It was such a crazy year in sports that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out on Pottermore that the Chudley Cannons won the British and Irish Quidditch League Cup.
Okay, that will be my last Harry Potter comment. Because this year American sports proved yet again that truth will always be stranger than fiction. 2016 will go down as the most fascinating sports year ever and it’s not even close. And I want to rehash the five main sports championships from this year in the big three sports, in chronological order:
You’re Dixie’s Football Pride, Crimson Tide
I suppose it’s appropriate that in a sports year where significant droughts ended, that it started off with a winner that has now won four of the last seven College Football National Championships, could easily win a fifth in two weeks, and has been THE college football program for the last 80 years (No apologies to Notre Dame whatsoever).
Fireworks led 2016 that warm Monday night in January in Glendale, AZ. I predicted Alabama would beat Clemson 31-30. I was close on margin, but even I still can’t accurately predict scores in college football because I grew up in an era where teams didn’t regularly put up 550 yards and 40 points of offense in a game.
And the 45-40 barnburner was one of the most exciting games I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if it’s one of the best I’ve watched, but it had no shortage of plot twists, bold coaching and NFL athleticism on display. There were five TDs in the fourth quarter alone. Jake Coker got smacked around and still threw for 335 yards. Deshaun Watson had nearly 500 yards of offense by himself. Kevin Dodd was spectacular. O.J. Howard was magnificent. Nick Saban gets another jewel in his coaching crown for turning the game at 24-24 with a brilliant special teams call.
Clemson lost but they still won in some ways, knowing they can tell recruits that they are toe-to-toe with Bama and were an unprecedented onside kick away from likely winning.
Miller, Not Manning
As exciting as was the College Football Playoff championship, the Super Bowl was equally as ugly and boring. It featured one offensive TD drive and a gazillion punts. I’ve already dealt at length with Peyton Manning’s legacy so I won’t go into that here. Plus, it’s not the story of the Super Bowl. Manning wasn’t even mediocre in the game; he was bad. The man of the hour was Von Miller, who was supported quite well by everyone else playing defense for Denver. They trashed Tom Brady pretty good in the AFC Championship and carried the inept offense yet again in the Super Bowl. Harassing Cam Newton all night, it was Miller who bookended the game with two strips of Newton that lead to both of Denver’s touchdowns.
While it was sometimes ugly, it is still a thing of beauty watching a defensive lineman or linebacker destroy an offensive line and disrupt everything. I grew up watching Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White do it and I have no doubt this was a part of the appeal of the movie Waterboy. Von Miller really did look like Bobby Boucher at times, so much that I fully expected him to ask Manning during the postgame if he remembered that time Von Miller showed up at half time and the Mud dogs won the Bourbon Bowl.
Still, the Super Bowl and NFL playoffs were captivating as always and gave us story lines galore. Yet I doubt anyone knew how much better 2016 was going to get.
One Shining Moment Was the Final Moment
I thought the 2016 NCAA Tournament produced a mixed bag. The first round featured the usual bevy of great upsets: 14 S.F Austin over 3 West Virginia, 12 Yale over 5 Baylor, 13 Hawaii over 4 Cal, and the biggest upset prize in first round history: 15 Middle Tennessee St over 2 Michigan St. I personally think this was the biggest because no 2-seed that had ever lost in the first round had as much Final Four and Championship Contender hype as the Spartans. Plus, Michigan St. nearly always outplays their seeding. This was a bizarro world result.
The middle rounds induced tons of yawns, although Syracuse as a ten seed coming back to beat Virginia in the Elite Eight was a real treat and Villanova over Kansas that same round was intense. The two Final Four games gave us the biggest blow-out in Final 4 history (Villanova over Oklahoma by 44) and another blow-out (UNC over Syracuse by 17).
But then the championship redeemed it all. Villanova led UNC by 10 with about 5 minutes to go, 67-57, and I almost went to bed. But I thought about the dozens of times I’ve seen a college basketball team make up that deficit with that time and I stayed up. Boy am I glad I did. UNC came all the way back to tie at 74 with 4.7 seconds left on a double pump clutch three by Marcus Paige. That should have been the ultimate One Shining Moment, but it wasn’t. Kris Jenkins then put his name in March Madness history next to Laettner, Jordan, Keith Smart and Bryce Drew with a way beyond NBA range 3-pointer at the buzzer to win.
“DOUBLE ORDER, SAUTÉED!”
Considering Laettner’s shot was in the Regional Finals and Jordan’s was with 17 seconds left, was this the biggest shot in tournament history? Time will tell1.
