2019 was the year of Kawhi Leonard. It was the year of Megan Rapinoe. It was the year of triumphs, comebacks, introductions, and goodbyes. It was the year of celebration, for those parading down the streets of New York City to those commemorating touchdowns in Mississippi. And it was the year of officiating controversy, from New Orleans to Churchill Downs and beyond. As 2019 winds to a close, The Ringer is looking back at its favorite sports moments of the past 12 months. Here, in no particular order, are the 41 that stood out most to our staff.
Tiger Woods Wins the Masters
Megan Schuster: It wouldn’t take much for a stranger off the street to convince me that this moment didn’t actually happen; that it was all some fever dream concocted by my NyQuil-laced brain from the dozens (OK, hundreds) of times I’d imagined a real Tiger comeback. Which is why this was the greatest sports moment of the year—and possibly even the decade.
Woods’s 2019 Masters win was a defining moment for the golfer, not because it was the best victory of his career, or even because it signified the start of his career’s second life (that happened seven months earlier at the 2018 Tour Championship). This win finally linked his decades of experience on the golf course, and the reason(s) he tried to come back at all.
Woods outlasted competitors like Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari by knowing the ins and outs of Augusta National. When Koepka and three of the six players in front of or in Woods’s grouping hit their balls into the water at hole no. 12, Tiger wisely played things safe. And when Molinari knocked a shot off a pine cone at no. 15 and double-bogeyed, Woods didn’t overplay his hand down the stretch. As a result, he earned the first come-from-behind major victory of his career.
The real joy of the moment, though, came after Tiger walked off the green at no. 18. For years, Woods had said that he was playing for his children. Neither of his kids were old enough to remember the last time their dad won a major—Sam was just shy of 1 when Woods took down Rocco Mediate on one leg at the 2008 U.S. Open, and Charlie was not yet born—and he’d flown them out to past events he had a shot at winning, like the 2018 Open Championship. That day in Augusta, Georgia, they were waiting to greet him, hug him, and cry with him as thousands chanted their dad’s name. “I want [my kids] to see Dad do what he’s done most of his life,” Woods said at Carnoustie the year before, “and make them feel and watch what their father can do.” He did that at the Masters. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Kawhi Leonard Bounces Into Playoff Immortality
Rob Mahoney: Sometimes, basketball fans are fortunate enough to watch two Finals contenders slug it out early in the playoffs, lending heavyweight prestige to the opening rounds. The best of those series are clashes of talent and tactics, with some small portion of them lasting the full seven games. Then, in the rarest of cases, that seventh game—against tired legs and crippling familiarity—actually stays close into the waning minutes, even until the final shot. And exactly once, that shot bounced around the rim for so long that the man who attempted it could land and crouch to watch what he had done; the defender who contested it could soar out of bounds with time still to crane back; and some 20,000 fans were left to squirm for four of the longest seconds in NBA history.
With one shot, Kawhi Leonard found his way to basketball immortality. The fact that Leonard has now led two different franchises to the NBA title (with a chance at a third, if all goes well for the Clippers) is unquestionably the greater achievement. The larger body of work is what matters, but it’s the moment that resonates. Lines on a résumé can’t compare to the richness of memory. A shot like this transports you. It creates its own iconography. This isn’t a moment of the year—it’s a play for all time.
The Pass Interference No-Call Heard Round the World
Kevin Clark: There’s been a lot of talk recently about things that define this decade. A song, an episode of a TV show, a movie. For football, the answer is easy. Nothing defines the NFL over the past 10 years quite like the Saints-Rams pass interference no-call, and what it meant.
In January’s NFC championship game, Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman committed blatant pass interference on Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis. The refs did not throw a flag, and New Orleans had to settle for a field goal to go ahead 23-20 with 1:41 remaining. That left the Rams with plenty of time to respond, which they did. They sent the game to overtime, and eventually won 26-23.
There are so many things about this game that encapsulate its era: two bright offensive-minded coaches, two prolific passing attacks, two all-in rosters, two teams fighting for the right to be owned by the Patriots in the Super Bowl. And bad officiating that led to a massive overreaction. Two months after this game, the league changed its rule book to make pass interference reviewable, opening a can of worms it hasn’t yet closed.
I was at this game. The Mercedes-Benz Superdome was the loudest stadium I’ve ever heard for a good chunk of the afternoon. It produced an outcome that illustrated so many things about the state of modern football. And it is still impacting the way the game is played now.
Damian Lillard Waves Goodbye to an Era of OKC Basketball
Kjerstin Johnson: I have watched this particular mashup of Damian Lillard’s buzzer-beater and Kanye West’s “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” so many times that it’s broken my brain. Eight months after I first watched the play on a shitty laptop stream in my Portland apartment, I now cannot picture the shot in my mind’s eye without hearing the tension-filled synth and the rising voices building toward Dame’s audacious release. As Moda Center—20,000 pairs of eyes glued to the backboard—erupts behind Lillard, he turns calmly, stares stone-faced into the camera, and then waves farewell to OKC, his arm not even lowered before he’s mobbed on the court.
Just in case no one had given Dame the Father Stretch My Hands treatment yet pic.twitter.com/3begVfWmYN— Jackie Bamberger (@jackie_bam) April 27, 2019
The shot not only ended this playoff series, but effectively the Thunder as we knew them; Russell Westbrook and Paul George were traded in July. The Blazers, meanwhile, clawed past the Nuggets to advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2000, where they were swept by the Warriors—perhaps the final casualty of the Golden State dynasty.
Yet this shot still hangs over Blazers fans like a banner in an arena. While writing this, I felt my chest seize up just looking at numbers on a computer screen. Dame was 37 feet from the rim. Portland was down 15 points with seven minutes left. He released the ball with 0.4 seconds left. Regardless of whether Dame’s dagger still plays like a short film for you, you can’t deny that it was a work of art.
Megan Rapinoe Strikes a Pose
Conor Nevins: The goal, of course, was important, but it’s the celebration that we remember most.
Somehow, Megan Rapinoe’s low, in-swinging cross evaded a touch from the sea of bodies swarming the front of the goal. After the ball hit the back of the net to give the Americans a 1-0 lead, Rapinoe responded by turning to the crowd, with a wry smile and arms outstretched, in a pose that seemed to ask: Are you not entertained? Of course we were entertained. The goal was the first of two Rapinoe scored in the U.S.’s 2-1 quarterfinal win over France. The Americans went on to win their second straight World Cup in dominant fashion. And throughout the tournament, both on and off the field, we couldn’t take our eyes off of Rapinoe, the unabashedly gay midfielder with pink hair and a penchant for saying whatever is on her mind. Her reaction to that goal was defiant, playful, and triumphant—all the qualities that came to define the U.S. women’s national team and Rapinoe, its fearless captain.
