by Julian Spivey
Team of the Year: Golden State Warriors (NBA)
The Golden State Warriors proved that they shouldn't be underestimated during the 2021-22 NBA season. After two injury-plagued seasons where they failed to make the playoffs after five straight appearances in the Finals (in which they won three titles), the Warriors found themselves back where they belonged dominating their way through the Western Conference playoffs against the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks before finding themselves as the underdog to the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics. Their stifling defense led by Draymond Green and Kevon Looney to go along with their high-powered offense led by a rejuvenated Splash Brothers (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) and a breakthrough Jordan Poole and Anthony Wiggins took care of Boston in six games.
2021: Atlanta Braves (MLB)
2020: Los Angeles Lakers (NBA)
2019: USA Women’s National Soccer Team
2018: Boston Red Sox (MLB)
2017: Houston Astros (MLB)
2016: Chicago Cubs (MLB)
2015: Kansas City Royals (MLB)
Athlete of the Year: Aaron Judge (New York Yankees - MLB)
One thing I look for when determining Athlete of the Year for this annual piece is not just who was the best athlete in their respective sport but who dominated their respective sport so much that there wasn’t even a question about who No. 1 was. This year, that athlete was New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge in Major League Baseball. Formula 1 racer Max Verstappen was fairly close with likely the most dominant F1 season in history – but that can be seen as more of a feat of engineering than athleticism. Judge set what I now consider to be the single-season MLB record for most home runs in a season with 62 (every player with more used performance-enhancing drugs). Judge also led the American League in RBI, runs scored, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and wins above replacement on his way to winning Most Valuable Player.
2021: Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels - MLB)
2020: Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs - NFL)
2019: Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens – NFL)
2018: Simone Biles (USA Women’s Gymnastics)
2017: Tom Brady (New England Patriots – NFL)
2016: LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers – NBA)
2015: Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors – NBA)
Coach of the Year: Rob Thomson (Philadelphia Phillies - MLB)
Typically, I’d like to go with a coach that won a championship, but what Rob Thomson did this Major League Baseball season with the Philadelphia Phillies was too amazing to pass up. In early June the Phillies fired manager Joe Girardi and named Thomson, their bench coach, as the interim manager. At that point, the Phillies were 22-29. The team would wind up going 65-46 under Thomson and winning one of the National League Wild Card positions in the first year of an expanded postseason. The Phillies weren’t expected to do much in the postseason, but then swept the N.L. Central winning St. Louis Cardinals in the first round and then dominated the N.L. East winning Atlanta Braves (a team in the Phillies’ own division) in the second round. The team continued rolling through the San Diego Padres in the National League Championship Series before reaching the World Series to take on the American League champion Houston Astros, where their Cinderella run finally ended. The craziest thing about Thomson’s season is he wasn’t even one of the three N.L. Manager of the Year finalists!
2021: Brian Snitker (Atlanta Braves - MLB)
2020: Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs - NFL)
2019: Dave Martinez (Washington Nationals – MLB)
2018: Alex Cora (Boston Red Sox – MLB)
2017: Cole Pearn (Crew Chief – Martin Truex Jr. – NASCAR)
2016: Joe Maddon (Chicago Cubs – MLB)
2015: Ned Yost (Kansas City Royals – MLB)
Breakthrough Athlete of the Year: Scottie Scheffler (PGA Tour - Golf)
Scottie Scheffler hadn’t won an event on the PGA Tour coming into 2022. By the end of the year, he would have four tournament wins, his first major tournament title and held the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings for most of the year. Scheffler, a 26-year-old in his third season on the PGA Tour, won his first tournament at the WM Phoenix Open in mid-February. He would follow that up with two more victories in March at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. Then on April 10, he won the coveted green jacket at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga. after taking the lead in the second round and holding on for a three-stroke win over Rory McIlroy. Scheffler would take over the No. 1 ranking in late March and hold onto it for 30 weeks becoming the PGA’s 2021-22 Player of the Year.
