I’ll never forget the shot. You know, the one where Michael Jordan switched hands in mid-air to finish at the rim with his left hand during the ’91 NBA Finals. I’ll also never forget the first time I saw a grand slam at Nats Park with my son. Both moments created visceral and unplanned responses of joy and excitement. And while neither of those moments made this list, they speak to the power of sports. Every sports fan has moments that he or she will remember as long they have memory. Below are ten moments that happened during the modern sports era that continue to give chills and thrills to all sports fans.
To be honest, this has been the hardest list I’ve ever attempted to compile. To help, I’ve limited the moments to those that have happened post-1950. As great as it was when Jesse Owens showed up Hitler at the 1936 Olympics was, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find anyone still alive who watched it. Same goes for Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech as well as the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson. However, those final two wouldn’t make my list anyway because I’ve also winnowed down the list to moments of athletic achievement on the field of play. This means that, as much as it personally pains me to leave it off, Michael Jordan’s fax with the words “I’m back” is not included.
(Honorable Mentions: U.S. women’s soccer team wins the 1999 World Cup; Pete Rose sets all-time hits record; Michael Phelps wins 8 gold medals; Malcolm Butler’s interception in 2015 Super Bowl; Secretariat wins Triple Crown; The Immaculate Reception; Keri Strug wins gold; Wilma Rudolph overcomes polio to win three gold medals in track and field; Mary Lou Retton earns perfect 10s; Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary; Cal Ripken breaks Lou Gehrig’s record.)
10. Alex Honnold free-soloing El Capitan
Alex Honnold was the first climber to free-solo the nearly 3,000 feet of California’s El Capitan’s vertical rock face. “Free-solo” means he did it without a rope or a safety harness. For just under four hours, Honnold clung to the side of El Capitan with just his fingers and feet. That’s incredible!
9. The Catch
If it weren’t for Dwight Clark’s leaping, acrobatic, fingertip catch of Joe Montana’s pass into the end-zone to seal the 1981 NFC championship game, the San Francisco 49ers’ dynasty might never have taken flight. It’s not just the physical feat of The Catch that earns its spot on this list, it’s the import it had on the history of the NFL.
8. Michael Jordan’s final shot as a Bulls player
Frankly, this moment would be ranked higher if the GOAT hadn’t unretired (again) and played for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s. As it stands, Jordan’s game-winning jump shot in Game Six of the 1998 NBA Finals secured the Chicago Bulls it sixth title in eight years. At the time, many assumed that it would be Jordan’s final shot as an NBA player.
7. The Red Sox and Cubs break their respective curses
I’m cheating a little here by including two events in one, I know. But for decades, the fans of these two iconic franchises suffered under “curses” that prevented their team from winning the World Series. The Boston Red Sox broke their curse first. For 86 years, the baseball gods forced the team to pay the price for trading away Babe Ruth. Finally, in 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series. The Curse of the Billy Goat kept the Chicago Cubs from playing in a World Series for 71 years. Finally being broken in 2016, the Cubs won their first world championship in 108 years.
6. Don Larsen’s perfect game
Pitching a perfect game is hard enough. Pitching a perfect game during the World Series is on a whole other level. But that’s what New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen did during the 1956 World Series. To make it even better, his perfect game, still the only one in MLB’s post-season history, helped propel the Yankees to their 17th world championship.
5. Tiger Woods wins U.S. Open on an injured leg
Considering he had a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee as well as a double stress fracture in his left tibia, Tiger Woods had no business playing in the 2008 U.S. Open. But play he did — and he won! Grimacing and limping, even non-golf fans were mesmerized by Woods’ display of athletic courage and skill on his way to winning his 14th major title.
4. Kirk Gibson
The wounded, aging warrior bravely takes on the evil empire. That’s the narrative that was set when the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson limped to the plate on his two injured legs to face the dominant Dennis Eckersley and the powerful Oakland Athletics in the 1988 World Series. That narrative was also doomed to end in noble defeat. No one expected Gibson to prevail. Except he did. I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge the brilliant play-by-play call of the moment by the marvelous Vin Scully. Not afraid of silence, Scully allowed the moment to speak.
3. The Thrilla in Manila (III)
It’s easy to forget how popular boxing once was. The gladiatorial mano-a-mano aspect was tailor-made for the rugged, individualistic American mindset of the twentieth century. While I was too young to remember the Thrilla in Manila, I grew up watching boxing on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and Ali’s defeat of Frazier hung over the sport.
2. Bill Mazeroski’s Game 7 walk-off homer
Every kid who has ever played baseball has imagined himself hitting a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series. Only one person has ever done it. In 1960, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski did the unbelievable and hit the walk-off home run in Game 7 that defeated the New York Yankees.
1. Miracle on Ice
This moment checks off all the boxes: high stakes, political ramifications, underdog versus high-powered villain, patriotism, and tear-jerking glory. If you’re not thrilled by the Miracle on Ice, you’re probably a Russian, or a Canadian.