In the summer of 2019, Rapinoe was a meme, a mood, and the face of a movement. “I’m not going to the fucking White House,” she said before the tournament when asked whether she would accept an invitation if the U.S. won. She’s been an outspoken critic of the president as well as of U.S. Soccer. She joined her teammates in a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation over unequal pay and unequal working conditions. (A federal judge granted the players class status in November.)
On December 2, Rapinoe won the Ballon d’Or, soccer’s most prestigious award given annually to the world’s best player, adding to the hardware she collected at the World Cup: the Golden Boot, given to the tournament’s top scorer, and the Golden Ball, to its top player. Such individual honors are well deserved for a player with 160 appearances for the national team. This year was validation of Rapinoe’s standing as one of the best players to ever wear the U.S. shirt. After the 2015 World Cup win, Rapinoe was asked on SportsCenter to write one word on a whiteboard to describe her. “GAAAAY” she scribbled, with a smile and a laugh. Those who saw her in France might offer an alternative: GOAT.
The USWNT Victory Parade Becomes a Rally
Julie Kliegman: Following a month of utter dominance in France, the USWNT returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City’s Canyon of Heroes. As festive as the scenery was, the players seemed more focused on a win they haven’t yet notched: equal pay. After filing a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer in March, the women have been relentless in advocating for themselves. On parade day, that took the form of Allie Long chewing up the lawsuit while Ashlyn Harris yelled, “Pay us, bitch.”
“Our lawsuit is in the fucking trees. Pay us, bitch.”— Lindsay Gibbs (@linzsports) July 10, 2019
My god this is legendary. pic.twitter.com/qT5OPedWO0
While U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro spoke, mispronouncing Megan Rapinoe’s name in the process, “equal pay” chants erupted, forcing him to pause. Here’s to what will be the best, most long overdue sports moment of 2020: equal pay and working conditions for a group of badass, überathletic women with four stars to their name.
Liverpool Overturns a Three-Goal Champions League Deficit Against Barcelona
Brian Phillips: In retrospect, the most surprising thing might have been that Barcelona was up 3-0 on Liverpool in the first place. Certainly after everything that followed this match—Liverpool winning the Champions League and then dominating the early stages of the 2019-20 Premier League season to the point that even Pep Guardiola called the team the best in the world—the notion that the Reds could beat the unholy hell out of a slightly off-brand iteration of FC Barcelona no longer seems so far fetched. Yes, Barcelona ran away with La Liga last year, but that said more about Real Madrid’s post-Ronaldo directionlessness than anything else. Not even Leo Messi would argue that this was a vintage Blaugrana side. Maybe it was Liverpool’s obliterating first-leg loss in Spain that should have shocked us, not the historic second-leg comeback at Anfield.
All I can say is that it did not feel that way at the time. At the time, for as much fun as Jürgen Klopp’s crew was to watch, Liverpool seemed like a lot of English clubs in the Champions League—plucky but unproven, oddly weaker than the global supremacy of the Premier League would suggest, and doomed to be crushed by an old-school European power. Talismanic striker Mohamed Salah was out for Liverpool with an injury. Barcelona had defined an entire generation of world soccer, as had Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time. Unlike Salah, Messi was playing. And no club had overturned a 3-0 first-leg deficit in the Champions League semis since Barcelona did it to Gothenburg 33 years ago.
So when the goals started coming, the first thing you registered was not a sense of probabilities righting themselves. It was not even the sense of an era changing before your eyes. It was just amazement. Divock Origi scored from close range in the seventh minute. Georginio Wijnaldum added two more in the 122 seconds after halftime. After that—I vaguely remember watching through a haze of stars—it was like waiting for the last cherry to clock home in a surreally slow and high-stakes slot machine. And when it finally did, via Origi’s goal from a corner in the 79th minute, it came with the face-tingling certainty that you’d just witnessed the impossible, which is one of the best feelings sports can give you even when you know it’s not strictly true. There was Salah dancing on the pitch; there was the Anfield crowd singing like thunder. It was a moment in the purest sense: As it was happening, the sheer joy of its happening seemed to transcend any thought of what it would lead to or what it meant.
Carlos Correa and José Altuve Walk Off the Yankees
Donnie Kwak: As a born-again baseball fan this season (thanks, Tommy!), I quickly realized that I was way out of the loop on the modern MLB landscape. (Marcus Semien? Mike Soroka? Who?) But one baseball axiom from my childhood has remained unchanged: Fuck the Yankees.
So it was with great, unbridled joy that I witnessed the Astros hit not one, but two walk-off homers to fell the Bombers in the span of one glorious week in October. Both devastating dongs were highly GIFable. First was Carlos Correa’s opposite-field blast in the 11th inning of Game 2, punctuated by a perfectly executed bat drop and ear-cup.
Then minimonster José Altuve crushed a two-run jack to end the series in Game 6, immediately transforming Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman into the living embodiment of the “This Is Fine” meme.
Houston, of course, self-destructed by month’s end. Now that I’m all caught up on MLB, I’ve learned a new axiom: Fuck the Astros, too.
Howie Kendrick Becomes a Game 7 God
Ben Lindbergh: Howie Kendrick’s go-ahead home run in the seventh inning of World Series Game 7, which boosted the eventually victorious Nationals’ win expectancy from 29.5 percent up to 64.2, was the biggest hit of this MLB season. It would have been the biggest hit of most seasons: By championship win probability added, it was the 10th-biggest hit of all time, and the third-most momentous of the wild-card era, behind only Tony Womack’s game-tying double off Mariano Rivera in the 2001 World Series and Rajai Davis’s game-tying two-run shot off of Aroldis Chapman in the 2016 World Series. Any late-inning, lead-changing play in Game 7 is bound to be unforgettable, but three things made Kendrick’s blast especially legendary.
HOWIE KENDRICK FOR THE LEAD #WorldSeries— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 31, 2019
The first is who hit it: the 36-year-old Kendrick, who missed most of 2018 with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Kendrick, who made only $4 million in 2019, recovered from surgery to rake during the regular season—he hit roughly as well as Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon in part-time play—then launched multiple huge homers in October, including the decisive slam in NLDS Game 5.
The second is how he hit it: Kendrick delivered against Will Harris, one of the most reliable relievers of the past several seasons. Harris threw a good pitch, a low-and-away cutter that almost never gets clubbed for a homer, and Kendrick, who rarely punishes pitches in that region, sliced it off the foul pole, reminding us how easily baseball championships can be dictated by improbable events. Kendrick was the hero, but Harris, who was in tears after the game, didn’t deserve to be the goat.
