As usual, sports provided a pleasant distraction from the serious problems and issues of the real world. 2016 ended up being one of the most historic years in sports. It began with the Alabama Crimson Tide dynasty rolling to a fourth National Championship during the Nick Saban era by beating the Clemson Tigers in a thrilling 45-40 title game. For Saban, it was his fifth career National Championship as a head coach. A month later, the Denver Broncos dominated with their defense and grinded their way to a 24-10 Super Bowl 50 win over the Carolina Panthers. For their quarterback Peyton Manning, he earned the rare privilege of riding into the sunset after winning a championship, the second Super Bowl win in his legendary career. In March, the Villanova Wildcats and North Carolina Tar Heels treated us to an epic championship game that culminated in the Wildcats hitting a buzzer beating three point shot to capture the title. In the women’s field, Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut Huskies juggernaut steamrolled to another undefeated season and a fourth consecutive National Championship as Breanna Stewart won a title in every year of her college year. In the NHL, Sydney Crosby led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup win. 2016 was also an Olympic year. Michael Phelps went out in style in his final Olympic Games as he added more to his historic medal count. Similarly, Usain Bolt flashed his brilliance in his final Games as he was as dominant as he has ever been. There were also newcomers to the stage. The U.S. Women’s gymnastics team, also known as the “Final Five” and led by the greatness of Simone Biles, stole the show. In the world of tennis, Serena Williams finally tied Steffi Graf’s Open Record of 22 Career Grand Slam on the majestic Centre Court of Wimbledon. However, two losses in two other Major Finals prevented her from surpassing Graf’s mark in 2016. On the men’s side, Djokovic won the first two Majors of the Year, including the elusive French Open to complete the Career Grand Slam. However, he was upset early in the 3rd Round at Wimbledon then in the Final of the U.S. Open to keep his career Grand Slam total at 12 at the end of 2012. Perhaps, his run at Roger Federer’s record of 17 is going to be more difficult than it previously looked.
Unfortunately, we also lost some legendary giants in sports in 2016. We lost Muhammad Ali, who was the most influential athlete in the 20th Century. He is in the discussion for the greatest boxer of all time. He was definitely the greatest trash talker of all-time. More importantly, his impact on society and larger than life persona actually outweighs his brilliance in the ring. It takes a certain man of integrity and conviction to willingly give up the prime years of his career to stand up for what he felt was right. Pat Summitt was forced to walk away from her sport because of early onset dementia. Tragically, she could not fully enjoy the twilight years of her life before passing away in 2016. However, do not feel sorry for her. She would not want you to. She attacked life with a determination and positive outlook few people have ever shown. She was women’s college basketball greatest pioneer. She transformed the sport into the powerhouse it is today and built a perennial contender and dynasty in Tennessee. Hockey immortal Gordon Howe left us this year. Colorful and inspirational sideline reporter Craig Sager finally succumbed to his long battle against cancer. Superstar pitcher Jose Fernandez left us way too soon as he died suddenly in a boating accident during the prime of his career.
Sports in 2016 will be remembered most for the end of some long droughts. The Cleveland Cavaliers ended the city of Cleveland’s 52 year drought of a professional sports championship. In addition, they did it in epic fashion as they came back from a 3-1 series deficit against a 73 win Golden State Warriors team in the NBA Finals. For Lebron James, he delivered as Cleveland’s home town messiah when he fulfilled his promise to bring northeast Ohio a title. The Cleveland Indians almost ended their 68 World Series title drought and added a second title for Cleveland in 2016. However, fate had other ideas as 2016 will be remembered as…
THE YEAR OF THE CHICAGO CUBS… when they finally ended their 108 year championship drought.
