As a sports year, 2021 will be remembered for many things. This was the year when Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to their first NBA title in five decades. It was the year when Tom Brady proved that he doesn’t need Bill Belichick to win a Super Bowl. It was the year we saw a Summer Olympics, a two-way baseball season for the ages, and an iconic March Madness buzzer-beater. And it was a year full of notable disasters: Hey, remember the European Super League?
Before we turn the calendar to 2022, the Ringer staff is looking back at its favorite sports moments of the past 12 months. Here, in no particular order, are the 42 that stood out most.
Dan Devine: The visiting Clippers had flipped Game 2 of the Western Conference finals in a heartbeat, ripping off an 8-2 run to regain the lead heading into the final seconds. A pair of missed Paul George free throws left the door open for the Suns, but a strong defensive turn that led Mikal Bridges to miss a contested 3 put L.A. just nine-tenths of a tick away from stealing home-court advantage in the series—and forcing Phoenix, which had ridden its bubble bounce and the Chris Paul blockbuster trade further than just about anyone thought possible, to pick itself up off the mat on the season’s biggest stage.
This was the kind of moment when everything could fall apart. As it turned out, though, the best Suns team since the Seven Seconds or Less era needed less than a second to make a miracle:
So much had to go right. Catch-and-shoot threats Bridges and Cameron Johnson had to sell their cuts, helping draw George and Patrick Beverley away from the paint. Devin Booker, barely a quarter removed from getting his nose busted open by a Beverley headbutt, had to truck-stick 7-foot Clippers center Ivica Zubac with a back screen.
Jae Crowder had to loft an inch-perfect inbound pass, just over the corner of the backboard, to a spot where only Deandre Ayton could reach it. Ayton had to time both his cut and his leap just right to create enough space from Zubac that he could cleanly tip-dunk the pass before time expired. And the Suns also had to get lucky: that neither Zubac nor DeMarcus Cousins was stationed at the rim to swat down any lob attempts, that Nicolas Batum didn’t abandon Booker to switch to Ayton once he saw the back screen developing, that none of the million things that could scuttle such an unlikely game-winner actually would.
So much had to go right, and all of it did. “The Valley-Oop” was born, and the Suns were halfway to their first NBA Finals trip in 28 years. That’s the thing about the moments when everything can fall apart: They’re also the ones when everything can come together.
Jalen Suggs Banks It Home
Jonathan Tjarks: The shot that Jalen Suggs hit to beat UCLA in the Final Four doesn’t even seem real. The Bruins had just tied the game with three seconds left in overtime. Suggs brought the ball up the court and pulled up from 40 feet as the clock expired. The horn sounded as the shot was still in the air. It would be unfair to call this a prayer, because Suggs shot it with supreme confidence. But there was no way it should have gone in.
Suggs was tracking it the whole time. By the time the ball bounced off the backboard and through the net, he was already at the free throw line. He rushed over to the scorer’s table and jumped on it, where he was mobbed by teammates who couldn’t seem to believe what was happening.
This didn’t just win Gonzaga the game. It saved the Bulldogs’ undefeated season. It was the shot that every kid dreams of taking, the shot that’s practiced millions of times in the backyard.
It doesn’t even matter that Gonzaga lost to Baylor in the title game. People will be watching replays of this for as long as March Madness exists.
I watch a lot of basketball for my job, and most of it passes unremarkably. But every once in a while, something happens that reminds me what the point of it is. Something magical happens. Something like Suggs’s shot.
Brooks Koepka Eye-rolls Bryson DeChambeau Into a New Dimension
Megan Schuster: The best movie moments start with sound. The duh-dum of Jaws, the Darth Vader breathing in Star Wars, the persistent beat behind pretty much any Hans Zimmer score. This year, that phenomenon came to sports, as the simple clacking of cleats on a sidewalk led to one of the greatest videos I have ever seen.
The clip came from an interview Brooks Koepka did with the Golf Channel shortly after the second round of May’s PGA Championship. It wasn’t live—a simple Q&A to potentially be used later—but in the middle of an answer, Koepka heard Bryson DeChambeau approaching behind him and couldn’t help but roll his eyes in dramatic, Mean Girls–esque fashion. The clip was leaked online some time after the interview, and it set the internet ablaze. Screenshots of Brooks with his eyes closed and head thrown back in agony became instant reaction memes; many speculated about what Bryson could have possibly said to make Brooks react that way; even more begged the USGA to pair the two together in the opening rounds of June’s U.S. Open.
Koepka eventually clarified that his annoyance stemmed less from what DeChambeau was saying than the way that he was saying it (a classic sibling-style defense if I’ve ever heard one). And the two recently played together in a one-on-one mic’d up match for charity, so things seem to have calmed down a bit. But my lasting sports memory of 2021 will always be this: When you heard one clack of cleated footsteps approaching, it was then that a meme was born.
Patrick Mahomes Throws the Greatest Incomplete Pass in NFL History
Riley McAtee: Forget the rest of the Super Bowl. This is the only play that I remember:
Mahomes, after running for his life against a ferocious Tampa Bay pass rush, begins to get tackled on this crucial fourth-and-9. While parallel to the ground, he flicks his wrist and sends the football flying into the face mask of a Chiefs receiver. The pass falls to the ground, and Mahomes looks on in disbelief. This is an impossible, physics-defying throw, one that should happen only when a video game glitches, or when a teenage Superman forgets to not use his powers while playing quarterback in high school.
The Chiefs lost the Super Bowl by 22 points; it wasn’t even close. But there was never any doubt who was the best player on the field. Mahomes was so good in Super Bowl LV that the Buccaneers players couldn’t stop talking about him on the sideline:
Think about that. These players were on the path to winning a Super Bowl and they couldn’t stop talking about the other team’s quarterback.
The 2021 season has proved to be a weird one for Mahomes. He’s on his way to career lows in adjusted net yards per attempt, quarterback rating, and Pro Football Focus grade. Still, the Chiefs are in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s no. 1 seed and the conference’s only bye. That makes it a good time to look back on the Super Bowl and remember that regardless of what the stats show, Mahomes is the NFL’s only true magician.
Tom Brady Completes a Different Kind of Pass
Danny Heifetz: Tom Brady was having fun. It was the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl boat parade, and Brady underhand-launched the Lombardi Trophy over the open water from one boat to another.
This was the moment I decided to let Brady into my heart. Ever since he left the Patriots, Brady has been looser, more honest, and more vulnerable. I did not let these indicators change how I felt about him because, well, he is Tom Brady. Liking him is gross. But somehow this video—along with the video of him being blisteringly drunk—softened me.
“First of all, I was not thinking at that moment,” Brady said afterward. “It was not a thought. It was, ‘This seems really fun to do.’”
If he’d missed on this pass, the trophy would have sunk to the bottom of the Hillsborough River. But he did not miss, because, well, he is Tom Brady.
Giannis’s 50-Point Game and 50-Piece Meal
Rob Mahoney: “What if, all of a sudden, I wake up and this is all a dream?” Giannis Antetokounmpo asked himself from the Chick-fil-A drive-through. It was a fair question, considering that he had just dropped 50 points to close out the NBA Finals in miraculous fashion, showcasing the full range of his dominance while winning the first title of his career. He leapt off an injured knee to crush the shot attempts of various Suns; he made his first 3-pointer in four games, and went an inexplicable 17-of-19 from the free throw line after struggling with that shot for months; and he drove and scored against every kind of defense imaginable in Game 6, piling up nearly half of Milwaukee’s 105 points in the process.