Yellow paint from impact on the foul pole screen can be seen across the ball’s vertical seam. https://t.co/lVTjJJbxTF— Jon Shestakofsky (@Shesta_HOF) October 31, 2019
The third is what we learned weeks after the series: The Astros were sign-stealing cheaters in 2017, and possibly beyond. For as bad as the sign-stealing scandal has been for baseball, it would have been a bigger embarrassment if the Astros, fresh off the shameful Brandon Taubman debacle, had been celebrating a second championship as the damning new details emerged. Kendrick’s clutch homer not only fueled a feel-good, comeback victory for an underdog franchise’s first title; it also saved the sport from another November parade featuring baseball’s biggest heels.
Zion Williamson Busts Through His Shoe and the Sports Content Machine
Katie Baker: The mood at tipoff of the Duke–North Carolina basketball game on February 20 felt like something out of the opening scene of a Brian de Palma heist film, all kinetic energy and potential disaster, a universe about to collapse on itself. Tickets had changed hands for Super Bowl prices. President Obama was in the building. So was Zion Williamson, the 6-foot-6, 284-pound freshman phenom and presumptive top NBA draft pick who had been basketball’s pride and joy ever since he was a tween posting videos of himself dunking.
ZION BUSTED THROUGH HIS SHOE @ZionW32 (via @theACCDN) pic.twitter.com/GQXJHgTZvY— Overtime (@overtime) February 21, 2019
Thirty-three seconds into the game, Williamson fell to the floor. His big foot had busted through his Duke-colored Nike, tearing the very fabric of the cosmos along with the seam. What ensued wasn’t just a case of waiting anxiously for an athlete’s injury prognosis, or of retweeting ESPN footage of Obama’s reaction. Like a black hole, the rip in Williamson’s shoe created its own gravitational vortex, sucking in all matters around it. From Popular Mechanics to Knicks fans to Wall Street, everyone had an angle in the days to come. This was the biggest story in college basketball and the NBA.
LeBron James tweeted prayer hands; Donovan Mitchell tweeted about unpaid student-athlete labor. Fans feared that Williamson would never play for Duke again, or demanded that he shouldn’t. Nike sent an emergency delegation first to Durham, and then to China. (For the company, such headlines were practically benign in a year that also involved the CEO’s retirement, an extortion attempt by Michael Avenatti, and allegations that the company was doping, abusive, and corrupt.) But in typical 2019 fashion, the entire frenzy receded almost as quickly as it had risen, leaving only scattered debris.
Williamson returned to the Blue Devils in March, wearing new Nikes. “The shoes were incredible,” he said. “I want to thank Nike for making these.” He went first in the NBA draft, opted for knee surgery in October, and has yet to play a regular-season game. He also signed a $75 million deal with Nike’s Jordan brand. It’s gotta be the shoes, as they say.
Kyle Guy and Virginia Get the Ultimate Redemption
Danny Heifetz: “Pressure comes from thinking too much about the future or past so there can be such [a] thing as no pressure if you just be where your feet are.” Virginia guard Kyle Guy wrote those words in an April 2018 Facebook post, after the no. 1 overall seed Cavaliers lost to no. 16 seed UMBC in the biggest college basketball upset of all time. Guy, an All-American and the 2018 ACC tournament MVP, also wrote that he was on medication for anxiety attacks he’d experienced throughout that campaign, but said that he had kept it a secret because he “didn’t want to be viewed as weak.”
One year later, Guy’s feet were at the free throw line of a Final Four game against Auburn with 0.6 seconds left. Moments earlier, Guy had drilled a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 61-60. On the next possession, he was fouled on a 3-point attempt and stepped to the line with some serious stakes. Two free throws would send the game to overtime. Three would send the Hoos to the national championship game.
Guy sank the first one without hesitation. Then he hit the second. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl called a timeout to try to ice him before the third, but it made no difference: Guy made that too. He sent the Cavs to the championship, where they edged Texas Tech to claim the first national title in school history, just one year after Virginia was the laughing stock of the sport.
Guy never looked down before those shots. He knew exactly where he was.
The Larry O’Brien Trophy Goes to the North ...
Daniel Chin: Raptors president Masai Ujiri took a massive gamble in July 2018, when he traded away franchise icon and fan favorite DeMar DeRozan for an injury-riddled star likely (and eventually) bound for Los Angeles. But Ujiri’s bet paid off in full, as Kawhi Leonard delivered the Raptors their first NBA championship and Toronto its first major pro title in 26 years.
Kawhi did leave in the end, but not before giving the North one of the most captivating postseason runs in recent memory. There was the four-bounce buzzer-beater to take down the Sixers; there was the masterful performance on both ends to topple MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. With LeBronto finally freed from the King’s chokehold over the East, the Raptors battled their way to their first Finals and defeated the Warriors in six games. The Claw didn’t do it alone, either. Pascal Siakam capped his Most Improved Player campaign with a stellar playoff run, Fred VanVleet brought late-game heroics, and Kyle Lowry silenced his critics to end years of postseason sadness.
Kawhi’s one-hit wonder with the Raptors effectively ended the Warriors’ dynasty. And it made this forever true: Jeremy Lin is an NBA champion.
… Then Kawhi Completes a Power Play Unlike Any Other
Dan Devine: The most significant change to the NBA in 2019 came in the first week of July, in the middle of the night, hours after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake rocked the West Coast. It’s the kind of thing your editor would chop out of your lede as being A Bit Much. It also might be, for better or worse, the perfect encapsulation of where the league finds itself right now.
The NBA started naming a Finals MVP in 1969. In 50 years, no recipient had ever left the team with which he’d just won the title to go play for another squad. But rather than hew to a half-century of history, Kawhi Leonard chose to change … well, everything?
Three weeks and three days after delivering the Raptors their first NBA championship, Kawhi—load manager, MVP eraser, dynasty killer—decided to head home and try to do the same for the Clippers. That, by itself, would have been a massive NBA moment. That Leonard did so while also bringing with him Paul George, another game-breaking wing fresh off third-place finishes in both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting, represented one of the most stunning power plays in NBA history.
That Leonard did this while only committing to the Clips for two seasons—essentially forcing Steve Ballmer and Co. to keep the pedal slammed to the metal in pursuit of a championship—marked him as arguably the league’s most powerful player, in a very different way and to a much greater degree than his on-court postseason victories had done less than a month earlier. It also underscored the state of the contemporary NBA, a 365-day-a-year league in which everybody is constantly on the clock, and in which the wildest, most notable, most status-quo-shifting events increasingly seem to happen off the court.
Magic Johnson Calls It Quits
Paolo Uggetti: Job-quitting scenes in movies and TV shows are loud and dramatic. There is usually buildup. There’s always an explosion. But when Magic Johnson said “My turn” to a Lakers PR official following Luke Walton’s pregame press conference on the final night of the 2018-19 regular season, literally no one knew that he was about to quit. Not the media who crowded around him to hear him speak unexpectedly. Not LeBron James. Not even his boss.
