Grantland’s Athletes of the Year
Grantland’s writers on their favorite athletes of the year.
Brian Phillips: As of this writing, Cristiano Ronaldo has, between Facebook and Twitter, 90,992,874 followers. That’s more than three times as many as LeBron James. It’s four Kobe Bryants. It’s about 7 million more people than live in California, New York, and Texas combined. He’s less than a month away from almost definitely (you can throw out the almost) winning the FIFA Ballon d’Or, the award given to the best soccer player in the world, and thus almost definitely (ditto) ending the three-year winning streak of his only real rival, FC Barcelona’s Leo Messi. Ronaldo plays — stars, dominates — for Real Madrid, the biggest soccer club in the history of the world. He stands, collar popped and rhinestone-studded belt gleaming, at the giddy peak of his profession. He is one of the most recognizable human beings on the planet. And he is still underrated.
I’m only talking about English-speaking countries here, but still. Ronaldo’s cultural profile in England and America is just the strangest thing; it’s as if Einstein had been perceived as not one of the cooler scientists because he had dumb hair and worked at Princeton instead of Yale. For a whole bunch of reasons — he ditched the Premier League; he’s not Messi; Madrid is, in a really kinda silly way, still seen as the evil foil for Barcelona; dumb hair — Ronaldo is just easier not to think about. He’s great, but he’s inconveniently great. He has 68 goals in 59 games this year, and “Did you see what Ronaldo did yesterday?” opened exactly seven English-language bar conversations.
People! It is time to recognize the glitzed-out Speedo gods among us. Ronaldo’s individual abs may have their own Hunger Games stylists, but he is an astonishing soccer player. I once mocked him for being “thuddingly dainty”; I barely remember what I was talking about. To see him working at the center of the Madrid attack is to see a purposeful dervish, somehow willing the hurricane into shape while dancing in the eye of it. Revere him! Buy his products!
Zach Lowe: The idea that Roy Hibbert might be, in some weird way, the most important player in the NBA is just a massively fun story. Let’s clarify: LeBron is the most important player in the NBA. But Hibbert has emerged as the closest thing in existence to a LeBron antidote, and he happens to play for a team building toward a third straight playoff matchup against the Heat.
Hibbert famously couldn’t do a push-up when he arrived at Georgetown. He suffers from asthma, and he always has an inhaler around his locker in case he needs a puff. The inhaler adds to the charming air of social awkwardness Hibbert carries — rare for a star-level player. He sometimes doesn’t make eye contact, he laughs in kind of a weird way, and he can get a bit nervous during media scrums. He’s happy to chat one-on-one, before or after games, if the conversation is good. He is a normal person in a strange, macho world. He once tweeted a photo of a woman pooping on the streets of New York City. He can look out of his depth playing offense for entire games, missing bunnies and lurching around, and then suddenly put up 20-10 lines for an entire series against the Heat.
But mostly, the dude protects the rim better than anyone else on earth. It was news two seasons ago when LeBron was working on a floater as an anti-Hibbert weapon. Now everyone has Hibbert-only shots — floaters they don’t use against anyone else, runners they launch a step or two farther out than usual. Hell, LeBron challenges the guy only late in close games, when everything else is going to shit for Miami. Hibbert made “verticality” a thing. A few GMs have estimated his annual on-court value at around $25 million or $30 million, double his actual salary.
This was not even in the realm of possibility five years ago. People wouldn’t have laughed at you for suggesting this was possible for Hibbert, because you would never have even suggested it was possible. “Maybe the Pacers could get some rim protection by signing DeSagana Diop on the cheap” was a more reasonable statement in 2008, when Hibbert was fouling everything in sight, than “Maybe Hibbert will turn into an All-Star.”
But here we are. What a remarkable rise. The Eastern Conference finals can’t get here soon enough.
Holly Anderson: College football’s seasons are short, its good-byes frequent. Players violently shoulder their way into our hearts, stay a little while, and move on, and our window of time in which to enjoy them can be narrowed significantly by any number of factors: grades, injuries, the Ever-Popular-And-Mysterious Violation Of Team Rules, or NFL-ready skill sets that peak early. All of this makes it maybe ill-advised to get too attached, but every year new personalities determined to make us love them anyway permeate our cynicism. And when it came time to decide which of this year’s crop of departing players we’d miss the most, we came up with a little list topped by one very large gentleman.