After the game, the rest of the Bucks flew to Vegas to be toasted as champions. Giannis stayed home and went to Chick-fil-A, where he ordered a 50-piece Chick-n-Minis in honor of his 50-piece, and a large drink—no ice—half-Sprite, half-lemonade. The whole saga was broadcast live from his Instagram, including Antetokounmpo’s charming attempts to hound the drive-through staff into giving him free Chick-fil-A for life.
What we didn’t see on video was what came next: Giannis gradually realizing what it feels like to have a 50-piece dropped on him. That’s a lot of chicken. It’s so much bread. But what better way for the dream to end than with Giannis having his own best efforts rebuffed and overwhelmed—to understand what it must have felt like for the Suns to line up against him and bite off more than they could chew.
Candace Parker Brings a Title to Her Hometown Team
Kellen Becoats: Life is filled with seismic moments, and we got one in February 2021. When the news came through that Candace Parker was leaving the Los Angeles Sparks to play for the Chicago Sky, the WNBA Twitterati gathered to ask one question: Can she win it all in her hometown? We didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
Despite entering the playoffs as a no. 6 seed, the Sky cruised through both of their single-elimination games and dropped only one game in their series against the Connecticut Sun. But the Phoenix Mercury, with a star of their own, awaited in the Finals. Of course, when you have a basketball player who’s almost beyond compare—one whose defense somehow continues to be underrated; take the surprise out of your voice, Shaq—and Kahleah Copper peaking at just the right moment, the opponent doesn’t matter. You know the rest. Diana Taurasi punched a door, Kahleah swore during the celebration, and Candace cried while confetti fell on the Wintrust Arena floor after the Sky claimed their first WNBA championship.
It was a perfect moment for an incredible player. Derek Fisher probably still hasn’t watched it, though.
The Great Atlanta Sports Exorcism
Dan Comer: Everyone at the party knew it was over after Robert Alford’s pick-six put the Falcons up 21-0 in Super Bowl LI. Everyone, I assumed, also knew better than to provoke the Atlanta sporting gods by uttering such words aloud. But then a middle-aged man said something no one wanted to hear: There’s no way the Falcons lose this one.
I thought about that as I stood in the left-field bleachers of Truist Park and watched Adam Duvall round the bases after hitting a grand slam in the first inning of World Series Game 5. This time, there would be no jinxing, and the celebration would last late into the night like it was 1995. But that dream was short-lived—the Astros responded with nine runs to cut the series deficit to 3-2, and all of the same horrible feelings began to surface.
In Game 6, the Braves carried a 7-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but the scars of Atlanta sports fandom cut deep. When Houston’s Michael Brantley singled off Will Smith to open that half-inning, a Braves loss seemed inevitable even though it was nearly impossible.
The game’s final three outs whizzed by. All I remember is popping cheap champagne on my buddy’s porch and thinking about the biggest Atlanta sports letdowns of the past 30 years: the should’ve-been Braves dynasty of the 1990s, the infield fly that wasn’t in Chipper’s last game, the Bulldogs’ national championship game collapse against Alabama, 28-3.
For one night in November, none of those memories stung. And because of that night, I’m not sure they ever will—at least in the same way—again.
The Time Cleveland Won an NFL Playoff Game
Rob Harvilla: Remember this shit? Remember when the Cleveland Browns played their first playoff game since 2003? Remember when they won their first playoff game since 1995? The Browns won! A playoff game! In the 21st century!
They beat the wrong and bad and hated Pittsburgh Steelers! Ben Roethlisberger’s arms fell off! The final score was 256-0! (Actually it was 48-37, which is a Browns-ass final score.) Remember when the NFL celebrated by canceling the remainder of the playoffs and naming the Browns Super Bowl champions? Remember when the Queen of England knighted every player on the Browns’ roster even though I don’t think any of them are English? Remember when I threw my couch out my living-room window onto my front lawn and lit it on fire while blasting Queen’s “We Are the Champions” at incredible volume?
“Go Browns!” Cleveland has shouted and lamented for decades. For one glorious day, they actually went.
Kevin Durant Goes Supernova in Game 7
Wosny Lambre: It had been hardly over two years since Kevin Durant left the court during Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals with a torn Achilles. Two years since he went down with an injury that’s considered to be among the scariest in all of sports. A torn Achilles is especially bad for elite wings like KD, who rely so much on lateral quickness and explosion. When you need to be able to plant, rise, and fire at the drop of a dime with P.J. Tucker draped all over you, it pays to have a sturdy heel. So it was with good reason that many people entered last season skeptical that Durant could ever return to his pre-injury MVP form.
On June 19, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bucks, KD put those doubts to rest with a performance that goes down as one of the greatest in recent memory. Never mind that Durant had already logged an incredible regular season for the Nets. It was widely understood that the true test of whether he was back could happen only in the playoffs against elite completion. It could happen only against someone like two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Durant’s box score from this night—48 points, nine rebounds, and six assists—speaks for itself, but it doesn’t capture the transcendence of his performance. KD made about 10 impossible shots against great defense while also grabbing every board in his orbit while also shouldering the burden of being Brooklyn’s primary playmaker with Kyrie Irving out and James Harden hobbled. And he came a toe length away from hitting an iconic turnaround game-winner. The moment was all the more surreal considering the two years that preceded it.
The Nets ultimately lost in overtime, but that’s not what will stick with me. What made this moment so sweet is that we kind of hadn’t seen KD sweat in about five years. It’s not that he didn’t have amazing playoff moments for the Warriors; it’s that on those squads his greatness never felt like it was a matter of life or death. On this night in Brooklyn, Durant made an announcement to the world: He was the Slim Reaper once again.
Trae Young Goes Heel in Madison Square Garden
J. Kyle Mann: There are two types of heel turns. The first is when a sucky person is simply found out. Think Ernesto de La Cruz from Coco, Ramsay Bolton from Game of Thrones. The turn occurs from our perspective; the person doesn’t actually change.
The other is when somebody, motivated by an injustice or an advantage that could improve their situation, decides to go from one state of being to another. Think Anakin joining the Dark Side. Hulk Hogan joining the nWo.
I’m not here to comment on the depths of Trae Young’s heart. I don’t know the guy, but like many folks, I have studiously followed his ascent from afar. It’s hard to know for sure, but my guess is that this was always there, that Trae’s potential for villainy was simply waiting to be unearthed.
Young’s general popularity within the basketball public has always been a bit complicated. Purely going by ball skills and feel for the game, he is one of the most gifted players on the planet, but gifts and marketability do not always align. If they did, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan would’ve had signature shoes year after year. Some of Trae’s plight is tied to the condition of the little guy, and some of it stems from his own doing.
He was phenomenal at times during his lone college season at Oklahoma, but he frequently appeared half-interested, and he didn’t exactly elevate the team. This playing style carried over to his first couple of seasons in Atlanta, to mixed reviews. His resting demeanor seems to rotate from a sneer to a scowl to an I know I’m fucking amazing at this grin. His Twitter account can be a little repetitive.
(And look, as someone who went bald young, I object to this kind of razzing, but it’s my obligation to point out the conversations surrounding his hair. I’m not joining, I’m just pointing at it and saying, “Hey, this is a thing.” OK, washing my hands of it now.)
All I’m trying to say is that Trae’s climb to multifaceted superstardom was always going to be tricky. His style of play, his essence—it can be thrilling, but it has the power to irk people. All of these elements converged on a national stage in glorious fashion in Game 1 of the Hawks-Knicks series in the 2021 NBA playoffs.
Prior to this, we hadn’t really gotten the opportunity to see big-game Trae, but it quickly became clear he was down to clown. He was an unsolvable quandary for Tom Thibodeau and his gang of Knicks overachievers, to the tune of 32 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds in 35 minutes of play. His crunch-time dismemberment of New York was magnifique. Trae bien.
