Most memorable sports moments of 2016: Highs & lows, from 40 to 21

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Sunday December 18th, 2016

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ranks the most memorable sports moments of the year.

40. Will Smith shot and killed in New Orleans

Late on the evening of April 9 former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith, a star on the 2010 Super Bowl championship team, was shot and killed following a traffic incident in the city’s Lower Garden District. Cardell Hayes, a former high school football star and current semipro player, admitted shooting Smith eight times, but maintained he only fired in self-defense. In a December trial that rivets the city, Hayes is convicted of manslaughter. He faces sentencing on Feb. 17. — Richard O'Brien

39. Zach LaVine bests Aaron Gordon in epic dunk contest

The dunk contest made an exciting return in 2016, as Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon went dunk-for-dunk in one of the most memorable competitions in years. Gordon performed what was likely the dunk of the night, jumping over Orlando’s mascot and putting the ball under his legs before slamming it home. LaVine, though, ultimately won his second straight title, thanks in large part to a windmill jam from the free-throw line. — Rohan Nadkarni

38. Lamar Jackson's breakout season

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson grabbed the attention of the college football world—and landed on the cover of SI—after he threw for 216 yards and a touchdown and ran for 146 yards and four touchdowns in the Cardinals’ 63-20 pasting of Florida State on Sept. 17. The sophomore from Pompano Beach, Fla., would throw for 3,390 yards and 30 touchdowns and run for 1,538 yards and 21 touchdowns and become the youngest player to win the Heisman Trophy. — Andy Staples

37. Brazilian men take home soccer gold at Rio Games

Fútbol-mad Brazil had never won gold in Olympic soccer. With that in mind, it brought in reinforcements for the 2016 Rio Games, tabbing national superstar Neymar as one of the designated senior players in the under-23 tournament. The decision paid off in the final against Germany. In PKs, Neymar converted the decisive shot, delivering the long-awaited gold medal. — Ben Eagle

36. Jordan Spieth collapses, fails to capture second straight Masters

The 22-year-old had a second consecutive green jacket in his grasp on the back nine on Sunday, but stunningly, he wilted on the famed par-3 12th hole. After dumping his tee shot into Rae’s Creek, Spieth took a drop and, in a surreal scene, flubbed the ensuing pitch shot back into the drink. Emerging from the carnage was Englishman Danny Willett, who didn’t blink over his final three holes once gifted the lead. — Jeff Ritter

35. Jimmie Johnson wins 7th NASCAR Sprint Cup championship

With a masterful move on a late restart, Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag in the final race of the season and with it the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. It is the seventh Cup title of Johnson’s career, tying him with the sport’s two greatest icons, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, for the most ever. Richard O'Brien

34. Laremy Tunsil's account tweets gas mask video before NFL draft

Ole Miss left tackle Laremy Tunsil was ticketed for the top 10 of the 2016 NFL draft as the consensus top player at his position. But moments before the first pick was announced, a video of him smoking a bong through a gas mask was posted to his Twitter account, sending the draft into chaos. Who would sabotage a promising player’s public image on the most important night of his professional life? In the end, the Dolphins scooped up Tunsil at pick No. 13, but only after two agonizing hours of confusion and misinformation—during which time two other offensive linemen heard their names called first. — Eric Single

33. Serena Williams ties Steffi Graf with 22nd career Grand Slam title

After late-round defeats in the previous three majors, Serena Williams played a near-flawless match, defeating Angelique Kerber 7–5, 6–3 in a rematch of the 2016 Australian Open final to win her seventh Wimbledon title and 22nd career major, equaling Steffi Graf’s Open Era record. Serena, who had lost two consecutive major finals for the first time in her career prior to Wimbledon, met the moment, serving 13 aces and holding her serve for the entire match. It would be her only major title of the year, but surely another page on her GOAT résumé. — Jamie Lisanti

32. Baylor mishandles allegations of sexual assault

After a nearly eight-month investigation by Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton, Baylor in May was found to have mishandled several allegations of sexual assault. The investigation was spurred by the conviction of defensive end Sam Ukwuachu, who had been allowed to participate in team activities after being indicted on two counts of sexual assault. In the months that followed, the numbers grew; 17 women reported sexual or domestic assaults involving 19 players. In the wake of the Pepper Hamilton report, Baylor removed coach Art Briles, athletic director Ian McCaw and university president and chancellor Ken Starr from their respective positions. — Joan Niesen

31. David Ortiz retires

After 20 seasons, three World Series rings, 541 career home runs and countless chants of “PA-PI” from the Fenway Park bleachers, longtime Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz announced his retirement from baseball. But Ortiz didn’t go out quietly. The Dominican superstar put together one of the greatest final seasons in MLB history, hitting .315/.401/.620 with 38 home runs and an AL-high 127 RBIs—all in his age-40 season. That earned Ortiz his 10th All-Star team nod as well as a sixth-place finish in the AL MVP voting, and he helped Boston win its first division title since 2013. — Jon Tayler