Of course, it would come down to a Game 7 in the World Series for the Chicago Cubs to finally end their 108 year drought. The Cubs led throughout the game and took a 6-3 lead into the bottom of the 8th on the brink of closing out the World Series. However, manager Joe Maddon severely mismanaged and overused closer Aroldis Chapman at the end of the series. Fatigued and on fumes, Chapman surrendered a dramatic game tying 2-run homerun to light hitting Rajaj Davis. Nevertheless, Chapman showed absolute resolve and guts by finishing the 8th inning then returning to the mound to pitch a scoreless 9th inning too. A fateful rain delay allowed the Cubs to rally their team. They scratched two runs out in the top of the 10th and held on in the bottom of the inning for an 8-7 victory.
I will always remember that I was on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu and watching the end of the game at the bar at Roy’s Hawaii. It is one of those sports moments that you remember where you were at.
Honorable Mention: Villanova 77 UNC 74
Game 7 of the NBA Finals would have also been a worthy choice. However, I would like to put my honorable mention as the men’s college basketball NCAA tournament Finals between the Villanova Wildcats and North Carolina Tarheels. Of course, the lasting image will be Kris Jenkins buzzer beating 3 point shot to end the game and win the championship. I will also remember that the Wildcats were beginning to pull away late in the game. However, Roy Williams promised his team that “if they did what I said, they would have a chance to win the game at the end”. They rallied and tied the game when Marcus Paige hit a circus three point shot, which will now be forgotten by history. If Kris Jenkins did not hit his game winner immediately afterwards, I believe the Tar Heels would have won in overtime and Paige’s shot would have been the lasting image of this epic championship game.
- Best Athlete – Michael Phelps, Swimming
Michael Phelps is simply incredible and probably not human. In the 2012 London Olympics, he came out of retirement and did not have a chance to fully train for the Olympic Games. He still won 6 total medals, including 4 gold. At 31 years old, he was supposed to be past his prime in swimming. However, he entered the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games to show the world what he could still do it if he fully trained. Remarkably, he added another 6 medals. 5 of those medals were gold. He proved that he is still the best swimmer on the planet. With his accomplishments in the 2016 Olympics, he ends his career as the most decorated Olympian in history with 28 total medals (23 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze).
- Best Single Game/ Match Performance – Lebron James in Game 7 of the NBA Finals
Lebron James’s performance in the 2016 NBA Final was insane and will be mythic. Once his team fell behind 3-1 in the series, he elevated his game to a level that has never been seen. Never before has a player almost literally had to do everything on both sides of the floor for his team to win. In Game 5, he had 41 points, 16 rebounds, and 7 assists. In Game 6, he had 41 points again to go along with 8 rebounds and 11 assists. In the deciding game 7, Lebron came up big again with a triple double (27 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists). For the series, he averaged 29.7 Points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.3 blocks, and 2.6 steals. He led both teams in all those categories for the series. It was unbelievable that he had the conditioning and energy left at the end of Game 7 to chase down Andre Iguodala and block a layup that would have given Warriors the lead. Instead, Kyrie Irving hit the game winning three point shot in the final minute to break the tie.
Considering all those points above, it still does not tell the full story of Lebron’s mind boggling performance. He did it against a Golden State Warriors team that broke the 1996 Chicago Bulls record for regular season wins with 73 in 2016. In addition, he had the weight of the world on his shoulders with the city of Cleveland looking to him to end their city’s 52 year professional sports title drought. He was the hometown kid who was prophesized to be its savior since before his career started. He bolted to Miami for four years to win two titles. Then, he came back home for unfinished business and actually finished it. In his own words, he is also chasing the “ghost” of Michael Jordan. With every missed opportunity at a championship, his chances of staking his claim as the greatest player of all-time significantly decreases. For all those reasons, he had a lot more pressure than any other player in sports. Nevertheless, he delivered in every way possible. He has nothing else to prove in his career. He demonstrated he is still the best player in the NBA. He is already firmly among the top 5 players of all-time. The only question remaining for the rest of his career is where he ranks among that top 5 when he is ready to call it quits.
