Every year in sports is replete with improbable upsets, fantastic finishes and compelling narratives – and 2016 was no different. We witnessed highly competitive winner-take-all games across every major sport, some of which ended championship droughts spanning generations. We also saw some of our favorite (or most hated, depending on which side you’re on) players retire, allowing us to celebrate and appreciate their storied careers. There was a lot that happened on and off the field of play in 2016, but we’ve got you covered with the four biggest storylines below.
The Cleveland Cavaliers recover from 3-1 series deficit to stun the Golden State Warriors and capture first NBA championship
The most stunning upset of the year came from the NBA, where the Cavaliers erased a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Warriors in a finals rematch. The comeback was unprecedented, as no team in NBA history had previously recovered from such a deficit to win the finals. And considering they achieved the feat against a record-breaking, 73-win team with the reigning two-time MVP in Stephen Curry, it’s even more unbelievable.
LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were the primary drivers of the comeback, as the duo delivered virtuoso performances in Games 5 and 6 to force a final game – and that final game lived up to the hype. Game 7 was a back-and-forth affair and featured numerous indelible moments, including James’ pivotal chase-down block, Irving’s cold-blooded dagger from behind the arc and Kevin Love’s final defensive stand.
Ultimately, it all added up to the Cavaliers capturing the first championship title for the city of Cleveland in 52 years, a period with seemingly endless heartbreak and misfortune. The result also impacted the NBA landscape, as it opened the door for Kevin Durant to join the Warriors and possibly create a Cavs/Warriors rivalry reminiscent of the Celtics/Lakers in the ’80s.
Athletes use status as public figures to raise awareness and take a stand for social justice
Athletes have used their status in society to support various causes since forever. But this year – with a contentious presidential election dominating the headlines – athletes were especially emboldened to lend their voices and use their platform for social activism.
It started in July at the ESPYS, where Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James took the stage to encourage their contemporaries to be actively involved in their communities. They cited past greats like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown as examples of people who were consciously aware of the problems plaguing the country and were unafraid to take action when necessary.
The spirit of social change spread to the NFL, where Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest against police brutality. Kaepernick’s protest was extremely polarizing, drawing both criticism and praise from every corner. It also managed to spark dialogue about police brutality, mass incarceration, freedom of expression and even the relatively unknown history of the country’s beloved anthem. And just last month, Anquan Boldin led a small group of players to Capitol Hill to express similar concerns about policing and suggest ways to improve race relations. But those are only a few examples of many, and hopefully it continues into 2017.
The Chicago Cubs win the World Series to end historic 108-year title drought
Billy goats. Black cats. Bartman. In one fell swoop the Cubs erased the most powerful curse in professional sports and won the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908. But in typical Cubs fashion, they had to make their fans sweat a little.
Over the 162-game marathon that is MLB’s regular season, the Cubs left no doubt they were the team to beat. However, they eventually found themselves facing a 3-1 series deficit to the scrappy Cleveland Indians on the grand stage of the World Series. Chicago’s powerful offense was neutralized by the stellar pitching performances from Cleveland’s ace starter Corey Kluber and versatile reliever Andrew Miller. It seemed like the Indians were destined to continue the momentum of the Cavaliers and bring the city its second title of 2016.
Instead, it was the Cubs who channeled the Cavs, winning Games 5 and 6 to set the stage for an epic conclusion to the Fall Classic. Game 7 can only be described as a thriller, with both teams withstanding significant swings in momentum. Ultimately, the Cubs emerged from the 10-inning slugfest as champions. And considering the primary contributors on the team are in their mid-20s – Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Javier Baez – there is now talk of a possible dynasty in the making. The Cubs may soon have to relinquish the “Lovable Losers” moniker.
Numerous legends walk away from their respective sports
We always hear that Father Time is undefeated because it’s true. No matter how physically gifted a player is there will eventually come a time when his body breaks down. That simple fact means that even the greatest players have finite careers. But this year an unusual amount of legends walked away from their respective sports.
The NBA in particular was hit hard with the departures of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Combined the trio won 11 championships and earned 78 All-NBA and All-Defensive honors. And since they are all undoubtedly first-ballot Hall of Famers, the 2021 class will arguably be the greatest of all time.
In the NFL, Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson and Marshawn Lynch all hung up their cleats. Manning’s retirement was expected due to a significant decline in his arm strength leading to a decrease in overall production. But thanks in large part to the Denver Broncos’ dominant defense, he was able to hoist the Lombardi trophy before calling it a career. The retirements of Johnson and Lynch, on the other hand, were more of a surprise because they could still contribute, even if not at All-Pro levels.
And lastly we can’t forget about Alex Rodriguez, whose tumultuous career with the New York Yankees came to a close somewhat unceremoniously. The Yankees all but forced Rodriguez to retire without even waiting until the end of the season. Rodriguez’s history with performance enhancing drugs will impact his Hall of Fame potential, but his overall talent is undeniable.
You’ve read our list, so now we want to know your opinion on the biggest sports storylines of 2016. Let us know in the comment section.
Featured Photo: Image Group LA/ABC via Getty Images