The 50 Most Iconic Pictures in Sports History
Fourth period History was a class rarely enjoyed by drooling teenagers too busy scribbling their crush's names into desks to embrace a high school education. But when it comes to sports, these same dudes are furiously jotting down the past into their notebooks so they never forget a moment.
As we prepare to trace the past and present of elite athletics, the art of sports photography must be the main focus. A picture truly is worth a thousand words.
Get ready to embrace a visual feast with the 50 most iconic pictures in sports history.
Capturing history, one snapshot at a time.
50. Ozzie Smith's Patented Flip
Simply known as The Wizard...of Oz, shortstop Ozzie Smith was more of a lion tamer when it came to calming a frantic line drive. No roaring hit was too sharp for the infield magician.
And while he won 13 consecutive Gold Glove Awards, the speedster could also swing that pine. A .262 average, 2,460 hits and 580 steals aren't too shabby.
Smith's acrobatic ability was always on display during his traditional pregame back flips.
49. Joe Namath's Flair
While the image of Namath coming through on his Super Bowl guarantee over Don Shula's Colts in 1969 remains a close second, it was Broadway Joe's furred style that cemented his legacy.
Seemingly the first to rep the fur coat and a pair of Ray-Bans on the bench, Namath became a New York icon. Revered for his fashion and arm, despised for his pretentious approach.
A man on an island.
48. Oscar Pistorius Defies the Odds
Dubbed the Blade Runner by inspired pundits, 25-year-old South African runner Oscar Pistorius is continuously admired for his athletic heroism and inspirational story.
Because he was born without fibulas, Pistorius had his legs amputated before his first birthday. But that didn't stop the determined competitor, as he recently became the first bilateral (double-limb) amputee to compete in sprinting.
Following stressful legal battles with the International Association of Athletics Federation, Pistorius worked his way onto the able-bodied track. He's now carving his name into the history books.
47. Magic Johnson's Hook
Magic Johnson was revered for his versatility and fast-paced dominance. It was his junior skyhook over heated rival Larry Bird in Game 4 of the '87 Finals that cemented his legend.
This baby teardrop propelled the Lakers to a 107-106 victory and the title in six games, and earned the man nicknamed "Showtime" a Finals MVP Award.
A darling image of Magic's final war with the Celtics.
46. Satchel Paige's Kick
The first player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame from the Negro leagues, Leroy "Satchel" Paige was an ironman long before the term ironman was popularized.
After completely annihilating the Negro Leagues for over 20 years, Paige jumped on the integration train and joined the Major Leagues. At the tender age of 42, Paige became the oldest rookie ever.
His windmill windup and sky-high kick made him a spectacle on major league diamonds. He was beloved for his old-school brilliance.
45. The Wayne Gretzky Trade
When hockey's greatest legend was traded to the Kings two hours after his Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1988, fans were heartbroken and shocked. Whispers of "traitor" and "he deserted us" flooded sports talk shows in Canada.
But after his first game back in Edmonton, Gretzky had some calming words for his doubters:
I'm still proud to be a Canadian. I didn't desert my country. I moved because I was traded, and that's where my job is. But I'm Canadian to the core. I hope Canadians understand that.
44. Ernie Davis Breaks Barriers
As fast as Ernie Davis became a national icon, he was gone.
Davis led the Syracuse Orangemen to their only national football championship in 1959 (an undefeated season) and became the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman Trophy as a senior in 1961. But soon after being chosen with the first pick of the '62 draft by the Redskins and then being traded to the Browns, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia.
He died at the young age of 23, his legacy firmly intact.
43. Curt Schilling's Bloody Sock
With a career postseason record of 11–2, Curt Schilling was clearly a gamer when the moment called for a clutch performance.
It was known that Schilling pitched Game 6 of the miraculous 2004 ALCS against the favored Yankees on an injured ankle, but few realized how serious it was. His bloodied sock made believers out of a beleaguered fanbase, as the Sawx would eventually become the first team in MLB history to come back from a three-games-to-none deficit.
