by Julian Spivey
Team of the Year: Denver Nuggets
When I’m looking to crown a Team of the Year I’m not just looking for a champion but one that was great for pretty much the entire season of its respective sport and one that feels cohesive, like if you removed a certain piece the team just wouldn’t be the same.
For me, that team in 2023 was the NBA champion Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets went 53-29 during the 2022-23 NBA season on the way to clinching the top seed in the Western Conference playoff for the first time in franchise history. Led by two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic along with stellar point guard Jamal Murray, who had missed the previous season due to injury, and a collection of nice team players like Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Bruce Brown, Jeff Green and more the Nuggets went through the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers on their way to the NBA Finals where they would defeat the Miami Heat in five games. The Nuggets were the NBA’s best from start to finish in the season and deserve to be honored as the Team of the Year in sports as a result.
Athlete of the Year: Shohei Ohtani
There are a lot of athletes, as in any year, who could deserve the title of Athlete of the Year. In my opinion, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes led his team to a second Super Bowl title in his tenure with the team and is the best player in the NFL. Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. had a season unlike any other player in Major League Baseball history stealing more than 70 bases and hitting more than 40 home runs on his way to winning National League MVP. Nikola Jokic led his Denver Nuggets to its first NBA title in franchise history while averaging nearly a triple-double per night and Max Verstappen has had the greatest season in Formula 1 history with a record 19 wins (in a 22-race season) clinching his third consecutive championship.
But my athlete of the year is a guy who continues to be the most unique athlete in all of sports because he can do it all on the baseball field – an MVP hitter and an All-Star pitcher. It’s the absolute unicorn known as Shohei Ohtani of MLB’s Los Angeles Angels. Ohtani hit .304 with 44 home runs and 95 RBI for the Angels this year while going 10-5 on the mound with a 3.14 ERA and 167 strikeouts in 23 games started. These numbers are massive but especially so because Ohtani missed the last month of the season due to injury. Ohtani then finished 2023 off by becoming the most coveted free agent in the history of Major League Baseball and signed a historical (money-wise and how that money is to be deferred) 10-year, $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Coach of the Year: Bruce Bochy
My Coach of the Year honor is usually going to go to a man or woman who helped lead their team to a championship, but also not usually a coach that was expected to do so – so that eliminates coaches like Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs and Kirby Smart of the University of Georgia Bulldogs college football champions. If there’s a good story behind the coach's success, like leading a team that wasn’t expected to win a title to a title, it certainly helps their case.
For me, the Coach of the Year in 2023 is an obvious choice. It’s Bruce Bochy of the Texas Rangers. Bochy was going to be a future Hall of Fame manager already having led the San Francisco Giants to three World Series titles in Major League Baseball in the early 2010s but his greatest coaching achievement was likely in 2023 when he came out of retirement, something I certainly didn’t expect, to take over as skipper of the Rangers, a team that lost more than 100 games two years ago and over 90 games last season. Bochy led the Rangers team featuring power hitters like Corey Seager, Adolis Garcia and Marcus Semien all having All-Star years to a 90-72 record and an American League Wild Card berth. The Rangers were the hottest team throughout the entire MLB Postseason and claimed the first championship in franchise history with a World Series win over the National League champion Arizona Diamondbacks in early November. Coming out of retirement to immediately lead a team that had been perennially near the bottom of the league to its first-ever championship made Bochy the easy choice for Coach of the Year.
