Most memorable sports moments of 2016: Highs & lows, from 20 to 1

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Saturday December 17th, 2016

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

20. Zika virus dominates chatter in leadup to Games

In the months leading up the Rio Games the conversation didn’t center around Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. It centered around Zika. The virus, which has been linked to birth defects in fetuses and possible neurological issues in adults, prompted some to call for moving or delaying the Games and led to a handful of big-names withdrawing from Olympic consideration. In the end it appeared the Olympic fears were slightly overblown; the W.H.O. in September said there were no Zika infections reported among athletes or visitors during the Games. — Ben Eagle

19. Conor McGregor suffers first loss to Nate Diaz, then wins rematch

Conor McGregor suffered his first loss in a huge upset at UFC 196 at the hands of Nate Diaz. Diaz—who was replacing Rafael dos Anjos on the card after the latter had to pull out due to injury—did what was previously thought to be impossible: taking down the Irishman. McGregor would later get his revenge in their rematch at UFC 202 in a narrow decision that is disputed to this day. — Allen Kim

18. Kobe Bryant drops 60 in final game for Lakers

In a true Hollywood moment, a grizzled Kobe Bryant left his heart and soul on the floor of the Staples Center in his final NBA game. Bryant scored 60 points in the most Bryant way possible, hoisting up an absurd 50 shots in one of the greatest walk-off performances in sports history. Bryant deserved to be playing for more in his final game (the Lakers finished the season 17-65), but he delivered a fitting send-off for one of the NBA's all-time gunners. — Rohan Nadkarni 

17. Dak Prescott emerges for Cowboys

When Tony Romo suffered a broken bone in his back during a preseason game in late August, the outlook for the Cowboys’ 2016 season was as murky as ever. And then Dak Prescott emerged alongside fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott and cleared it all up, leading Dallas to an 11-game win streak and a top seed in the NFC. This was now Prescott’s team, and Romo admitted as much in an emotional press conference in November, when he said Dak “earned the right to be our quarterback … as hard as that is for me to say, he’s earned that right.” — Amy Parlapiano

16. Dee Gordon, Marlins honor Jose Fernandez following untimely death

In the wee hours of Sunday, Sept. 25, a boat crashed into the rocks off Miami Beach, killing all three passengers. One of them was Jose Fernandez, the Marlins’ 24-year-old All-Star right-hander, a player with a personality as magnetic as his pitching repertoire was electric. His devastated teammates held an emotional on-field ceremony for him the next night before a game against the Mets. Just minutes after it ended Dee Gordon, one of Fernandez’s best friends on the team who was wearing his late buddy’s helmet, stepped up to the plate to lead off the game. He took one pitch batting right-handed, as Fernandez did, then moved to his traditional left-hand side of the batter’s box and promptly smacked his first and only home run of the season. He ran around the bases with tears in his eyes, having sparked a 7-3 win and offered evidence that Fernandez’s magic touch could still be felt. — Ted Keith

15. Katie Ledecky dominates the pool at Rio Games

There’s no doubt about it—2016 was the summer of Katie Ledecky. The 19-year-old created some of the most unforgettable moments of the 2016 Olympics with her absurdly dominant swims. Swimming in her second Games, Ledecky won four gold medals—in the 200-meter, 400m and 800m free (the latter two in world-record time) and 4x200m free relay—and one silver in the 4x100m free relay, earning her the title of most decorated female of the Rio Olympics (she narrowly edges out Simone Biles, who won four golds and a bronze). But even more impressive was the margins by which she won (in the 800m free, Ledecky beat her closest competitor by 12 seconds), turning every one of her races into appointment viewing. — Bette Marston

14. Ryan Lochte fabricates robbery story in Rio

One of the year’s biggest Olympic stories had nothing to do with performance. Ryan Lochte and three other U.S. swimmers claimed that they were robbed at gunpoint by police officers at a gas station in the early hours of Aug. 15. But as the news spread worldwide and investigators dug into the details, it quickly became clear that Lochte exaggerated the story. Turns out, the four swimmers had vandalized the gas station after a night of drinking, and a security guard had used a gun to control the situation and get monetary payment for the damage. Lochte was charged with a false robbery claim (the three other swimmers were not charged), suspended by USA Swimming for 10 months and was eventually dropped by four of his major sponsors, including Speedo and Ralph Lauren. — Bette Marston

13. Kevin Durant leaves Thunder to sign with Warriors

Kevin Durant provided all the fireworks the NBA needed on July 4, announcing he would sign with the Warriors—just weeks after nearly toppling Golden State in the playoffs. Durant’s decision sparked some ire, but the former MVP defended the decision, saying in The Player's Tribune that he needed the opportunity to move outside of his "comfort zone to a new city and community which offers the greatest potential for [his] contribution and personal growth." — Rohan Nadkarni

12. Von Miller leads Broncos to Super Bowl win in Peyton Manning's final game

The spotlight leading up to Super Bowl 50 zoomed in on the quarterbacks—the regular-season MVP, Cam Newton, and the future Hall-of-Famer, Peyton Manning, who was likely playing his last game. But once the game began, Denver’s dominant defense, led by Von Miller, completely shut down the NFL’s no. 1 scoring offense. Miller forced two fumbles that set up both of Denver’s touchdowns. The final score was 24-10, and Miller was the no-brainer MVP. Meanwhile, Manning got his second ring and rode off into the sunset on top. — Melissa Jacobs

11. Usain Bolt dominates in his final Olympic Games

Three Olympic Games, nine races, nine gold medals—the Jamaican sprinter again swept the 100 meters, 200 meters and the 4x100 relay in his last Olympics. Now the only question is: Will we ever see another athlete like him? — Bette Marston