The Knicks community has been good to me, so I hate to say this, but when Trae hibachi’d Frankie Smokes to free himself for that game-winning floater in the lane and then animatedly shushed the MSG crowd in a way that probably sent a tear of joy rolling down Reggie Miller’s face, I could not stop laughing. I love arrivals, and for Trae, with that wild look in his eye, this felt like one. It was phenomenal television.
NBA stardom is a fickle thing, and as the Hudson Hornet taught us in Cars (I have a toddler, Pixar metaphors are going to happen), sometimes the best strategy in a tricky curve is to turn the wheel in the opposite direction. For Trae, this move was brilliant. Lean into it. Revel in it. There’s more meat on the bone, and I suspect that he’s aware.
Untalented instigators will struggle to stay relevant. They get hand-waved by society because they have nothing to offer. Trae does not fall into that category. His outrageous talent gives him the power to torment opposing fan bases for years to come. I can’t wait to see what he does with it.
Simone Biles Shows What Toughness Really Looks Like
Jacqueline Kantor: It seems counterintuitive to include the lack of an athletic performance on this list, but this tally wouldn’t be complete without an acknowledgement of Simone Biles’s conspicuous absence from the Olympic team finals and all-around event. Her departure from competition in Tokyo set off a multiday news cycle in which she was both heralded as a role model and denounced as a quitter. In the aftermath, I returned to this video of Biles from the 2019 National Gymnastics Championships, which took place almost exactly two years prior. In it, Biles discusses the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal and cover-up, in which team physician Larry Nassar sexually assaulted at least 265 girls and women over nearly two decades. In 2018, less than two years after Biles won four gold medals in Rio, she said she was also sexually abused by Nassar.
“You had one job, and you couldn’t protect us.” Watch that clip a few times and consider just a fraction of the pressure that was placed upon Biles, a once-in-a-generation talent tasked with representing both a sport and an organization that allowed her and her peers to be assaulted. She was expected to be a phenom and the GOAT—at once an inspiration, a role model, and a symbol of resilience. Who would have blamed her if she had hung up her medals and been content to sit on the sideline, watching the next generation of gymnasts attempt her eponymous moves?
This profile, published just a few days before Biles’s ill-fated vault in Tokyo, makes a good case for an athlete on the edge of retirement who finds more pain than satisfaction in competition. And when she did end up stepping out in the Olympics, Biles chose her words carefully, emphasizing the terrifying nature of the “twisties” and the importance of honoring and acknowledging the faltering connection between her mind and body. She walked her fans through her pre-competition struggles and retweeted anonymous praise that referenced Nassar and USA Gymnastics’ failings.
Sports culture has long lauded athletes with mental toughness; words like “grit” or “tenacity” are often used to distinguish champions from the rest. But we don’t spend much time considering that mental toughness is not always guaranteed, and that the mind, much like a muscle, must be worked on and kept in shape. When Biles stepped away, she started a discussion about the intense connection between performance and mental health, and showed that sometimes toughness means making the difficult choice to sit out a competition, for the sake of body and spirit.
Biles’s Olympics went far differently than expected, but in the long run, her lack of appearance on the medal stand—and her adroit explanations for why—will have more of an impact than her picking up more golds.
Suni Lee Shows Out for Olympic Gold
Katie Baker: Eighteen years old and standing 5-foot-nil at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, Suni Lee found herself facing a mighty choice. A few days earlier, not long after Biles had partially withdrawn from competition in the midst of the team event, Lee did the mental math and decided to go for a harder uneven bars routine than she’d planned—the most difficult in the world!—in order to give Team USA the best chance of medaling in Biles’s sudden absence. Lee nailed it, ensuring that the Americans didn’t so much lose the gold as they won the heck out of the silver. And then she continued on to the all-around competition, with more decisions to be made.
Namely: What should she do on the floor exercise, where she’d been tinkering with a more aggressive, four-pass routine that could be another knockout or could leave her exposed to slip-ups and deductions? This time, Lee opted for something more conservative, and performed the floor exercise—her last of four events—with smooth precision. Again, it worked; her main competitor flubbed twice, and Lee won another, even more unexpected medal. This time, it was gold.
Mac Jones’s Draft Night Walk—and Everything That Came After
Justin Sayles: Oh god. Here he comes.
It’s the first round of the NFL draft in April, and I’m a Patriots fan who just watched 14 players swagger to the stage, including Justin Fields, the guy I hoped would fall to New England but instead went to the Bears at no. 11. Roger Goodell just called the name of the 15th pick—the Pats’ pick—and oh no. It’s Mac Jones, someone that a colleague of mine once privately called a “meme stock.” Shit. Maybe Ringer draft expert and genuinely excellent human being Danny Kelly has nicer things to say about Jones, who was apparently good enough to pilot the Alabama Death Star to a national championship. [Consults the Ringer NFL draft guide.] Says here he lacks “top-tier physical traits.” Rude. (But yeah … checks out.) Anyway, here he comes. Mac fuckin’ Jones.
Mac Jones walking like a high school administrator who needs to break up a fight in the cafeteria pic.twitter.com/03f7OkBnjm— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) April 30, 2021
That’s not exactly swaggering to the stage, is it? This guy’s energy is virgin on prom night. Seriously, who walks like that? Mac fuckin’ Jones, I guess. What’s Mac short for, anyway? [Furiously Googles.] Oh god. Has there ever been a successful quarterback named McCorkle? Ugh. There can’t be a Patriots fan who feels good about this guy taking up the mantle from Tom Brady, the chiseled cheekbone of our dynasty who jumped ship to start another with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And now this Howdy Doody–lookin’ guy named McCorkle is supposed to be the one? (Seriously, I thought Belichick had his eye on impossibly handsome quarterbacks.) At least we still have Cam Newton for this season …
Source confirms that the Patriots have released Cam Newton. Surprise to you? Surprise to some in the building as well.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) August 31, 2021
Oh god. Here he comes, for real this time. It’s now August, and I’m getting an alert that Newton has been cut from the Patriots roster. We’re going into this season with McCorkle as QB1. He played fine in the preseason, but that was against backups and scrubs. It’s going to be a brutal opening stretch, with games against the Saints, Cowboys, and (welp) Bucs in the first six weeks of the season. We’ll probably be 2-4 coming out of that. Hopefully for him he won’t get sacked a thousand times or throw a million picks. Hopefully for us we won’t learn anything too embarrassing about Mac, like that he used to be a child model or something. What’s that? Shit.
Oh god … what? Here he … comes? We’re now heading into the final stretch of the season, and the Patriots are suddenly looking like their old selves. And Mac’s a big part of the reason. New England won seven straight and even inspired explainers on why it needs to be feared again. A lot of that has to do with Matt Judon and the league-best scoring defense, but McCorkle is playing with confidence and has the offense running well enough (even when he’s not asked to do much—or, umm, anything at all). The Pats are vying for a playoff berth and Jones is the betting favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, the rest of the QB draft class—including my coveted Justin Fields—hasn’t impressed much.
It’s enough to make me forget about the preseason doubts, the child modeling photos, even that stupid draft-night walk. It has me thinking about what comes after these final regular-season games—thinking about what happened the last time the Pats had a young quarterback unexpectedly take over for a veteran and led a team with a stellar defense. It has me thinking about …
Oh god. Here they come.
The Patriots Take Football Back to the Stone Age
Nora Princiotti: It feels noncontroversial to say that throwing the football is generally important in the modern NFL. But when is that not true? When 45-mph winds whip through Highmark Stadium (I was today years old when I learned this is what the Bills’ stadium is now called) during the Week 13 Monday Night Football game between Buffalo and New England, blowing the Patriots’ game plan back to 1945—or maybe 500 BC—as a result.
