After Usain Bolt cracked the 100 meter world record by more than a tenth of a second on Sunday, I thought to myself, “this is the greatest sports story of the last decade.”
I was totally and completely floored.
People weren’t supposed to run this fast. More importantly, people weren’t supposed to run this much faster than everyone else. Track & Field fans are witnessing one of the most amazing talents of our generation.
I called a couple of friends to let them know what happened and of course I made my argument that this was the be-all-end-all of sports stories. Every one of them disagreed and began spouting off other unforgettable storylines that easily blew mine out of the water.
So I sat down and made a list. Five days later, my list is complete. It started as a top 10 list and slowly developed into a massive top 25 I’m a little bit embarrassed to have written.
The length is a little bit absurd and I’m certain there is literally not a single person in the known universe who is going to agree with my picks completely, but it’s the best I could do.
Thanks for reading and if you have any comments or criticisms, let the debate begin.
Does anyone out there remember how fantastic and totally, completely and outstandingly unprecedented this move was?
Imagine for a moment Lebron slamming his forehead as hard as he could into Kobe’s chest with two minutes remaining in the NBA Finals. Imagine the backlash that would have ensued.
The Headbutt, as far as I’m concerned, is empirical proof that international soccer is the greatest sport on earth and America just speaks the wrong language.
Maybe I’m biased because this whole thing went down in my hometown and I personally knew some of the intimate players, but I recall the rapid-fire destruction of a superstar’s reputation as being a pretty big deal.
Remember when everyone thought this would be good for his career, that he’d gain some “street cred” from the whole incident?
Yeah. That didn’t happen.
Kobe just walked away looking like a scumbag.
This game was silly good. People forget just how electric Reggie Bush was. They don’t remember how Matt Leinart was the next great sports star and how Vince Young was a taller, less intelligent version of Mike Vick.
People don’t forget how this game ended though, with Young running the ball on a 4th-and-five with seconds remaining on the clock, right into the end zone, stunning a Leinart led USC team that had lost only one other time while he was quarterback.
That was really something. I loved every minute.
If he hadn’t served up Boston’s first two championships since 1918, Ramirez wouldn’t be anywhere close to this list. But because he did, he’s got a front row seat.
The antics of Manny Ramirez alone make him noteworthy. But you add in his outstanding statistics, his betrayal of the Boston sports world, the tear he went on the moment he joined the Dodgers and his subsequent steroids scandal and you have a player that defines a decade.
My favorite part of this story is that the most important single moment in the entire saga was when Boston didn’t receive the top pick in the draft.
Greg Oden was going to change the team forever. And when the Celtics didn’t get their pick, Boston sports fans were literally in a state of mourning.
Giving up on the draft, Boston traded for Ray Allen then Kevin Garnett, and proceeded to win 66 games and an NBA Championship.
That just doesn’t happen. Teams that lose out on franchise-changing lottery picks don’t turn their misfortune into championship rings the very next season.
I’m still a little bit in denial about this one.
What separates Danica Patrick from your average stunning female sports star trying to hack it in a man’s game is the simple fact that she’s managed to stick around.
Annika Sorenstam was fantastic, but she could never stick with the men. Billie Jean King embarrassed Bobby Riggs in 1973, but it wasn’t like she took the male tennis world by storm.
Patrick has done what no other woman has ever done in men’s sports. She has competed (and won) at a high level. Indy Car Racing, not to mention the world of sports, wouldn’t be the same without her.
Looking back, it was obvious. But before the news came out that Alex Rodriguez’ best years were a matter of chemical creation, before he fully bloomed into the A-Rod the world knows and loves today, he was just A-Rod, a hyper insecure maniacally egotistical third baseman who hit the ball a metric mile.
He was the sport’s greatest talent and the untainted heir apparent to Barry Bonds. Then, seemingly overnight, he became Barry Bonds without the confidence. What a shame.
If the BCS hadn’t worked once, the world would have moved on. If it hadn’t worked the next year, people still probably could have gotten over it. But the problem with the BCS seems likes a completely unsolvable one.
