Sports Moments That Defined Athletes

Laura DeptaFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2016

Sports Moments That Defined Athletes

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    Tsugufumi Matsumoto/Associated Press

    Buster Douglas knocked out the great Mike Tyson in 1990, and it defined his boxing career.

    Some events are just that big, that transcendent, they have the power to represent an entire body of athletic work. What follows are those types of moments.

    Obviously, it would be impossible to fit every big-time sports moment into a box big enough for only 25—Tiger Woods' 2008 U.S. Open win and Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" are notable omissions.  

    These are simply the moments that most defined careers. If they could be bottled, these moments would be the purest and most concentrated essence of each player's legacy. Some involve less notable players who will always be remembered for one famous play. Others feature all-time greats with many incredible highlights, and yet one stands out as their quintessential moment.

    Unfortunately, defining moments are not always positive. Sorry, Bill Buckner.

    Whatever the circumstances, the following 25 athletes will forever be linked with these enduring sports memories.

    P.S. Shout-out to Kobe Bryant for scoring 60 points on 50 shots in his last game, a win, and notching two clutch free throws to boot. Was there ever a more "Kobe" moment in a storied 20-year career than his last game? Maybe not.  

Honorable Mentions: Recent Moments

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Career-defining moments are often easier labeled as such years after the fact. Here are a few honorable mention/recent sports moments that might end up fitting the bill—you know, later, when there is the benefit of hindsight: 

    • Malcolm Butler's interception to all but seal Super Bowl XLIX for the New England Patriots.
    • New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. makes possibly the greatest catch ever in his rookie season.
    • Tiger Woods' unreal chip shot at the 2005 Masters. 
    • Kobe Bryant's 81-point game
    • Michael Phelps wins the 100-meter butterfly by a hair to win the seventh of eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics.
    • Kevin Garnett's "Anything is possible!" after winning the 2008 NBA title.

Brandi Chastain's Celebration

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    ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Getty Images

    In 1999, the U.S. women's soccer team defeated China to win the World Cup in dramatic fashion.

    After a scoreless tie through regulation and overtime, the tournament came down to penalty kicks. Brandi Chastain netted the winning kick for the U.S. and celebrated by removing her shirt and sliding to the ground in triumph.

    The image graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the act became one of the most iconic celebrations in sports.  

Magic Johnson's Baby Skyhook

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    Magic Johnson is one of the all-time NBA greats. He won five championships and three league MVPs.

    And yet his baby skyhook to beat the rival Boston Celtics in a critical Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals—that is a moment everyone remembers.

    Down 106-105 as the final seconds ticked away, Johnson retrieved an inbound pass and took the ball toward the paint. He stopped short of the hoop and dropped in a gorgeous hook shot that turned out to be the game-winner.

    True, Johnson got the move from teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but he gave it his own twist. When fans think "skyhook," they think Kareem. When they think "baby skyhook," they think Magic.

Doug Flutie's Hail Mary

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    Doug Flutie threw the most famous Hail Mary in football history.

    In November 1984, Boston College trailed the University of Miami, 45-41, at the tail end of the game. At the six-second mark, BC's senior quarterback hurled a game-winning, 48-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Gerard Phelan.

    Flutie went on to win the Heisman Trophy and have a long career in professional football, but no moment ever surpassed the lore inspired by Hail Flutie.

Chris Webber's Timeout

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    Unfortunately, not all defining moments are positive. For example, Chris Webber was a stellar college basketball player and an All-Star in the NBA.

    And yet his name still, over 20 years after the fact, brings up recollections of an errant timeout he called in 1993.

    Down 73-71 to UNC in the closing seconds of the NCAA National Championship Game, Michigan's Webber picked up a rebound and moved the ball up the court. In a confused moment, he inadvertently called a timeout, which was a big-time problem since the Wolverines didn't have one to call.

    Michigan got a technical. UNC's Donald Williams made both the free throws, and his team went on to win the game, 77-71.

Dwight Clark's 'The Catch'

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    "The Catch" might be a defining moment of Joe Montana's storied career, but it is the defining moment for wide receiver Dwight Clark. And that's no small statement since Clark was an All-Pro who caught a not-too-shabby 85 balls in 1981.

    It was January 1982, the NFC Championship Game. The Dallas Cowboys led the San Francisco 49ers 27-21 with 51 seconds remaining. 

    On third down at the Cowboys 6-yard line, Montana found Clark in back of the end zone for an incredible touchdown. The 'Niners went on to win their first Super Bowl.

