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The 50 Biggest Sports Stars of 2012

Jessica MarieCorrespondent IINovember 28, 2012

The 50 Biggest Sports Stars of 2012

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    Now that the year is coming to an end, it's impossible to avoid thinking about the bests—the best songs, the best movies, the best celebrity mess-ups and, of course, the best sports performances. 

    And with those performances come the biggest stars of the year. Some of them were one-hit wonders—kind of like that chick who sings that terrible song I won't mention to spare you the terror of having it stuck in your head for the next 13 hours but will certainly top several year-end lists of its own. Others are here to stay for the long run. Some of them are human and others are not, while some of them do the work on the field and others do the work on the sideline.

    One thing is for sure: All of them made us care, and all of them made us take notice, for better or worse. (And when I say "worse," I'm talking to you, Dwight.)

    Here are the 50 biggest stars of the sports world in 2012.

50. Victor Cruz

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    Prior to the 2011 season, Victor Cruz was just a middling receiver with a largely mundane stat line and three appearances in NFL games to his name. By the end of 2011, he was one of the New York Giants’ new heroes and a fantasy football revelation.

    Cruz was one of the breakout wide receiving stars of the 2011 season, finishing with 1,539 yards and nine touchdowns in just seven starts. In one of the biggest postseason games of his career—and just his third overall—he amassed 142 yards against the San Francisco 49ers, and in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, he registered a key touchdown to help lead the Giants to an unlikely victory.

    Plus, when Madonna’s trying to copy your dance moves (above), you know you’re a pretty big deal.

49. Jared Sullinger

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    Jared Sullinger is one of those guys who is constantly fighting to prove himself. He was fighting to get Division I college coaches interested in him, despite the fact that he’s undersized for a power forward and has always taken heat for alleged “conditioning issues.” For two years at Ohio State, he fought to help the Buckeyes get somewhere, and in 2011-12, it worked: Sullinger got them to the Final Four, where they ultimately bowed out to Kansas.

    And leading up to the 2012 NBA draft, he had to fight again in order to convince the world that he didn’t have career-threatening back problems that would further compromise his potential in the pros.

    He was one of the true underdogs this year in the draft, and what do you know? An NBA coach who never, ever plays rookies has this rookie in his current rotation. Sullinger was drafted by the Boston Celtics with the 21st pick and has already been able to impress Doc Rivers during his short time with the team.

48. Everett Golson

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    Now that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have officially finished the regular season without suffering a loss, you have to hand it to quarterback Everett Golson.

    Golson got the starting job in August, when Tommy Rees was stripped of his job because of off-the-field problems. So Golson, coming off a redshirted year, took the reins with everything to prove, and prove everything he did: He led the Irish to an undefeated 12-0 season, a No. 1 ranking in the BCS and a spot in the national championship game. Pretty good for a guy doing this for the first time.

    His stats aren’t gaudy—he threw for 1,918 yards and 11 touchdowns—but Notre Dame wasn’t a gaudy team this season. It fought to win close games, and it fought hard.

    The Irish may have not had the world’s toughest schedule, but they’re still undefeated, which is something no other top team (besides Ohio State, but they don’t count) can say.

47. Maria Sharapova

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    Like Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova has had an up-and-down 2012, but her biggest up came on the clay courts at Rolland Garros.

    It was there that Sharapova triumphed over Italy's Sara Errani to take home the French Open title, taking down the likes of Petra Kvitova and Kaia Kanepi in order to get there. The win in Paris was extra sweet for Sharapova because it completed the career Grand Slam: She won Wimbledon in 2004, the U.S. Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008.

    She may have had to wait a while before garnering her fourth career major, but it was worth it, and she earned the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 2008.

    Though she didn’t win any of the other Big Ones this year, she made it to the Australian Open final, the Olympic finals and the U.S. Open semifinals, which isn’t too bad of a year.

46. McKayla Maroney

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    When the President of the United States is in on the joke about your trademark quirk, you know you’ve made it.

    Initially, McKayla Maroney made headlines over the summer because she was supposed to be the best vaulter in the world and one of the United States’ most prized assets during the 2012 Olympics. But when an unlikely and shocking fall at the end of her second vault robbed her of a gold medal in London, her fame truly skyrocketed. Upon receiving her silver medal, she made the face she is now infamous for, marking the beginning of the McKayla Maroney is Not Amused meme.

    And when she and her fellow Olympians met the President this month, they commemorated the occasion with the not-amused photo above.

    Plus, even though she didn’t win the gold in the vault, she and her teammates took the coveted team gold.

45. Bubba Watson

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    Even before he won his first major, it was hard not to like Bubba Watson. He was the anti-Tiger Woods. He looked like a surfer, he talked like one and he acted like a fan rather than a pro on the PGA Tour. He was also lovably quirky: He kept his hair long and shaggy, he always looked just unkempt enough to still be acceptable on the Tour, and he wouldn’t let anybody mess with his precious swing.

    Some called it likable; most called it being a headcase. But in 2012, for the first time in his career, Watson proved that being a headcase didn’t matter as long as you could get the job done—and he did, on one of the toughest courses in existence.