We thought we might have seen the last of ebullient Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III right around this time last year, and he wouldn’t have been wrong to go. He was a high-profile player on a team headed to the title game, and harbored aspirations of using an NFL paycheck to give his mother a comfortable life. That same mother sent Nix right back to school, where his 2013 season was truncated by a torn meniscus, and if we wouldn’t have begrudged him an early entry to the pros last year, we’re openly cheering him forgoing his final season of eligibility now. Life goes quick (unlike a box of Irish chocolate); careers go quicker, and Nix is projected to go in the first round. Get paid, kiddo, and commence pampering your mom. We’ll watch vigilantly for the return of Chocolate News, and will never, ever forget the time you sang a country love anthem to Kashi cereal.
Rafe Bartholomew: This is difficult to admit, but I’m beginning to run out of things to say about Gennady Golovkin. I’ve written about the middleweight champion boxer four times in the past 15 months, and it’s getting hard to come up with new ways to describe the brutal, thudding power of his punches or the ruthless efficiency of the footwork he uses to stalk opponents and cut off their escape routes in the ring. I’ve made all the jokes: his tendency to call rivals “good boy” after he has knocked them out; the dainty bow he performs to acknowledge the crowd after victories — put him on a stage and you might wonder, “Why is this ballet dude smeared all over with blood?”; the gold-embroidered blue rug he wears to the ring, like the heir to some grand carpet-store dynasty. That’s what makes him my athlete of the year. No, he’s not fighter of the year, even though he went 4-0 with four knockouts in 2013; other boxers beat better opponents on bigger stages. But Golovkin is the athlete I cleared my schedule to see — I’ve attended all his U.S. fights and desperately hope to keep the streak alive — and he’s the athlete that got me so geeked to write about him that I shot my literary wad. Or, to use a less icky, more boxing-appropriate phrase: I punched myself out. It’s uncommon, and pretty damn fun, to discover an athlete whose performances are so thrilling and whose character is so weird and engaging that you end up talking in circles about him. On and on, the same Golovkin quotes and stories and jokes, and you don’t care about stopping. He’s that much fun.
Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall
Robert Mays: It’s been a while since Bears fans were surprised. For the past five years, fall has followed pretty much the same script. The hope each year was that the defense would be great enough, and the offense competent enough, for Chicago to squeak into the playoffs. Even when Phil Emery started his tenure as the team’s general manager with a splashy trade for Brandon Marshall, the Bears offense never rose beyond these expectations. Cutler force-fed Marshall 12 times a game. The Bears didn’t score much.
This season has been different for a lot of reasons — notably the brainy, offensive-minded head coach who actually looks like a scientist — but there’s no bigger surprise than Alshon Jeffery. As a rookie in 2012, Jeffery was fine — serviceable when healthy, but nothing spectacular. This year, he’s been the most exciting Bear since Devin Hester arrived.
Nothing creates a following faster than an instant hero, and although Jeffery was a first-round talent and a player the Bears traded up to get, his ascension has seemed to come all at once. When he broke Chicago’s single-game receiving record against the Vikings last month, he was actually breaking his own record — one set earlier this season. But that game in Minnesota was something different. That touchdown catch down the sideline was maybe the play of the year, and was just the start of what’s become the cult of Alshon.
I have a policy — one that many people share — of avoiding products or jerseys associated with current players. Careers are too short. Success is too fleeting. It’s too easy for that Tommie Harris jersey to soon look very silly. I broke that rule yesterday, with an Alshon Jeffery T-shirt I’m certain I won’t regret. No matter how it all goes from here, this fall — watching something begin — is worth remembering.
Sean Fennessey: There’s an awful in-joke in my family that I should not be allowed to attend Mets games. When I go, they lose. It is the rule of law. I attended 17 consecutive Mets losses. (N.B. The Mets lose a lot.) Two seasons ago, I broke the spell, watching R.A. Dickey baffle the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine to the tune of three hits and 10 Ks in eight innings of warlock-ball. New city, new rule. It’s all wins now.
That was wrong.
In August, I returned to Dodger Stadium for a Mets game, seated alone behind home plate to see an angel with a hand cannon.
That’s an essential GIF from the good folks at FanGraphs. Matt Harvey has four pitches, including the kind of hard fastball that recalls speeding locomotives or bowling balls dropped from skyscrapers. Batters exiting the box after the Harvey Experience look like this. Also, he walks around New York City dressed like this, dates supermodel Anne V, and is working with an uncommon sense of humor. Squint and you can see a little Broadway Joe in him. (The closest we’ve come to a nickname for Harvey is “The Dark Knight of Gotham,” which, no, and “The Real Deal,” which makes him sound like a bantamweight from Bronxville. My nickname suggestion: “Heat.” Simple. Effective. Alliterative. Recalls Michael Mann’s masterpiece. Heat Harvey. Tell me this can’t work.)