It’s like trying to get fans out for Florida Marlins games or trying to decipher a Dennis Miller joke. Some things are better left broken.
The real question for the next decade is this: how many years does the BCS fail to work before we actually do something about it?
I would set the over/under at 8.5 and bet my house on the over.
This to me is perhaps the most underrated story of the last 10 years. Set six weeks after 9/11, the world was watching New York.
Scratch that. The world was rooting for New York. Already, you had the recipe for something special.
Naturally, the very moment the Yankees went from Evil Empire to America’s Team, their dynasty ended. Poof. Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson stole it and still haven’t given it back.
I remember watching that game in my living room, sitting literally on the edge of my seat and thinking to myself, “I didn’t know the Yankees could lose this game.” My mind was effectively blown.
Pat Tillman was on the verge of greatness when he decided to enlist in the U.S.
Army before the 2004 season. He turned down more than $3 million from the Arizona Cardinals and what was rumored to be significantly more from the rival Vikings.
Tillman had worked his life for a chance like this and was about to finally take the plunge. His path was an easy one. Instead, he left it all on the table and sacrificed his life for his country. A true American hero, Tillman did what so few of us would in his situation.
Hockey needs Sydney Crosby so badly it’s not even funny. We’re talking about a number one pick going to one of the few great hockey cities left. He is cute as a button, 22 years old and one of the most promising players the league has ever seen.
Following the disastrous lockout in 2004, it’s hard to imagine what kind of state the sport would be in without the Pittsburgh Penguins and their smooth skinned captain.
He’s not the best player in the league (not yet anyway) but he brings a special kind of excitement that this sport can’t survive without. He hasn’t done it yet, but it’s up to him to save hockey.
It’s not like the sport had a lot going for it before, but taking a year off, instituting a major salary cap and thus juggling player movement to the point that some teams were utterly unidentifiable seemed like a bad way to go.
Who in that sport could have been thinking, “I know what we’ll do. We’ll put such massive financial constraints on all the teams that they’ll have to rearrange the teams completely. Maybe that way we could get a hockey team from Southern California to win the cup. Brilliant.”
Whoever that person was, they should have been asked politely to leave the meeting and never come back.
I know that this was technically bad for the sport. We can’t have players storming the stands and attacking fans. These guys are bigger, stronger, and higher on the food chain. It’s just not a fair fight.
That said, if the sport was looking for press and didn’t care which way the media spun it, this could be looked at as one of the greatest moments in NBA history. You get Ron Artest announcing himself as a crazed basketball villain, a sense of danger in the stands, and one of the most entertaining (if completely terrifying) videos in sports history. Not bad for an evening’s work.
There is only one story on this entire list that the media has actually made an effort to downplay. We’ve arrived at Tim Donaghy.
Donaghy’s sports betting scandal had the potential to take down the entire sport of basketball. Literally, everyone attached to the game had something to lose in the scandal, resulting in spotty media coverage and a story not nearly as big as it could have been.
For years, fans have complained about the noticeably inconsistent game calling of many of basketball’s referees.
Donaghy’s scandal makes one wonder if fans weren’t watching incompetency after all, but something perhaps more sinister. Who knows how far the problem reaches?
In what has become a dynasty sport, filled with only a handful of teams that realistically have a chance to win each year, the Lakers from 2000-2002 did dynasty better than almost anyone else.
The team made six finals in the 2000s, including another title in 2009.
But what made this team so much fun to watch were the superstar personalities all blended up together and thrown at the unwitting American public.
Watching Shaq and Kobe interact both on and off the court was nothing short of fascinating. Tossing in Hall of Fame head coach Phil Jackson was just gravy, too good to be true.
I’ll be honest. I had Lebron James finishing in fourth place before a handful of well-intentioned friends talked me down a little bit. James is a superstar, the kind of star I don’t think we’ve had in any of the major team sports for a long time.