The curse would soon be broken, thanks to Schilling's sacrifice.
42. Bjorn Borg Kneels in Victory
It was his rivalry with fiery, tantrum-filled John McEnroe that truly cemented his legend. And this was the magical moment when the calm Swede achieved that fifth Wimbledon victory, over McEnroe of course, shaping tennis forever.
41. Jacques Plante Trademarks the Mask
The only man to eventually fashion the fiberglass mask better than Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, goaltending legend Jacques Plante was as tough as they come.
But on November 1, 1959, everything changed. The Rangers' Andy Bathgate nailed Plante with a shot that broke his nose. Not unexpected in those days, considering masks weren't applied. Rather than a resulting media hoopla and a fury of ambulances, Plante was taken to the locker room for stitches and a protective mask (routine in those days).
The rejuvenated Canadiens then went 18 straight games without a loss behind their newly-fashioned goalie, and protective masks were cemented for good.
40. Jim Valvano's Miraculous Upset
With Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon leading the way, the 31-2, dunk-heavy Houston Cougars were essentially invincible—until Jim Valvano's Cinderella Wolfpack arrived.
When the game ended 54-52, Valvano ran up and down "The Pit" (the Albuquerque arena) in utter bewilderment. His six-seeded Wolfpack had just upset the first-seeded team. A breathtaking March Madness moment.
39. Eddie Gaedel Breaks the Mold
According to then-owner Bill Veeck, "He was, by golly, the best darn midget who ever played big-league ball. He was also the only one."
Eddie Gaedel made the St. Louis Browns an integral part of history when he walked up to the plate in the second game of a St. Louis Browns' doubleheader on Aug. 19, 1951, standing 3'7" and weighing only 65 pounds. After watching four straight balls fly by and a pinch runner take his spot on first, Gaedel's intriguing career was over.
38. Battle of the Sexes
During her brilliant career, Billie Jean King won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, 16 Grand Slam women's doubles titles and 11 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles while pioneering the way for sexual equality.
But when she athletically disrobed "male chauvinistic pig" Bobby Riggs in front of the world during the 1973 Battle of the Sexes, she secured a victory for all female tennis players—rather, all female athletes.
37. The American Dream
Brandi Chastain's game-winning penalty shootout goal against China in the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup final put her in the record books for good. Her bra-filled celebration made her a legend.
A euphoric moment for American soccer fans, frozen in time forever.
36. Vladimir Konstantinov Hoists the Cup
Six days after his Red Wings won the '97 Stanley Cup, defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was the passenger in a tragic limousine accident. He spent several weeks in a coma and was left permanently paralyzed from the waste down.
When the Wings successfully defended their title and brought home the '98 Cup, they brought Konstantinov onto the ice to celebrate. Despite the doctors saying he'd never play again, his locker remained intact and his teammates sported patches honoring him all season long.
This was the powerful visual.
35. An Infused Rivalry
When the Sixers acquired Julius Erving before the 1977 season and the Celtics drafted Larry Bird in 1978, an already fierce rivalry was breathed new life.
Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell, Erving vs. Bird, who's next...Andrew Bynum vs. Fab Melo?
34. One Yard Short
Dubbed "The Tackle," Kevin Dyson's last-second stretch to unbelievably lose Super Bowl XXXIV by one yard to the Rams remains a fixture on the football field.
Six seconds left, Titans losing 23-16, hearts around the gridiron world racing faster than Richard Lee Petty in the '76 Daytona 500. Most expected Steve "Air" McNair to scramble for a 10-yard score, but instead he tossed it over the middle to an open Dyson in what would become arguably the most heartbreaking moment in Titans history.
Mike Jones with the tackle. A single yard.
33. The Babe Bows Out
It's been said that less is more. On this overcast day in 1948, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nat Fein followed suit and let subtlety detail impact.
The man who essentially "built" Yankee Stadium and sparked the live-ball era, Babe Ruth was on an island during this '48 shot. Hunched over, separate from the others, using his bat as a cane, Ruth honorably bowed out due to health issues.