You know what happened next, but it bears repeating because it remains so surreal: Johnson walked around Staples Center looking for Jeanie Buss. He gave two or three more impromptu interviews in the bowels of the arena and doled out hugs like he was not just saying goodbye for now, but forever. (He, of course, was back for a game last week.) It was like a player’s seasonlong farewell tour squeezed into one uncomfortable, hilarious hour. Among the reasons he gave for quitting was that he couldn’t tweet about other players without getting fined. It was an SNL sketch come to life.
In Magic’s defense, it seems like every party involved won in the end. He’s now out here tweeting lists of his top 16 MVP candidates (featuring 17 players) and dishing out game recaps like the morning paper. The Lakers signed Anthony Davis, hired a new coach, and have turned things around after missing the playoffs last season. If the Lakers do win the title this season, I hope that the moment when one of the franchise’s most famous figures said “Thanks, but no thanks” will be included in the video montage. If not, at least Magic will be able to tweet about it.
Klay Thompson Turns Around in the Tunnel
Justin Sayles: The death of a dynasty can take on many forms. It can happen in fits and starts, like the protracted end to the Patriots’ run that we’re currently watching. It can come suddenly, like the abrupt closure to the Cowboys’ ’90s dominance. Or, if you’re lucky, it can come via a perfect sendoff, like Michael Jordan’s game-winner in 1998. It can be triumphant, or difficult to watch, or unexpected, but rarely can it be all three. Klay Thompson’s free throws in Game 6 of the NBA Finals managed to hit all those notes while giving a fitting end to the greatest basketball dynasty of the 21st century.
The Golden State Warriors, winners of three titles in four years and owners of the greatest regular season in league history, were on the ropes: Down three games to two to the Raptors, they were playing without Kevin Durant, who had been lost to a ruptured Achilles in Game 5. Thompson had pulled his hamstring earlier in the series, and other Warriors were playing through injuries, but here they were, up 83-80 in the third quarter. Klay got the ball on a fast break and went to dunk it when he was met at the rim by Danny Green, who was whistled for the foul. Thompson landed awkwardly and grabbed his left knee, writhing in pain with what was later diagnosed as a torn ACL. He left the court with the help of the medical staff.
His night could have ended there and it would’ve been a heartbreaking visual: a historically great player hobbling down a tunnel and taking his team’s chances with him. Instead, someone told Thompson that he had to take the free throws if he wanted to return to the game. Without a second thought, he turned around and hobbled to the floor, emerging from the tunnel to rapturous applause. He promptly made both shots and hustled back on defense as if there weren’t a question of whether he’d continue.
That would be the end of Klay’s night, and possibly the Warriors’ reign. Golden State went on to lose that game and the title to Toronto. In July, it lost Durant to the Nets, and this season it lost Steph Curry to a broken hand. We’re no longer celebrating the Warriors’ accomplishments; we’re tracking their lottery odds.
It all speaks to the fleeting nature of excellence. No matter how permanent something seems, it all comes to an end. But may we be remembered for going out with our heads held high, whether we see the end coming or not.
The Lamar Jackson NFL Revolution Begins
Tyler Tynes: The first touchdown was simple: a short spiral to Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who broke a tackle and raced to the end zone barely five minutes into the first quarter of Week 1. The second was a statement: Lamar Jackson stood behind his own 10-yard line and uncorked a bomb 47 yards downfield for another score. He’d do this again after the second quarter started, hurling a fastball to Willie Snead for six. The afternoon became a revelation, the first step in a blossoming MVP campaign.
The day ended with a 59-10 rout in Miami. Jackson threw five touchdowns over 20 throws and compiled a perfect passer rating. He not only torched the Dolphins, but also showed that any larger questions about his future as a quarterback in this league were wrong, disingenuous, or both. Earlier this summer, I watched Jackson practice in the blazing heat outside Baltimore and knew he could become something special, someone who would achieve the dreams he’d held since he was a high schooler in South Florida.
This year, Lamar has arrived, and he is prepared to get everything that is his. The game against the Dolphins was just a coming-out party. A taste of what this black gunslinger would show the world. My, my, was it ever so sweet.
And So Does the Joe Burrow College Football Takeover
Andrew Gruttadaro: In early September, LSU traveled to Texas for one of the marquee nonconference matchups of the season. With less than three minutes to play in the fourth quarter and LSU up by 14, Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow turned to the Longhorns crowd and, in the most perfectly disrespectful way possible, said good fucking night.
Just before this wave—part beauty pageant brag, mostly middle finger menace—Burrow had put a Texas comeback to bed by connecting with Justin Jefferson on a 61-yard touchdown. The play was unbelievable at the time: Two Longhorns defensive linemen were closing in on Burrow just as he stepped up in a crowded pocket on a third-and-17. He did a weird sort of hop before delivering the ball to a crossing Jefferson, who did the rest. It seemed certain to be a game-changing sack; instead, Burrow made magic. It was a sign that, for the first time in more than a decade, LSU had an actual quarterback.
Months later, that play can reasonably seen as a harbinger of Burrow’s rise from transfer afterthought to Heisman front-runner, and of LSU’s shocking offensive explosion in a dominant 13-0 season. And that wave is Burrow in a nutshell—slightly unreasonable, deeply savage, and entirely earned.
Gronk Goes Out As a Champion
Alan Siegel: Rob Gronkowski has always seemed like a chuggable antidote to the dourness poisoning the NFL. So after watching the 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end labor through what turned out to be his final season (he played through 2018 with a bulging disc in his back and later said that he was in tears after New England won its sixth championship because of a painful quad injury), I found it especially satisfying to see him produce one more spectacular highlight. Facing a second-and-3 at the Rams’ 31-yard line in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII, the Patriots called “Hoss Y Juke” for the third time in a row. Gronk took off on a seam route and made a typically balletic diving catch at the 2 to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
Doesn't get more clutch than this.— NFL (@NFL) March 25, 2019
The last catch of @RobGronkowski's career! pic.twitter.com/PXgAxDO48H
It was his last reception as a pro. For his sake, I hope it stays that way.
Dirk Caps His Career As a Dallas Legend
David Lara: No athlete this century matters more to Dallas than Dirk Nowitzki. He brought this city a championship. He was the face of the Mavericks for 21 straight years. And his final home game was a fitting tribute to all of the joy he brought fans during his remarkable NBA career.
He finished with 30 points and eight rebounds in a 120-109 win over the Suns. Every 3 was celebrated like a game-winner; every time he touched the ball the American Airlines Center went into a frenzy. He even dunked! For a game with virtually no stakes, it was mesmerizing, overwhelming, and beautiful all at once. Long live the signature fadeaway.
