50 Superstar Career Defining Moments
Great athletes always carry a laundry list of accomplishments: Records broken, foes dispatched, championships won. They are the glimmering spots on any resume.
But then, there are the singular moments.
The ones that tell their admirers or haters more than any trophy can. The ones that show real character; a person's true self. The ones that, in hundreds of years, grandparents will still tell their kids about seeing.
They are all different: some are singular moments, some are entire series and some are just unfortunate luck. Nevertheless, they are the most memorable of the superstar's legacy and have to be remembered.
So, relive the past.
Note: These are not ranked, because there can be no standard of one being more important than the next. These are 50 of the best, but feel free to suggest others.
Lead image credit: Neil Leifer
Andre Agassi: 1999 French Open
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Only Roland-Garros stood in the way of Agassi's career grand slam, but 1999 certainly didn't look like the year he'd have a break through.
He'd lost in two finals already that year and injured his serving shoulder the week before the French Open.
Nevertheless, Agassi stormed the clay court, knocking off defending champion Carlos Moya early and eliminating a two-set deficit in the final against Andrei Menvedev. At the time, he became the fifth man to complete the career grand slam.
Muhammad Ali: May 26, 1965
The photo of Ali standing over Sonny Liston may be the most well known in all of sports, and it never would have happened if Ali hadn't stuck around after knocking his opponent down to yell, "Get up and fight, sucker."
Yes, it was Ali's second defeat of Liston, but this one ended in the first round with an unbelievable amount of fanfare. And when it's immortalized like this, it can change lives.
Lance Armstrong: 2004 Tour De France
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Yes, Armstrong did go on to win the Tour de France in 2005, but the 2004 one has to be his most impressive.
Miguel Indurain's consecutive victories record must have been on his mind, but Armstrong never quit despite holding the yellow jersey for only one of the first 14 stages.
Armstrong turned it on in the end, winning four of the last six stages to take down the title.
Larry Bird: May 26, 1987
With five seconds left and a 107-106 lead in Boston, the Detroit Pistons had to complete one inbounds pass to take a 3-2 lead home in the Eastern Conference Finals. One.
Thanks to Bird, the Pistons couldn't count that high. The Great White Hope steals Isiah Thomas' pass to Bill Laimbeer and hits Dennis Johnson for the winning layup, saving the Celtics' hopes.
Usain Bolt: August 16, 2008
Bolt took Beijing by storm, winning the 100m, 200m and 4x100m in record times.
The following year, he'd go on to break his 100m and 200m marks, but the Olympic races showed he was by far the best runner on the planet.
He could've even outdone his 9.69 mark if he didn't take time to showboat for the last 10 meters. But that's why we love him.
Kobe Bryant: 2009 NBA Finals
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The one big knock on Kobe's career was that he played Robin to Shaquille O'Neal's Batman for the Lakers three-peat. He couldn't win it as the leader.
Bryant led the Lakers with 32.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game against the Magic, taking down his first title as The Man. He went from Lakers great to Lakers legend with the performance.
Wilt Chamberlain: March 2, 1962
One of the most dominating forces in NBA history, Chamberlain's performance against the New York Knicks was unprecedented. His perfect 100 beat Elgin Baylor's previous record by 29 points.
The Philadelphia Warriors big man was known for his scoring, but this game set him apart as the unstoppable force in the NBA.
Randy Couture: March 3, 2007
Couture came out of an almost year-long retirement to face Tim Sylvia for the UFC heavyweight crown. The 43-year-old was giving up significant size and reach and hadn't fought as a heavyweight since 2002.
Apparently, stats lie. All three judges scored the match 50-45 in the veteran's favor, as Couture sent Sylvia to the mat eight seconds in.
After five rounds of dominance at UFC 68, Couture became the first three-time champion in the UFC.
Sidney Crosby: February 28, 2010
It may be hard to define one's career at such a young age, but can it get much better than this for a hockey player?
Crosby netted the winning goal in overtime against the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics to give Canada the gold. His Stanley Cup victory made him a hockey great, but this goal made him a legend.
At least in his homeland.
Landon Donovan: June 23, 2010
Landon Donovan has been one of the best players on some mediocre U.S. teams over the past decade, but in the 2010 World Cup, the Americans appeared to have their best shot at pushing deep into the elimination round.
But why not make the journey out of pool play magical? The U.S. wouldn't have been guaranteed to advance with out this stoppage time goal—giving Donovan the greatest goal of his career.
John Elway: January 25, 1998
John Elway exudes leadership, and with his play in Super Bowl XXXII, he set the example of the toughness needed to win on the biggest stage.
Being hit by two defenders probably didn't feel great, but when Elway looked up and saw he had helicoptered his way to a drive-saving first down inside Green Bay's five, he probably felt amazing.