He would die two months later from pneumonia.
32. Jason McElwain Inspires the World
Diagnosed with autism at a young age, Jason McElwain was driven by his passion for basketball. Greece Athena High School basketball coach Jim Johnson even appointed him manager of the team.
With a large lead in the final game and four minutes remaining, Johnson decided to put McElwain in. After two missed shots, McElwain drained six three-pointers and one two-point shot. A legendary 20 points in four minutes to be precise.
As the buzzer went off, an inspired crowd rushed the court and carried their new icon toward immortality.
31. The 1982 Big Game
The annual Big Game between Stanford and Cal reached its pinnacle in 1982, when a 20-19 lead with seconds remaining was miraculously tarnished.
"The band is out on the field!"
In what would become the most exciting, mysterious and quirky play in college football history, the Cal Golden Bears took the last-second kickoff return to the house, using a handful of laterals and a misguided band to break Stanford's heart, 25-20.
30. Diego Maradona Takes on Belgium
As this Argentinian legend prepared to rumble through this gauntlet of Belgium defenders, it became clear Diego Maradona was no match for mere mortals.
Despite the splitting of the opposing wall, all eyes remained focused on one man.
29. Secretariat Crushes the Competition
Mentioned alongside the greatest thoroughbreds of all time, Secretariat was a large chestnut colt who absolutely demolished his competition back in 1973.
While becoming the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years, Big Red set race records in all three races that remain today.
An empty look back gave jockey Ron Turcotte the realization that few could compete with his horse.
28. Bill Buckner's Botch
With the Sawx a mere out away from their first championship since 1918, the scrutinized curse seemed to be nearing an end. That was until the Mets hit three straight singles to cut their deficit to 5-4.
Veteran Bob Stanley was called on in relief and quickly added salt to the wound, tossing one to the backstop that tied the game (although we believe it was a passed ball on catcher Rich Gedman). Next came Mookie Wilson, who hit a slow dribbler to first base.
Bill Buckner's five-hole fiasco remains a fixture, as it gave New York the victory and forced a Game 7. Which, as we all know, led to Boston's drought remaining firmly intact.
27. Pele Hovers Above
Few athletes have demanded such respect, few have engaged such worship, and few have dominated so eloquently.
This shot captured the godly effect that Pele had on peers, fans and pundits as he towered over his mortal audience. The unanimous King of football changed his sport forever.
26. The Tale of Cal Ripken Jr.
September 6, 1995, was the day an ironman was cemented and a legacy glued. Eclipsing Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played was a record once deemed unbreakable.
But the dynamic 19-time All-Star Oriole was a believer. He got the job done for 21 memorable years.
25. David Tyree Uses His Head
There were few fans who didn't expect the roaring Patriots to complete their undefeated season in 2008.
But thanks to the unlikely prowess of renowned special teamer-receiver David Tyree (and his helmet, of course) during the most epic Super Bowl in recent memory, the Giants did the impossible. The 18-1 Pats could only watch in awe as their feisty opponents stole the show.
24. Willis Reed's Limp
Because of a severe thigh injury that kept him out of Game 6, Knicks star Willis Reed was expected to miss Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the Lakers in Madison Square Garden.
However, in perfect script-like fashion, Reed tiptoed onto the court during warmups to shocked roars and an appreciative, citywide applause. He would score the Knicks' first two field goals on his first two shot attempts, setting an early tone for what would become New York City's first NBA title.
23. Don Shula's Success
Remembered as the ringleader of the only perfect season in NFL history, legendary coach Don Shula finally embraced the state of euphoria in 1993.
Following his 325th victory on Nov. 14 of that year, Shula was carried off the field by his loyal Dolphins. He would retire two years later with a record 347 wins.
"I think what coaching is all about, is taking players and analyzing there ability, put them in a position where they can excel within the framework of the team winning. And I hope that I’ve done that in my 33 years as a head coach," he said.