Controversy and History at Churchill Downs
Haley O’Shaughnessy: The Kentucky Derby is a majestic, enduring institution, though the long history of horse racing leaves few firsts to be achieved. Except, apparently, in the event’s 145th running.
The finish wasn’t close. Maximum Security, undoubtedly the best horse in the race, crossed under the wire a full length and a half ahead of Country Horse, the runner-up. But upon review, officials found that Maximum Security had pulled an illegal move by swerving into the path of another horse, War of Will, on the final turn. As a result, for the first time in Kentucky Derby history, the winner was disqualified on site.
It was one of the most controversial decisions Churchill Downs had ever seen. There was moral outrage; there was monetary outrage. Country Horse’s odds to win were 65-to-1. He was the second-longest shot on the track that day. (Those 65-to-1 odds also made Country Horse the second-biggest underdog to ever win the derby. The biggest was Donerail, with 91-1 odds, in 1913. Remember that one? Me too.)
The betting implications were enormous. A whopping $9 million was lost because of this ruling. But consider the consolation: History was made!
Clemson Breaks Alabama in the National Title Game
Shaker Samman: I will not claim to have an encyclopedic knowledge of college football history. There are things I missed simply by not being born in the 19th century. Nonetheless, history repeats itself, and I’ve followed the sport long enough to see most possible permutations of outcomes. That’s what made the national championship game in January so shocking. I did not, at any point, expect a season to end with Alabama getting pantsed.
Bama held a 16-14 lead just 42 seconds into the second quarter of January’s matchup against Clemson, a clash between two undefeated teams vying to become the first 15-0 squad since 1897 and lay legitimate claim to the title of “Best Team Ever.” Over the ensuing 44 minutes and 18 seconds, the Tigers outscored the Crimson Tide 30-0. Bama’s three-headed rushing hydra of Najee Harris, Joshua Jacobs, and Damien Harris faltered, wunderkind Tua Tagovailoa threw two interceptions, and Nick Saban ran a fake field goal on fourth-and-6 in which he asked third-string QB Mac Jones to run at the best defensive line in decades … with only his kicker as a lead blocker.
Dabo Swinney, Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, and those big burly linemen didn’t just beat the Tide. They broke them. And they did so in a manner that still doesn’t seem real. Normally when Alabama loses, it’s an exercise in absurdity: Johnny Football does Johnny Football things, or Deshaun Watson throws an inch-perfect pass with seconds left on the clock, or Chris Davis Jr. runs a missed field goal back 109 yards. This was not a loss made possible by chance. This was an ass-kicking.
The Ole Miss Piss Miss Defines Rivalry Weekend
Rodger Sherman: So many great sports moments are the same—a great player uses his best move to win the game! An improbable play happens at a critical time! A team does something it hasn’t done in years!
But I have never seen anything like the end of the 2019 Egg Bowl rivalry game between Ole Miss and Mississippi State—a.k.a. the Ole Miss Piss Miss. Rebels receiver Elijah Moore scored a touchdown that cut the deficit to 21-20, and celebrated by pretending to be a dog peeing on Mississippi State’s field. That resulted in a penalty because, well, you can’t pretend to pee on your opponent’s field. This bumped the extra point back, and it was missed. Ole Miss lost and fired its coach mere days later.
2019 featured trademark performances by superstars, incredible highlights, and historic victories. It also featured a player losing his team the biggest game of the year because he couldn’t resist the urge to fake urinate. This is the moment of the year, and nothing else comes close.
Ja Morant Embraces His March Moment
J. Kyle Mann: Before the 2019 NCAA tournament, Ja Morant was the basketball equivalent of an indie band with an unusually great ear for mainstream pop. One of those talents who made you fervently shake their hands after the show and ask, Why are you playing on this small stage in Evansville, Indiana? What are you doing here? Everywhere Morant went, Murray State’s midmajor circus packed arenas and dropped bangers.
The dunks had gotten the attention of the wider basketball world, but they’d almost become a distraction from the more exciting truth: Ja could really play. Morant’s triple-double decimation (17 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds) of Marquette during an 83-64 rout on March 21 was his version of playing a life-changing performance at the perfect moment. This was his Ed Sullivan Show set.
The trademark big finishes were there—Joey Hauser probably sees Morant cutting backdoor in his nightmares—and so were the brilliant passes and total game command. One-handed lobs on the money, beautiful lefty skips, improbable kick-outs for 3. Morant’s display was gloriously complete and seemingly effortless.
I find “Hello world, I’m about to be a big part of your life” moments to be wildly fun, because in many cases they provide a could-be superstar with the chance to flex something that special talents often have: a sense for the big moment and the moxie to seize it. Leading up to this game, I believed that Morant might have this in him. After the game, I knew.
The Clippers Complete a Comeback for the Ages
Isaac Lee: Some narratives are just irresistible. An underdog prevailing over a favorite is one of them. And as far as underdog narratives go, few 2019 moments were more delightful than one from the night of April 15, when the Los Angeles Clippers erased a 31-point deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 of their first-round NBA playoff matchup.
Before the series, most people had predicted that the Clippers would be swept. After all, the Warriors had a starting lineup featuring two MVPs (Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant) and three current and former All-Stars (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and DeMarcus Cousins). They weren’t just the Galactic Empire; they were the Galactic Empire with five Darth Vaders. By comparison, the Clips had no stars, little firepower, an exiguous fan base. Golden State cruised to a 121-104 victory in Game 1 and raced to a massive lead in Game 2.
But then the Clippers blew up the Death Star. Lou Williams carried the team on offense and Pat Beverley clamped down on defense. Montrezl Harrell torpedoed through the Warriors’ length and Danilo Gallinari scored from everywhere. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet made timely plays on crucial possessions. L.A. chipped away at the gap, point by point, and then dramatically tied the game with 1:10 to go in the fourth. After the Warriors missed a few 3s and Harrell hit a pair of free throws, the biggest comeback in NBA history was complete. The final score: 135-131. And this was the team that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George would later join.
The Angels Throw a No-Hitter for Tyler Skaggs
Ben Glicksman: The word fate is often used in sports. So often, in fact, that it’s become an integral part of the sports lexicon. Maybe that’s because it’s easier for fans and athletes to blame higher powers for a given outcome than it is to rationalize what really happened. But maybe sports and the supernatural are intertwined, because how else are we supposed to make sense of what transpired on July 12?
Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs died of a drug overdose on July 1. It was one of the most crushing stories of the year, and has become especially troubling given the reports that have come out in the case since. Skaggs was 27 years old, beloved in the team’s clubhouse, with a dazzling four-seamer and a left arm full of potential. And then, in a blink, he wasn’t.