    In 2013, Clark told 49ers media (via Frank Schwab of Shutdown Corner), "In many different ways it comes up, at least once a day. It comes up either on TV or somebody saying something, or a letter, or a fan. That's fine with me. ... I love talking about it."

Reggie Jackson's 3 Home Runs

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    Reggie Jackson was a great home run hitter. He hit 563 of them during his 21-year MLB career.

    So it would make sense, then, that the quintessential Jackson moment came during the 1977 World Series.

    The then-New York Yankees slugger smashed three home runs during a single game—the deciding Game 6. It's a small group of players who have hit three homers in a World Series Game—Jackson, Babe Ruth (who did it twice), Albert Pujols and Pablo Sandoval, according to Baseball Almanac.

    The feat helped win the series for the Yankees and earned Jackson a pretty boss nickname in baseball terms: Mr. October.

Mark Messier's Guarantee

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    RON FREHM/Associated Press

    Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier won five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and then led the New York Rangers to one more, its first in over 50 years.  

    His defining moment, one of utter badassery, came with those Rangers. In 1994, his team trailed the New Jersey Devils, three game to two, in the Eastern Conference Final.

    After a 4-1 drubbing in Game 5, Messier famously told reporters, "We're going to go in there and win Game 6. We know we're going to go in and win Game 6 and bring it back for Game 7," per Brett Cyrgalis of the New York Post.

    It became the guarantee heard 'round the world (or at least the NHL), and Messier delivered. The captain scored a hat trick in a 4-2 Rangers win. They went on to take Game 7 and would eventually win the Stanley Cup.

Christian Laettner Sinks Kentucky

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    Some sports fans are probably still mad about Christian Laettner's buzzer-beating ways at Duke. He went on to play 13 seasons in the NBA, but his pro career is a mere footnote to his college glory days. 

    Laettner's game-winner against Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight could easily be called his quintessential moment. Duke's big senior scored 31 points in the game on a perfect shooting night. On the last play, he caught a full-court pass and made a turnaround jumper for the win.

    It was the most despised player, on the most despised team, irritatingly winning, yet again, in the most excruciating way possible for his detractors. Sounds about right. 

Scott Norwood's 'Wide Right'

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    Poor Scott Norwood. He actually had a nice little seven-year career as an NFL kicker. He even made a league-leading 32 field goals in 1988 en route to a first-team All-Pro selection.

    And yet he might as well have only ever attempted one kick, because it's the only one anyone remembers.

    The Buffalo Bills famously lost four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s, the first of which took place in 1991—Super Bowl XXV, Bills vs. the New York Giants.

    The Bills had a chance to win late in the game (unlike a few of those other games). Trailing 20-19 with eight seconds remaining, Norwood lined up for a 47-yard attempt. He miraculously put the ball straight through the uprights—kidding. Obviously, he missed it, wide right. That's the whole point.

Joe Namath's Guarantee

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    Tony Tomsic/Getty Images

    If Mark Messier's guarantee is going to be mentioned, then Joe Namath's has to be as well.

    Heading into Super Bowl III in 1969, the NFL champion Baltimore Colts were heavily favored to beat Namath's New York Jets.

    Still, a few days before the game, the Jets quarterback told reporters outright he planned to win the game. His coach, the late Weeb Ewbank, was not pleased, according to Greg Logan of Newsday.

    Good thing the Jets went on to win the game, 16-7. Namath was named the MVP.

    (Off the field, Namath's defining moment was obviously the pantyhose commercial.)

Bucky Dent's Home Run

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    The Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees rivalry has produced more than one moment on this list.

    Let's start in 1978. Bucky Dent played big league ball for 12 seasons, spending six of those with the Yankees. He batted .247/.297/.321 and hit just 40 home runs throughout his career.

    Yet he is most famous for a home run against the Red Sox during Game 163 in '78. Facing Boston's Mike Torrez in the seventh inning, Dent smashed a three-run shot over the green monster at Fenway Park, putting the Yankees up, 3-2. New York went on to win the game, and eventually the World Series, as it were.

    The feat earned Dent the nickname Bucky "F--king" Dent in Boston, according to Baseball Almanac (NSFW language).

Michael Jordan's 'Last Shot'

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    It's hard to say Michael Jordan had one defining moment throughout his entire career. His competitiveness, drive and unparalleled basketball talent were on display in countless situations.

    That said, if forced to choose one (and with no disrespect to the flu game or "The Shot," both vintage Jordan), was there ever a more quintessential MJ moment than the "Last Shot"?

