (World Series, Game 7)
“Game of the Century” is an overused term in the sports world, but leading into just the fifth Game 7 of a World Series since 2001, I said this was legitimately the biggest baseball game in the 21st century thus far. But even with the Cubs coming from down 3-1 to force a Game 7 in a series between teams with 68- and 108-year title droughts and the matchups of Kluber-Hendricks and Francona-Maddon, I wondered if it could possibly live up to the hype. And yet, somehow, it surpassed it.
So many moments from Game 7 were memorable on their own, and together they combined to truly make the greatest baseball game of this century to date, and one of the greatest ever. Dexter Fowler led off the game with a homer for the Cubs, and Javy Baez added one of his own, giving the Cubs a 5-1 lead. The Indians pulled to within 5-3 after two scored on a wild pitch, the first such play in a World Series since 1911. David Ross, in his final career at-bat, homering to make it 6-3. A furious Indians rally against Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman in the 8th, culminating with a game-tying homer by Rajai Davis, the latest in any World Series Game 7.
Nine innings weren’t enough for this classic, and with the game tied 6-6 and going to extra innings, the whole world got to catch its breath with a short rain delay. After a Ben Zobrist go-ahead double, the Cubs took an 8-6 lead to the bottom of the tenth, but the Indians didn’t go down without a fight, scoring off of Cubs rookie Carl Edwards. Mike Montgomery, who had never recorded a save in pro baseball, relieved Edwards with two outs, and got Michael Martinez to hit a soft grounder to third that will become one of the most replayed baseball highlights in history: the final out of the Cubs’ first championship since 1908.
In my post on the game the next day, I summed up Game 7 this way: “The Cubs and their fans have literally waited a lifetime to celebrate winning the World Series. It’s only appropriate that the game of a lifetime put them over the top.”
Jan. 16: Arizona 26, Green Bay 20, OT (NFL Playoffs, Divisional Round)
Jan. 23: Denver 20, New England 18 (NFL Playoffs, AFC Championship)
Feb. 21: Denny Hamlin wins Daytona 500 photo finish
Mar. 18: Northern Iowa 75, Texas 72 (NCAA Tournament, First Round)
Mar. 20: Wisconsin 66, Xavier 63 (NCAA Tournament, Second Round)
Mar. 20: Texas A&M 92, Northern Iowa 88, 2OT (NCAA Tournament, Second Round)
Apr. 7-10: Danny Willett wins The Masters
Jun. 30: Coastal Carolina 4, Arizona 3 (College World Series Championship, Game 3)
Aug. 11-14: Olympic Men’s Golf Competition (G: Justin Rose, S: Henrik Stenson, B: Matt Kuchar)
Sept. 30-Oct. 2: United States wins Ryder Cup
Oct. 1: Tennessee 34, Georgia 31 (NCAA Football)
Oct. 1: Clemson 42, Louisville 36 (NCAA Football)
Oct. 4: Toronto 6, Baltimore 3, 11 inn. (AL Wild Card Game)
Oct. 5: San Francisco 3, N.Y. Mets 0 (NL Wild Card Game)
Oct. 9: Toronto 7, Texas 6, 10 inn. (AL Division Series, Game 3)
Oct. 10: San Francisco 6, Chi. Cubs 5, 13 inn. (NL Division Series, Game 3)
Oct. 13: L.A. Dodgers 4, Washington 3 (NL Division Series, Game 5)
Nov. 12: Pittsburgh 43, Clemson 42 (NCAA Football)
Nov. 20: Jimmie Johnson wins Ford 400 and NASCAR Sprint Cup championship
Nov. 26: Ohio State 30, Michigan 27, 2OT (NCAA Football)
Biggest Stories of 2016
Every year has its fair share of retirements, but it seemed 2016 had more big names saying goodbye than most years. Peyton Manning retired as a Super Bowl champion. David Ortiz was an MVP candidate at age 40 in his farewell. Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final game. David Ross homered in Game 7 of the World Series in his final career at-bat. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira walked away from the New York Yankees. Vin Scully said goodbye after an unfathomable 67-year run as a Dodgers broadcaster. Fellow broadcaster Dick Enberg said “Oh my!” one final time. Tony Stewart won one of the year’s best races at Sonoma as part of his final season. Family man Adam LaRoche walked away from millions after his son was unwelcome in the White Sox clubhouse. The accolades for this list seem endless, and they have given us many moments we’ll never forget.
4. Rio Olympics
Entering the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the host city was a major story, with concerns about the water quality in Rio, trash in the streets, and risk of Zika virus.
Once the games began, there were some excellent performances by the best athletes in the world, including a successful games for the United States team. Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all-time, while fellow swimmer Katie Ledecky was utterly dominant in setting multiple world records. Simone Manuel stunned everyone, becoming the first African-American woman to ever medal in swimming when she won gold in the 100m freestyle. Simone Biles won five gymnastics medals, with four gold, as the “Final Five” obliterated the competition to win gold going away.
Outside the American delegation, Jamaican Usain Bolt finished his career with a third gold in the 100 meter dash. Fiji’s rugby team won gold to score the nation’s first Olympic medal ever. Brit Mo Farah fell down and recovered to defend his gold medal in the 10,000m run. Golf returned to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, with Great Britain’s Justin Rose and South Korea’s Inbee Park winning gold.