The Angels played their first home game in Anaheim about a week and a half after his passing. Tyler’s mom, Debbie, threw out the first pitch, and all of the players wore no. 45 in Tyler’s honor. That evening’s matchup against the Mariners was secondary to the person to whom everyone was paying tribute. That is, up until the matchup itself became the tribute.
Taylor Cole and Felix Peña combined to throw a no-hitter. It was the 11th in Angels franchise history, the same number that Skaggs wore in high school. Mike Trout opened the scoring with a 454-foot homer—Skaggs, remember, wore no. 45 in the majors—and the team put up seven runs in the first inning of an eventual 13-0 final. Skaggs’s birthday: July 13.
After recording the final out, the Angels laid all of their jerseys atop the mound in a scene that’s still overwhelming to watch. Try to replay this clip without immediately choking up.
It’s the type of stuff that feels like fiction. There can’t be that many coincides. Unless, of course, coincidence had no hand in it at all.
Kumar Rocker Delivers the Postseason Pitching Performance of the Year
Michael Baumann: Players like Kumar Rocker don’t make it to campus much. A high school pitcher from Georgia once floated as a top-10 pick in the MLB draft, Rocker fell all the way to the 38th round in 2018 when no team was willing to meet his bonus demands, and landed at Vanderbilt, a school that develops pitchers as well as any in the country. That’s how the Commodores managed to send the 6-foot-4, 255-pound teenager to the mound in a win-or-go-home game against Duke in the NCAA tournament, and how Rocker responded by throwing a 19-strikeout no-hitter. It was the eighth individual no-hitter in NCAA tournament history, and the first since 1960 to come that late in the event.
It should come as no surprise that a player so big, the son of an NFL lineman, can throw 97 miles an hour. But velocity isn’t everything, even at the college level. The way Rocker gets his changeup and slider to fall out of the sky makes him seem like the god of gravity. And every time a Duke hitter swung and missed at a ball that ended up bouncing off the turf, he stomped, kicked, jumped, or shouted at the opposing dugout, a human volcano spewing intensity indiscriminately into the Nashville night. With all due respect to the marvelous work Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg put forth during the MLB playoffs, this was the best—and the most fun—postseason pitching performance of 2019.
Vanderbilt went on to win the national championship, and Rocker took home College World Series Most Outstanding Player honors, as well as D1Baseball’s national freshman of the year award. Now he has two more seasons at Vandy to find a way to top that.
Max Scherzer Throws a Gem With a Busted Face
Claire McNear: Through 12 years in the majors, Max Scherzer has earned the nickname “Mad Max.” This summer, he took things even further than usual.
Max Scherzer is starting a day after breaking his nose.— F.P. Jr. (@Franky_P_) June 19, 2019
I have not seen a more intimidating image in my entire time on Earth. pic.twitter.com/m8NpYDU20e
On June 18, Scherzer was in the midst of batting practice when a bunt ricocheted off his bat and hit him square in the face, breaking his nose. A day later, instead of very reasonably passing on his scheduled start against the Phillies, he took the mound with a black eye. And he threw a gem: seven innings with 10 strikeouts and zero earned runs, putting the Nats up 2-0 in their series against a divisional rival and pushing the eventual World Series winners toward a wild-card berth. It was gruesome as all hell. And it was incredible.
Andy Ruiz Jr. Stuns Anthony Joshua and the Boxing Universe
Chris Almeida: Anthony Joshua—the unified heavyweight champion of the world, a maybe-historically great boxer, and definitely a great creation of boxing’s mythmaking machine—looks like the perfect athlete. He looks like Michelangelo’s David, if it grew a couple of inches and started lifting weights. In June, he walked into Madison Square Garden, his first fight outside of his native United Kingdom, with a 22-0 record, three of the four major belts, and perhaps the biggest profile in modern boxing to fight this guy:
Andy Ruiz Jr., who agreed that he looked like the kid from Up, had taken the fight on a month’s notice, after Jarrell Miller, Joshua’s initial opponent, failed three drug tests. It seemed generous that Ruiz was merely an 11-1 underdog in the bout. Joshua looked a touch slow in the early going, but by the third round he appeared to be in control, dropping Ruiz with a left hook. Of course, that was not how the rest of the fight went. Ruiz stunned Joshua with flurries, knocked him down twice in the third, and then twice in the seventh before the fight was stopped. The visual was jarring. I mean, look:
The rumors, of course, flew after the fight. Had Joshua not taken his preparation seriously? Had he been concussed during a sparring session? Had something happened in the locker room? Who knows what actually went down. Last weekend, in the rematch, Joshua jabbed his way to a unanimous decision and reclaimed his belts. The status quo is restored: Ruiz probably won’t hold a major title again, Joshua will likely have a megafight against Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder sometime in 2020. Still, the kid from Up became the heavyweight champ. That’s something I won’t forget.
Jorge Masvidal’s Flying Knee KO’s Ben Askren at UFC 239
Matt Dollinger: The fight lasted about as long as it’ll take you to finish this sentence. Looking back, we should have known that something unusual was about to happen. Jorge Masvidal could barely hide the anticipation on his face. He wore a mischievous grin as he waited for Bruce Buffer to finish his intro. Rather than puff out his chest in an act of intimidation, Masvidal did his best to look innocent, like a jungle cat trying to convince his prey to inch just a liiiiittttleeee bit closer before devouring it alive.
The announcers didn’t even finish plugging Modelo before Askren was knocked unconscious. As soon as the referee signaled the start, Masvidal took two steps, lept into the air like a samurai LeBron, and connected flush with a flying knee straight to Askren’s dome. It was 2019’s greatest Oh shit! sports moment. And while it took only five seconds, the knockout catapulted Masvidal to stardom and his flying knee into the pantheon of the greatest finishes combat sports has ever seen.
Novak Djokovic Outlasts Roger Federer at Wimbledon
Logan Rhoades: Novak Djokovic was born to play tennis. Or rather, he was manufactured to dominate the game, as if he were a tennis Terminator sent back in time to destroy all those who try to defeat him. Roger Federer doesn’t play like that, although his decades of major titles certainly have a hold on history. Federer’s success, though, is more elegant. His one-handed backhand is stunningly graceful; he wins the same way a chess grandmaster does, seeing into the future and forcing an opponent into his plan.
Naturally, they collided (yet again) in the Wimbledon final, and played in the longest men’s singles final in tournament history. The match persisted for four hours and 57 minutes, culminating in a fifth-set tiebreaker at 12-all in which Djokovic outlasted Federer to collect his fifth Wimbledon title (and his third with Federer standing on the opposite side of the court).