    Watson won his first ever major at Augusta, hitting one of the best shots of the year to get there and collapsing into a heaping pile of tears upon clinching it—another decidedly un-Tiger-esque move. And in doing so, Watson proved that being a character on the PGA Tour and winning a major are not mutually exclusive.

44. Cristiano Ronaldo

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    With Euro 2012 and the Olympics both taking place over the summer, it was a big year for soccer—and in particular, for Cristiano Ronaldo. 

    For the entirety of his career, Ronaldo has been one of football's biggest stars, but this year was an especially spectacular one for him. Even before the summer tournaments kicked off, he was making history. He hit the 100-goal mark in La Liga play in March—in just three seasons with Real Madrid, no less, averaging just over a goal per game in the process. In May, he also established himself as the only player (ever) to score against every team in the league. 

    At Euro 2012, he led Portugal to the semifinals, where it fell to eventual champion Spain, but he still delivered a number of clutch goals (the most memorable of which came on a header against the Czech Republic to give Portugal a 1-0 victory). He also scored twice against the Netherlands earlier in the tournament, helping his team erase a 2-0 deficit and advance to the quarterfinals. 

    Somehow, despite his heroics, Ronaldo still gets a bad rap for under-performing in international competition. But it's safe to say that, especially this summer, Portugal never would have advanced as far as it did without him. 

43. Urban Meyer

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    So he’s not an athlete, but a coach still qualifies as a sports star. And even though Urban Meyer isn’t getting a lot of accolades for what he did with the Ohio State Buckeyes this year, he deserves them.

    When your team is going nowhere in the postseason and knows it, it can be very hard to motivate your players.

    NCAA sanctions kept the Buckeyes out of the postseason and out of the BCS rankings in 2012, and—even with a tough Big Ten schedule—they still managed to go undefeated in Meyer's first season at the helm. The Buckeyes finished 12-0 and as Leaders Division champions.

    It takes a special coach to convince his kids they have something to play for when (as a team, at least) there’s nothing at all to play for. And considering where this team was one year ago—6-6 in the regular —Urban Meyer and his 2012 success is all the more impressive.

42. Kobe Bryant

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    Kobe Bryant may be getting older, and there may be some younger guns threatening his position as the king of the Western Conference, but as he proved in 2011-12, he’s no less competitive and he’s no less threatening.

    The Los Angeles Lakers roster may change from year to year, but Kobe’s dominance does not. In the 2011-12 season, he averaged a second-best 27.9 points per game (.10 points fewer than Kevin Durant), with a career-high 51.0 field-goal percentage and a career-high .415 mark from beyond the arc. The Lakers couldn't get the job done, falling in the Western Conference quarterfinals, but it certainly wasn't because of him.

    Bryant also seems to care about winning a title a lot more than he cares about his individual stat line, as evidenced by the fact that he sat out the Lakers’ regular-season finale last year—ceding the scoring title to Kevin Durant in the process—because he wanted to ensure he’d be good to go for the postseason. It’s never too late to mature, even if it wasn’t enough to help the Lakers get past the Oklahoma City Thunder last time around.

41. Roger Federer

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    Roger Federer may be older than his biggest rivals at the moment, but that doesn’t mean he can’t beat them anymore. Quite the opposite, actually.

    There weren’t many people who thought Federer could win a seventh Wimbledon title this year—not given the way the competition was playing at the time—but the master of the grass courts proved everybody wrong, taking down Andy Murray en route to his 76th career title in July.

    Even after that, he wasn’t done quite yet: He managed to take the silver medal at the London Olympics after enduring a ruthlessly grueling semifinals match against Juan Martin del Potro, which lasted a record-breaking four hours and 26 minutes. The final set alone lasted two hours and 43 minutes.

    Most recently, Federer made it to the ATP World Tour Finals, besting Andy Murray in the semis before falling to Novak Djokovic in the final.

40. Mario Manningham

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    It seems like every time the New York Giants win the Super Bowl—and every time they trounce the mighty New England Patriots to do so—they have one wide receiver who comes out of nowhere to seal the victory.

    In Super Bowl XLII, that receiver was David Tyree, who hauled in the most important reception of the game with the tips of his fingers in the "helmet catch"; in Super Bowl XLVI, it was Mario Manningham, who will live on forevermore as one of the most beloved Giants in history for his contributions toward bringing home that ring.

    It was Manningham’s catch in the waning minutes of the game—a miraculous 38-yard grab that Manningham somehow managed to reel in while remaining inbounds—that prolonged the game-winning, 88-yard drive that would bring New Yorkers their second championship in four years. It will remain the greatest catch of Manningham’s career, even as he continues it with the San Francisco 49ers.

39. Rajon Rondo

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    We’re now approaching the stage of Rajon Rondo’s career where he’s really, truly starting to establish himself as one of the very best point guards in the game. He may not end up being the MVP this year, contrary to Brian Scalabrine’s bold predictions, but he is as crucial to the Boston Celtics as any other player is to his team.