Brett Favre: January 26, 1997
Brett Favre may now be known for his retirement dance, but he made his name with his start to Super Bowl XXXI. And it may not have been for the play.
Sure, he hit Andre Rison with an unbelievable spiral for a 54-yard score on the game's second play, but his celebration of taking off his helmet and sprinting down the field is a memory of pure joy football fans everywhere won't forget.
Roger Federer: September 13, 2009
When Federer, a man with 16 major championships and countless great plays, calls this his best shot ever, you know it's a big deal.
The shot not only helped break Novak Djokovic's serve in a crucial semifinal game at the U.S. Open, but also showed that the young gun still had learning to do before he could topple the Federer-Nadal rivalry.
(Sorry for the foreign call.)
Wayne Gretzky: Oct. 15, 1989
Gordie Howe probably had the opposite reaction of Gretzky at this moment, as his name was no longer atop the record books.
Against the Edmonton Oilers, The Great One passed Howe as hockey's all time points leader with 1,851.
Most notably, he did it much quicker than Howe, setting himself in a class all by himself.
Ken Griffey Jr.: May 26, 1995
When Griffey comes up in conversation, his tremendous ability and unfortunate knack for injuries have to be separated—except when it comes to this play.
Junior sprinted to run down a shot by the Orioles' Kevin Bass, slamming into the Kingdome's wall while leaping through the air.
The catch sums up his career: While he made the grab, he shattered his wrist and missed 73 games.
Rickey Henderson: May 1, 1991
Rickey Henderson stole the show, literally. With his 939th stolen base, Henderson broke Lou Brock's all time stolen base mark and became the game's best runner.
He should keep that base for a long time, because he's certainly not humble.
Allen Iverson: May 9, 2002
For a very undersized shooting guard, Iverson worked harder on the court than any player in recent memory. Unfortunately, this off-court is what he's remembered by.
"We talkin' bout practice!" has filled many a sports fan's quote arsenal, and will remain part of the former 76er great's legacy
Derek Jeter: October 13, 2001
Baseball fans everywhere can thank journeyman outfielder Shane Spencer for Jeter's miraculous play. If his wild hurl home on a Terrence Long double had hit cutoff man Tino Martinez, none of this would've happened.
Sometimes, it is better to be unlucky than good. The Captain came all the way across the infield from his short stop post, retrieved the errant throw, and flipped it to Jorge Posada all in one motion to nail Jeremy Giambi and preserve a 1-0 lead.
Winning with unbelievable effort? Sounds like the Jeter way.
(Start at 58 seconds)
Magic Johnson: June 9, 1987
For a Laker, nothing can feel better than taking down the Celtics for an NBA title. Up 2-1 at the Boston Garden, the Lakers needed a miracle down one with seven ticks left.
Why have a miracle when you can have Magic? Johnson's "junior, junior sky hook" hit all chord, and gave Los Angeles an insurmountable 3-1 series lead.
The classic quote from the game came from Larry Bird: ""You expect to lose on a sky hook. You just don't expect it to be Magic."
Michael Jordan: June 14, 1998
With a 33.5 point per game average in the 1998 NBA Finals en route to his sixth NBA title, His Airness elevated his game to set aside any doubt of who the game's best player was.
And on one of his most, if not the most, famous moment of Jordan's career, he elevated above Bryon Russell to drill the finals-winner in Game 6. A remarkable way to bookend the dynasty.
Peyton Manning: January 21, 2007
Living in Tom Brady's shadow is a tough career path. Manning, despite trailing 21-3 in the AFC Championship game, wanted to quit the job.
The Colts stormed back, trailing 34-31 with under three minutes left. That's when Manning broke out.
In 19 seconds, the Colts moved the ball 70 yards, including 58 from Manning's arm, and eventually punched the ball in to complete the largest comeback in a conference championship game and finally allowing Manning a chance at a Super Bowl ring.
Dan Marino: January 6, 1985
While Marino couldn't ever capture the elusive Super Bowl ring, his play to get to football's top game can only be described as stellar.
Marino went 21-for-32 for 421 yards and four touchdowns, three of which were longer than 35 yards. While he claims the ring he won thanks to this performance was a "loser's ring," his play was nothing close to that.
Willie Mays: September 29, 1954
Willie Mays' basket catch may be the most remembered baseball play ever, and rightfully so. Center fielders everywhere should emulate The Say Hey Kid's effort on every play.
Announcer Jack Brickhouse called Mays' remarkable grab an "optical illusion," and I'm sure the man who hit it, Vic Wertz, wished Brickhouse was right.
Reggie MIller: June 1, 1994
Is there a better fan/athlete rivalry than Spike Lee versus Reggie Miller? Tied at 2-2 in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, Miller made sure Lee, and all of New York, remembered his name.
Miller put on a show with 39 points, including 25 in the fourth quarter, to give his Pacers a 3-2 series lead.