It was a showcase of the sport’s titans, and a tribute to the staying power of both men. And it was a reminder of what Djokovic was put on this earth to do.
A Hero Rises in Philadelphia, Unlike Agholor
John Gonzalez: As I write this, the Eagles are not good. It is possible, though unlikely, that they will be better when you read it. For the purposes of this exercise, though, let us operate with the understanding that the Eagles have not been good in general, and the wide receivers, in specific, have especially not been good. There are stats to prove this point, but all you really need are eyeballs—though if you watch the wideouts too closely, those will start to hurt.
In September, Nelson Agholor had several egregious drops in losses to the Falcons and Lions. But while Agholor’s underwhelming performance doomed the Eagles on the field, it also inspired an act of valor off it. A Philly man named Hakim Laws ran to a burning building around 2 a.m. one morning and caught children as his neighbor tossed them out the window to save them from the fire. Then Laws gave an interview about the ordeal to local reporters. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
Laws is a true hero—and not just because he caught those kids.
Kobe Throws Shade at a Small Child on Instagram
Matt James: In 2019, Kobe Bryant spent a lot of time, uh, imparting his wisdom to children. While he launched his Harry Potter–meets-basketball young adult book series earlier this year, his more memorable teaching moment came via this Instagram post from September, in which he disparaged a kid on a very sad-looking basketball team that he coaches.
That’s right, the child—who you’ll recall is a child and not a professional basketball player—had her focus on a dance recital. I have no idea why this is so upsetting to Kobe, but I’ll have to assume that the Lakers lost the 2004 NBA Finals because Shaq was also sneaking away to dance. Perhaps there exists a world alongside Kobe’s personal musecage in which one’s value as a human being is not merely a tabulation of basketball championships. If so, he may never encounter it. One of Kobe’s own kids could tell him that she wants to be a doctor; Kobe’s response would likely be, “Well, that’s a tough path to a championship.”
Dearica Hamby Does the Impossible
Shea Serrano: My favorite sports moment of 2019 happened in September. The Las Vegas Aces—my Las Vegas Aces—were playing against the Chicago Sky in an elimination game in the second round of the WNBA playoffs. And the Las Vegas Aces—my Las Vegas Aces—were the favorites. They looked headed toward a victory, up by five points with just over three minutes to go, but then a problem arose: The Las Vegas Aces—my Las Vegas Aces—went cold.
They had five possessions from the 2:47 mark to the nine-second mark, and they went as such: turnover, miss, miss, miss, turnover. The game entirely flipped. The Sky suddenly had the ball with a two-point lead, and all they needed was to wait to get fouled, make a couple of free throws, and win the game. It was awful, terrible, and devastating. Then a miracle happened.
Sky star Courtney Vandersloot, the exact person you’d want with the ball in her hands in that situation, received the inbounds pass in the backcourt and started to dribble. The threat of an impromptu double-team forced her to attempt a far-too-long pass, which was plucked out of the air by Dearica Hamby. Hamby took one dribble, and then, AND I FUCKING CANNOT BELIEVE THAT THIS HAPPENED, pulled up for a running 37-footer as she tight-roped the sideline WITH NEARLY EIGHT SECONDS LEFT ON THE CLOCK. And listen, I don’t know why she shot that shot, and I also know that, given the circumstances, it was a terrible idea. (She had a teammate wide open under the rim for an easy layup.) But I don’t care. Because it went in. THE GODDAMN SHOT WENT IN. The arena went nuts, Dearica went nuts, her teammates went nuts, I went nuts.
The Las Vegas Aces—my Las Vegas Aces—were but a few seconds away from a sports disaster. And then, just like that, they weren’t. They were the opposite of that. They were the proprietors of one of the best sports moments of the year.
Stephen F. Austin Upsets Duke in Its Own Building
Zach Kram: We know that postseasons and championships will deliver iconic moments. See: many of the other selections on this list. But the true beauty of sports is their ability to transform an otherwise mundane day into an eternal, explosive memory. I remember where I was when Steph Curry sank his game-winner in Oklahoma City in February 2016. I remember where I was when Dewayne Wise saved Mark Buehrle’s perfect game in July 2009. And I know I will remember where I was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving this year, minding my own business, when I saw that Duke was tied midway through the second half—at home, as the no. 1 team in the country, against an unranked opponent from a non-power conference.
I spent the rest of the evening transfixed by the game’s final minutes, from suspicious foul calls to sloppy offensive sets to a tense and fretful overtime period. And I will certainly never forget the feeling that rushed through my entire body when Stephen F. Austin’s Nathan Bain gathered a pass and split a pair of Duke defenders with 3.8 seconds left, then dribbled the length of the court to release the game-winning, upset-clinching, delirium-inducing layup just before time expired.
Sports are magic, and Stephen F. Austin beat Duke on the road.
David Ortiz Returns to Fenway Park
Jack McCluskey: It all felt so wrong.
David Ortiz may be the most beloved athlete in Boston history. There’s stiff competition for that title from greats like Tom Brady, Ted Williams, Larry Bird, Bobby Orr, and others, but I think you can make a case that those stars were always more respected than they were loved. Ortiz, with his larger-than-life persona and history-making playoff exploits, feels sewn into the fabric of Boston fandom in a way many others don’t. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he delivered the Red Sox’s first championship in 86 years. And when the city was reeling from the Boston Marathon bombings, he delivered an impromptu, expletive-laced speech that perfectly captured what everyone was feeling—and made clear that he felt it, too.
So when the news broke in June that Ortiz had suffered a life-threatening gunshot wound in a bar in his native Dominican Republic, it was shocking. When it came out that it appeared to have been an orchestrated hit, it was whatever the next level beyond shocking is. The incident and its aftermath were stark reminders that fandom is one thing, and the reality lived by those we put on pedestals is another thing entirely.
They say you should never meet your heroes, because they might disappoint you. What happens, then, when a sporting hero who feels like family is very nearly taken away? The answer came once Ortiz recovered, when he jogged onto the field at Fenway Park in September looking spry. Just listen to the crowd. In an otherwise lackluster season for the then-defending champions, it was a moment to remember.
The Machine Returns to St. Louis
Isaac Levy-Rubinett: When Albert Pujols left St. Louis in 2011, he did so as a world champion. He did so after 11 straight seasons of top-10 MVP finishes. He did so as The Machine. But machines get older, just like we all do, and in the years since The Machine has rusted under the California sun.
Today’s conversations about Pujols naturally focus on his salary and subpar production. But that changed for one weekend in June, when the Cardinals hosted the Angels and Pujols returned to Busch Stadium for the first time since his rather acrimonious departure from the city. Before his first at-bat, as Adam Wainwright tipped his cap and Yadier Molina hugged him at home plate to the tune of a standing ovation, it was impossible not to get swept up in nostalgia. Over the years, his familiar, tilting presence in the box and his (now-somewhat-less) graceful excellence on the diamond became essential to and inseparable from St. Louis baseball. That is, until they were separate.