    Last season was particularly impressive for Rondo. He averaged career highs in points (11.9 per game), assists (11.7 per game) and rebounds (4.8 per game). His game certainly isn’t perfect (anyone who's seen his jumper knows that), but he’s established himself as one of the most athletic point guards in the game, and he’s finally established that he is capable of commandeering a team of veterans, even if things aren’t always easy—and they weren’t at the end of last year, when he had to deal with a clearly very unhappy Ray Allen.

    Rondo is developing in terms of maturity and skill, and before long, he may be the best of the best.

38. David Price

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    Ever since David Price emerged into the major leagues, we’ve all known he was capable of being one of the best pitchers on the planet. This year, when he won his first Cy Young Award, it became official.

    For a young pitcher, Price has been remarkably consistent over the course of his five-plus-year career. Even when he came up for just five games in 2008, it was clear he was a force to be reckoned with, and this year, he went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA, the top mark in the league. He was one of only two 20-game winners in the AL. 

    This was one of those times where the Cy Young was no contest. Justin Verlander may have been the AL’s former darling, but there’s a new top gun in town—and given how good he’s been over the last three seasons in particular, he could very well be here to say. Have fun, AL East.

37. Alex Morgan

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    The U.S. women’s soccer team had plenty of accomplishments and plenty of heroes to celebrate after their Olympic campaign in London, but one of the biggest overnight stars to emerge from the team’s success was Alex Morgan.

    The U.S. women took down Japan to garner the gold medal this summer, exacting revenge for a stinging loss in the 2011 World Cup final. There were plenty of star moments along the way, and one of the biggest ones belonged to Morgan, who scored the game-winning goal in an overtime semifinals contest against Canada to send the U.S. to the gold-medal game. The U.S. had been playing catch-up for the entire match until Abby Wambach scored in the 80th minute to even the score at three. And while that was heroic, too, it was Morgan’s goal that allowed the U.S.’s quest for redemption to continue.

    Morgan’s rise to fame was an especially good story, considering she came off the bench in the World Cup and quickly established herself as one of the team leaders in London.

36. I’ll Have Another

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    He has four legs, but I’ll Have Another was just as big a star in 2012 as the best that the basketball, football, baseball and hockey worlds had to offer. I’ll Have Another, after all, accomplished the impossible: He made the average American care about horse racing.

    Doug O’Neill’s prize horse was a serious underdog at the Kentucky Derby but still managed to best favorite Bodemeister—from Post 19, no less—in order to win the first of the Triple Crown races. Everyone called it a fluke until a couple of weeks later, when I’ll Have Another terrorized the rest of the field at the Preakness and won that, too. The hype for the horse was just hitting a fever pitch as the Belmont approached, as he had the chance to become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years. But the day before the race, a leg injury forced him into retirement.

    Even if he couldn’t get his hooves on the Crown, I'll Have Another still provided some much-needed excitement to the horse racing world.

35. Johnny Manziel

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    Johnny Manziel recently entered the record books when he became the first freshman to capture the Heisman Trophy.

    Manziel picked the perfect time to have one of his biggest Heisman moments of the year in the regular-season finale, when he hurt his knee at the end of a run early in the game but returned after missing just four plays to lead the No. 9 Aggies to a 59-29 win over Missouri. He finished the day with 372 passing yards, 67 rushing yards, three touchdowns in the air and two on the ground.

    Other highlights for Manziel this season? He led the Aggies to a 24-19 win over then-unbeaten and No. 1 Alabama in November, and he’ll finish the regular season with 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns.

    Pretty good for a redshirt freshman.


34. Joe Flacco

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    He may not be "elite" quite yet (no matter how badly he wants to believe that he is), but one thing is for sure: The Baltimore Ravens have themselves a pretty good quarterback, as much as the world may be hesitant to admit it.

    In four full seasons as the starter, Flacco has never finished with a record worse than 9-7, and the University of Delaware product has been one of the most consistent QBs in the NFL over the last few years.

    People like to give Flacco a hard time because they say he’s the beneficiary of one of the best defenses in football. Normally, that’s true. But this year, the Ravens D has been assaulted by injuries throughout much of the season, and it ranks 13th and 26th, respectively, in the league in average points and yards allowed a contest through Week 15.

33. Serena Williams

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    2012 was a huge year for America’s best tennis player.

    This summer, Serena Williams began a roll that still hasn’t quite ended. It started with a win at Wimbledon, the fifth of her career, she followed that up with Olympic gold in London, and before long, she’d won her fourth U.S. Open.

    At the moment, Serena looks just about as dominant as she ever has, which is doubly impressive considering the emergency surgery she had in 2011 to treat a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in her lung) after suffering a foot injury. Not only has Serena racked up all those wins in succession this year, but she’s looked completely dominant and unbeatable doing it.

32. Gabby Douglas

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    At the 2012 Olympics in London, Gabby Douglas firmly established herself as America’s Sweetheart, overtaking the throne previously manned by the likes of Shawn Johnson and Alicia Sacramone. Douglas was someone that was incredibly easy to root for: She was always smiling, she was always bubbly and happy (even in the face of unfair and ruthless criticism) and, at least in the beginning, she was an underdog.