In the run-up to August’s game in L.A., Harvey had started the All-Star Game at CitiField, led the league in strikeouts, and surrendered just three runs in his previous 30 innings. The guy looked like a snorting bull out there. I was expecting him to gore Yasiel Puig on the spot. Then the spell returned and Harvey got rung up for four runs on eight hits in six innings. He labored. His velocity dipped below 93 mph. He rolled his shoulder in that way that pitchers sometimes do shortly before they reveal an injury. And so it was. Less than two weeks later, Heat was diagnosed with a partial tear in his elbow. In October, he elected to have Tommy John surgery. An angel lost its wings.
Still, there was never a more exciting time in sports for me this year than Matt Harvey Day. Once every fifth, I essentially counted on a one-hitter. It will be 16 months before I see it again, and it may never be the same. But we’ll always have this photo.
Chris Ryan: Chip Kelly arrived in Philadelphia and got Mike Vick eating salads, had everyone else drinking personalized protein shakes, and ran exhausting 11-on-11 practice drills while blasting the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. The NFL coaching fraternity can be a pretty dour collection of struggle-faced hardasses. One thing that unites the Mike Shanahans, the Mike Munchaks, the Bill Belichicks, Jim Schwartzs, and Mike McCarthys, is a feeling that the presence of the media and even the fans (I know, I’m projecting) is a distraction from their gridiron fight against Satan to pass into heaven and rest at the angel feet of Vince Lombardi. Chip Kelly knows that heaven is a place on Earth, and his offense is the house band. For him, life’s too short, NFL games take too long to start, referees are hilariously too slow, and press conferences are for LOLs.
Chip Kelly didn’t do anything athletic all year, but nobody in sports brought me more joy.
Charles P. Pierce: The Ohio State–Michigan game would have been entertaining enough without the brawl that erupted after a kickoff. And the brawl would have been entertaining enough had Ohio State’s Marcus Hall not been ejected. And Marcus Hall would have been entertaining enough had he not reacted to being ejected the way he did.
Every year, we make a whopping big deal out of the traditional rivalry games — more so now since conference realignment has blown so many of them up. (Nebraska-Oklahoma, to name one prominent one, doesn’t exist anymore. Jerry Tagge wept.) So we cling to the ones we have, and we poison innocent trees over them, and we make terrific 30 for 30 documentaries about them. Michigan against Ohio State is one of those. Marcus Hall imbibed this from his youth. So his return guy takes a cheap shot and throws a haymaker from somewhere outside of Hamtramck. This results in the return guy getting his helmet torn off and thrown across the field. Marcus jumps in to protect the honor of Ohio from these helmet-tossing barbarians. This gets him thrown out of the game. The Michigan game! Fate is unkind to Marcus Hall, and now he has to walk up a tunnel lined thickly on both sides and above with Michigan people. So what does Marcus do?
Right there on TV, in front of god and the world, Marcus throws an emphatic double bird, both hands proudly over his head, both middle fingers proudly extended.
I mean, what would you have done?
As I’ve said before, if Marcus Hall ever pays for another meal in Columbus, people should be ashamed of themselves. Woody Hayes would have bought him a house.
Andrew Sharp: “Jesus Christ, are you kidding me?”
I don’t know whether I was addressing Steph as Jesus Christ or questioning Jesus about Steph, but this was my response to Steph Curry throughout last year’s playoffs. This is still my response to Steph Curry, a year later, when he’s still wreaking havoc and pulling up from anywhere and baffling everyone.
Most great athletes are like aliens. Even Peyton Manning is 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. If you saw him in person you’d feel every bit as tiny as you are. But Curry is just a regular guy, at least on the surface. Steph Curry is just a regular guy who this year transformed from an injury-prone point guard everyone assumed was soft into one of the two or three most ruthless players in all of sports when he’s on. It shouldn’t be possible for a 6-foot-3, 185-pound guy to render entire teams helpless, but that’s what makes it twice as incredible to watch. We’ve had all kinds of people to love in sports this year, but nothing’s been more entertaining than Steph Curry becoming STEPH CURRY over the past 12 months.
Sean McIndoe: The hockey world has never been quite sure what to do with Washington winger Alexander Ovechkin. It’s an issue with his personality. By which I mean, it’s that he has one.
He’s Russian, which means our instinct is to call him “enigmatic,” but he’s really not all that hard to figure out. He loves playing hockey, and he shows it. Specifically, he loves scoring goals, and that works out well for him because it’s something he does rather a lot. And when he does, he gets excited and jumps around and does silly prop comedy. Hockey players aren’t supposed to do that.
