Sunday, December 17, 2017
Sports

Has there been a better sports year than 2016? Here's our list of the best of all time

The first 10 months of 2016 have been unparalleled for their bittersweetness: sad in terms of the icons we've lost (Ali, Arnie, Pat Summitt, etc.), but surreal in terms of the sports moments we've witnessed.

While we could do without any more obituaries this year, we can't get enough of the transcendent moments, which have arrived in mesmerizing succession. One could argue that even now — with almost 60 days remaining on the calendar — 2016 stands as the greatest sports year ever.

If there has been a better year, show us. These are the best we've come up with, and '16 stands on the mountaintop:

1. 2016

Where to begin? How 'bout January, when Alabama and Clemson staged a wholly entertaining College Football Playoff title game (a 45-40 Tide win). Then, Peyton Manning added a final flourish to his Hall of Fame career with a Super Bowl triumph, and Villanova created an indelible clip for CBS' March Madness montage with a buzzer-beating win against North Carolina in the NCAA title game. Need more? Okay, LeBron James and his Cleveland supporting cast rallied from a 3-1 deficit to topple would-be juggernaut Golden State in the NBA Finals. Then, the Olympics provided a glorious swan song (we presume) for swimming legend Michael Phelps and a gold-medal performance by the U.S. women's gymnastics team, among other highlights. In motorsports, the Daytona 500 had its closest finish ever (Denny Hamlin by a hood ornament) while a rookie (Alexander Rossi) won at Indy. And did we mention the ongoing celebration Cubs fans are staging on Chicago's North Side?

2. 1980

By itself, the "Miracle on Ice" (U.S. Olympic hockey team's gold-medal run) would catapult 1980 in this conversation, but the year provided more — much more. Lakers rookie Magic Johnson -— starting at center — delivered a legendary Game 6 performance to put away Dr. J and the Sixers in the NBA Finals, Bjorn Borg outlasted John McEnroe in arguably the greatest Wimbledon final ever played, and the Phillies ended 97 years of futility by putting away the Royals in six games in the World Series. Elsewhere, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran gave us one memorial slugfest and one memorial surrender ("No mas").

3. 1969

In what remains the most significant Super Bowl ever, Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed a win over the NFL establishment (aka Colts), then made good on it. But Broadway Joe was hardly the only sports figure to deliver in the year of Woodstock. Rod Laver won tennis' Grand Slam, and Mario Andretti won his first — and only — Indianapolis 500. Later on, the "Miracle Mets," after nearly a decade of putrid baseball, won the World Series; and top-ranked Texas rallied from a 14-0 deficit in the fourth period to edge No. 2 Arkansas, 15-14, in college football's "Game of the Century."

4. 1975

The dawn of disco coincided with the sunset of John Wooden's iconic career. The UCLA basketball coach won his 10th and final NCAA title with a 92-85 triumph against Kentucky in his last game. Two weeks later, Jack Nicklaus clinched his fifth green jacket on the strength of a 40-foot birdie putt on the 70th hole that remains an endearing Masters image. Speaking of endearing images, who can forget Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk willing (and waving) his 12th-inning home run blast to stay inside the left-field foul pole in Game 6 of the World Series? Equally unforgettable: aging warriors Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier leaving every droplet of fortitude they had on a ring floor in Manila. And in terms of social significance, few events can match Arthur Ashe becoming the first (and only) African-American to win the men's singles title at Wimbledon.

5. 1941

Months before the nation went to war, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio spent the summer carving their respective niches in baseball immortality. DiMaggio, of course, hit safely in 56 consecutive games; while Williams went 6-for-8 in a doubleheader on the final day of the regular season for the Red Sox to finish with a .406 average. Williams barely missed the Triple Crown, but a horse named Whirlaway didn't. In what remains a boxing classic, heavyweight champ Joe Louis rallied to knock out Billy Conn in the 13th round; and in Youngstown, Ohio, football officials used a penalty flag for the first time (Legend has it the very next day, Coach Jebediah Saban incurred the first fine for publicly berating officials).

6. 1998

After years of frustration, two revered elder statesmen -— John Elway and Dale Earnhardt — finally reached their respective pinnacles. Elway, in his 15th season as Broncos quarterback, won his first Super Bowl in four tries with a 31-24 win against the Packers. Exactly three weeks later, Earnhardt won his first Daytona 500 — in his 20th attempt — at age 46. In the ensuing months, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staged the most glorious summer home-run duel baseball has known. Granted, the PED scandal ultimately rendered their long-ball derby smudged, but at the time it was surreal.

7. 1988

In Game 1 of the World Series, Dodgers pinch-hitter Kirk Gibson limped to the batter's box and delivered one of the most memorable home runs in franchise history ("I don't believe...what I just saw," Jack Buck told a national TV audience). It wasn't Los Angeles' first triumphant moment of the year: In June, the Lakers became the first NBA team to repeat as world champs in 19 years. Magic, Kareem and Co. had to make room for another legend: Shortly after leading Edmonton to its fourth Stanley Cup title, Wayne Gretzky was dealt to the L.A. Kings in a trade that left all of Canada numb. On the social-importance meter: Doug Williams became the first African-American starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and Steffi Graf became only the third woman to win tennis' Grand Slam. In between, the first night game was staged at Wrigley Field.

Honorable mentions

2004 (Red Sox win their first World Series title in 86 years, Phil Mickelson wins his first golf major at the Masters, UConn becomes first school to win Division I men's and women's basketball national titles in the same year, Michael Phelps wins his first six swimming Olympic gold medals)

1968 (Vince Lombardi wins his last world title at Super Bowl II, Tigers pitcher Denny McLain becomes baseball's last 30-game winner, Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise fists on medal stand in solidarity with Black Freedom Movement, Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming elevates figure skating into nation's consciousness)

1977 (Affirmed wins horse racing's Triple Crown, Reggie Jackson becomes "Mr. October" with three home runs for the Yankees in World Series-clinching Game 6, Bucs top Saints to end NFL-record 26-game losing streak, Janet Guthrie becomes first female Indy 500 qualifier)

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