    Going into the Olympic Trials, Jordyn Wieber was considered to be the U.S.’s prized horse, but Douglas usurped her with a stellar performance and didn’t look back. She and “Fierce Five” won the all-around gold in London, and when Douglas earned another gold in the individual all-around, she not only became the first American to win both golds in the same Olympics, she also became the first African-American woman to ever win the event.

31. Rory McIlroy

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    For much of 2012, Rory McIlroy looked like a surefire one-hit wonder. He became a household name in 2011, when he dominated the rest of the field at the U.S. Open, winning by a whopping eight shots and setting a tournament record with a collective score of 268.

    This came just months after he suffered one of the biggest collapses in golf history, heading into the final round of the Masters with a four-shot lead and shooting an 80 to fall all the way to 15th place.

    The U.S. Open was his first win in a major, but for a long time, it looked as though it would be his last. McIlroy struggled throughout much of 2012: He tied for 40th at the Masters, he missed the cut at The Players Championship, he missed the cut at the U.S. Open and he tied for 60th at the British Open.

    But then, he got right back on track and disposed of his haters with a dominant performance at the PGA Championship. Gone were the memories of his lackluster start to 2012; gone was the fear that he’d never top his 2011 U.S. Open performance. And back were the rumblings that he’d become the next Tiger Woods.

30. Kevin Garnett

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    When Kevin Garnett went down with an injury in 2010 that perilously limited his playing time, the Boston Celtics suffered—big time.

    That’s why his resurgence in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season was so impressive. He was already 35 years old entering the season, and when you come into the league at the ripe old age of 19, that’s a lot of wear and tear. When Celtics coach Doc Rivers moved him from the 4 to the 5, however, everything changed for KG—and for the Celtics—for the better.

    Not only were KG’s per-game totals the best they’ve been in years—he averaged 15.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in 31.1 minutes—but he was able to log more minutes and be the leader on the court Boston badly needed him to be. Just how much Boston needs KG was readily apparent in the postseason, when the team depended on him for the strength to defeat the Hawks and the Sixers before stretching the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat to seven games.

    Nobody thought the Celtics were young enough or good enough to do something big in 2011-12, and nobody thought KG was young or good enough to get them there. Seems the people were wrong on both counts.

29. Missy Franklin

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    The pressure that comes with being heralded as the female Michael Phelps heading into your first Olympics can wear on someone. Now, imagine being that someone—and being just 17 years old, young enough to be in high school and fantasize about marrying Justin Bieber. But from the way Missy Franklin reacted to that pressure, you’d never know how young she was.

    Franklin was the talk of the Olympic world heading into this summer’s Games in London, and she certainly lived up to the hype. After qualifying for a whopping seven events (four individual, three relays) at the Trials, she set off for London and came back with four gold medals and one bronze. Her time of 58.33 seconds in the 100-meter backstroke was an American record, and her 200-meter backstroke time of 2:04.06 set a new world record.

    And to top it all off, she has foregone millions to remain an amateur so she can swim in college at UC Berkeley.

28. Iker Casillas

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    The summer of 2012 was a big one for Spain’s national football team. Though many considered the Spaniards the favorites to win Euro 2012, they questioned whether the same team could win three major international tournaments in a row. Spain won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, and with another Euro title in 2012, it had the chance to become the first team to ever accomplish that three-in-a-row feat.

    It did accomplish the seemingly impossible—and it had captain Iker Casillas to thank.

    The formidable goaltender, and the pride and joy of the Spanish team, proved to be nearly impossible to outsmart during Euro 2012, and fittingly—as La Roja made history—Casillas made history himself, scoring his 100th international win and becoming the first player to do so. He also set a new record for the most consecutive minutes without allowing a goal (817).

27. Rafael Nadal

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    2012 didn’t end for Rafael Nadal as well as it began, but it was still a historic year for the tennis legend.

    In June, as Nadal geared up to face Novak Djokovic in the French Open finals, one of them was going to make history: either Djokovic would win his fourth consecutive Grand Slam, or Nadal was going to win his seventh trophy at Roland Garros, surpassing the great Bjorn Borg.

    It took two days and several battles with the elements, but eventually, Nadal prevailed over Djokovic, winning 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 and strengthening the case that he really is the best ever to set foot on those legendary courts in Paris.

    Since then, things haven’t been quite so pleasant for Nadal. After enduring an upset loss in the second round at Wimbledon, he suffered a knee injury that would keep him out of the Olympics, the U.S. Open and essentially the rest of the 2012 season. But as he thinks back on this year, it is likely that his seventh victory at Roland Garros takes away some of the sting of that injury.

26. Floyd Mayweather

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    Floyd Mayweather has had an up-and-down 2012. The ups have been high up, and the lows have been very low.