Bill Belichick’s approach was classic Sun Tzu: “Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.” Pats quarterback Mac Jones threw the ball only three times to Josh Allen’s 30, but New England’s running game still moved the ball on stacked boxes, and the Bills made just enough mistakes for the Patriots to come away with a 14-10 win.
This game was incredible because it came down to the wire, and because it signified whatever a viewer wanted: It was either meaningless because of the bizarre conditions in which it was played, or critically important because of its implications on the playoff race and the AFC East. There were at least six plays that could have swung the game. There were fans with giant fur coats in the stands. There was a coaching matchup above all, and in the waning moments, the man in the hoodie let slip a rare grin.
Patrik Schick’s 50-Yard Goal in the Euros
Brian Phillips: Why, why, why would you try this??! What in God’s name would make you think, Well, here I am, 50 yards from the goal, at the start of what could be a promising counterattack … I haven’t even touched the ball yet … the goalkeeper is a little too far forward … maybe when the ball gets to me I’ll just bonk it as hard as I can and see if I can chip it over him, even though, again, I am barely over the halfway line and I play a sport in which great players routinely miss open shots from 18 yards? How does that happen??
All I know is that the shiny new quarter of this scenario dropped into the slot machine in Patrik Schick’s brain during the Czech Republic’s Euro 2020 group-stage match against Scotland, and what happened next was three cherries, a siren, and a lot of flashing lights. There’s audacity, there’s audacity so extreme that you wonder whether the person even did the thing on purpose, and then there’s this: a goal that makes you go, “Oh, so that’s what Steph Curry would look like as a soccer player.” Spare a thought, when you watch this, for the victim of Schick’s moment of inspiration, Scottish goalkeeper David Marshall, who winds up comically entangled in his own net like a fisherman outwitted by a tuna.
The European Super League Debacle
Conor Nevins: The doomed European Super League—a proposal from 12 teams to overturn the competitive landscape—was first and foremost a failure to read the room. A small cadre of the sport’s elite thought they could exploit the conditions brought about by the pandemic to entrench their economic and political power. It was a sporting version of disaster capitalism taken to its most logical and cynical end. The plan was swiftly and hilariously repudiated by almost everyone. Mere days after the league was announced, it was done, securing its legacy as one of the biggest and most embarrassing debacles in recent memory.
Still, it would be naive to think the originators of the plan have been fully deterred. They’ll learn their lessons from this failed launch and try again. The question is, will fans be as vigilant when that time comes?
Leo Messi Finally Wins Copa America With Argentina
Musa Okwonga: Watching Leo Messi finally claim the Copa America with Argentina, in a final against fearsome rivals and tournament hosts Brazil, reminded me of an exhausted Frodo watching the Ring of Power fall into the fires of Mount Doom. The quest had been long and harrowing, so much so that by the end the weary hero needed his dearest friend to carry him to victory. For much of the latter part of his career, Messi has been let down by his colleagues, who have failed to excel when he needed them most. Yet here, his teammates—most notably, Ángel Di María, Emi Martínez, and Rodrigo De Paul—stepped up with the reliability of Samwise Gamgee.
This triumph gave me joy because the question mark over Messi, in terms of his legacy, was that he could not win at the international level. Fittingly, this consummate team player, who was flagging by the final, relied on his trusted allies to get him over the finish line.
Max Verstappen Wins the F1 Championship in a Finish for the Ages
Kevin Clark: A lot of people got into Formula 1 this season. Fair warning, it’s not always like this. Some background: After seven straight years of a Mercedes driver winning the world driver’s championship—six of them by Lewis Hamilton, including the last four—Red Bull finally had a car and a driver, Max Verstappen, worthy of a legitimate title challenge. The short version is that this led to a full season of drama, including aggressive driving, dramatic crashes, and petty feuding, which helped make this the most intense title challenge in years. Verstappen kept a lead for most of the year, but a late Hamilton charge that included winning three straight races before the finale, meant whoever won in Abu Dhabi would be crowned champion. This would be enough to be a highlight of the year. The Formula 1 champion is usually decided well before the finale, and a winner-take-all race between this era’s greatest driver and the young superstar who might dethrone him was perfect. Millions got into the sport because of the popular Netflix series Drive to Survive, and longtime fans told the new ones that they shouldn’t expect Netflix during actual races. Then they got a finale that was extremely Netflix.
The quickest possible summary: Hamilton looked like he’d comfortably win the race until a crash near the back of the pack brought out a safety car on lap 53 of 58. This was still fine for Hamilton, since the race, by rule, would probably end under the safety car and he’d win the title. There was a controversy over “lapped” cars that I will not get into in an end-of-the-year all-sports highlights post, but you just need to know that race director Michael Masi more or less rushed the restart to make sure there was drama. There would be one lap of straight, pure racing to decide the championship. Sports are rarely this good. I fell from my couch onto my carpet to get closer to my TV. Why? I have no idea. I was just losing my mind.
Verstappen, on fresher tires, had a massive advantage in this scenario. So F1 got this final lap (with a split screen reaction from Red Bull’s Christian Horner):
Christian Horner's reaction to the last lap pic.twitter.com/KVVzJjNcgE— F1FirstCorner (@F1FirstCorner) December 12, 2021
“We went car racing,” Masi told Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, in an explanation that was blunt and dismissive. You end up with absolute dejection from Mercedes:
Canal had a camera on Toto and merc garage on the last lap… pic.twitter.com/F9dG8x6dpI— jAde (@hamiltonbff) December 13, 2021
It was pure drama, one that is still being debated by F1 fans, and teams, and always will be. Hamilton, feeling screwed by the sport, is reportedly considering his future, but if he returns, this will be the start of something even more magical: a rivalry heightened by the wildest ending of an F1 season many fans have ever seen. There’s a reason Netflix loves this sport.
Jon Rahm Arrives at Golf’s U.S. Open
Andrew Gruttadaro: Jon Rahm’s swing is more like a chop: short and fast in the backswing, violent and furious on the way down. For years, as he rose from elite college player to no. 1 amateur in the world to top of the tour, those adjectives were the same ones we leaned on to describe the Spaniard himself. His outbursts were as electric as his almost Kobe-like, bottom-jaw-jutting-out jubilations. “That anger is good,” Rahm said in 2019. “It’s just how you use it, and how you channel it.”
But 2021 is the year that Rahm became so much more than the fiery big-hitter from Spain. After the third round of the Memorial Championship in June, Rahm walked off the 18th green with a six-stroke lead—and was told he would have to immediately withdraw from the tournament because he had tested positive for COVID. The image of Rahm huddled over, head in hands and tears pouring out, after receiving the news could have been the lasting image of his PGA Tour season. But two weeks later, Rahm found himself on the back nine of his final round, in the middle of a crowded leaderboard of a U.S. Open that was long on intrigue but short on a defining moment. Bryson DeChambeau had taken a brief lead and then squandered it by going bogey-bogey–double bogey on holes 11 through 13; Louis Oosthuizen, who’d bobbed near the top of virtually every leaderboard in 2021, hadn’t done anything to separate himself; the co-leader after three rounds, Mackenzie Hughes, got his ball stuck in a tree on 11. No one was taking control of the tournament. So Rahm did.
On the 17th hole, Rahm poured a heavy-breaking 25-footer into the left side of the hole. One fist pump later, he had a share of the lead. Then, on the 72nd hole of the tournament, he stepped into another left-to-right putt and drilled it. This time, the momentum of the fist pump nearly took him off his own feet. That anger is good—and after everything Rahm had been through in June, he’d clearly learned how to use it.