22. Kirk Gibson's Grit
Game 1 of the '88 World Series, Dodgers trailing the Athletics 4-3, ninth inning, two outs—a moment when heroes are made.
Because of a bad left hamstring and swollen right knee, Los Angeles star Kirk Gibson was stuck watching the series from the pine. But he did get one pinch-hit opportunity. And it was during this clutch moment that the slugger gripped the bat, clenched his teeth and swung for the fences against the game's best reliever, Dennis Eckersley. His home run and ensuing fist-pumping prance around the bases made believers out of skeptics.
Dodgers win Game 1 by a score of 5-4 and the series in five.
21. Chuck Bednarik's Knockout
When Philly's linebacker Chuck Bednarik, known around his parts as Concrete Charlie, demolished Giants star tailback Frank Gifford, the visual deflation would detail the animosity stuffed deep within a heated rivalry. Gifford's "deep brain concussion" would keep him out 18 months and add a new chapter to the New York-Philadelphia saga.
Eagles vs. Giants; as dicey as dicey gets.
20. Derek Redmond's Courage
As Morgan Freeman brilliantly detailed:
Derek Redmond didn’t finish in first place in the 1992 400-meter. He didn’t finish in second. Or third. Or fourth. He, and his father, finished dead last. But he, and his father, finished.
At the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, the British track star did the impossible. Despite tearing his hamstring midway through the 400-meter semifinal, Redmond got up and battled for a lap. His father's assistance would become a heroic visual for years to come.
19. Muhammad Ali Lights the Torch
Arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time and easily the most recognizable figure in sports, Muhammad Ali made memories when he ignited the Olympic fire in 1996.
Fighting the devastating effects of Parkinson's disease, Ali shook as he carried the torch. But his presence signified a historical moment. The man who once crossed every social boundary was now meshing them all.
18. Wilt Chamberlain Scores 100
It was just over 50 years ago when Wilt the Stilt scored a monstrous 100 points against the Knicks as his Warriors rolled to a 169-147 victory.
Often referred to as The Big Dipper, Chamberlain was a mountain of a man who could pour the rock into the basket with grace or slam it in with vigor. His 100-point record remains, with Kobe Bryant being the only one to come "close" with 81 points in a 2006 game.
English rugby icon Fran Cotton was immortalized by this 1977 mud shot, which featured British Lions forwards waiting for the match against the Junior All Blacks to end.
A drenched war presents perhaps the most beloved shot in rugby history, captured perfectly by Colin Elsey.
16. Lou Gehrig's Farewell Speech
Revered for his durability and humble nature, Yankees great Lou Gehrig knew it was time to call it quits when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in June of 1939.
His farewell speech inspired anyone with a pulse. "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," he said. "I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for."
He would pass away two years later.
15. Paul Henderson's Summit Stunner
Paul Henderson played 13 seasons in the NHL, but it was three games during the '72 Summit Series that made him a legend.
A pivotal member of the Canadian team that upset the Soviets, Henderson scored the game-winning goals in the sixth, seventh and eighth games of the 1972 series, the final one securing his immortality.
He remains a Canadian hero, eh.
14. Hank Aaron Becomes an Icon
Hank Aaron's worldly destruction of Babe Ruth's home run record on April 8, 1974, off No. 44 Al Downing broke all of baseball's barriers, at least for that one moment. The diamond descent with two college students detailed the intensity of that home run. While racism flooded his career, Aaron was still a beloved icon.
It was lyrically crafty broadcaster Vin Scully who said it best:
What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron… And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.
13. Michael Jordan's Last Hurrah
Michael Jordan's most historic shot was his last with the Bulls.
Game 6 of the '98 Finals was the site, John Stockton's Jazz the opponents. But it was Jordan's ankle-breaking crossover and eventual drain over Bryon Russell that secured an 87–86 victory, clinching Chicago's sixth NBA title in eight years.
Russell seems eager for payback.
12. Buster Douglas Upsets Iron Mike
Those who had working pulses on February 11, 1990, could hardly believe what they'd saw. The undefeated heavyweight—the most feared man on Earth—was just beaten. Rather, demolished.