    While he prepared to fight Miguel Cotto last May, most fans were unsure of whether Mayweather would really be able to pull it off. They figured Cotto was a tough opponent for Mayweather and that he may just have been good enough to pull of a miraculous upset and hand Mayweather his first-ever loss. They figured that the fact that Mayweather would be heading to prison a few weeks after the bout could prove to be a distraction.

    But when the time came to fight, Mayweather did what he does best: He won a unanimous decision in front of a sold-out crowd in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, he headed to jail to serve a three-month sentence for domestic battery, but he was released in September after serving two months.

    And now, 2013 has the potential to be an even bigger year for Mayweather if he faces—and beats—Manny Pacquiao.

25. Mike Trout

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    He may not have won AL MVP this year, but it’s kind of hard to do that during a year when someone else won the Triple Crown. Nevertheless, Mike Trout had the kind of season that will go down in the history books, even if his name isn’t scrawled on the line next to one of the sport’s highest honors.

    The AL Rookie of the Year finished second in the league in batting average (.326), and he blew away everyone’s predictions when he hit 30 homers and 83 RBI while stealing 49 bases for the L.A. Angels. His 129 runs scored were first in the AL, his .399 on-base percentage was third in the AL and his .564 slugging percentage was also third. If he’s already this good at 21, it’s scary to imagine how much better he’s going to get as he gets older.

    Baseball needed someone like Mike Trout in 2012. It needed someone young and energetic and fun whom the fans could get behind. It needed someone everyone could root for, and Trout was that guy.

24. Jonathan Quick

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    There is no exaggerating the level of dominance displayed by Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings during their chase for the Stanley Cup in 2012. They may have entered into the postseason as the eighth seed in the West, but by the time it was all over, they were the most deserving champions because no other team had even come close to competing with them throughout the playoffs.

    And Quick was at the center of the Kings’ championship run. The 26-year-old netminder posted a 1.41 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage during the postseason as the Kings won a whopping 16 of their 20 games. Quick posted three shutouts during the playoffs and held strong during four overtime thrillers. Throughout the entire postseason, he allowed more than two goals just three times.

    He was the picture of consistency, and now, L.A. has a ring to show for it.

23. Dwight Howard

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    For better or worse, Dwight Howard was one of the biggest sports stars of the year—even if it wasn’t for the right reasons. Because for a long, long time, he was the only sports-related topic anyone could talk about.

    It started back in April, when rumors began circulating that Howard had asked Orlando Magic management to fire head coach Stan Van Gundy. Both steadfastly denied the claim, and Howard spent much of the rest of the season glowering on the bench with a back injury. To nobody’s surprise, Van Gundy was fired following the Magic’s exit from the first round of the playoffs.

    But finally, a few months later, Howard got what he wanted and he was happy once again: After continuous rumors and speculation, Howard was dealt to the L.A. Lakers.

    Now, Howard is wearing purple and gold with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, and he’s finally getting what he wished for: a chance to win a title with an elite point guard. The Lakers have struggled out of the gate, but it’s too early to predict how this season will end. Will Howard get that title and thus become one of the biggest stars of 2013 as well?

22. Peyton Manning

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    2012 has been a year of trying times for Peyton Manning, and it has also been a year of redemption (or at least it seems that way, with five games remaining on the schedule). The Indianapolis Colts—the franchise Manning helped to build—cut him loose after a neck injury, 14 years of service and one championship because they had their sights set on younger options in the form of Andrew Luck.

    But Manning, one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, kept his head held high as he set out for Denver to replace Tim Tebow. He could have complained about the way the Colts treated him (he would have been justified), but that’s not the kind of star he is.

    And despite the fact that the start to the 2012 season wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows—the Broncos went 2-3 out of the gates—Manning has engineered a turnaround for his young team, helping it register six consecutive wins since the rough start and seize control of the AFC West.

    It may be a new team and a new division for Manning, but he’s still the same old guy he was when he was wearing blue and white.

21. Chris Bosh

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    It wasn’t until they lost him that we saw just how much the Heat needed him.

    Chris Bosh has spent most of his time in Miami being treated as the proverbial red-headed stepchild of the Heat’s Big Three. He never got the kind of attention afforded to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade; he never got the accolades. But there was no denying that when he went down with an abdominal injury in the Heat’s Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Pacers, something was missing.

    The Heat were no longer complete. They struggled in a way that was entirely uncharacteristic of them—and unexpected. They no longer had the necessary pieces—or height—up front to truly dominate.

    But when Bosh returned against the Celtics, everything went back to normal. Eventually, the Heat rediscovered their winning ways, and Bosh was especially significant during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, when he came off the bench to score 19 points and went 3-of-4 from long range.

20. James Harden

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    The third piece of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s puzzle in 2011-12—complementing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—was James Harden, who firmly established himself as the most valuable and sought-after sixth man in the game. He proved himself to such an extent that he earned himself a starting job with his new team, the Houston Rockets. 

    For so long, the Thunder had so much potential but weren’t quite good enough to compete with the Lakers and the Mavericks of the world—until this year. Harden was the clear X-factor this team needed. The youngest of the Thunder’s former Big Three ate up 38.4 minutes per game and averaged 25.2 points and 4.9 assists, and he quickly became a fan favorite in OKC before being shipped off to Houston.