    Jordan's Chicago Bulls were up three games to two on the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals, looking to cap off their second three-peat. With 5.2 seconds remaining in Game 6, Jordan drained a game-winning 20-footer (with a little push-off on Jazz forward Bryon Russell).

    Not only was Jordan a ruthless competitor, but he also excelled in the most critical moments. The "Last Shot" was the embodiment of that.

David Tyree's Helmet Catch

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    Many players from Super Bowl XLII have more famous names than David Tyree—New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Randy Moss, New York Giants QB Eli Manning.

    And yet none produced a more iconic moment in that game than the Giants wide receiver.  

    Down 14-10 and facing a 3rd-and-5 with 1:15 remaining in the game, Manning scrambled under pressure and got a pass to Tyree, who impossibly caught it with the help of his helmet. The Giants eventually scored and held onto the lead for good.

    Not only did the catch help secure a Super Bowl win for the Giants, but it devastated the Patriots' chances for an undefeated 19-0 season.

    According to Shalise Manza Young of Shutdown Corner, "The amazing catch vaulted Tyree into football's lore, but it was the last catch he ever made in an NFL uniform."

Aaron Boone's Home Run

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    Yet another New York Yankees home run made its hitter immortal in New York and eternally loathed in Boston.

    It was Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. All tied up to start the bottom of the 11th inning, Aaron Boone strolled to the plate for New York and smashed Tim Wakefield's first pitch out of the park.

    Boone, far from the team's biggest star, had entered the game as a pinch runner.

    The Yankees went on to lose the World Series, but Boone's homer is often remembered as one of the greatest moments in the history of old Yankee Stadium.

Wayne Gretzky's 50 in 39

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    They don't call him The Great One for nothing. It's hard to qualify the greatness of NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, but it is a bit easier to quantify it. The man holds a whole mess of records, including boring stuff like most goals (894), most points (2,857) and most assists (1,963).

    Like other sporting legends, choosing one moment to represent a Hall of Fame career is challenging.

    And yet, above all else, Gretzky was a goal scorer. So it seems appropriate to dub his "50 in 39" achievement the most career-defining.

    By the 1981-82 season, only two NHL players had scored 50 goals in 50 games—Maurice Richard and Mike Bossy. The young Edmonton Oilers phenom absolutely busted that record up, reaching the 50-goal mark in an astonishingly few 39 games.

    The most incredible moment came in game No. 39. With just 45 goals entering the night, Gretzky scored five times to break the record.

Wilt Chamberlain's 100 Points

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    PAUL VATHIS/Associated Press

    Hall of Fame NBA center Wilt Chamberlain had a lot of success on the basketball court. His records include most points in a season (4,029) and highest point average in a season (50.4). His NBA.com bio describes him as "the most awesome offensive force the game has ever seen."

    But no matter what else he achieved, Wilt will always be the man who scored 100 points in a game.

    He accomplished the feat on March 2, 1962, playing for the Philadelphia Warriors and shredding the New York Knicks in a 169-147 win.

Babe Ruth's 'Called Shot'

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    Baseball legend Babe Ruth is remembered as one of the most iconic sportsmen to ever live, meaning his career provided many great moments.

    And yet the one that sticks out above all others may not have even happened the way legend has it.

    In Chicago for Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, the Babe pointed in the general direction of the outfield during an at-bat against Chicago Cubs pitcher Charlie Root. Then he hit a home run.

    As John Kass of the Chicago Tribune put it, "Did Ruth dramatically point to the outfield stands and call his shot? Or was Ruth merely warning the foul-mouthed Cubs in the dugout who were riding him, and he just got tired of it and saluted them the Chicago Way?"

    Real or not real, Ruth's called shot is perhaps the most legendary moment of his storied career.

Vince Carter's Dunk Contest

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    Many NBA players have made a living on slam dunks, but few have become so synonymous with the term as 18-year veteran Vince Carter.

    Who could forget the time he absolutely skied over Frederic Weis of the French national team during the 2000 Olympics?

    Even more iconic, however, was his Slam Dunk Contest win several months prior. Carter gave NBA fans, fresh off a lockout that cancelled the 1999 All-Star festivities, something to cheer about in the form of one sick dunk after another. He put on a show the likes of which fans had never seen.  

    Zach Harper of CBS Sports wrote, "Carter's first run through the dunk contest back in 2000 was truly one of this century's most unforgettable NBA moments."

Diego Maradona's 2 Goals vs. England

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    Argentinian Diego Maradona is one of the great footballers of all time. And in just one game against England during the 1986 World Cup, he scored two of the most famous goals of all time, both of which contribute to defining his legacy.