Mike Tyson earned more than a busted lip from Buster Douglas in what became the biggest upset in boxing history. The 42-to-1 underdog sent the boxing world into shock.
11. Bob Beamon's Perfect Jump
Forget that Bob Beamon's long jump world record at the 1968 Mexico Olympics remained intact for almost 23 years, forget that it might have been the perfect jump. This was a leap so awe-inspiring that the measuring device became useless. The tape was called on for assistance.
Beamon made us rethink what was humanly possible.
10. Jackie Robinson Pioneers the Way
When he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as the first African American to play in the major leagues in the live-ball era, Jackie Robinson changed sports forever.
A jovial smile and firm grip on his bat was all it took for Robinson to help crush racial discrimination. This was his iconic ascent.
9. Y.A. Tittle's Bloody Defeat
8. The Hand of God
En route to its 1986 World Cup victory, the Argentina national football team found itself at the center of some intense controversy.
During his team's 2-1 quarterfinal victory over England, legend Diego Maradona scored two goals. His first, later dubbed the "Hand of God," remains to this day the most scrutinized score in World Cup history.
In the words of Maradona, the goal was scored "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God."
7. Bobby Orr Soars to Greatness
Before their was Niklas Lidstrom, there was Bobby Orr.
Orr revolutionized the defenseman position, becoming a legitimate scoring threat while also shutting down forwards. His 46 goals in the 1974-75 season were simply unheard of.
Thanks to photographer Ray Lussier, Orr's 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal 40 seconds into overtime for the Bruins was captured brilliantly.
6. The Catch
Dwight Clark's bulbous fingers clinging to pigskin life signaled the end of Dallas' NFC domination and the start of San Francisco's '80s dynasty.
5. Roger Bannister Breaks the Mark
Long before becoming a distinguished neurologist, Roger Bannister broke a record few believed humanly possible. A mark no runner had ever crossed.
The 1954 Sportsman of the Year ran the first sub-four-minute mile, crossing the line to the roars of astonished viewers. On May 6, 1954, during a meet between British AAA and Oxford University, Bannister earned a time of three minutes and 59.4 seconds.
The impossible was now possible.
4. The Miracle on Ice
On an icy Lake Placid night in 1980, the Herb Brooks-led Americans brought home arguably the most riveting victory in the history of sports.
With the Soviets having won the previous four ice hockey gold medals dating back to the 1964 games, few gave the amateur and collegiate Americans a chance. Cold War emotions only added intrigue to an already brutal rivalry.
But in 1980, the U.S. squad completed the impossible, defeating the Soviets before moving on to the final and making another comeback, this time over Finland for the gold medal. Since then, we've fully believed in miracles.
3. Jesse Owens' Victory
Known statistically as the most successful athlete at the 1936 Berlin Games, track star Jesse Owens eclipsed what many believed was Adolf Hitler's Aryan showcase by securing four gold medals and the hearts of fans worldwide (and three world records in 45 minutes).
Owens proved that he was no routine, society-abiding athlete. He was a hero.
2. The Human Rights Salute
Tommie Smith and John Carlos each won medals in the 200-meter dash back in 1968 (Smith's 19.83 seconds marking the first time the 20-second barrier was broken). During the victory ceremony, they admirably bowed their heads and thrust their black-gloved fists toward the sky.
Their inspirational performance on the podium stand became one of the most iconic images of the Black Panther Movement, which intended to end racial inequality in politics and on the streets. "Black America will understand what we did tonight," said Smith.
1. Muhammad Ali's Phantom Punch
When 22-year-old phenom Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) defeated 32-year-old Sonny Liston to become the world heavyweight champion, fans were stunned and immediately enamored. Their rematch would be captured in this one controversial moment. One minute and 40 seconds into the fight, Liston went down following Ali's supposed "phantom punch."
In the end, Neil Leifer's shot engulfed everything Ali represented. Strength, speed and bravado.
Ali became the truest of legends.
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