    Now, Rockets fans will doubtlessly appreciate having him in town to complement Jeremy Lin (we’ll get to him in a bit). 

19. Usain Bolt

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    Usain Bolt was one of the many 2008 Olympic heroes who showed up in London with a lot to prove. And like Michael Phelps, his biggest competition came from his apparent protege and teammate. 

    Bolt may have been the fastest man in the world and a record-setter back in 2008, but he was going to have to work to retain his throne in 2012. He had to contend with Yohan Blake, who had won the 100-meter dash at the 2011 World Championships after Bolt was disqualified and gave the 2008 legend a run for his money during the trials. Bolt was also taking a lot of heat for his partying, which some feared was interfering with his training.

    But then, the second half of the 2012 Olympics rolled around and we saw the same old fastest man in the world we saw back in 2008. Bolt took home gold in the 100, the 200 and the 4x100-meter relay, adding to the three golds he took home in 2008 and becoming the first man to win both the 100 and the 200 at consecutive Olympics. 

18. Andy Murray

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    For a long time now, the world of men’s tennis has been dominated by three people: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Well, now you can add a newcomer to that list. 

    In 2012, after years of looking like he could be a threat but failing to produce in majors, Andy Murray officially broke into the men’s tennis scene, and he defeated some of the best of the best to do so. After losing to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon finals, Murray came back a month later on the same court to defeat Federer for the gold medal at the Olympics. 

    But because that wasn’t quite good enough for his critics, Murray beat another of his top rivals, Novak Djokovic, in a grueling U.S. Open final in September to win the first Grand Slam of his career. 

17. Andrew Luck

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    The guy who replaced Peyton Manning at the helm of the Indianapolis Colts hasn’t been too shabby. After finishing second in the Heisman voting in 2011, Luck was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft and was charged with the responsibility of restoring the Colts, who had gone 2-14 in 2011 without Manning. 

    At first, it wasn’t pretty for Luck. He—like the guy he replaced—started out the 2012 season 2-3. But after taking a 35-9 beating from the Jets on Oct. 14, it’s been a different story for Luck, who has led the Colts to a 5-1 record since then and has them very much in the hunt for a playoff berth. He also ranks seventh in the league in passing yards and is a serious contender for the 2012 NFL Rookie of the Year. 

16. Tim Tebow

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    Tim Tebow. You either love him or you hate him, but even if you hate him, you have to sort of admit that he’s a pretty good dude. 

    While 2011 seemed to mark the awakening of his NFL career, 2012—specifically, the postseason—wasn’t too awful for him, either, even if his Denver Broncos couldn’t top the AFC-favorite New England Patriots. He led the Broncos to a 29-23 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round, launching an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in overtime before the Steelers even realized the period had started. 

    But another reason why Tebow’s one of the best of 2012 is because he’s dealing with his current situation remarkably well. He knows he has what it takes to start—and he knows Mark Sanchez has been awful—but he’s been a team player. Even in the midst of reports that his own teammates don’t like him all that much, he’s held his head high and remained a quality guy and a quality teammate. 

15. Rob Gronkowski

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    It seems that Tom Brady has finally found his prime target (or, he did…). Rob Gronkowski burst onto the scene in 2011 and 2012 as one of the New England Patriots’ most ferocious offensive weapons. The tight end set an NFL record for the most touchdown catches in a season by a tight end last year, finishing the year with 17. Unfortunately, an injury all but eradicated his impact when New England needed it most—in the Super Bowl. 

    This year, prior to suffering a forearm injury in a Week 11 win over Indianapolis, Gronkowski was back and just as valuable as ever, particularly in the absence of fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez. He had 10 touchdowns for 748 yards before going down with the injury, and in four to six weeks, he should be back to help the Patriots terrorize the rest of the NFL world in time for the playoffs. 

    Opposing coaches have often described Gronk as one of the toughest tight ends to shut down. Perhaps if he gets healthy again, he can prove it in the postseason. 

14. Russell Westbrook

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    As one of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s breakout stars of 2012, Russell Westbrook helped the eventual Western Conference champions finally assemble all of the pieces they needed to become a legitimate contender. 

    Westbrook gained a lot of fans in Oklahoma City for his gaudy numbers—21.2 points per game, 8.4 assists, 1.5 steals—but he gained a lot of fans nationwide for the way he plays the game. Some complain he’s too aggressive and too selfish with the ball and too temperamental, but you could never accuse Russell Westbrook of giving less than 100 percent.

    Sometimes it backfired (like when he took a zillion shots from beyond the arc during the Thunder’s dismal NBA Finals performance), but Westbrook’s passion for the game will never be disputed. 

13. Ryan Lochte

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    It was a big year for Ryan Lochte, and that certainly translated into lots and lots of press, for better or worse. 