We’ve had dominating players, guys who could carry a team like it was nothing, but I honestly don’t think we’ve seen a player who packed as much charisma into the performance as James since Michael Jordan.
James will need to start winning championships to truly take the next step, but I don’t know a single person who thinks he won’t start doing that soon.
When I started writing this piece, Brett Favre was still retired. Three days later, he’s back, clinging once again to yet another starting position in the NFL. Such is the life of Brett Favre.
At this point in his career, Favre owns literally every significant record in the book including career passing yards, completions, touchdowns and wins as a quarterback. He’s started 291 total games as a QB and he has started them consecutively, never missing a game.
Some will debate whether or not Favre really is the single best quarterback of all time, but as he tacks on pass after pass, touchdown after touchdown, it becomes difficult to argue with his credentials, especially when he outright refuses to leave the sport.
Whatever the case may be, Favre is one of the most talented football players of our generation. But that’s not what makes this story so fascinating.
Until the 2008 offseason, Favre’s name was synonymous with Green Bay Packer football. Favre was as much a part of that team as Tony Gwynn was a part of the San Diego Padres or Barry Sanders was a part of the Detroit Lions. That’s just who he was.
Favre wept at his retirement press conference. He had never played for another team. But the Packers had decided to move on, and they expected Favre to do the same.
What they did not expect was that what he really wanted was to move to a different team. Forced into a corner, the Packers chose to trade Favre to the New York Jets, cutting ties with the face of their franchise.
Favre had a moderately successful season with the Jets before once again retiring. Favre had surgery on his throwing arm and appeared to be finished. In late July, He told the Minnesota Vikings (his main pursuer) that he would remain retired.
Three weeks later, amid swirling rumors that he had changed his mind, Favre retracted his statement and signed a two-year contract with one of his former team’s chief rivals.
You knew this story. You knew this saga. What we’re witnessing is one of the greatest sports stars of his generation literally unable to let go. Brett Favre is the National Football League. It runs through his blood.
Just as a warm up, consider this: Michael Phelps has broken 37 swimming world records in his career.
He turned 24 this year and has a won a grand total of 14 Olympic Gold Medals. What have you done?
Phelps was the single most important story of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a two-week period that certainly wasn’t light on featured journalism.
His goal was perfection: to win all eight of his events, thus breaking Mark Spitz’ 7-Gold record set at the 1972 Munich Games.
As the golden boy of American athletics, Phelps was favored in nearly every one of his races, but this in no way guaranteed his path to success. There were days when he would race two and three times, sometimes in quick succession, and he was racing the fastest athletes in the world.
Once the games started, Phelps was a machine, emerging as a worldwide icon of athletic prowess. He won his first six golds with relative ease before entering the pool for his 100m Butterfly race.
Swimming a fraction of a second behind Serbian Milorad Cavic, Phelps looked like he was about to be defeated. There seemed no way he could make up the difference in time. But with a final burst, a forceful flourish at the very last moment, Phelps touched the wall .01 seconds ahead of Cavic, securing his seventh win of the Olympics.
Following the event, the Serbian Delegation filed a formal protest but subsequent analysis proved that Phelps had in fact beaten his competitor. The race was so close that video had to be broken down into 1/10,000 of a second slices to decipher any difference between the two swimmers.
Though Phelps did not shock the world, he did leave millions in awe of his ability. Following his defeat, Cavic spoke out about Phelps. “People, this is the greatest moment of my life,” he said. “If you ask me, it should be accepted and we should move on. I’ve accepted defeat, and there’s nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been.”
Needless to say, Phelps completed his 8-Gold sweep the following day in the 4 x 100 meter relay.
Bolt’s race on Sunday was perhaps the single greatest performance on a track our generation has ever witnessed.
Bolt did not merely break the 100 meter world record. He didn’t lower it by a fraction of a second. He didn’t nibble away at what other people had done before. He absolutely decimated his own mark (which was already very impressive) and in doing so, redefined the limits of what the human body is capable of.
There are stories on this list that will get more media play, but the fact of the matter is that Bolt just ran faster than any person in the world has ever run, and what’s more, it’s not even close.