Pujols’s return to Busch Stadium put his decline on hold and compressed the intervening years into irrelevance. He was a star again, and Cardinals fans were eager to make up for lost time, rising to their feet in appreciation every time he came up to bat. And while I wouldn’t quite say he’s still got it—The Machine needs a bit more WD-40 than it used to—he was able to deliver one more magical moment in St. Louis.
Kawhi Leonard Makes an Oscar-Worthy Commercial
Miles Surrey: I’ve thought more about this Terminator: Dark Fate commercial starring Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, than the film that it ostensibly promotes. I go back and forth between deciding whether it’s the greatest or worst thing I’ve ever seen; it’s quite possibly both. Without question, Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) - ESPN Spot - Paramount Pictures is a rich text that merits trenchant analysis.
The dialogue is noticeably stilted, and was apparently written by an algorithm that spews out NBA memes and iconic Terminator quotes, perhaps with input from Tommy Wiseau. Nobody looks comfortable. Even by Kawhi’s normally awkward standards you can sense his internalized agony. Linda Hamilton hasn’t experienced something this strange since her marriage to James Cameron.
If Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) - ESPN Spot - Paramount Pictures could be submitted for Best Picture at the Oscars, I believe Kawhi should get the Best Actor distinction—he carries the thing—with everyone else tabbed for the supporting category. And while Dark Fate bombed at the box office, I hope and pray that Paramount unexpectedly green-lights a sequel, if only so that we might be blessed with a follow-up to the most memorable, meme-able ad of the year. What it do, baby!
The Luka and LeBron Triple-Double-Off
Jonathan Tjarks: Luka Doncic started his second NBA season on a tear, but he didn’t become a sensation until he faced off against LeBron James. Like every other young player of this generation, Luka grew up idolizing LeBron. They are both supersized point forwards with the ability to toggle back and forth between scoring at will and finding teammates all over the floor. The one thing Luka has that LeBron doesn’t is the stepback 3, a shot that didn’t even exist when LeBron entered the league in 2003. Last month, Luka calmly drained one over the King at the end of the first half in what could’ve been a symbolic passing of the torch.
But LeBron came out on fire in the second, turning an otherwise meaningless regular-season game into a duel for the ages. The two went point-for-point, rebound-for-rebound, and assist-for-assist, with Luka becoming the youngest player to ever notch a 30-point, 15-assist triple-double and LeBron becoming the oldest in the same game. The clash came down to the final possession in regulation, with the Lakers down 3. LeBron got into the lane, knowing he would collapse the defense, and then kicked it out to Danny Green for a game-tying 3 as time expired. From there, it was all LeBron, as the Lakers pulled away in overtime.
Luka is 20 and LeBron is 34. The Mavs star’s time will come—but no one knows exactly when. LeBron isn’t going to just hand over his crown. Luka has to take it. The student has not yet become the master. And there are few things in sports more enjoyable than watching the master fight off challengers.
A Cat Becomes the Star of Monday Night Football
Kate Knibbs: Football has a lot going for it—athleticism, spectacle, the ability to provide fans with a sense of camaraderie rare in these isolating times, etc.—but it isn’t the most whimsical of sports. That’s why the cat that ran around MetLife Stadium and interrupted a Cowboys-Giants Monday Night Football game this fall was such a delightfully incongruous moment. The cat appeared out of nowhere (apparently, it is a feral local kitty) and wouldn’t go easily, trotting from the 50-yard line to the end zone, pausing for the occasional agitated meow as thousands of fans took out their phones to post cat-on-the-field content to Instagram. A true unifying event!
Also, the cat has inspired rumors of a curse, because NFL teams with cat names have not fared well since the incident. The only thing better than sports whimsy is sports curses, so I salute the cat for bringing several doses of fun into the regular season. May I suggest releasing a cat onto the field once a game throughout the playoffs?
Cal Takes Back the Axe
Riley McAtee: I didn’t even get to touch the Axe. In all the chaos after Cal’s 24-20 win over Stanford, the school’s first triumph in the Big Game in a decade, I didn’t even see the Axe. The students in charge of safeguarding the coolest trophy in college sports whisked it off the field so quickly that by the time I remembered to look for it, it was gone.
The last few minutes of the 122nd Big Game were pandemonium—at least from my perspective, sitting about 15 rows up, surrounded by Cal fans at Stanford Stadium. After nine years of losing the Axe to Stanford—by far the longest streak in a rivalry that dates back to the 19th century—Cal fans were desperate for a win. The Bears entered this matchup as slight favorites, which only added to the intensity. Stanford shellacked Cal for most of the 2010s, but this year it was finally vulnerable. However, Cal gave up a touchdown on a broken play to begin the game and didn’t lead until quarterback Chase Garbers did this with just over a minute left to go:
CHASE GARBERS CANNOT BE CONTAINED!!!!! pic.twitter.com/JFHHjDp4Tl— Cal Football (@CalFootball) November 24, 2019
The sound in the Cal section when Garbers broke the plane was like a jet engine inside of a hurricane. I’ve been around sports my entire life and I’ve never heard anything like the maniacal relief coming from fans in that moment. After the game was over, fans rushed the field. Stanford’s field. It was the biggest “fuck you” I’ve ever been a part of—but, damnit, I forgot about that Axe.
In my defense, I had no idea what to do. It’s been a decade, I and every Cal fan around me were like a dog that caught a car. In the aftermath on the field, I hugged people I’d never met, slapped some of the players on the back like a big idiot, and took a few selfies. I snatched a handful of grass from the end zone because I thought I could take with me as a keepsake. Somehow in the post-win delirium that made sense.
I still haven’t touched the Axe, or even really gotten a close look at it. But it doesn’t matter. We have it—that’s all that counts.
Pete Alonso Sets the Rookie Home Run Record
Bobby Wagner: There are few things in sports right now that look more natural than Pete Alonso unleashing his violent yet languid swing. Even in a league awash with home runs, watching Pete uncork on a Mike Foltynewicz two-seam fastball to hit his 53rd homer of the year was undeniably special.
It’s not so much that he broke Aaron Judge’s rookie home run record, or that it came so late in the season, or even that it solidified he’d be the only rookie to lead the league in home runs outright. All that is great. But what makes this moment so divine is how much it meant to Pete to do it in Citi Field. All hail Peter Morgan Alonso, known to his loved ones as the Polar Bear, but known to the record books as the Home Run King of 2019.
An earlier version of this piece misstated how much history Kawhi Leonard ignored; it was a half-century of history.