    America’s new golden boy of the Olympics headed to London with one mission: to become the new Michael Phelps. For a while, it looked as though he was going to succeed. He was younger than Phelps, more accepting of the endless media attention and a little bit cockier and showboat-ier. The last person who thought Ryan Lochte was going to lose in London was Ryan Lochte—and often, especially in sports, confidence like that pays off. 

    For the most part, Lochte lived up to the hype in London. He won the gold in the 400 individual medley and another gold in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. But in a bit of a shocker, he only managed to take home the bronze in the 200-meter backstroke, and he came in second to Phelps in the 200-meter IM. 

    But at least he’s famous enough so that the voice of Ted is doing impressions of him. That’s pretty cool.

12. Derrick Rose

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    Prior to the Torn ACL Heard ‘Round the World, things were looking up for Derrick Rose. His Chicago Bulls looked like the only team that could possibly stop the Miami Heat in the playoffs after going 50-16 in the strike-shortened regular season and finishing first in the Central Division. 

    Rose had battled injuries throughout much of the season but finally looked healthy just in time for the postseason. And he proved it, leading the Bulls to a Game 1 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. But before that first game was over, tragedy would strike once again for the star. 

    With less than two minutes remaining in the action and the game firmly in the Bulls’ control, Rose was still on the court, and he paid for it, suffering a torn ACL in a freak injury sustained while leaping off his left foot. He’d miss the rest of the playoffs and a big chunk of the 2012-13 season. Until then, though, he was rolling, averaging 21.8 points and 7.9 assists per game one season removed from winning his first MVP award. 

11. Manti Te’o

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    Although Manti Te’o did not end up winning the Heisman Trophy in 2012, there weren't whole lot of people out there saying he didn’t deserve it. 

    Offensive players get most of the love in football—college and professional—but Te’o was the leader of Notre Dame’s undefeated team in 2012. The reason the Irish were able to go unbeaten wasn’t because they could outgun everyone else, because they couldn’t; they won because their defense was the best in the nation, and not even the best offenses could put up a fight against them. 

    And Te’o was at the center of that defense. The linebacker registered 98 total tackles (49 solo), six interceptions and one fumble recovery. But his magic isn’t really in his stat line; it’s in the leadership he brings to this team, which accomplished something no other team did in 2012. And it’s about the fact that he proved, once again, that defense wins. 

10. R.A. Dickey

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    R.A. Dickey’s 2012 reign was a little harder to predict than David Price’s. He may have a lot of experience, but his nine seasons prior to 2012 were primarily marked by mediocrity—to the point that he was the first player cut by the New York Mets just two seasons ago. 

    Even when he was 7-1 by the end of May, fans still thought perhaps it was too good to be true. They waited for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. Dickey finished the season 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA, the best mark of his career. And though the competition for the NL Cy Young was a bit stiffer than in the AL, Dickey’s accomplishments were many.

    According to ESPN.com, he led the league in quality starts with 27, he had the most strikeouts in the NL with 230 and his 20 wins were the most by a met since Frank Viola hit that mark in 1990. 

    Plus, it’s fun to see a guy succeed when he looked like he was going nowhere just two years ago. 

9. Robert Griffin III

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    The guy who fell to No. 2 in the NFL draft behind Andrew Luck has certainly made the world wonder what would have happened if Indianapolis had elected to take him with the No. 1 pick instead. But Washington Redskins fans are doubtlessly glad that the Colts didn’t. 

    Robert Griffin III has been one of the most exciting quarterbacks to watch in 2012, period—never mind one of the most exciting rookie quarterbacks to watch. The 2011 Heisman Trophy winner has helped the Redskins stay afloat in the wide-open NFC East, and he currently ranks fourth in the league in passer rating above the likes of Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub. 

    Most recently, RGIII handed Tony Romo his first Thanksgiving loss, leading the Redskins to an electrifying 38-31 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday and finishing with 311 passing yards, 29 rushing yards and four TD passes. No matter how this season ends for Griffin, it has already been a success. 

8. Anthony Davis

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    There was no player as dominant in the 2011-12 college basketball spectrum as Anthony Davis. There was no comparison at all. The owner of the world’s most famous unibrow led the Kentucky Wildcats to a 32-2 regular-season record and almost led them to an SEC championship, but the Wildcats were upset by Vanderbilt in the finals. 

    Of course, that didn’t matter much a month later, when Kentucky was cutting down the nets in New Orleans at the end of March Madness. To nobody’s surprise, Davis was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft just a few short months later. 

    The accomplishments of the 2011-12 Kentucky squad cannot be understated. Their 38 wins matched the record for the most by a men’s team in one season. They did it with a starting lineup made up entirely of underclassmen, three of whom were freshmen. And Anthony Davis—a walking matchup problem who registered an average of 14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per game before being named the Naismith Player of the Year—was at the center of it. 

7. Dwyane Wade

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    Dwyane Wade wouldn’t have been able to win the 2012 NBA championship without LeBron James, and LeBron James wouldn’t have been able to win it without Dwyane Wade. 