2021: Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels - MLB)
2020: Bryson DeChambeau (PGA Tour - Golf)
2019: Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens - NFL)
2018: Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs - NFL)
2017: Aaron Judge (New York Yankees - MLB)
2016: Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys - NFL)
2015: Jordan Spieth (PGA Tour - Golf)
Game/Event of the Year: NFL AFC Divisional Round Playoff Game: Kansas City Chiefs over Buffalo Bills
This was one that was tougher for me than in past years because there wasn’t one game or event that stood out above the rest. I had three games that I quibbled with back and forth to decide what to pick. There was the Kansas City Chiefs versus Buffalo Bills AFC Divisional Round NFL playoff game that felt like it would’ve been better suited for the AFC Conference Game in which the game went back and forth and then into overtime where the Chiefs defeated the Bills on a Patrick Mahomes to Travis Kelce touchdown. Neither team wound up in the Super Bowl though with the Cincinnati Bengals surprise defeat of the Chiefs in the conference title game. Speaking of the Bengals my other NFL consideration was Super Bowl LVI which went right down to the wire with Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford connecting with star receiver Cooper Kupp near the end to take a 23-20 victory. My third option was the historic comeback the University of Kansas Jayhawks put on the University of North Carolina Tarheels in the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship game coming from a 16-point deficit at halftime (the largest ever by an eventual winner) to win the game 72-69. Ultimately my decision is the Chiefs/Bills playoff game simply because of the three choices it was the game I think I had the most fun watching. I considered if the Chiefs not ending up making it to the Super Bowl made that moment all for naught, but ultimately I’m going with it.
2021: Los Angeles Dodgers over San Francisco Giants in NLDS Game 5 (MLB)
2020: Tampa Bay Rays over Los Angeles Dodgers in World Series Game 4 (MLB)
2019: Final Round of Masters with Tiger Woods Winning Fifth Green Jacket (Golf)
2018: Women’s Hockey Olympic Gold Medal Game: United States over Canada (Winter Olympics - Hockey)
2017: Houston Astros over Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of World Series (MLB)
2016: Chicago Cubs over Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of World Series (MLB)
2015: Kansas City Royals over New York Mets in Game 5 of World Series (MLB)
Play of the Year: Ross Chastain's Unbelievable Pass on Final Lap at Martinsville to Clinch Championship Spot
Sometimes you will see a moment in sports that just surpasses anything you could have ever possibly imagined. It just defies logic. That’s what happened on the final lap of the Martinsville Speedway race, the penultimate race of the NASCAR Cup Series season, when driver Ross Chastain pulled a hail mary move by gassing it up, throwing his car into the wall and deliberately wrecking his car along the wall to pass five drivers and clinch his way into the NASCAR championship race. It was the single greatest thing I’ve ever seen in more than 20 years of watching NASCAR and had literally everybody dumbfounded from the announcers covering the event, the fans watching at home and the track and even Chastain’s fellow competitors.
2021: Jalen Suggs Buzzer-Beater in Men's College Basketball Final Four Helps Gonzaga Beat UCLA (Men's College Basketball)
2020: Wild Final Play Helps Tampa Bay Rays Take World Series Game 4 from Los Angeles Dodgers (MLB)
2019: Kawhi Leonard’s Postseason Clincher for Toronto Raptors over Philadelphia 76ers (NBA)
2018: Nick Foles' "Philly Special" Helps Philadelphia Eagles Win First Super Bowl (NFL)
2017: Julian Edelman’s Super Bowl Catch Helps New England Patriots Epic Comeback Over Atlanta Falcons (NFL)
2016: Tony Stewart’s Bump & Run Pass on Denny Hamlin for Final Career Win (NASCAR)
2015: Eric Hosmer Taking Home in Game 5 of World Series Helping Kansas City Royals over New York Mets (MLB)
Best Moment: Brittney Griner Returns Home After Nearly Year Detained in Russia
One of the biggest sports stories of 2022 was something that was happening off the court across the globe when WNBA superstar Brittney Griner was arrested on February 17 in Russia for having cartridges containing less than a gram of medically prescribed hashish oil in vape pens in her luggage when she entered the country to play for her Russian-league team during the WNBA off-season. She was obtained until her trial began on July 1. On August 4, she was sentenced to nine years in prison. In November, she was transferred to a penal colony with harsh conditions. The entire ordeal seemed like bullshit. It always felt like Russia’s intent was to hold Griner as essentially a political prisoner in hopes of trading her for assets. That’s what wound up happening on December 8 when Griner was involved in a prisoner swap between Russia and the United States. Some consider the trade to be controversial, but I’m just thrilled Griner is able to return home after almost a full year in Russian custody for the smallest of offenses.