More importantly, however, he pulled off one of sports' greatest taunts, telling Knicks lover Lee that his squad were choke artists.
Joe Montana: January 10, 1982
The Catch cannot be watched enough times. It just can't. No matter how many times you think Montana won't be able to avoid the pressure, he always does.
This one catch makes the 1982 NFC Championship one of the more memorable games in football history.
Montana's heave was a prayer on a broken play with 51 seconds remaining, but still gave the 49ers the 28-27 victory and a trip to the Super Bowl.
Rafael Nadal: July 6, 2008
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Nadal was No. 2 in the world, but couldn't seem to unseat Roger Federer. Federer had won the past five Wimbledons, including the last two over Nadal and would solidify his top spot with a win.
So Nadal came hard and came fast. He took a two-set lead, only to see Federer rally back for the fifth set.
Rafa held strong, and would end the Federer reign with a 9-7 fifth-set victory in what some called the greatest match ever.
Joe Namath: January 12, 1969
Broadway Joe called his shot, guaranteeing a Jets victory in Super Bowl III.
He got tired of hearing the Baltimore Colts talk trash, so he went all in—and won.
Namath completed 17 of his 28 passes for 206 yards, including leading his squad on an early 80-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter.
The Jets never looked back, securing a 16-7 victory and confirming Namath's prediction.
Jack Nicklaus: 1986 Masters Tournament
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The Golden Bear took down the Masters as close to his Golden Years as anyone in golf history. But he did so in the most exciting fashion, with a back nine 30 on the final day.
Five different players held a share of the lead in the last round, only to have Nicklaus survive after two heartbreaking misses for Tom Kite and Greg Norman.
Nicklaus chocked up his sixth Masters crown and 18th major victory with the memorable performance.
Dirk Nowitzki: 2011 NBA Finals
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The word "deserving" was used to many times to describe Dirk Nowitzki after the 2011 NBA Finals; and it couldn't be more accurate.
He'd endured the media criticism of both him and his team for so long and finally proved the world wrong.
He not only did it by defeating the heavily favored Miami Heat, but with an all-around performance indicative of his career: 26 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, with clutch shot after clutch shot.
Shaquille O'Neal: June 4, 2000
This one alley-oop from the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trailblazers sums up the Big Aristotle's entire career:
Dominant power, explosive dunks, crazy celebrations and ignoring Kobe.
Bobby Orr: May 10, 1970
The Bruins held a 3-0 lead in the finals over the Blues, but St. Louis wouldn't go away without a fight in Game 4, forcing overtime in Boston. But 40 seconds later, it was all over.
Orr got a pass from Derek Sanderson and was tripped by Blues defenseman Noel Picard on his way to the championship-clinching goal.
While the image is legendary on its own, this goal also marked the end of a colossal year for Orr and cemented his legacy as a Beantown legend.
Walter Payton: October 7, 1984
Six-yard runs aren't normally stuff of legend, but when Sweetness took a pitchout from Jim McMahon in the third quarter, the storm of photographers that flooded the field told everyone otherwise.
Payton made sure to break Jim Brown's career rushing mark (12,312 yards) in style: He finished the game with 154 yards for his record 59th career 100-yard game.
Pelé: 1958 World Cup
It may have been Pelé's first World Cup, but it set the tone for the Brazilian striker's entire career. He entered the tournament as the youngest player in the tournament, and came out as one of the best.
The 17-year-old scored six goals in four matches, including a hat trick in the semifinal against France.
He passed out on the field after Brazil won the match, but his teammates must have known the unconscious kid was something special.
Cal Ripken Jr.: September 6, 1995
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If there's one thing Ripken was known for, it was his loyalty. Ripken played all 21 seasons for the Baltimore Orioles—emphasis being on "played."
Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record with his 2,131st consecutive games played in a home game against the Angels, and belted a home run to celebrate.
Fans would later vote "The Streak," which eventually reached 2,632 games, the most memorable moment in baseball.
With a 22-minute standing ovation to congratulate him, how could they forget?
Jackie Robinson: September 28, 1955
Yes, Robinson could be on here for breaking the color barrier, but his play did plenty of talking. In Game 1 of the 1955 World Series, Robinson proved how valuable he was.
Despite the incredibly dull call from the video, Jackie Robinson stealing home provided one of the Brooklyn Dodgers' greatest memories.
Stealing home is always hard, especially when the catcher has the ball well before the runner is near the bag; as is the case here.
Jerry Rice: September 9, 1994
For the best receiver to play the game, it would've felt weird if Rice didn't hold some absurd touchdown mark. And on Week 1 of the 1994 season, the 49er decided to put his name into the history books.
With the third touchdown on the day, Rice passed Jim Brown for most touchdowns—a record he still holds by a 33-score margin. And who better to embarrass than the Raiders.