A New Generation Arrives at the Tennis U.S. Open
Zach Kram: Entering the 2021 U.S. Open, British 18-year-old Emma Raducanu had played in only one previous major, and needed to survive the qualifier even to reach Flushing Meadows. Canadian 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez had more major experience, but not much more success: In six previous singles draws at a Grand Slam, she’d never advanced past the third round.
Yet for two weeks, the teenage duo dazzled day after day, with the tournament culminating in Raducanu’s win in the first all-teenage final since Serena Williams defeated Martina Hingis in 1999. Counting qualifiers, Raducanu won 10 consecutive matches without ever dropping a set or playing a tiebreak. Fernandez, meanwhile, upset no. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, no. 3 Naomi Osaka, and no. 5 Elina Svitolina en route to the final.
The 2021 U.S. Open may represent the peaks of Raducanu’s and Fernandez’s respective careers; they might never make noise in a major again. (For context, Bianca Andreescu hasn’t reached the quarterfinals at a slam since winning the 2019 U.S. Open as a teenager; Jelena Ostapenko won the 2017 French Open at age 20, but hasn’t reached the fourth round for 12 majors in a row now.) Alternately, it might represent the start of a formidable tennis legacy, as early runs for players ranging from the Williams sisters to Maria Sharapova presaged future greatness.
There’s no way to know yet, but part of the joy of sports is dreaming about the unknown. The dual journey of Raducanu and Fernandez to the final opens a whole world of possibilities.
Justin Tucker Resets the Kicking Record Book
Mallory Rubin: It’s long seemed inevitable that Justin Tucker would break the NFL record for longest field goal. He’s the most accurate kicker in league history. He pairs that precision with booming distance thanks to a battering ram of a leg. And his desire to obliterate the standing mark has been a stated intention for years. In hindsight, it should have seemed equally inevitable that when Tucker did, in fact, break Matt Prater’s 64-yard milestone, it would come against the Detroit Lions, whom Tucker had spectacularly deflated before with his previous career long, a 61-yard walkoff in 2013. (Tucker’s 2021 postgame proclamation that “I love Detroit, I’m thinking about getting a place here” was surely cold comfort for Lions fans.)
And yet, when Tucker’s 66-yarder doinked over the goalposts to secure the 19-17 win for the Ravens as time expired, the sense of inevitability that feels so palpable in hindsight was nowhere to be found. There was only the shock that witnessing history brings: the shrieks of “OH MY GOODNESS!” and “DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?” from the announcers, the astounded expressions of the coaches on both sidelines, the rapidly arriving “GOAT!” and “AUTOMATUCK” tweets from players across the league. The collective, thrilling realization that as time expired in Week 3, Tucker did something that no one had ever done before.
JUSTIN TUCKER. DOINK. GOOD.— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) September 26, 2021
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!pic.twitter.com/nRkywKsl8y
And, almost as tantalizingly: the ensuing collective realization that Tucker not only achieved something few other kickers would ever even be allowed to try, but that he’d probably top it even more magically someday. After the game, Tucker recounted to media that punter Sam Koch told him, “Hey, way to do your job,” an iconic bit of ribbing from a longtime teammate, but also a reminder that for Tucker, the sublime is often the routine. The 66-yarder made history. That 70-yarder still awaits.
Michael Dickson Defies the Laws of Punting
Danny Kelly: For fans, like me, of a Seahawks team that has struggled in almost every phase this season, the most exciting and reliable source of enjoyment has been the team’s trebuchet-legged punter. Michael Dickson, who leads the league with 80 punts, is ranked no. 1 with 3,772 punting yards and has landed an NFL-best 38 punts inside the opposing 20-yard line. And the Australian produced probably the best play of the Seattle season (and maybe the greatest play in football history?) in Week 5. Late in the third quarter of a matchup with the Rams on Thursday Night Football, Dickson took the snap and prepared to unleash what was sure to be another flaming projectile into L.A.’s coffin corner.
Only a Rams defender was able to slip through the line and block Dickson’s kick. The ball careened to the left and settled near the numbers, where it spinned perfectly on its nose like a top. Dickson’s instincts, honed from his experience playing Australian Rules Football, kicked in: He sprinted toward the ball and in one smooth motion audaciously scooped it up, turned downfield, and reset his feet before blasting the ball to the Rams’ 10-yard line. That play ranks among the most graceful and pure athletic feats I’ve ever seen, and it stands alone in the pantheon of exceedingly rare gridiron accomplishments.
There was much debate over the legality of this rarely seen anomaly, which was initially flagged before being determined fair play. But one thing is clear: I’ll never forget that time I witnessed a double punt.
Javy Báez Turns MLB Into Little League
Isaac Levy-Rubinett: Advanced run expectancy models say that when a team has a runner on second base and two outs, and a ground ball is hit and successfully fielded by the third baseman, we should expect a run to score approximately NEVER … unless the defensive team is the Pittsburgh Pirates and the batter is Javy Báez. On May 27, Báez tapped a weak grounder to third that should have ended the inning. Instead, it generated one of the most memorable, fun, and egregious bloopers of 2021.
Let’s review: Pirates third baseman Erik González fields the ball and fires it across the diamond as the runner from second, Willson Contreras (more on him soon!), cuts across the frame. The throw pulls the first baseman, Will Craig, off the bag, and his momentum carries him down the line toward Báez, whom he resolves to tag out. Báez reverses course back toward home plate; Craig inexplicably follows him; the aforementioned Contreras dashes for home; and Craig instinctively tosses the ball to the catcher to try to nab him. Contreras slides. Everyone turns to the home-plate ump for the call. Safe. Whew. Everyone takes a beat. Then Báez, whose nickname is El Mago (the Magician), takes off toward an unmanned first base. He ends up on second after an error, and he goes on to score on a single by the following batter.
If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is! All Craig had to do was step on first base, though there’s plenty of blame to go around; rarely does a single play distill an entire franchise’s recent history like this. But in the year-end spirit of turning the page, we’ll focus less on the Pirates’ institutional failure and more on the chaos and joy of a baseball highlight that I could not stop watching. Here’s hoping for more goofy baseball in 2022.
Shohei Ohtani Turns an Angels Broadcast Into a One-Man Show
Ben Lindbergh: Weeks after Shohei Ohtani’s unanimous MVP award win, I remain amazed not just by how well he played this season, but by how much he played. The Angels’ two-way wonder recorded 1,172 combined plate appearances and batters faced, the highest single-season total of this century. And that’s just the work we saw: Imagine how much hidden sweat went into all the extra scouting reports, practice sessions, workouts, and recovery routines that Ohtani’s double duty demanded.
We got a glimpse of that toll on July 6, when the Angels telecast continued to show Ohtani between innings. Ohtani pitched the top of the first against the Red Sox, finishing the frame with a nifty snag of a comebacker. Any other starting pitcher in an American League game would have spent the rest of the inning sitting and sipping a sports drink. But Ohtani, due up second in the Angels’ half, was a whirlwind of activity from the moment he returned to the dugout. He put on his shin guard, elbow pad, and batting gloves; stuck his baserunning gloves in his pocket; grabbed his helmet and bat; and headed out to the on-deck circle. A few minutes after he walked off the field, he was back at home plate, where he hit an RBI double.
In that short clip, Ohtani reacts quickly to retire a hitter who would get MVP votes, then drives in a run against a starter who would get Cy Young votes. Both plays are impressive. But don’t sleep on the low-profile prep in the middle. Of all the highlights one could choose to represent Ohtani’s 2021, one in which he’s partly not playing might seem a strange choice. But being a two-way player doesn’t just require rare physical skill; it also requires the toughness to endure a unique grind. The less spectacular labor between the brilliant exploits helps explain why what Ohtani achieved is almost impossible—and why he alone was up to the task.