2021: Phil Mickelson Wins PGA Championship at 50 (Golf)
2020: Success of the NBA Bubble (NBA)
2019: Tiger Woods Wins Masters (Golf)
2018: Tiger Woods Wins Again (Golf)
2017: Not Awarded
2016: Chicago Cubs Championship Comeback (MLB)
2015: Jeff Gordon’s Final Win (NASCAR)
Biggest Upset: Rich Strike, Biggest Longshot in Race, Wins Kentucky Derby (Horse Racing)
When you hear terms like upset or long-shot it’s likely the sport that first pops into your head is horse racing. In May, one of the biggest upsets in the history of horse racing took place on likely its biggest stage – the Kentucky Derby. It wasn’t just that Rich Strike had the longest odds of any entrant in the race at 80-1 and was the second-biggest underdog to ever win the Kentucky Derby but the furious assault through the entire field from 16th position to the lead as jockey Sonny Leone brilliantly rode the rail. The Kentucky Derby is often called the “most exciting two minutes in sports” and this year’s event was an all-timer.
2021: Emma Raducanu Wins Tennis U.S. Open (Tennis)
2020: Not Awarded
2019: Not Awarded
2018: Not Awarded
2017: Mississippi State Defeats UCONN to Snap 111-Game Winning Streak (Women's College Basketball)
2016: Cleveland Cavaliers Comeback from 3-1 to Beat Golden State Warriors in NBA Finals (NBA)
2015: Holly Holm Takes Title from Ronda Rousey in UFC (MMA)
Best Sports Media Personality: Scott Van Pelt (ESPN)
Scott Van Pelt has been one of my favorite ESPN personalities for some time now – going back to his ESPN Radio show that was simulcast on one of the company’s networks. Since he took over as anchor of the final “SportsCenter” of the night in 2015 he’s been my go-to anchor of that program and the only one I really try to catch on a semi-regular basis. He’s incredibly bright, funny, likable and a helluva monologist and can, at times, make you laugh and cry within the span of minutes doing them, especially when he gets incredibly personal like he did earlier this year when eulogizing his dog Otis. Yes, my favorite moment from a sports personality in 2022 was not even about sports. Van Pelt has everything that makes for a perfect anchor.
2021: Ernie Johnson (Turner Sports)
2020: John Smoltz (Fox Sports/MLB Network)
2019: Charles Barkley (Turner Sports)
2018: Not Awarded
2017: Jeff Gluck (JeffGluck.com)
2016: John Smoltz (Fox Sports/MLB Network)
Lifetime Achievement: Serena Williams & Roger Federer (Tennis)
It’s not often that two figures many consider being the greatest of all time at their sport retire in the same year, but that’s what happened in 2022 as Serena Williams and Roger Federer hung up their tennis rackets.
Williams, considered by many the greatest female player in tennis history, was the first to announce her retirement with her final event coming at the U.S. Open in August where she thrilled the New York crowd by winning multiple matches before falling to Ajla Tomljanovic. Williams retired with 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most ever by a female in the Open Era and second most all-time. She won 85 percent of her career matches and was ranked No. 1 in the world for 319 weeks, including a record 186 consecutively.