(My apologies for the music.)
Pete Rose: July 14, 1970
For all the off-field antics filling Pete Rose's resume, his sheer determination in the 1970 All-Star Game should be above it all. Catcher Ray Fosse had the ball and position, but Rose had the will.
Or maybe he just wanted out of Cincinnati, because it was the 12th inning.
Either way, Rose barreled through Fosse, who dropped the ball, and scored the winning run while injuring himself and Fosse.
Babe Ruth: October 1, 1932
While there is controversy to where Ruth was pointing, let's give him the benefit of the doubt.
If there's one moment The Great Bambino will always be remember for, it's calling his shot.
Cubs fans were heckling the Yankees slugger throughout Game 5 of the 1932 World Series, but he didn't seem to care, pointing out to center field.
On the next pitch, Ruth obliterated the ball right where he gestured, dismissing the idea that the gods frown upon hubris.
Nolan Ryan: May 1, 1991
Most people at the age of 44 are having a mid-life crisis. Ryan was instead just reliving his youth.
The Ryan Express tossed his seventh no-hitter against the Blue Jays, making him the oldest pitcher ever to do so.
He did so in classic Ryan fashion. Striking out 16 and only walking two, Ryan solidified his record with the most no-hitters.
Bart Starr: December 31, 1967
In one of the coldest football games ever, Starr and the Packers had the ball on the Cowboys' one-yard line with 16 seconds left.
Everyone expected a pass in this situation, which would give the Packers two chances to tie the score at 17; or go for the win.
Starr decided Green Bay wouldn't need that many. He called Brown right 31 Wedge, keeping the ball and scampering into the end zone for the lead, and, after two Cowboy incompletions, the NFL championship better known as the Ice Bowl.
Curt Schilling: October 24, 2004
Playing hurt is one thing, playing while bleeding is another.
In Game 2 of the 2004 World Series, Schilling was scheduled to do both, as he had a torn tendon with four stitches in his right ankle and blood seeping into his sock.
Schilling, however, didn't seem fazed. He gave up only four hits in six innings, picking up a critical victory before the series headed to St. Louis.
The sock was the real celebrity, heading to Cooperstown for baseball junkies to see.
Ichiro Suzuki: April 11, 2001
Ichiro came into the majors with a lot of respect...for his hitting. Even as a rookie, people knew he was going to be a stellar hitter. But with "The Throw," fans started appreciating his defense as well.
Oakland's Terrence Long headed for third on a Ramon Hernandez single to right, and Ichiro needed a perfect throw to nail him.
So he did even better than that, delivering a straight shot that just beat Long.
Welcome to the MLB, Ichiro.
Lawrence Taylor: November 18, 1985
Let's just keep this simple. LT ended Joe Theismann's career by breaking his leg on this sack.
Mike Tyson: June 28, 1997
A bite of human flesh can do some crazy things to people.
Just look at Tyson's life after he gnawed Evander Holyfield's ear in their second bout.
Johnny Unitas: December 28, 1958
What is casually known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played," the 1958 NFL Championship was the first game to go to sudden death overtime. But it wouldn't have gotten there without Unitas.
Trailing 17-14 with only two minutes left, the Colts followed Unitas' lead, driving 73-yards for a game-tying field goal. Unitas finished the game with a championship game record 349 yards passing.
Chris Webber: April 5, 1993
Webber tried so hard to do the right thing. That, however, is no defense when the "right" thing is to know the situation you are in.
No matter how hard he tried, Webber will never shake this play. He could've been the next Karl Malone—and still be known for this blunder.
Ted Williams: September 28, 1960
Ted Williams had a plethora of amazing performances, but he made sure to seal his career off with a bang. Literally.
While the Red Sox walked off in the ninth, Williams' walked off an inning earlier; in his very last at-bat for the Boston Red Sox, Williams crushed his 521st home run.
Tiger Woods: 1997 Masters Tournament
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Twenty-one is usually a good year for people, and Tiger made no exception to that. Not only did he become the youngest golfer to win the Masters, he also became the first black golfer to do so as well.
But why win when he can dominate?
Woods shot a record 270 for the tournament, finished a record 18-under par, and won by 12 strokes. Not bad for his 15th pro tour appearance.
Steve Young: October 30, 1988
Young played behind Joe Montana from 1987-90, but showed his share of promise in the times he got on the field.
With this run against Minnesota, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he'd lead the 49ers for the future.
The NFL's No. 1 defense somehow couldn't catch the wily quarterback who dodged, dipped, ducked, dived and dodged for the game-winning touchdown.
Zinedine Zidane: July 9, 2006
No matter the stage, head butting someone is a big deal.
So when France's star landed his bald head into Marco Materazzi's chest in the 110th minute of the 2006 World Cup, it's going to be more than remembered.
Especially by the Italian's sternum.