Kirk Cousins Lines Up Under His Guard
Arjuna Ramgopal: Does anything sum up the wacky 2021 NFL season better than Kirk Cousins—the most overpaid, average quarterback who ever lived—lining up behind his right guard and then having to burn a timeout? Imagine: It’s fourth-and-goal, you’re down by eight points, and there are nine minutes left in the game. You’ve been playing in the NFL since 2012, and have been a full-time starter since 2015. You’ve been on the Vikings for four seasons. And still! Behold:
Here’s Kirk Cousins trying to take a snap from the right guard pic.twitter.com/5QSj91A2ta— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) November 29, 2021
I didn’t know whether to laugh or hang my head in shame. In case you don’t know what happened next: The Vikings did not win this game.
During a season in which nothing makes sense, this was a moment that was both entirely expected and totally dumbfounding. When everything else feels off-kilter, we can always count on Kirk Cousins.
Robert Hunt Scores the Greatest Touchdown That Wasn’t
Logan Murdock: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched this clip, but I can tell you why I’ve watched it so often. Watching linemen do anything athletic brings me immense joy and fluffiness inside. I don’t know Robert Hunt personally, but I do know that he’s the most athletic person to ever step foot on a strip of well-manicured grass. Did you see how effortlessly he transitioned from a blocker to Walter Payton 5.0?
Do me a favor the next time you’re bored: Go to a football field—any football field—and tell the coach on said field that he should put his biggest lineman in the backfield and call running plays for the next 15 minutes. He may look perplexed, but don’t be deterred. I promise you, by the end of that 15-minute stretch, you’ll be the happiest you’ve been in a long time, a joy that will be matched by the coach, who will have found his new best player.
That’s how I felt when I watched Hunt rumble and stumble toward the first touchdown of his career. And I don’t have to tell you how mad I was when the play got called back, because you already know.
Mathieu van der Poel Returns to His Home Planet
Michael Baumann: Cycling is a sport of subtext. The moments that separate the champions from the also-rans unfold slowly, resulting from imperceptible nuances in strategy or differences in ability. Star riders pick their battles carefully, choosing events with formats and terrain that suit their strengths. One exception is Strade Bianche, a one-day tour through the Tuscan hills, a third of it on the white gravel roads that give the race its name. This year, almost all of the sport’s superstars not only showed up, but hung on until the decisive moment seven miles from the finish.
That moment came courtesy of Mathieu van der Poel, a man whose most endearing quality is sometimes self-defeating: In contrast to his more conservative and calculating rivals, he will sometimes undertake low-probability, long-range attacks just because he gets bored.
With just over seven miles to go in the race, van der Poel attacked from a lead group of superstars. (The top seven finishers include two world champions, two Tour de France winners, and an Olympic gold medalist.) And not a gradual, grinding, methodical attack—he hit the loud pedal and left the sport’s elite quite literally, thanks to the gravel, in his dust. Only Julian Alaphilippe and Egan Bernal could catch back onto his tail, and with a few corners to go in the race van der Poel once again mashed the gas, spun the world backward, and soloed to victory.
In the ensuing months, van der Poel would deliver the animating moves of the biggest races in the world, winning a thrilling stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, wearing the yellow jersey at his first Tour de France, and finishing on the podium at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. But the first—and my favorite—moment was that magical afternoon in the hills around Siena.
Julius Randle Returns Hope to MSG
Daniel Chin: One of the defining moments of a resurgent season for the Knicks arrived on April 21, when Julius Randle torched the Atlanta Hawks for 40 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists in an overtime win at Madison Square Garden. Randle knocked down stepback 3s and tough fadeaway jumpers late to help lead his team to its eighth straight victory and sole possession of fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
But the highlight of the night came after the buzzer sounded, with only stragglers of an already pandemic-reduced crowd left to witness it:
With the serenade of MVP chants in the background, Randle calmly answered a series of postgame questions from MSG’s Rebecca Haarlow. At the end of the interview, Randle turned toward the fans who had stayed to the very end and made a proclamation to the entire city: “New York, we here!” Those four words became the team’s motto for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs, where the Knicks would fall short against the same Hawks squad led by a new Garden villain in Trae Young. And yet, even the early postseason exit couldn’t take away from a thrilling and unexpected Knicks campaign that brought renewed hope for a fan base that’s ravenous for more.
Ben Solak: I have watched this video at least once a day since it dropped.
I’m not exaggerating. It’s better than a cup of coffee in the morning. It’s such a beautiful reminder of fandom’s payoff: why all the hours burned watching and caring and bemoaning are worth it; why we willingly share in the heartbreaks endured by strangers playing a game at a higher level than we ever could. Because, once in a blue moon, our favorite team beats the Boston Celtics in double-overtime in the NBA season opener at Madison Square Garden. And in that moment, we become loud and bright and unhinged and immortal.
So, yes, the Knicks are here, baby. (They are 14-18 since this game.) KD does regret not coming to the Knicks. (He’s second in current MVP odds right now while playing for the Brooklyn Nets.) Tom Brady is a bitch. (He’s tied for second in MVP odds, and he doesn’t even play in Boston anymore.) But none of this matters. It doesn’t matter because we all would have joined into that boisterous throng of delusion if given the opportunity, clamoring for the microphone, screaming the first insane take that came to our one-track minds. That is sports, and that is fandom, and it is the best-worst and worst-best thing in the entire world.
Fresh out the Garden, baby. We taking it all the way.
Steven Ruiz: Look, I’m irrational when it comes to Cam Newton. I’m not going to deny not that. Nor will I deny that a meaningless touchdown from Week 10 likely doesn’t belong on a list of the year’s best sports moments. But it was the peak of my year as a sports fan, and that’s enough for me. It was also the first time the Panthers—the team I grew up rooting for—had provided me with any semblance of joy since Cam’s first stint with the team ended abruptly in 2019.
In the weeks since Newton’s return, coach Matt Rhule’s incompetence (and Newton’s poor play) has stripped the fan base of any optimism created by the signing. But we’ll always have that first touchdown. We’ll always have that clip of Cam ripping off his helmet in ecstasy and screaming “I’m back” directly into the camera.
In that moment, I was ready to believe the pre-injury version of Cam was, indeed, back. Of course, his subsequent performances have served as a harsh reminder that we will never see that version of him again. I don’t think I care, though. He could throw a million interceptions and Carolina could lose every game he starts; just seeing him score touchdowns in a Panthers uniform makes up for all the bad plays happening around those highlights.
Kai Havertz Becomes a Champions League Hero
Kaelen Jones: At just 21 years old, Kai Havertz scored the Champions League–winning goal:
Outside of winning the World Cup, scoring the game-winner in the Champions League final is the greatest accomplishment possible for a soccer player. Yet the Chelsea forward delivered a post-match interview that was arguably just as epic:
"To be honest, right now I don't give a **** on that, we won the ******* Champions League!"— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 13, 2021
Kai Havertz's iconic Champions League final interview pic.twitter.com/lYq2AAWyTF
The moment makes it easy to forget how, prior to capturing their European title, Chelsea suffered through turmoil. Despite splurging a ridiculous $292 million on new players in the summer of 2020, they fired manager Frank Lampard—a club icon—in January. Many of Chelsea’s signings, including Havertz, underwhelmed. Their best player, N’Golo Kanté, missed a month due to injury. Despite all this, for the second time in Chelsea’s history, a manager who was hired midseason engineered a turnaround that resulted in a Champions League title.