The Biggest Collapse since Shooter McGavin Blew a 4-stroke Lead on the Back Nine
Ok, so I”m not really serious about that. I just love this Gameday sign so much:
It was made as a parody reaction to how many times people had talked about Golden St. blowing a 3-1 lead to to Cleveland in the NBA Finals.
I suppose you could call it a choke. There is a case for that. Golden St.’s record setting offense was erased for nearly the final five minutes of Game 7 (that’s not hyperbole; they scored 0 points the last 4:37). GS had 13 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5 and 13 again in the fourth of Game 7. Harrison Barnes literally shot 9% from the floor (2-22) in Games 5 and 6. Draymond Green’s suspension was in part due to his hot head.
Yet this somehow felt different in other ways. In the classic huge comeback debate–did one team win or the other team lose–it feels more like Cleveland won than GS lost. Love him or hate him, Lebron put together a stat line for the ages: 30-11-9 for points, rebounds and assists per game for the series. Nearly a triple double in an epic Finals. He added 2.6 steals per game and 2.3 blocks per game and if you are reading this I doubt I have to elaborate on the block heard round the world in Game 7. I will say this though: It’s been six months and I still don’t think people overreacted to it, as we often do in sports any more. It was an instant legendary play worthy of its accolades2.
Then you have Kyrie Irving’s three with 50 seconds to go. What a shot. Definitely the biggest since Ray Allen in 2013 and on the short list for biggest ever, since it was Game 7. And then you have to credit Cleveland’s defense in the final three games. Now, I know some of you reading this will recall that there was (at least to some people) some shady refereeing at times during this stretch of games. I won’t expound upon that too much, but I will say that people who know basketball best believe that Cleveland was getting away with some pulling and grabbing, especially on the perimeter3.
At the end of the day, the story is that a mega superstar forsook his home for greener pastures, humbled himself to come back and promised them a championship. And after 50+ years of failures in the big three sports–everything from fumbles to blown saves to getting torched repeatedly by Michael Jordan–the man delivered. Any other year Lebron James leading Cleveland in ending their 5-decade long title drought would be the runaway winner for story of the year. But 2016 wasn’t like any other year.
The Eye of the Cubbie
The Cubs won the World Series this year. Let that sink in.
Take hours if you need. Days even.
Has it sunk in yet?
For me it has!
Yes, it happened. It really happened. I watched it. I felt the chill bumps. I cried the tears. I heard the car horns all night.
How do you analyze this? Especially when you’re a fan? Through memories I suppose. What memory will I cherish the most as being integral to the Cubs’ 108-year in the making run to winning the World Series?
Was it finding out that Anthony Rizzo had the Cubs listen to Rocky music and quotes in the clubhouse after going down 3-1 in the World Series?
Was it the HR’s by Fowler, Grandpa and Baez in Game 7?
Was it seeing Schwarber defy the odds and not only play in the World Series but deliver clutch hit after clutch hit?
No, I’m going with the bunt:
“The Bunt.” That’s what it should be called. It’s not but it should be. The play of the playoffs to me. All the way back in Game 4 of the NLCS vs. the Dodgers, Ben Zobrist ended 21 innings of frustration for the Cubs offense (0 runs over 2+ games) by laying down a perfect bunt. The Cubs scored 4 that inning, won the game and didn’t lose again in the series. Here is what I wrote on Facebook that night:
And yes, I think we Cubs fans will look back years from now and be thankful as much for that 40 foot dribbler as any 400 foot HR. Zobrist would end up being World Series MVP and he made an MVP play that night.
The Cubs making and winning the World Series was so significant that I did Facebook Live, which I hadn’t done before and haven’t done since. But it was a truly unique event in the last century of American sports history.
And it made 2016 special. It is only fitting that the Cubs won with the help of Rocky, who to me is the greatest fictional underdog story of our time. And in a year where a European soccer team beat 5,000 to 1 odds to win the Premiere league, and where a man took the weight of an entire city on his shoulders and ended 50 years of sports Hades, it was only fitting that for the last championship be won by the Cubs. Who credited Rocky.
What will 2017 bring? Will the Detroit Lions win it all? Will Alabama finally lose? Will someone other than Golden St. or Cleveland make the NBA Finals? I Don’t know. But next year has a hard act to follow. 2016 was incredible in the truest sense of the word. I’m glad I was alive for it.
- Spoiler: No shot will ever beat Laettner’s. ↩
- Credit has to go to J.R. Smith as well for forcing Iguadala to alter his layup ↩
- Yet you have to still credit Cleveland for getting away with it. Just like you have to credit Baltimore on San Francisco’s final offensive play in Super Bowl XLVII for being aggressive and stopping the score. Cleveland did what they had to do defensively to shake up the Warrior’s picture perfect offense. ↩