If you reduce sports to its smallest discrete units, its subatomic particles, you're left with protons and electrons and neutrons called moments. They're the building blocks of every season, every game, every series of downs. Two or more moments may accrete into something more, a propulsive energy called momentum, which in turn can snowball into something greater still, that which is momentous.
This is an article from the Dec. 31, 2012 issue
Consider those consecutive moments last Aug. 4 in London, when Michael Phelps—in his final Olympic race—caught and then overtook Japan's Takeshi Matsuda on the butterfly leg of the men's 4 √ó 100 medley relay. Momentum passed to Phelps's U.S. teammate Nathan Adrian, who pulled away on the freestyle leg, sealing a victory that yielded Phelps's 18th gold medal, and 22nd medal overall, more than any other Olympian in history. It was like the conjugation of some Latin verb: moment, momentum, momentous. Or if you prefer: Veni, vidi, vici.
But 2012 had more than One Shining Moment. With apologies to the Kentucky men or the Baylor women who won the NCAA basketball tournaments, there were Hundreds of Shining Moments, too many to count. We counted them anyway and reduced them to 10, and asked you, through Facebook, to choose the very best sports moment of the year for our final cover of 2012. The winner was that last gold medal for Phelps, an Olympian whose name is now always preceded by the phrase most decorated, as if he were a wedding cake or a Christmas tree or some other totem at the center of a celebration. Which of course he is.
A shorter conjugation—Manning to Manningham—provided the quintessential moment in Super Bowl XLVI, a 38-yard pass that kept the Giants' comeback alive and led them to victory over the Patriots, whose tight end, Rob Gronkowski, partied postgame in Indianapolis to show that, hey, it wasn't the end of the world.
We thought it might be. But if you're reading this, the Mayans were wrong and the world didn't close up shop in 2012. (It only seemed that way to NHL fans.) Which isn't to say that we didn't witness rapture. On the contrary, we saw it at every turn. Miguel Cabrera and I'll Have Another both flirted with the Triple Crown. (The Tiger won it, the horse did not.) Moments unforeseeable even by ancient mystics demanded the coining of new words, like Linsanity and Fail Mary and Buttfumble.
If Buttfumble sounds like a Dickensian solicitor, it was much more fun than that. But then the year in sports was so often a joy. Only McKayla Maroney could fail to be impressed. And even the U.S. gymnast's cheek-biting, lemon-sucking pose in London became a source of endless amusement, mimicked by Maroney herself and President Obama. Hers was the year's most memorable expression of dyspepsia. But was it the year's most meme-able, the most widely repeated online and at watercoolers?
That's a clown question, bro.
National League Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper, at 19, was the majors' biggest minor since Mike Trout, the American League Rookie of the Year, who didn't turn 21 until August.
In China, 2012 was the Year of the Dragon. So why were these other creatures so often invoked? Not just Trout and butterflies—Phelps's historic one, and that flutter-by butterfly of R.A. Dickey's gnarly knuckleball. There was also 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas—runner-up in SI's Facebook voting for the year-end cover—showing uncommon grace on a beam four inches wide, not unlike the Flying Squirrel for which she was nicknamed. In San Francisco, 2012 was the Year of the Panda, the Giants' Pablo Sandoval having hit three home runs in his first three at bats of the World Series, one of baseball history's most glorious displays of power.
In London, powerful and historic and glorious were combined in a compound word: Pistorius, less a sprinter's surname than a necessary new adjective. And what of that other aptly named Olympic sprinter, Bolt, who also ran his way into posterity last summer? It took the fastest man on earth years to overcome the temptation to look over his shoulder near the end of a race, but that's what we're compelled to do now, at year's end: to ignore Satchel Paige's advice and look back.
The only thing gaining on us is 2013, but let's not look ahead just yet. The secret to life is to live in the moment. So said Buddha. Or was it Bubba? Bubba Watson authored one of the year's most indelible moments on the second hole of the sudden-death playoff at Augusta, from the pine needles off the 10th fairway, bending his approach shot around a stand of trees to a pin-high position on the green, the most memorable game-winning hook shot since Magic Johnson's in the NBA Finals 25 years earlier.
In 2012, LeBron was the latter-day Magic, conjuring victory from a clapped cloud of talcum. It settled like pixie dust on everything around him. And speaking of sprites, the Notre Dame leprechaun returned to supremacy. Having restored luster to its helmets a year ago—that paint swatch is Benjamin Moore's Catholic Gilt—Notre Dame did the same to its program, waking up echoes that had slumbered for nearly 20 years.
In the rest of the world's football, the shot heard 'round the world was Sergio Ag√ºero's goal for Manchester City in the last minute of the last game of the English Premier League season, giving his team the title over its crosstown rival, Manchester United. Three months later at United's so-called Theatre of Dreams, the U.S. women's team beat Canada 4--3 in an epic Olympic semifinal, on Alex Morgan's header in the third minute of heart-stoppage time added to the 120 minutes already played.
There were more than half a million minutes in 2012, and nearly as many moments. Here's a Final Four. On May 8 in Baltimore, Josh Hamilton of the Rangers hit four home runs in five at bats, his evening blighted only by a fifth-inning double. But then his eyesight was tested and found to have deteriorated slightly, from 20/10 to 20/15.
The average big leaguer's vision? It's said to be 20/12, a number we won't soon forget.
For more year-end bests in each sport, plus a compendium of the 112 record-breaking, earth-shattering, mystifying and sublime moments of 2012, go to SI.com/mag