10. Alabama gamble pays off against Clemson in national title game

With his defense unable to stop Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, Alabama coach Nick Saban risked an onside kick in the fourth quarter of a tied national title game. The gamble worked. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey caught Adam Griffith’s kick—unleashing an uncharacteristic Saban smile—and the Tide rolled on to a 45-40 win and a fourth national title in seven seasons. “He told us we’re not allowed to smile during games,” longtime Saban assistant Bobby Williams cracked as confetti rained and Bama players hoisted the national title trophy. — Andy Staples

9. Leicester City defies odds to win Premier League title

5000-1. Those were the odds of Leicester City winning the 2015-16 English Premier League before the season started, and even that seemed fairly high. Not only does the small club work with a fraction of the financial resources that big clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal do, it also had players embroiled in an off-season sex scandal, fired the coach responsible for keeping them afloat in the Premier League, and in his place hired Claudio Ranieri, a journeyman coach that enjoyed, at best, mixed success in the EPL. No matter. The Foxes defied expectations over and over again, utilizing a strong defense and a lightning-quick counterattack to ultimately win the title—a feat that with no exaggeration can be called one of the most unlikely upsets in the history of sports. — Alexander Abnos

8. Final Five dominate women's gymnastics at Rio Games

Led by Simone Biles, the 4’ 8” gymnast with the powerful, high-scoring routines and huge smile, the Final Five—Biles, along with Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian—came into the 2016 Olympics as the women to beat, and they didn't disappoint. Team USA won the team all-around by more than eight points—an incredible margin when you consider that silver and bronze were separated by less than half a point. On top of that, an American medaled in each of the individual apparatus events. Biles and Raisman won gold and silver, respectively, in both the individual all-around event and the floor routine, and Biles locked up gold in the vault and bronze in the beam. Laurie Hernandez took silver in the beam, while Madison Kocian took silver on the uneven bars. — Bette Marston

7. Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during national anthem

Before the 49ers’ third preseason game, cameras caught Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, which we would later learn was in protest of mass police brutality. What ensued was both a movement and nightmare for the NFL. Players across the league kneeled or raised a fist during the anthem in solidarity while fans interpreting Kaepernick’s act as disrespectful stopped watching the NFL in droves. Melissa Jacobs

6. Warriors make history with 73-9 regular-season record

Before there was heartbreak, there was triumph. The Warriors clinched the best record in NBA history on the season's last night, and to ice the cake, Stephen Curry hit 10 three-pointers that night to give him an NBA record 402 for the season. The record-breaking performances highlighted exactly how much of a juggernaut the Warriors were—during the regular season. — Rohan Nadkarni

5. Michael Phelps cements legacy at Rio Olympics

Winning 22 Olympic medals wasn’t enough for the best swimmer in history (and SI’s Greatest Olympian of All Time). In Rio, Michael Phelps—who served as the flagbearer for Team USA at the opening ceremony—added five more gold medals and a silver to his stockpile, putting his career total at an eye-popping 28. But Phelps’s in-pool performance was only part of what made the Rio Games so exceptional for the most successful Olympian of all time. At 31 years old, Phelps dedicated more time to his recovery (evidenced by the huge purple "cupping" bruises), and he appeared more relaxed and happier than ever out of the pool, with his new wife and infant cheering him on in the stands. — Bette Marston

4. Muhammad Ali dies at 74

After a decades-long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali died on June 3 at the age of 74. The three-time heavyweight champion was a figure of international significance far beyond boxing, an individual whose controversial stand against the Vietnam War and lifelong efforts as a humanitarian and advocate for justice touched the lives of millions. On June 10, following a memorial service and motorcade viewed by thousands, the Greatest was laid to rest in his native Louisville. — Richard O'Brien

3. Kris Jenkins lifts Villanova in all-time NCAA title game

Marcus Paige’s rollicking, double-pumping three would have been remembered forever if it had taken UNC and Villanova to overtime and helped the Tar Heels win their sixth national championship. Instead, outside of Chapel Hill, Paige’s effort will largely be forgotten because what came next was the best ending in the history of sports championships. With 4.7 seconds left, Villanova ran a play called “Nova,” which set up Kris Jenkins for the kind of game-winning, buzzer-beater that nearly every athlete dreams of and so few have ever accomplished. As the confetti and Villanova players rained down on Jenkins, the moment had already cemented itself in sports history. The NCAA tournament sometimes exhausts its most fabulous moments in the first weekend, but in 2016 it saved its best for last. — David Gardner

2. Cavaliers rally from 3-1 down to win NBA Finals

The Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA Finals in the most dramatic, improbable fashion possible. Winning Game 7 on the road against the winningest team in NBA history to cap off a comeback from a 3–1 deficit? Unbelievable. The series—and perhaps the entire career of LeBron James—was encapsulated by the miracle block James made late in the fourth quarter, which will go down as arguably the greatest defensive play in Finals history. — Rohan Nadkarni

1. Cubs win World Series

108. 103. 3-1. 17. These are the numbers that will define the most incredible story in sports in 2016. The Cubs' title was their first in 108 years, came after a regular season in which they won 103 games—eight more than the majors’ next-highest total—and after they rallied from 3-games-to-1 against the Indians in the World Series. More numbers: Cleveland came from 5-1 down in Game 7 to forge a 6-6 tie after nine innings before a 17-minute rain delay allowed Chicago to regroup and then win the game in the 10th, 8-7. One figure is unknown: the number of Cubs fans around the world who were finally able to rejoice at the end of the longest title drought in the history of American sports. — Ted Keith

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

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