Game of the Year: World Series Game One
I always find Game of the Year to be the hardest of these end-of-the-year sports honors to decide on because there are so many great games and events throughout the year that it is hard to keep up with and, if you’ve ever Googled looking for such things, it’s something the Internet doesn’t do a great job of keeping up with either. The bigger the event the easier it is to stand out in your mind so the two that I really thought to decide between were Super Bowl LVII between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles and Game One of the World Series between the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks. I understand many would go with Super Bowl LVII, which was admittedly an all-timer with the Chiefs coming back from being down 27-21 after three quarters and winning the game on a field goal in the finals seconds but I have an admitted bias toward baseball and Game One of the World Series was one of the greatest World Series games and finishes I’ve ever seen. The Diamondbacks led 5-3 going into the bottom of the ninth inning when the home team Rangers tied the game up on an absolute blast by All-Star shortstop Corey Seager off Diamondbacks closer Paul Sewald, who hadn’t given up a run the entire postseason, to force extra innings. Then on a 3-1 count in the bottom of the eleventh inning, Rangers outfielder Adolis Garcia, who may have had the greatest offensive postseason in baseball history, won the game on a walk-off home run to set the MLB record for most RBI in a single postseason at 22. It was a thrilling comeback and win for the Rangers, who would go on to win the first championship in franchise history in five games.
Media Personality of the Year: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There is no one in sports broadcasting right now who does as good at being knowledgeable about the sport they cover – current and past – while bringing forth as much excitement as they do without also being annoying as Dale Earnhardt Jr. on NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage. Most easily excitable broadcasters I find to be at least somewhat annoying, but there’s something about Earnhardt’s personality, which has a homespun without deviating into a “Hee Haw, aw shucks” aspect like his Fox Sports counterpart Clint Bowyer, who’s the worst in the NASCAR broadcasting at the moment, which comes off as friendly and ingratiating. Earnhardt has also always been a lifelong fan of the sport, as his dad was one of its all-time legends, he is adept at bringing forth knowledge from past eras, not just the modern era or the one he competed in himself. The only issue I take with Earnhardt’s broadcasting is that I wish NBC would mandate or he would take it upon himself to undergo some grammatical lessons to correct some of the frequent mistakes he makes on the mic.
Rule of the Year: MLB Adds Pitch Clock
This is the part of my annual sports awards where I would discuss the Play of the Year but this year I’m switching it up to discuss something I’ve never done before – a Rule of the Year. There were a lot of baseball fans up in arms – and there are still some and likely always will be – when Major League Baseball announced it would be bringing a pitch clock into the sport for the 2023 season. I was a fan of the addition of a pitch clock from the start. The average length of MLB games had gotten over three hours with many going three and a half and longer. I never would have given up on the sport I love due to the length of the game but I worried that it would lead to younger audiences continuing to tune out, and I also believe a quicker pace would lead to more excitement – after all, games back in the day used to be under three hours and weren’t boring. The pitch clock in MLB in 2023 went smoother than I ever could have imagined and had an immediate impact on the game with the average time of play being two hours and 40 minutes, a whopping 24-minute drop off from the season before. If any fan tells you the 2023 season was less exciting than the seasons before because it was nearly a half-hour shorter they’re simply delusional.
Legend of the Year: Megan Rapinoe
As with every year in sports, several legends called it quits in 2023. A few notable ones include potentially the greatest NFL player of all time Tom Brady, future first-ballot baseball hall of famer Miguel Cabrera and NASCAR legend Kevin Harvick. But I don’t think any sports figure had as much of an impact on their sport, especially going into the future as United States women’s soccer legend Megan Rapinoe. Now, there are certainly higher-ranking figures in their respective sports who retired this year – I already mentioned Brady – but Rapinoe’s impact on fair pay within women’s soccer, especially when over the last couple of decades-plus the U.S. women’s team has been better than the men’s team, was a huge boost to the sport. Rapinoe’s role, along with her teammates, in getting pay equity for women’s players in the U.S. will be her lasting impact but she was also one of the greatest to ever grace the pitch helping the U.S. women’s team win two World Cup titles (2015 and 2019) and an Olympic Gold Medal (2012), while also winning Ballon d’or Feminin in 2019 as the best women’s player in the world and FIFA’s Best Women’s Player that same year. Off the field, Rapinoe has also been a role model for the LGBTQ+ community and youth.