- Best Moment – Peyton Manning and Denver Broncos Win Super Bowl 50
Riding into the sunset after winning the championship is a fairy tale ending few legends get. Peyton Manning’s boss, John Elway, got that ending and vowed to do everything in his power to help Peyton do the same. However, Peyton’s 2016 season was less than fairy tale before the ending. His physical skills completely degraded and he regressed to a mediocre quarterback. He lost his job to Brock Osweiler but got it back before the end of the season when the offense struggled under Osweiler. Even though Peyton’s body was no longer willing, his mind was superior enough to guide the offense to run well enough. They made their Super Bowl run and won Super Bowl 50 on the strength of their defense and an all-time great playoff performance by Von Miller.
Ironically, Peyton carried all his teams throughout his career with his prolific offensive production and got carried by his defense to his second career Super Bowl win. It was a well-deserved end for a legendary player who played the quarterback position as well as anyone has ever played it before.
- Most Overhyped Matchup/ Event – Floyd Mayweather vs. Connor McGregor
I am going to go with a fictitious matchup. Every few months, we hear rumblings of a potential Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor fight. The result of a potential match is quite obvious. Mayweather wins in a pure boxing match and McGregor wins in a MMA fight. I do not really buy that there is a realistic chance of it occurring. Both men have been geniuses at promoting themselves and their sport. As a result, I think their trash talk is a publicity stunt. Nevertheless, I would love to watch McGregor annihilate Mayweather in a MMA bout.
- Biggest Upset – Leicester City Wins Premier League
I will not pretend to know much about soccer, known as football everywhere outside of the United States. However, there is no doubt that Leicester City winning the Premier League is one of the most improbable achievements to ever occur in the history of sports. For a game or a small handful of games, I can buy that a professional team has a chance to win a game against anyone. It is highly improbable and borderline impossible for an overwhelming underdog to sustain it over a course of a season to win at the highest level of their sport, such as the Premier League. At the beginning of the season, Leiceister City had 5,000 to 1 odds to win the Premier League. I cannot even comprehend those odds. It is even more difficult for me to understand because I do not follow soccer much. To put things in perspective, the Cleveland Browns had between 175-1 or 200-1 odds to win the Super Bowl entering the 2016 NFL Season. Consequently, the current (1-15) Browns chances of winning the Super Bowl this year were 25 times greater than Leiceister City winning the Premier League. As a result, Leiceister City might have achieved the greatest upset in history so it is definitely the biggest upset in 2016.
- Best Team – Chicago Cubs
I have no doubts about this pick. The Chicago Cubs winning the World Series would be the top story in any year. Nevertheless, this season’s Cubs earned it. They were clearly the best team in the regular season with a baseball best 103 wins. However, that success only gave them more pressure to finally win the World Series and end the 108 year drought. In the first round of the playoffs, they ended the San Francisco Giants even year dynasty (World Series Wins in 2010, 2012, and 2014). In the NLCS, they were blanked by Clayton Kershaw in Game 2 then lost Game 3 to fall down 2-1 in the series. Their offense looked completely lost. In a playoff series, offensive struggles can snowball and the series can end abruptly before a team can fix it (e.g. 2015 NLCS when the New York Mets completely shut down the Cubs in a 4 game sweep). However, they maintained their composure and found their stride as their offense busted out and they won the next 3 games, including beating Kershaw in Game 6, to get to the World Series. In the World Series, they fell behind 3-1 to a gritty yet shorthanded Cleveland Indians. Naturally, the Cubs fans were preparing to wait till next year. The price of Game 5 tickets in Chicago plummeted on the secondary market as they lost hope. However, the Cubs battled back to tie the series then won an epic Game 7.
In spite of impossible expectations from their fans, the Cubs were the best team throughout the season. They met all challenges and adversities encountered in the playoffs. They also overcame head scratching decisions by Joe Maddon in the World Series. As a result, they are clearly my best team in 2016.
- Most Entertaining Athlete – “Final Five” – U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team
The U.S Women’s Gymnastics was known as the “Final Five”: Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, and Madison Kocian. They stole the show at the 2016 Olympics. Their magnificence and precise execution captivated the sports world. They won a U.S. record 9 medals, including 4 individual medals from Biles alone.