Thomas Tuchel—who led Paris Saint-Germain to their first Champions League final in 2020 and was fired four months later—lost only five times in his first 30 matches with Chelsea. In Champions League play, Chelsea conceded a record-low four goals, defeating Atlético Madrid, FC Porto, and Real Madrid to reach the final against Manchester City. To a neutral, Chelsea’s 1-0 triumph might have been relatively boring; Christian Pulisic becoming the first American male to appear in a Champions League final and Senegal international Edouard Mendy becoming the first African goalkeeper to win it may have seemed like nothing more than footnotes. That would overlook Chelsea’s bumpy road to glory, which made Havertz’s breakthrough that much sweeter.
Francisco Lindor Becomes a Subway Series God
Bobby Wagner: A home run in a big spot is among the most sublime things in professional sports. Even with the explosion of home runs that has characterized the past half decade of MLB, reasonable fans can’t expect a home run at the beginning of any plate appearance. The baseball season is too damn long to set up that much disappointment. That’s what made Francisco Lindor’s three-homer game against the Yankees on September 12 so transcendent, even in a Mets season defined by disappointment (and by subsequent Steve Cohen tweets about that disappointment). After one, you cheered. After two, you wondered. After three, you questioned reality.
Lindor’s first shot came on a hanging breaking ball. His next was a 107-mph, 436-foot blast to dead center on a changeup low and away, followed by the most iconic image of the 2021 Mets’ season: Lindor turning to Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres and left fielder Giancarlo Stanton and putting his fingers to his mouth as if to whistle. It became clear only after the game that Lindor and the Mets had taken exception to the Yankees whistling a night earlier to indicate the pitch selection of Mets starter Taijuan Walker, who had been tipping his pitches.
When Stanton homered just one inning later and stopped while rounding third base to trash talk Lindor, prompting a benches-clearing brawl, the stakes of this contest reached heights that no regular-season baseball games have business reaching. That’s why Lindor’s third home run—a 109-mph, 382-foot laser off a 97-mph Chad Green fastball—blew the metaphorical roof off Citi Field.
The ensuing pandemonium, with the stadium erupting like a jet engine and shirtless fans jumping on the dugout while waving a Puerto Rican flag, turned a seemingly normal Subway Series for the down-and-out Mets into the best baseball moment of the 2021 regular season.
The Wild Basketball Game in Space Jam: A New Legacy
Keith Fujimoto: My 2021 sports calendar featured a heavy dose of Space Jam: A New Legacy. My 4-year-old daughter had a lot to do with it. She absolutely loved the movie, so I had to pretend I absolutely loved it too. I prefer my Space Jam with Bill Murray, but the sequel is fine. Thankfully the new iteration has an incomprehensibly wild game as its big set piece.
This basketball game includes: Gossamer as a mop, Dame Time losing to Father Time, bootleg White Walkers, Don Cheadle as a character called Al-G Rhythm, awkward father-son dynamics, LeBron and Lola reenacting the famous LeBron and Dwyane Wade meme, and a 1,002-point halftime lead. Oh yeah, and Michael (B.) Jordan, can’t forget about him. A list of the weird shit in this movie would be longer than a CVS receipt.
Is the game realistic? No. Is it entertaining? Absolutely. Maybe it’s time for villains to stop sending NBA stars into a vortex to play some otherworldly high-stakes basketball game, considering they’re now 0-2. Still, will there be another installment? Yes, money talks, and by the time that my barely 6-month-old twins turn 4, I’m sure I’ll be typing a blurb about Space Jam 3.
The All-Time Double Cross in Survivor
Shea Serrano: My favorite sports moment of 2021 happened on Survivor. The settings were as such: By the 10th episode of the season, Shan, the smartest, most intuitive, and most intimidating player on a cast stuffed with smart, intuitive, intimidating players, had fortified herself off from danger. She’d spent weeks arranging the pieces and people of the game in such a manner that there was nothing between her and a spot in the coveted final three. (With just eight people remaining, she not only had four other players on her side, but she also had an immunity idol in her pocket she could play if she ever caught a whiff of betrayal in the air.) It was, across the expanse of Survivor’s 41 seasons, as close to a positional lock for a spot in the final tribal council as anyone has ever arranged. Until it wasn’t.
Ricard, Shan’s second-in-command and a master of stealth, saw what Shan had built for herself, recognized that she would be unbeatable in a final three bake-off, and decided to set it all on fire. After winning both the reward challenge and the immunity challenge, he plotted. He began floating seeds of information (and misinformation) out into the wind, subtly enough that they sneaked past Shan’s radar undetected. He slithered and angled and masterminded, every single time with exactly the right amount of touch and at exactly the right temperature. By the end of the episode, (1) Shan, the most powerful person in the game, had been ousted; (2) Ricard had stepped into a bigger position of power; and (3) the entire game had been upended. It was Cypher turning on Morpheus; Donnie turning on Lefty; Fredo turning on Michael. Ricard turning on Shan was a betrayal of the highest order. Shan, despite having been run over by an invisible train, could do nothing but admire Ricard’s gamesmanship. “Ricard,” she said as she prepared to leave, “you have my vote for a million dollars.”
DeVonta Smith Completes His Case As the College Receiver GOAT
Ben Glicksman: My favorite genre of highlight is athletes embarrassing their competition so badly that it looks like they’re playing at the wrong level of the sport. Think of Reggie Bush’s USC heyday—or for the real ones, think of Noel Devine’s high school mixtape.
The best version of this highlight in 2021 involved Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith. Except in this case, Smith’s competition was not a bunch of scrawny high schoolers going up against a budding superstar. It was an Ohio State defense full of future NFL talent playing in the College Football Playoff national championship.
The statistics speak for themselves: Smith racked up 12 catches for 215 yards with three touchdowns in the first half before exiting Bama’s 52-24 victory early in the third quarter with a hand injury. Still, to truly grasp the extent of Smith’s dominance, you have to see it. This looked like two hours of Seth Rogen chasing after Michael Cera in Superbad.
Smith’s college career was remarkable. He became the first wideout to win the Heisman Trophy since 1991, and he recorded the fifth-most receiving touchdowns (46) and 23rd-most receiving yards (3,965) in the FBS all time. He not only saved his best for last; when it comes to the pantheon of great receivers in college football history, he left no doubt.
Novak Djokovic Bolsters His GOAT Résumé
Alex Stamas: The GOAT debate in men’s tennis has largely centered on three players: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. With his on-court efforts in 2021, Djokovic may have put that debate to rest.
Not only did Djokovic tie the men’s career record by winning his 20th major singles championship, but he also won three of the four slams in the same season for the third time—a feat that Federer has also done three times, and that Nadal has done just once. Djokovic captured his ninth Australian Open title, an all-time record, and his second French Open title, making him only the third man to win all four majors at least twice. (During that run, he notched his second win over Nadal at Roland Garros—a venue where Nadal has lost just three times ever.) Djokovic also won his third consecutive Wimbledon title, and his sixth overall.
Djokovic has winning head-to-head records against both Federer and Nadal, so the thing that prevented him from being considered the men’s tennis GOAT was the major titles. With his dominant 2021, Djokovic has now matched both in that regard—to go with his 37 Masters 1000 titles (a record) and his seventh year-end world no. 1 ranking (another record).
Patrick McEnroe, at least, is ready to make the call.
Say it with me people….— Patrick McEnroe (@PatrickMcEnroe) November 7, 2021
Novak Djokovic is the greatest male tennis player ….ever
Buster Posey, in All His Glory
Claire McNear: It was, to lean on the cliché, a storybook moment. 2019: The aging star, dogged by injuries, his best days seemingly behind him. 2020: A full-season opt-out, whispers of a Buster Posey–less future. And 2021: Posey stepping into the box on Opening Day and sending the third pitch he saw out over the left field wall.