And so when Ovechkin’s goal totals dropped steeply for the two seasons from 2010 to 2012, more than a few fans rejoiced. And when both he and the Capitals struggled through the opening weeks of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, it felt like an appropriate time to do a little victory tap dance on the grave of Alexander Ovechkin, generational superstar.
Ovechkin scored 23 goals in the season’s last 23 games, finishing with a league-leading 32. He won his third Hart Trophy as MVP. He was named a postseason All-Star at two different positions (don’t ask). And this season, he’s been even better. He’s got 28 goals in 32 games, giving him an outside shot at reestablishing the 50-in-50 club that’s been dormant since the onset of the Dead Puck Era.
For some, it won’t matter. He’ll still be divisive, and he’ll still make people angry every time he cracks a smile, and he’ll still take the blame every time the Capitals get eliminated from the playoffs, no matter how well he plays. He just has that effect on some people. Don’t be one of them. Just enjoy one of the greatest offensive players the league’s ever known, in his prime, doing what he does best.
Mallory Rubin: There were a lot of terrible things about Manny Machado’s September 23 left knee injury: the way his foot hit the bag; the way his leg instantly swung sideways like a piece of stretched-out Silly Putty; the way he crumpled to the ground in pain. The only good thing was how much it hurt everyone else.
That’s not a sadomasochistic statement; it’s a reflection of how long it has been since an Oriole had the power to really make people feel happy or sad. Manny’s injury meant something, and not just in Baltimore. It mattered to people who love defense, and doubles, and seeing youth served. It mattered to everyone who loves baseball.
The Orioles didn’t make the playoffs last year, Manny’s first full season in the bigs. Meanwhile, a couple of parking lots over, Joe Flacco sparked the Ravens’ improbable postseason run. So how can a Baltimore sports fan like yours truly elevate the 21-year-old from the third-place team above the Super Bowl MVP? Well, very easily. Flacco won a title, but he did so with the amount of charisma you’d expect from a guy who spends his postseason nights dining at Bonefish. Manny may not have the hardware — though he did win a Gold Glove! — but he has everything else: the ear-to-ear smile, the impossibly bright future, the power to evoke the past.
Seeing Manny go down felt like watching the Red Sox Cowboy Up 50 seasons in a row, hearing the Yankees toast The Captain on infinite loop, and feeling the Rays use their stingers to cut through my heart.
But you can’t feel loss if you never had hope. And that’s the gift Manny gave me this year.
Rembert Browne: This is disgusting.
That’s six years of Roger Federer’s Grand Slam playing career. Fourteen wins and 10 non-wins, six of which were runner-up performances and none of which came short of a third-round showing. 2013 reminded us that this is very much the past, as Federer went a calendar year without appearing in a Grand Slam final for the first time in 11 years.
Federer no longer being the favorite going into a Slam isn’t necessarily uncharted territory — what with the dominance of Djokovic, the comeback of Nadal, and the rise of Murray — but what is new is Federer as “no. 4.” Even if you don’t see him as the fourth-best tennis player, for the first time in this era, a level-headed argument can be made that there’s a Big Three in men’s tennis and he’s not included.
Counting Federer out also isn’t a new thing. It took 10 Slams, between 2010 and 2012, for him to capture a title. During that period, talk of his decline swirled. But then he won Wimbledon in 2012 and the talk was put, temporarily, on the back burner. Because of the way in which he lost in 2013, though, we’re back at that point.
Australian Open: Semifinal loss to Andy Murray
French Open: Quarterfinal loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Wimbledon: Second-round loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky
U.S. Open: Fourth-round loss to Tommy Robredo
What’s most interesting about these Federer losses is what they represented for his opponents, and ultimately what happened next.
Andy Murray: Defeats Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-2, his first career victory against him in a Grand Slam tournament. Next match: Loses to Novak Djokovic in the finals, 6-7(2), 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-2.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Defeats Federer in the quarterfinals of the French Open, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3, first French player to reach the Roland Garros semifinals since Gael Monfils in 2008, only the second player to defeat Federer at the French and Wimbledon (Nadal). Next match: Loses to David Ferrer in the semifinals, 6-1, 7-6(3), 6-2.
Sergiy Stakhovsky: Defeats Federer in the second round of Wimbledon, 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 7-5, 7-6(5), ending his streak of 36 straight Grand Slams where he at least made the quarterfinals. Next match: Loses to Jurgen Melzer in the third round, 6-2, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3.
Tommy Robredo: Defeats Federer in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-4, ending his career winless drought against Federer after 10 prior losses, reaches his first career U.S. Open quarterfinal. Next match: Loses to Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2.