Some will say that there is no way Bolt did this without performance enhancers. My opinion on the matter is this: if our immediate reaction to an athletic achievement is that there is no conceivable way it was accomplished without cheating, that’s a pretty sure fire sign we just witnessed something mind-blowing.
Bolt just became the Barry Bonds of Track and Field. He just hit his 73rd home run. If he did it cleanly, it will be one of the single greatest accomplishments in the history of sports.
As of Thursday afternoon, Bolt may have done something even more impressive than what he accomplished in the 100 meter final.
Thought to be one of the most difficult world records in all of track and field, Bolt eclipsed Michael Johnson’s 200 meter world record at last year’s Olympics, coming home in a time of 19.30 seconds.
On Thursday, the one year anniversary of his last 200 meter record performance, Bolt broke his own mark by .11 seconds, winning the 200 meter final at the 2009 World Championships by more than .6 seconds. His time of 19.19 puts him far ahead of anyone in history. What he accomplished this week is simply amazing.
As a non-NASCAR fan, it’s sometimes difficult for me to get my head around this story. I was trying to explain it to a friend the other day and made the following comparison:
It’s the fourth quarter and the Patriots trail the Colts by a touchdown. Imagine Julius Peppers tossing his tackle aside, sprinting into the backfield and crumpling Tom Brady. He hits him hard enough, helmet to chest, that immediately the entire stadium goes quiet. Brady doesn’t move.
The trainers come running out and spend a few minutes kneeling by his side. There is still no movement. Peppers becomes emotional on the sideline. Twenty minutes later, the trainers take Brady off in a stretcher. He has yet to move. Later that evening, he’s pronounced dead.
The sports world wouldn’t even begin to know how to react. We simply are not prepared for a story of that magnitude, not from a sports perspective and certainly not from a social perspective.
What’s so odd when we think about it this way, is that Earnhardt’s death was the NASCAR equivalent. We’re talking about a tragedy involving one of the sport’s greatest stars and an event that called into the question the very safety of car racing itself.
This all goes without mentioning the fact that Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr. was coming up through the pipeline, and actually finished second in the race that killed his father.
For months, the tragedy was front and center in the sports world, if only because it was about more than just sports. Earnhardt was a massive public figure loved by millions. His death was stunning and tragic and left the nation in mourning.
In the sports world, Earnhardt’s death was the single most prominent passing of the new century. To this day, his legacy continues.
To this day, it’s difficult to totally comprehend just how good the 2007 New England Patriots were.
That team didn’t win games that year; that team dwarfed the rest of the league. In the NFL, teams just don’t win by 30 and 40 point margins, and when teams do, it certainly isn’t something that can be done consistently.
The Patriots made it look easy.
But this isn’t just a story of dominance. It’s also a story of heartbreak. Make no mistake; the 2007 Patriots were one of the single most dominating football teams ever. And yet, they failed to finish the job.
Pitted against a New York Giants team led by Eli Manning, the Pats were heavy favorites to win. With Tom Brady and Randy Moss leading a nearly unstoppable offense, it was Giants wideout David Tyree that had the final say.
At a critical point during the Giants’ game winning drive, Manning narrowly avoided a sack and launched a 32-yard pass toward Tyree. Tyree leapt and grabbed the ball, pinning it to his helmet and falling in a pile to the ground, the ball held firmly in place to the back of his head.
I had a roommate who wouldn’t leave his room for a week. I had another roommate who went out to celebrate before the fireworks finished. It was one of the great polarizing and shocking moments I can remember, sending people into a tailspin of “what the hell just happened?”
You can’t forget that catch. No one will ever forget that catch. David Tyree catching a 32-yard pass with his helmet to effectively crush one of the greatest teams the world has ever seen—that is what makes this story so fantastic.
Find me a sports fan that didn’t love that game or that season and I will find you someone who’s not a real sports fan. There is no doubt. That was great stuff.
Tiger Woods is 33 years old. Chew on that for a second. Let that terrifying detail sink in for a moment.