Federer, considered by many the greatest male player in tennis history, announced his retirement in September with his final event being the Laver Cup that month. Federer won 20 Grand Slam singles titles in his career, third all-time behind his biggest career rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, including a record eight Wimbledon titles and an Open Era record-tying five U.S. Open titles. Federer won 82 percent of his career matches and spent 310 weeks (including a record 237 consecutive) as the No. 1 ranked player in the world.
2021: Albert Pujols (Baseball)
2020: Jimmie Johnson (NASCAR)
2019: Dirk Nowitzki & Dwyane Wade (Basketball)
2018: Adrian Beltre (Baseball)
by Julian Spivey
Many Americans woke up to the news that basketball star Brittney Griner, who’d been serving time in a Russian penal colony following a drug conviction this summer, was on her way back to America after a high-profile prisoner swap between the United States and Russia in which arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had served 10 years of a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill Americans, was returned to his home country.
Griner was arrested at a Moscow-area airport on February 17 while trying to enter Russia to join her club team in Ekaterinburg (WNBA stars often supplement their earnings by playing overseas during the offseason) when cartridges containing hashish oil were found in her luggage. Griner had admitted to the drugs, but denied intent to smuggle, saying she committed the crime out of carelessness while packing and had not intended on breaking Russian law. Griner had played basketball in Russia since 2014 and knew the laws were different from those in the United States. Still, the collegiate and professional champion and two-time Team USA Olympic gold medalist was sentenced to nine years in prison in a penal colony known for its harsh conditions. U.S. officials maintained the entire time that Griner had been wrongfully detained. But Russia finally had the high-profile American pawn they wanted.
While many, me included, were thrilled to see Griner rescued from Russia it led to an uproar by others online who disagreed with the prisoner swap for seemingly multiple reasons – whether it was they thought Griner “did the crime and should do the time” or they didn’t believe Griner for Bout was a fair trade.
Before I get to the main reason why I believe people didn’t want to see Griner released I’ll comment about the “fair trade” stuff. This isn’t a sport. There’s no general manager of a team trying to get an even deal. There was never going to be an even deal – if such a thing even exists when it comes to comparing lives – when it comes to Russia, a despicable country that has had a nearly year-long war with the peaceful country of Ukraine because it effectively wants to steal the country for itself and a country that American officials know played a role in trying to affect the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Yes, Russia got a horrible man to go along with its cache of other horrible men, but America had one of its own citizens being held on a bullshit crime returned in the process and that should make people happy, at least those who care about other human beings.
But what’s the real reason people wanted to see Griner suffer?
Well, I’m not sure anyone would admit this, but I think it’s because Griner is the Most Hated American possible. Griner is black, she’s gay, she’s a woman and she’s incredibly successful at what she does. In a country where nearly half the citizens (those who vote at least) are more than willing to vote for white supremacist politicians, that’s enough to make someone hated. Hated just for being who they are.
I think it’s really that simple. It’s not because people take a hard line on a drug that would be legal in many places in this country. Hell, if Willie Nelson had been arrested for pot in Russia many of these people wanting to see Griner complete her prison sentence (again in harsh penal colony conditions) would be demanding a SEAL Team rescue before you could finish singing “On the Road Again.” And surely it’s not because people respect the sanctity of Russian law – again it’s a country that’s killed women and children just because it has wet dreams of returning to Soviet glory. But then maybe some people here really do love Russia – after all, many of the Griner haters voted for Comrade Trump and have been brainwashed by Tucker Carlson and Fox News about how the Russian invasion of Ukraine isn’t so bad.
I can’t imagine the horrors experienced by Griner over the last almost 11 months. I’m happy she’ll be home soon – first she’s being flown to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and then I’m sure it’s off to her home in Phoenix and a reunion with her wife Cherelle.