2016: The best sports year ever?

Story highlights

The past 12 months produced a bounty of historic moments in sports

Also, such greats as David Ortiz, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant retired in 2016

CNN  — 

Between wars, terror attacks, a toxic presidential election and a rash of celebrity deaths, it’s been a pretty lousy year for the world.

But when it comes to historic moments in sports, 2016 was a champ.


That miraculous headline alone would be enough to enshrine 2016 among the most memorable years ever in sports. But the past 12 months also delivered a dramatic NCAA championship buzzer-beater, a cathartic NBA crown to title-starved Cleveland, an action-packed Summer Olympics and the triumph of a 5,000-to-1 underdog in English soccer – a fairy tale even Hollywood might not believe.

Yes, we lost some all-time greats in 2016: Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Pat Summitt and Gordie Howe, along with budding baseball superstar Jose Fernandez. We also said goodbye to such famous champions as Peyton Manning, Kobe Bryant, David Ortiz, Tim Duncan, Marshawn Lynch and (gulp) Alex Rodriguez, who all retired.

But on the field, in the pool and on any other surface where top athletes compete, the year was pretty special.

Here are eight highlights we won’t soon forget.

Alabama nips Clemson

Alabama's Kenyan Drake returns a punt 95 yards for a touchdown against Clemson.

Yes, Nick Saban and Alabama won again – their fourth championship in seven seasons. But at least they were tested this time. In a January 11 shootout filled with big plays, the Crimson Tide outlasted the Clemson Tigers 45-40 to wrap one of the most entertaining title games in recent memory. The outcome wasn’t decided until Bama recovered Clemson’s onside kick in the closing seconds. The two teams could potentially meet again next month in the 2017 title game.

Peyton goes out on top

Denver's Peyton Manning  ends his career by beating the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

Denver’s Peyton Manning was 39 – the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl – and his battered body was breaking down. Carolina’s Cam Newton, the NFL MVP, was 26 and in his prime. But Manning, in his final game, bested his younger rival as the Broncos beat the Panthers, 24-10, in a mostly ugly defensive battle. The win capped Manning’s sure-to-be Hall of Fame career and gave him as many rings – two – as younger brother Eli.

Villanova’s buzzer-beater

Villanova's Kris Jenkins launches the winning 3-pointer to win NCAA Tournament on April 4.

The final 4.7 seconds will be replayed over and over for eternity. After North Carolina’s Marcus Paige hit an acrobatic three-point shot to tie the game, Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono charged upcourt and flipped the ball to a trailing Kris Jenkins, who launched the first 3-point buzzer-beater in national championship history. The shot on April 4 gave ‘Nova a 77-74 win and elevated an already great game to an instant classic.

Leicester’s Cinderella story

Nobody gave Leicester City a chance to win soccer's richest league. Nobody.

Last year, Leicester City’s club spent most of the season at the bottom of the cutthroat English Premier League, narrowly avoiding being demoted to a lower division. Bookmakers gave them 5,000-1 odds to win the 2015-2016 title. But on May 2 the upstart Foxes did just that – the first championship in their 132-year history – stunning soccer fans and capturing the imaginations of millions around the world. Get ready for the movie.

The Warriors win 73 games …

The dominant Golden State Warriors finished with an all-time best 73-9 record.

For the first half of the year, the Golden State Warriors were arguably the greatest show in sports, a dominant, high-scoring team whose sharpshooting guards – Klay Thompson and two-time MVP Steph Curry – drained silky 3-pointers from all over the court. They began the season by winning 24 straight games and finished 73-9, eclipsing the Chicago Bulls’ record for the best regular season in NBA history. Then over the summer they stunned the league by adding former MVP Kevin Durant. Unfair.

… but it’s Cleveland’s turn, at last

LeBron James hugs teammate Kevin Love after the Cavaliers claimed their first-ever NBA crown.

For a second straight year, prodigal son LeBron James appeared doomed in his quest to bring hard-luck Cleveland its first major sports championship since Jim Brown was lacing ‘em up for the Browns in 1964. Down 3 games to 1 to the defending champion Warriors, the Cavs looked done. But James and his teammates roared back to tie the series, then won a thrilling Game 7 after LeBron blocked a potential go-ahead layup in the closing moments.

Lightning in Rio

Usain Bolt of Jamaica leaves the rest of the field behind in a 100-meter heat at the Rio Olympics.

Between the Zika virus, polluted bay waters, spotty attendance and a certain bad-boy American swimmer, the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro had plenty of problems. But the Games themselves produced spectacular moments. When he wasn’t glowering under a hood, Michael Phelps won six more medals to cement his status as the most decorated Olympian of all time. His US teammates, gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky, dazzled audiences while dominating their events. And with a smile, Jamaica’s electric Usain Bolt reclaimed his title as the world’s fastest man.

Holy cow!

Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs savors his team's long-awaited title.

Grown men wept. Fans danced in the streets. And a vast, long-suffering fan base rejoiced at last. After a 108-year drought, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in about the most dramatic way possible, besting the resilient Cleveland Indians in extra innings of a Game 7. The details of that night – David Ross’ unlikely homer, the 17-minute rain delay, Jason Heyward’s pep talk – will be forever etched in Cubs lore.

So yes, 2016 may have been a downer for some people. But diehard Cubs fans will tell you it was a great year.