Woods may be the single most dominating force in any sport our generation will witness. When he doesn’t win people are shocked, hurt, even angry. Usain Bolt runs faster than any man has ever run in the history of the world and the No. 1 sports story of the day is that Tiger Woods couldn’t hold a lead down at the 2009 PGA Championship.
Is that a joke?
He’s got 14 major titles, makes more money than anyone in sports by a simply massive margin, is likely one of the most recognizable athletes in the world and for whatever ungodly reason, maintains an almost unparalleled popularity.
Sports fans should hate Tiger the way they hate Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning. If you are the best player in the world at your respective game, you are made into a villain. That’s just how it works.
But Tiger is different. My grandmother can’t get enough of the guy. She’s utterly repulsed by other sports stars. Kobe will come on screen, and she will literally turn away in disgust, make some remark about what a hot shot he is then start talking about how “real” men should act.
Perhaps Tiger’s greatest moment came in 2008 at the U.S. Open. Wincing through tee shots, Woods battled his way into an 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate then birdied 18 to send the overtime match into sudden death. He won the hole and picked up his 14th major title. The next day, he announced that he was undergoing ACL surgery.
The man limped his way through 37 holes of golf on a knee that would need to be surgically repaired within the week. More importantly, he won the tournament pitted against the world’s stiffest competition. Mediate, after the match said, “This guy does things that are just not normal by any stretch of the imagination.”
Tiger Woods is a once in a lifetime talent and he hasn’t even sniffed 35 yet. His career is just beginning and that is the craziest thing of all.
I’ll say it once, just to get it out of the way and then we won’t mention it again. We’ve all heard it and we’re all tired of it. Barry Bonds used steroids to achieve immortality. He sold his soul to become the second best baseball player in the history of the game. There. Done. Moving on.
Bonds’ 2001 season was an epic achievement rarely witnessed in any sport before. He dominated his sport at a level that was totally and completely unprecedented.
We’re talking about one player who added an estimated 11.63 wins to the Giants that year, a number only he would ever top by adding 12.62 wins in 2004. His 73 homers speak for themselves but what people forget is that he hit that many bombs in less than 500 at bats, walking almost 200 times that season alone.
The Giants didn’t exactly surround him with talent either. Considering his lineup protection was (you guessed it) Edgardo Alfonzo, who was by all measures a below average player in the league, Bonds was very much alone in that lineup.
2001 was clearly Bonds’ signature season. But don’t forget that beginning that year, he put together the most awe inspiring four year tour-de-force the world has ever known.
Over those four seasons, his adjusted OPS+ (a statistic that measured the relative worth of a player over generational lines) rank first, second, third and tenth on the all time list. To put that in perspective, at Albert Pujols’ current pace, the St. Louis slugger will finish with a mark that would place him 71st on the list.
From 2000 to 2004, Barry Bonds dominated baseball like no one has since Babe Ruth. He broke the two most hallowed records in all of professional sports and he did so with such a villainous intensity that it was hard not to get sucked into the incredible dramatics.
Barry Bonds captivated this country for four years (and even more if you choose to count his downfall). He was an American icon and one of sports’ most influential figures. Love him or hate him, you watched every minute.
This story embodies everything that makes sports so important to so many people. It’s got history, rivalry, desperation, fear, characters we’ll tell our kids about and moments that keep us up at night. It has everything a sports fan could ever wish for.
The 2004 Red Sox were one of the most lovable teams of the last 50 years. They weren’t the most talented team and they certainly didn’t win the most games, but the personalities on that team provided them a cult following of enormous proportion, the kind of following the team has maintained well past 2004.
You’ve got Manny being Manny. You’ve got Pedro wreaking destruction, Kevin Millar drinking in the clubhouse, Papi mashing home runs with that mischievious little grin. You’ve got Schilling with his bloody sock. Hell, you even had Johnny Damon played by Jesus Christ himself.