    First came the "Hand of God" goal, a controversial score that saw the ball deflect off Maradona's hand and into the net.

    Four minutes later, he wove threw what seemed like half the English team en route to a work of art dubbed the "Goal of the Century."

    Maradona once recalled, "Whenever I see it again I can't believe I managed it. Not because I scored but because it seems like a goal that just isn't possible, a goal that you could dream of but never actually score," per Paul Macdonald of Goal.com.

Willie Mays' 'The Catch'

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    One of the greatest all-around baseball players of all time made the greatest catch in league history, transcendent enough to be dubbed, simply, "The Catch."

    The play happened during the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians. Cleveland first baseman Vic Wertz hit a fly ball to center, and New York outfielder Willie Mays hauled it in, over-the-shoulder style, completing one of the most impressive defensive plays anyone will ever see.

    Mays won an incredible 12 Gold Gloves over the course of his 22-year, Hall of Fame career. (He wasn't a bad hitter, either.) 

John Elway's 'The Drive'

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    John Elway is known as one of the most clutch quarterbacks in NFL history, a reputation embodied by one epic drive in 1987.

    It was the AFC Championship Game, Denver Broncos vs. Cleveland Browns. Down 20-13 with 5:32 to go in the game, starting at his own 2-yard line, Elway calmly orchestrated a masterful 15-play drive to tie the game and eat almost five minutes off the clock. The Broncos would go on to win in overtime.  

    At the time, then-Broncos coach Dan Reeves said what many have said about the clutch QBs of today, such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. 

    According to a 1987 story by Fred Kerber in the New York Daily News, he said, "Any time you have John Elway, you have a chance."

Bill Buckner's Error

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    Bill Buckner committed perhaps the most famous error in baseball history. No matter what else he did in his 22-year MLB career, he'll always be remembered for that.

    It was Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The Boston Red Sox led the New York Mets three games to two. They were on the brink of their first championship since Babe Ruth.  

    Down 5-3 with two outs in the 10th inning, the Mets managed three consecutive singles, and a wild pitch helped bring the score to five-all.

    That's when Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson hit a little squibbler up the first-base line. The ball traveled through Buckner's legs, allowing the winning run to score. The Mets went on to win Game 7 and the series.

    Rick Weinberg of ESPN.com wrote, "The historical impact of the Buckner miscue is staggering. The play has become the most famous miscue in sports annals." (Although, let's not forget, the Boston pitching wasn't exactly stellar in that inning, either.) 

Franco Harris' 'Immaculate Reception'

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    Former running back Franco Harris played 13 NFL seasons, 12 of those with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a first-team All-Pro in 1977 and won three Super Bowls.

    And yet he will always be remembered for one play: the Immaculate Reception.

    One of football's most famous (and frankly, weird) plays came in the 1972 AFC divisional-round matchup between the Steelers and the Oakland Raiders.

    Down 7-6 and facing 4th-and-10 at his own 40 with just 22 seconds left, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw hurled a pass toward John "Frenchy" Fuqua. The ball essentially bounced off Fuqua as he was tackled and somehow ended up in the hands of Harris, who ran it in for the game-winning touchdown.  

Kerri Strug's Vault

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    In terms of single moments, retired gymnast Kerri Strug created one of the most memorable in American Olympic history.

    The U.S. women's gymnastics team was closing in on gold at the 1996 Games, though the Russian team nipped close at their heels.

    In the final event of the competition, Strug injured her left ankle on her first vault attempt. Unsure if the gold was secure, Strug went through with the second vault despite her injury.

    She performed beautifully, notching a 9.712 and locking up gold for the Americans.

    Legendary U.S. coach Bela Karolyi later said, "In my 35 years of coaching, I have never seen such a moment. People think these girls are fragile dolls. They're not. They're courageous," according to Rick Weinberg of ESPN.com.

Buster Douglas' Big Upset

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    In 1990, Buster Douglas orchestrated one of the most shocking upsets in boxing history. A 42-1 underdog, Douglas knocked out an undefeated Mike Tyson in the 10th round to claim the heavyweight championship.

    Rick Bernstein of HBO Sports said, "I have worked more than 500 boxing telecasts in my HBO career and to this day I don't recall any moment when those of us producing a fight were for one brief second caught up in this moment of disbelief," per Dan Rafael of ESPN.com.

    Douglas soon relinquished the title to Evander Holyfield and later staged a quiet but relatively successful comeback. Still, the Tyson knockout was easily the biggest moment of his career and certainly the one he'll be remembered for.