The Best Eleven Minutes in Sports in 2016

A professional football game has four fifteen-minute quarters, but once you subtract all the time the players spend huddling up, walking around, mugging for the cameras, getting into position, and waiting for the referees to spot the ball and the quarterback to go through his pre-snap soliloquy, you get about eleven minutes of actual game play—the throws, runs, catches, and tackles that make the sport worth watching in the first place.

As I noted last year at this time, the sports world fills out every minute of the year, but, like a football game, the best parts are the short bursts of action and the brief, indelible moments of drama. These are the eleven minutes of sports that mattered most in 2016.

13.5 seconds: The final two possessions of the men’s N.C.A.A. National Basketball Championship game between the Villanova Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels were perhaps the most exciting in the history of the tournament. First, Carolina’s Marcus Paige tied the game with a circus-shot three-pointer, an acrobatic amazement that would have been replayed on broadcasts for years had the Tar Heels won. But Paige’s shining moment was promptly erased by an even shinier one: Villanova’s Kris Jenkins, who hit a long three at the buzzer to win the game, on a nifty play that had him inbound the ball and then emerge into the frontcourt uncovered. The scene had it all: emotional whiplash; perfect, gutsy timing from the stadium’s fireworks-and-confetti guy; and Crying Jordan.

Read more stories about the year in culture and politics.
Read more stories about the year in culture and politics.

5 minutes: In the final round of the Masters, the golfing phenom Jordan Spieth arrived at the par-three twelfth hole leading by two strokes. Despite bogeying the two previous holes, he looked to be in fine position to win his second consecutive Green Jacket. But his tee shot on the twelfth hole landed in the water, and, five minutes later, he chunked his next shot back into the same water. He wound up with a quadruple bogey on the hole, and went on to lose the tournament to the Englishman Danny Willett. Spieth’s twelfth was a gruesome but captivating moment—a top athlete coming undone. A couple of hours later, Spieth provided the agony-of-defeat image of the year, when, because Masters tradition requires the previous year’s champion to put the Green Jacket on the new winner, Spieth was captured on camera, standing behind a delighted Willett, staring blankly into space.

12 seconds: Many Olympic events are routinely decided by the tightest of margins—quarter inches, tenths of seconds. But in the women’s eight-hundred-metre freestyle the nineteen-year-old American swimmer Katie Ledecky won by an astounding twelve seconds, and set a new world record. Ledecky won gold in the two-hundred and four-hundred freestyle, as well—and her opponents were lucky that the women’s Olympic program doesn’t include the fifteen hundred, in which she also holds the world record. Maybe next time she’ll try sprinting, too.

90 seconds: The American gymnast Simone Biles’s floor-exercise routine in the all-around competition in Rio was more a coronation than a contest. She was flawless on the floor, and ended up winning the all-around gold medal by more than two points, the largest margin of victory since gymnastics adopted a new scoring system, in 2006. As Reeves Wiedeman, who profiled Biles before the Olympics, wrote following the performance, “She can credibly claim the title of greatest gymnast of all time.”

43.03 seconds: The new world record in the men’s four hundred metres was set by the twenty-four-year-old South African Wayde van Niekerk, in what was the most astounding race at Rio. Van Niekerk, “running blind” (as he put it) in the outside lane, broke a world record that had been held by Michael Johnson since 1999. Even casual fans could tell that something very special had just happened, based on the reactions of other runners. Kirani James, of Grenada, who won silver, immediately embraced van Niekerk, and LaShawn Merritt, of the United States, was seen looking at the time on the scoreboard with his eyes agog. Usain Bolt, watching the race on TV somewhere in the bowels of the stadium, had the best reaction of all, jumping back from the screen with his hand over his mouth.

9.80 and 19.78 seconds: Usain Bolt’s one-hundred- and two-hundred-metre gold-medal runs at the Games gave him a record three consecutive wins in those events at the Olympics—from Beijing to London to Rio—and pushed him even further up the ranks of all-time worldwide sports immortals. But not everyone was impressed with his runs in Rio. After the two hundred, the television cameras caught Bolt’s mother, Jennifer, in the stands, looking a little peeved that he hadn’t run faster.

48 seconds: The Cleveland Cavaliers sealed their victory in Game 7 of the N.B.A. Finals against the Golden State Warriors only at the very end—in a stretch that began with a minute and fifty-one seconds left and the game tied, 89–89—after LeBron James surged from behind the play to block a layup attempt by Andre Iguodala. The Cavs took the lead for good with a minute and three seconds left, when Kyrie Irving hit a fall-away three-pointer, right in the face of Steph Curry, the 2016 league M.V.P. The Cavs came from behind three games to one to win the series, ending Cleveland’s fifty-two-year pro-sports championship drought.

1 minute, 57 seconds: The British cyclist Chris Froome turned the Tour de France into a duathlon for almost two minutes this summer, when, after getting caught in a crash with one of the motorbikes embedded with the riders, he set off running in the final kilometre of the famed Mount Ventoux section of the race. Froome, who was leading the Tour at the time of the accident, looked ridiculous clattering up the road in his cycling shoes, with rabid fans closing in around him. Soon, someone gave him a new bike, but it barely fit him, and by then his over-all lead had already melted away. After the race, officials gave Froome back the time he’d lost, and he went on to win the Tour. But his bit of jogging was the most memorable cycling moment in recent years, and sparked renewed discussion about the need for better order among motorbikes and increased crowd control on the Tour.

3 seconds: The ball hit by Rajai Davis in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series spent three seconds in the air before landing just over the left-field wall. The home run tied the game, at 6–6. These seconds, and the minutes that followed, brought dread back to the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere, who seemed fated to endure yet another in a long line of cursed baseball moments. Instead, following a brief rain delay before extra innings, the Cubs took the lead in the top of the tenth, and held off another rally by the Indians to win the Series. Somewhere, Steve Bartman was smiling.

4 seconds: A few days after Donald Trump won the Presidential election, Gregg Popovich, the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, was speaking to reporters, when he said, “It leaves me wondering where I’ve been living and with whom I’m living.” With those words, he summed up the feeling of displacement and angry bewilderment that many felt when faced with the unexpected result. Popovich, who was among several N.B.A. coaches to speak candidly following the election, said that kids would be “grounded for years” if they acted like Trump, blasted what he called Trump’s “xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic” campaign, and despaired at the fact that “half the country ignored all that.”

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