That Red Sox team was the very antithesis of the New York Yankees. The consummate underdog finally stepped forward, tossed the evil empire to the ground, and emerged as the most loved sports team of our generation. They were loose and fun when the Yankees were stiff, young and exciting when the Yankees were dull.
How could anyone forget the ALCS that year? There was the 19-8 Yankee rout at Fenway, the comebacks off Rivera in games four and five, then the Curt Schilling bloody sock game at Yankees Stadium to force a game seven. Every one of those games needed to happen. Each game brought the Sox closer and closer to the brink.
After a four game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Red Sox had won their World Series. 86 years in waiting and it was all over. Boston was reborn.
Note: Without question, there is no other story on this list that would make a better Hollywood movie. I give it six years for the first shot at it, then 15 for the remake that blows everyone away and reacquaints the world with one of the greatest sports stories ever. When your kids watch that movie, you will turn to them, pat them on the head, and tell them that you saw it happen. I can’t wait.
We haven’t had a horse racing triple-crown winner since 1978. We haven’t had a golf grand slam since 1930 or one in tennis since 1988. The known universe explodes when we watch a team win three titles in a row.
And yet none of those achievements even come close to what Lance Armstrong did from 1999 to 2005.
Lance’s seven consecutive Tour De France victories place him in elite company, among only the most decorated athletes in history. The fact that he did it all after defeating stage three cancer places him all alone.
In 1996, Armstrong was given a less than 50 percent chance to live. He beat the odds, returned to the sport he loved and proceeded to become the single best athlete among the world’s greatest.
It’s the equivalent of Tiger Woods winning a Grand Slam then continuing on for three more titles just because he can. It’s the Yankees never losing a World Series for more than half a decade or Gretzky leading the league in goals seven years in a row (he got close but didn’t quite make it).
Every year, the world waited for Armstrong to collapse. He never did. He continued winning as if he didn’t have a choice in the matter, as if he were just that much better than everyone else in the world.
When opposing teams go to the press and make claims that you are at an advantage because you have only one testicle, because you got lucky and had to beat cancer, and that’s why you’re so much better than everyone else, things are happening that defy logic.
Lance Armstrong is an unparalleled figure in sports today. More astonishing yet, he’s on the prowl for win number eight.
Note: For most of the writing process involved in this piece, I chose to omit this story because I felt like it was covered by other stories on the list. Upon further reflection, I realized that I was not including it because I didn’t want to include it.
I do not like to think about steroids. I do not like to write about steroids. And that is precisely why it remains the biggest story in sports. It’s as much about being a fan as it is about being a player.
Steroids in baseball has tainted the soul of American Culture. Before 1998, baseball was deemed pure, an American manifestation of our national integrity. Baseball was our game and attached to it was a deep sense of national pride.
And now, amidst two wars most of the country doesn’t understand, a collapsing economy none of has seen before and an international community that doesn’t respect us, even our national pastime is filled with liars and cheats.
The problem with steroids, and the reason that steroids remains such a heart wrenching story in the media, is because the story reflects back on the country as a whole in addition to the fans that love the sport so much.
Without letting this become a diatribe against American culture, our once noble aim of living the American dream has long disappeared. In its place is a culture of those who take advantage of the system, who cut corners to get ahead, who have no qualms tossing integrity under the bus for a chance at stardom.
It’s not just the players, selfish or not, who are to blame. The media stood by while it happened. Major League Baseball, the Players Union, the owners, even the fans watched with glee as their once sacred sport turned into a video game manifestation of uber-strength and gargantuan moon shots.
I’m sad that the game isn’t what it used to be. I’m disappointed that the players chose to sacrifice my sport for the benefit of their numbers. But, more than anything, I’m ashamed that we created a culture in which it was necessary for these players to go to these lengths in order to be the best.
As a nation, we are so obsessed with finishing first, with winning at all costs and with one-upping ourselves, that we lose sight of playing the game for what it is.
That’s why steroids are so important in the sports world. It’s because of what the story represents for all of us. Our sports stars cheat the system because everything in our culture invites them to.