Could that first home run have foretold everything that was to come over the next six months: a return to form that had so recently seemed gone for good, a seventh All-Star nod, and an unlikely campaign that led the Giants to an MLB-best 107 wins? Well, no. But add in a tragic loss to the umpires (sorry, Dodgers) in the NLDS and a retirement—in a blaze of glory, on his own terms, the sort of thing the greats of any sport almost never get to have—and it has the feel of a ’90s Kevin Costner vehicle. Every great love has its meet-cute.
A Cat Runs Onto the Field at Yankee Stadium
Lex Pryor: You do not have it pinned. You may think you have it pinned, but you do not. You are not capable of pinning it. It pins you; you do not pin it. This is what I would’ve said to the fifth, ninth, or 11th groundskeeper at Yankee Stadium in August before each attempted (and invariably failed) to capture the Greatest Cat of 2021 in the most wonderful sports moment of the year. I would’ve told them that they were not dealing with an inebriated streaker or a simple-minded pigeon. They were not dealing with a possum, like the one that lurched into the outfield at Oakland Coliseum a few years back. No. They were dealing with a cat. Among the greatest of cats. I would have said: You, dear sweet groundskeeper, are no match for this specimen.
Here are the times when the cat made the groundskeepers look foolish, chronologically:
- When the cat ran straight into left field in the first place. (It had been pacing up and down foul territory on the third-base side, but the crew made it appear as if they hadn’t really noticed.)
- When the cat sat down in the middle of the center-field warning track for approximately five seconds without so much as flinching.
- When the groundskeepers decided to run out onto the field in khaki cargo shorts, and the cat decided to run in the opposite direction.
- When the cat evaded four groundskeepers by running in circles.
- When the cat shattered at least three of the groundskeepers’ ankles with a series of devastating jukes.
- When the groundskeepers waddled after the cat, which was loose again, because of said jukes.
- When Yankees broadcaster Paul O’Neill said “no chance” as the groundskeepers tried to approach the cat once more.
- When the cat started to climb the outfield fence.
- When the head groundskeeper tried to get someone from the Orioles to open up the bullpen, so the cat could run in, and the person from the Orioles declined.
In any of these moments I would have told the groundskeepers that they were out of their league. I would’ve told them to listen to the crowd. They are calling the cat “MVP!” They are screaming, “Let’s go cat!” They are, in fact, booing you. I would’ve told them the truth: This is now the cat’s game, the cat’s world, and we are merely living in it. I would’ve told them what I am telling you: They should just sit back and watch. There’s nothing they can do. They ought to just enjoy the show.
A Monkey Becomes the Biggest Story in College Football
David Lara: The Texas Longhorns’ first season under head coach Steve Sarkisian was less than stellar. As an alumnus and longtime fan, I can tell you that it sucked. You might think the defining memory of the season would be the team’s inability to finish games. It was not. It was a monkey attacking a trick-or-treater on Halloween—one of the weirdest and most unforgettable sports stories of the year.
How does this relate to Texas? Well, dear reader, buckle in. As it turns out, the monkey belongs to Longhorns assistant head coach Jeff Banks and his girlfriend, Danielle Thomas. Thomas, a former exotic dancer who went by the stage name “Pole Assassin,” sometimes featured the monkey as part of her routine, and kept it as an emotional support animal. On Halloween, this became national news when the monkey bit a child who had wandered onto Banks’s property.
First, tweets about the incident began to go viral. Then Thomas took to Twitter to defend her pet, saying that the child had entered an area of the property that was off limits. She even posted a video showing the monkey’s enclosure. (Thomas later deleted all of her social media accounts.) By December, a couple had sued Banks and Thomas seeking damages for gross negligence and defamation. “Instead of giving a high five, Danielle Thomas’s monkey aggressively bit down on [the child’s] hand and refused to let go,” the lawsuit read. “[The child] was forced to manually pry the monkey’s jaw open.”
The Longhorns closed out the season 5-7, even losing a game to Kansas. But the only thing that will endure is MonkeyGate, an extremely bizarre story that dominated Texas football conversations much like opposing teams dominated Texas in the second half.
Two High Jumpers Remind the World What Joy in Sports Looks Like
Rodger Sherman: They say a tie is like kissing your sister, and sports have elaborate tiebreaking procedures to prevent split championships. Take the high jump at the Summer Olympics: If two jumpers tie, the winner is decided by a two-tiered countback system based on how many jumps each jumper missed and when. If the jumpers are still perfectly tied after that, there is a jump-off.
Such a scenario unfolded at the Tokyo games, involving Italian Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatari Mutaz Essa Barshim. Both jumpers cleared every height with no misses until the bar was raised to 2.39 meters, at which point each missed three consecutive jumps. This was the moment these men had trained for their entire lives—a jump-off to win an Olympic gold medal. But Tamberi and Barshim weren’t interested in beating each other. Despite coming from different countries that are thousands of miles apart, Tamberi and Barshim had developed an unlikely friendship on the competitive high jumping scene. Tamberi attended Barshim’s wedding in Sweden, and had blogged about how “my friend Mutaz” had helped him through a recovery from a broken ankle.
The two were deadlocked, their legs were dead tired, and they realized that they could share greatness. An official called Tamberi and Barshim over to discuss the tiebreaker procedure, at which point Barshim asked, “Can we have two golds?” The official responded, “It’s possible …” and continued detailing their options—but Tamberi and Barshim were no longer listening. They were already celebrating, with Tamberi wrapping his stringy legs around the friend he didn’t want to beat:
There have been dozens of Olympic high jump champions, and although they were all great, I’ve forgotten about most of them. But I’ll never forget these two champions, who chose to make history in their own way. They say a tie is like kissing your sister—but when the two best high jumpers in the world are both exactly as good as each other, a tie is more like leaping into the arms of your friend to celebrate your two gold medals.
Denmark Reminds Everyone What Sports Are All About
Aric Jenkins: It was the scariest moment I can recall watching on live TV: During one of the opening matches of Euro 2020 between Denmark and Finland, Christian Eriksen, a brilliant attacking midfielder for Inter Milan and the Danes, suffered cardiac arrest and collapsed on the pitch in the 43rd minute. Horrifying broadcast images showed medical personnel racing onto the field to perform CPR and defibrillation. Denmark team doctor Morten Boesen would later say Eriksen “was gone,” but miraculously, he was revived and today continues to progress toward a full recovery.
Eriksen’s teammates wouldn’t know that positive news lied ahead, though. While the terrifying incident played out on the field, Denmark’s players formed a protective circle around their teammate, many of them visibly distressed, fighting back tears. After Eriksen was taken off the field and stabilized at a nearby hospital, the controversial decision was made to resume the match just a couple hours later. Denmark, badly shaken by the day’s events, lost 1-0. It would drop its next match to tournament favorites Belgium. With just one game left in the group phase against Russia, all signs pointed to an early exit for the Danes.
But then something astonishing happened: Denmark walloped the Rusians, 4-1, to advance to the knockout round by a matter of goal difference.
The Danes’ Cinderella run didn’t stop there: Galvanized by Eriksen’s story, home support in Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium, and encouragement from across the globe, Denmark swatted aside Wales 4-0 and edged the Czech Republic 2-1 to advance to the semifinals. After taking the lead against England, the Danes finally fell in extra time.
Still, Denmark wasn’t expected to make it that far, even before Eriksen’s collapse. Doing so illustrated tenacity, courage, and togetherness, all of which were required to progress so deep against all odds. The outpouring of global tributes to both Eriksen and the Danish team reinforced why soccer, and sport at large, is adored by so many. In the words of ESPN commentator Derek Rae: It was “the Danish summer of love.”