There were still some controversies, both within and outside of competition. Shaunae Miller dove across the finish line, and while I wrote I had no problem with it, many did. The water in the diving pool mysteriously turned green. 12-time medalist Ryan Lochte claimed he and three teammates were robbed at gunpoint, before it turned out a drunk Lochte had vandalized a gas station bathroom and fabricated parts of his story.
While the 2016 Summer Olympics were not perfect, but fascinated with these storylines and many more.
3. Cavaliers end Cleveland title drought
The career of LeBron James has created some of the top stories in years past, as the Akron native left his hometown Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat in 2010, and after two titles in Miami, signed back with Cleveland in 2014. After an NBA Finals loss to the Warriors in 2015, the Cavaliers looked destined for another loss to the Warriors in 2016, trailing 3-1, but came from behind to win three straight games, including two on the road, and the title, clinching in a legendary Game 7.
But while this championship was the first for the Cavaliers franchise, this story was about more than just one sport in Cleveland, but all of them, as the city won its first championship in any sport since 1964, ending a drought that led The New York Times to once call Cleveland “the capital of sports heartbreak.”
The Cavaliers fell victim to Michael Jordan playoff buzzer-beaters twice, then lost James in the controversial announcement program “The Decision.” The Browns lost playoff games on a late interception (“Red Right 88”), an infamous fumble (Earnest Byner), and John Elway’s “The Drive,” before leaving town entirely in 1995 (becoming the Baltimore Ravens), only to be reborn as an expansion franchise in 1999. The Indians were two outs away from the 1997 World Series title, before a costly Jose Mesa error led to an extra-innings loss to the Marlins.
The Cavaliers title ended the heartbreak, but may also have started a sustained run of athletic success for the city. While the Browns did go 1-15 in the 2016 season, the Indians reached the World Series, and will have an even better roster in 2017, while the Cavaliers currently have the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference as they try to defend their title.
Many people of influence in all facets of American and global culture passed away in 2016, but the year seemed to especially hit the sports world hard. Muhammad Ali, the boxer who was named Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Century in 1999, died after a long battle with Parkinson’s, while Pat Summitt, the longtime Tennessee women’s basketball coach who is the winningest coach in NCAA history, succumbed to dementia. Arnold Palmer, “the king” of golf, and Jose Fernandez, a young star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died just hours apart on September 25.
The list also includes broadcasting legends Craig Sager, Joe Garagiola and John Saunders, football coaches LaVell Edwards, Dennis Green and Buddy Ryan, former Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam, basketball legends Nate Thurmond and Pearl Washington, NHL Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, baseball trail blazer Monte Irvin, and dirt racing champion Bryan Clauson. 71 people, including 19 players from Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense and numerous other team staff and media, were killed when a plane carrying the team to a championship match in Medellin, Colombia crashed, while only three players survived.
1. Cubs win first World Series since 1908
Entering 2016, it was no secret that the Cubs had a great chance to break their curse of 108 years and finally win the World Series, and before the season I picked them to win. Even still, the way it played out makes this one of the biggest and best sports stories of my lifetime, and one that many veteran baseball writers called the best story they have ever covered.
Coming back from a 3-1 deficit and capturing a thrilling Game 7 to win it all, the Cubs finally rewarded the waiting of their long-suffering fans, some of the most loyal anywhere, with their first championship since 39,466 days before, when Theodore Roosevelt was president. The resulting reactions from jubilant Cubs fans, nearly all of whom were experiencing their first championship, were expectedly emotional, with many brought to joyous, relieved tears.
The North Side rode the monumental triumph–and, in many cases, disbelief–for days after Game 7, including the Cubs’ victory parade and rally two days after the victory, which saw 5 million people–the seventh largest crowd in human history–pay tribute to their baseball heroes, the unit of Cubs who finally ended sports’ most famous championship drought.
After seeing the Cubs end a historic period of futility in such dramatic fashion, and the depth of the celebration that followed in Chicago and throughout the country, I named the Chicago Cubs my 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year.
Honorable Mention (in generically chronological order, with yearlong stories listed first)
Athletes get politically involved (Colin Kaepernick, Curt Schilling, ESPYs cold open, etc)
Player conduct (Draymond Green, Grayson Allen, Vontaze Burfict, etc)
Performance-enhancing drugs (Dee Gordon suspension, al-Jazeera report)
Louisville basketball escort scandal
The Rams relocate to Los Angeles
Baylor football sexual assualt scandal
The end of Deflategate
John Scott voted to NHL All-Star Game, wins MVP
Golden State Warriors set NBA regular-season wins record
Leicester City beats 5000-1 odds to win English Premier League
Kevin Durant signs with Golden State Warriors
Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits out with concussion, Jeff Gordon returns
The resurgence of the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders
Tim Tebow plays baseball, signs with New York Mets
Jimmie Johnson wins 7th title, ties Petty and Earnhardt
New collective bargaining agreements in MLB and NBA
The rebirth of Penn State football
Major college football coaching changes (LSU, Texas)
Tiger Woods’ injury and return
Wake Forest game plans leaked to opponents (WakeyLeaks)