    Things weren’t always pretty for Wade in 2011-12. He battled injuries. He slumped during parts of the postseason, especially in the Heat’s too-close-for-comfort semifinal series against the Indiana Pacers. He missed some key buzzer-beaters and shouldered a lot of the pressure for his team’s playoff performance, which, at times, seemed lackluster. 

    But when it mattered the most, Wade showed up. The Celtics couldn’t stop him in the conference finals. The Thunder couldn’t stop him in the championship. He finally proved that, yes, he and LeBron could work together—and yes, he and LeBron could win together. Now, Wade has yet another championship ring to show for it. 

6. Jeremy Lin

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    Jeremy Lin became the so-called Tim Tebow of the NBA during a two-week stretch last February, and he hasn’t looked back since. 

    With the New York Knicks struggling, Lin stepped in in February and promptly spearheaded a seven-game winning streak that would firmly reestablish the Knicks as a threat in the East. He wasn’t perfect, and his personal winning streak didn’t last forever, but fans and the media loved his story—he went from an undrafted free agent to a backup to a starter, all in record time—and they loved his demeanor. He never seemed to buy into his own hype, and he was always pleasant and level-headed, even when the circumstances were tough

    Unfortunately, the Knicks’ relationship with Lin ended when—as a restricted free agent—he signed an offer sheet with the Rockets this summer, but there’s no doubt that Houston will love its own dose of Linsanity. 

5. Michael Phelps

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    One of the best moments of the year came on Aug. 2, 2012. That was when Michael Phelps bested Ryan Lochte in London to win the 200-meter individual medley for his 20th medal and 16th Olympic gold. 

    For some reason, it had the feeling of a good-guy-triumphing-over-bad-guy moment. Not that Ryan Lochte is the bad guy; he just isn’t Phelps. He’s too heart-throbby, too cocky, too showy, or something. And leading up to this event, it had seemed as though Phelps was pretty much done being the most dominant swimmer on the planet. It seemed as though it was Lochte’s turn to claim the throne. 

    And then, Phelps shocked us all by besting his teammate and rival to win at least one more gold before calling it a career. All of the questions about his training and the speculation that he was over vanished into thin air. He was the same old Michael Phelps he was back in 2008, and this time, his victory was all the more exciting. 

4. Miguel Cabrera

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    Mike Trout may have been fun to watch in 2012, but Miguel Cabrera deserved the AL MVP this season. No question. He, after all, did what no player has done since 1967 when he became the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years. 

    Think of all the greats who haven’t been able to do what Cabrera did. Think of all of the legends who have gone through their entire careers without accomplishing this enormous feat. Cabrera led the AL in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and RBI (129). He carried the Tigers, at least offensively, to the World Series. He made that offense one of the most feared in baseball. 

    And plus, it’s nice to see a guy who’s been through so much off the field turn things around. It’s nice to see someone like Cabrera, who was in the news for all the wrong reasons for the past several years, make history. He may be one of the most formidable sluggers in baseball, but until he won the Triple Crown, he was the underdog. 

3. Eli Manning

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    Prior to 2007, Eli Manning was still a little bit of a punchline. After 2007, he had a little bit more swagger because he’d just pulled off the impossible in defeating Tom Brady and the undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. 

    Post-2011, Eli Manning is officially for real. 

    He used to be Peyton’s Little Brother; now, somehow, the younger Manning has more Super Bowl rings than the much-celebrated elder. And twice, Manning has taken down the big bad Patriots on the world’s biggest stage—and he’s done it when it hasn’t seemed as though he had the better team, at least on paper.

    Forget about Brady; Manning is the one with the magic two-minute drill in his pocket and ice in his veins. 

2. Kevin Durant

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    For a while, it seemed like Durant—the yin to LeBron James’ yang—was going to prove himself to be the more valuable of the two. Finally, everything for his Oklahoma City Thunder seemed to click in 2011-12, as they went 47-19 to finish first in the Northwest Division and went all the way to the NBA Finals, where they met their demise in the form of the Miami Heat. 

    But en route, Durant was spectacular. He’s always been excellent—he’s averaged 26.2 points and 6.7 rebounds throughout his six-year career—but something clicked with his team this year, and he was at the center of it. He also came in second in MVP voting and won his third straight scoring title.

    In addition to being one of the NBA’s most scintillating players to watch, Durant is also one of the most likable: He stays out of trouble and he always says the right thing, even about the guy the media tries to portray as his biggest rival. 

1. LeBron James

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    For so long, we waited for LeBron James to fulfill his potential to be one of the greatest players of all time. We waited for him to prove to be clutch in crunch time. We waited for him to develop whatever it took to become the true leader of the Miami Heat. 

    And in one three-hour span in June, we finally saw it. 

    LeBron has taken plenty of heat (har, har) ever since The Decision, but after what he did to the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, his haters are going to have a hard time making a case. With the Heat's collective back against the wall, LeBron completely took over the way everyone knew he could, exploding for 45 points—30 of which came in the first half—and leading the Heat to an eventual series win and, of course, his first NBA title.

    No longer is LeBron an underachiever; now, he truly is the King—at least, of the contemporary NBA.

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