30. Deflategate officially ends

545 days after Deflategate began, it ended with a Facebook message from Tom Brady stating he would “no longer proceed with the legal process.” Brady was simply out of legal options. The NFL won back its four-game suspension after the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned Judge Richard Berman's earlier decision to erase the suspension. Brady’s appeal was rejected, meaning his only remaining option was the Supreme Court, which most observers viewed as a long-shot. — Melissa Jacobs

29. Penguins win Stanley Cup

After a middling start, the Penguins replaced coach Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan, a move that sparked the team to the fourth-best record in the league at season’s end. Rookie goalie Matt Murray and revived winger Phil Kessel led the charge, while Sidney Crosby found his groove en route to a six-game series win over the San Jose Sharks, the franchise’s second Stanley Cup in seven seasons. — Michael Blinn

28. Sparks outlast Lynx in WNBA Finals for the ages

One of the best basketball games of the year. The Los Angeles Sparks captured their third title with a 77–76 victory over the Minnesota Lynx in a winner-take-all Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, a nail-biter featuring multiple lead changes in the final minute. The game was not without controversy, though, as the WNBA admitted a late, pivotal basket by the Sparks came after the shot clock had expired. — Rohan Nadkarni

27. Daytona 500 comes down to the wire

NASCAR’s most storied race often comes down to the finish, but never like this. In the closing seconds of the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin narrowly edged Martin Truex Jr. for the win. How narrow? One hundredth of a second—one of the closest finishes in Daytona history. — Ben Eagle

26. Hope Solo slams Swedish women's soccer team after Olympic loss

Following the U.S. women’s national team’s loss to Sweden in the Olympics, Hope Solo didn’t mince words. “[W]e played a bunch of cowards. The better team did not win today. I strongly believe that,” she said. When asked to elaborate she said: "Sweden dropped off. They didn't want to open play. They didn't want to pass the ball. They didn't want to play great soccer.” The comments were deemed “unacceptable” by U.S. Soccer, which proceeded to terminate Solo’s national team contract and ban her for six months. — Ben Eagle

25. Dustin Johnson overcomes potential penalty, wins U.S. Open

Johnson had made a career of winning on smaller stages while falling short in major championships. Oakmont was his moment—but not without controversy. On the 5th hole green, Johnson’s ball appeared to move about the length of a dimple as DJ’s putter hovered over it. A rules official approached Johnson on the 12th hole and informed him that the play would be reviewed after the round, forcing the 31-year-old to play on without knowing exactly where he stood. No matter. DJ stuffed his approach on 18 and tapped in for birdie and a four-shot win. Inside the clubhouse, a one-shot penalty was (controversially) assessed, and it forever stands as a three-shot victory margin. — Jeff Ritter

24. UConn women's basketball wins fourth straight title

It didn’t have the iconic shots of UNC vs. Villanova, but UConn’s win over Syracuse in the women’s national title game may have been the most historically significant championship of the year. Name another title game that featured this many records. The Huskies’ fourth straight title gave coach Geno Auriemma a record 11th career national title (one more than John Wooden) and made the UConn seniors the winningest class in women’s basketball history. And let’s not forget the top dog on the team, Breanna Stewart, who became the first (and possibly last) player to win four straight Final Four MOP awards. — Ben Eagle

23. Arnold Palmer dies at 87

He was known as “the King,” and his legacy is immense and varied beyond his golf exploits. (A beverage company and a children’s hospital, to name two.) Ultimately, he will be remembered simply for his kindness and generosity. A sportsman in every sense. — Jeff Ritter

22. Vin Scully retires

“It’s time for Dodger baseball!” There will be Dodger baseball again in 2017, but the man who made those words his signature during a remarkable 67-year broadcasting career will not be a part of it. Vin Scully retired at age 88 after almost seven decades calling games for the franchise, first in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles. He debuted in 1950—the same year Connie Mack, born in 1862, retired as A’s manager—calling games for the Boys of Summer: Jackie, Pee Wee and Duke. He left in 2016 as the biggest star of all at Chavez Ravine and the last link to baseball’s Golden Age. — Ted Keith

21. Despite injury, Cristiano Ronaldo wins first international title with Portugal

Cristiano Ronaldo’s night couldn’t have started much worse. Portugal’s all-time leading goal scorer took a knock to the knee from France’s Dimitri Payet in the eighth minute of the Euro 2016 final. After twice attempting to play despite agonizing pain, an emotional Ronaldo finally allowed himself to be substituted in the 25th minute. That could have ended Portugal’s chances of winning the title, but Éder’s brilliant extra-time goal lifted Portugal to an unexpected European Championship, giving Ronaldo his first title at the international level. — Alexander Abnos

MORE MOMENTS: 116 - 101 | 100 - 81 | 80 - 61 | 60 - 41 | 40 -21 | 20 - 1

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