Four players, four losses, and none relatively close. Federer may have been out of the tournament, but in those next matches, his presence was still felt.
Even if Federer’s not the player he once was, even if it’s easier to catch him on an off day, and even if we live in a reality where he loses tennis matches, it’s clear the process of beating him, and the subsequent internalization that you just beat him, takes its toll. In a game that’s so mental, it must be hard to rally after beating Federer, since so many of the past decade’s careers have centered on the inability to do just that. Regardless of when it takes place in a tournament, it must feel like reaching the mountaintop. Like outplaying Jordan, or hitting a walk-off on Rivera, ousting Federer is still the sport’s premier individual achievement, a career validation of sorts. That will be the case until he decides to call it quits.
Mike L. Goodman: It’s not often that an athlete ascends both to the pinnacle of his profession and the Tyson Zone in the same year. But in 2013, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez managed it. Let’s examine the three most momentous events in the Uruguayan striker’s year. First, he received a 10-game suspension for gnawing on the arm of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovich as the 2012-13 season nears its end. Liverpool fans stood by their man despite the suspension (this following an eight-game suspension the previous season). Suarez promptly thanked fans for their support by demanding a transfer during the offseason. The Fenway Sports Group refused to sell. Liverpool fans soured on their two-timing star but couldn’t quite manage to quit him. He still had six games left to serve on his suspension. Not a problem. After returning to the field, Suarez immediately won the fans back by having perhaps the greatest goal-scoring stretch in the history of the Premier League. All is forgiven (again). Sixteen games into the season, Suarez leads the league with 17 goals scored, despite having played in only 11 games, an average of more than 1.5 goals per game. Since 2010, exactly zero people have managed to score 1.5 goals per game over the course of a season. In fact, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have topped the one goal per game mark. Will Suarez have the greatest season in history? Will he be banned from the Premier League for antics too insane to imagine? Will England turn on him en masse (again) when Uruguay faces the Three Lions in the World Cup? OK, so that last question’s an easy one. The rest, it’s impossible to say. That’s part of the fun.
Katie Baker: “I’m not mature, though,” Patrick Kane insisted during a glorious ESPN The Magazine conversation. With two Stanley Cups and a playoff MVP on his résumé, the 25-year-old has already had the the kind of career that a lot of guys a decade (or many!) his senior will never know, but this time last year, no one would have disputed his statement. At least not after his drunken Cinco de Mayo rampage after the Blackhawks were knocked out of the 2012 playoffs.
Kane showed up at a Wisconsin frat party, flirted or fought with just about everyone in his path, passed out at (and was later kicked out of) a bar, and did all of this while wearing a conspicuous neon T-shirt with a picture of himself, shirtless and hammered, on the back. (The attire was fitting; if you’re not already familiar, wait till you have a few hours and then Google “Patrick Kane drunk.”) Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman issued a terse statement: “We’re obviously disappointed how it played out and Patrick is aware of that fact.” When Kane signed with a Swiss team during the NHL lockout, European papers prepped fans by explaining that he wasn’t exactly a “model professional.” His mom lived with him abroad; they made sure to bring a suitcase full of Kraft mac and cheese.
All this is part of what made 2013 so important — and ultimately, so impressive — for Kane. In what could have been a year dogged by tsk-tsks and rumors, he finished fifth in the league in points, helped the Blackhawks win their second Cup in four seasons, and earned the Conn Smythe. He still partied his balls off afterward, but this time he didn’t end up splashed across gossip pages. He has 20 goals and 26 assists through 37 games this season, and is second on the NHL scoring leaderboard to only Sidney Crosby. In November, Kane recorded a point in all but two games; in December thus far, he has picked up a goal or an assist in each and every one. Barring catastrophic injury (knock on wood), he’ll not only play for the U.S. in the Sochi Olympics this February, he’ll be expected to keep up, and even ramp up, this frenetic pace.
Kane’s personality has always stood up to his play. He can be cocky — but who wouldn’t be if you could do things like this? He can be annoying — just ask his best frenemy (oh, and best teammate), Jonathan Toews! He can be phenomenally stupid, in the grand tradition of famous guys in their twenties with dollars to burn. But he’s also the kind of athlete who gives everything and hides very little. When he fell into a slump early in this year’s postseason, he was remarkably honest. He brims with star power at the exact time that the NHL is, slowly but surely, inching its way back into broader popular consciousness.
“I’ll read articles about myself, and they always have to go back to what happened off the ice,” Kane said. (Guilty!) “The media likes to ask me, ‘Are you more focused this year? Are you more mature?’ That question ticks me off because what happened in the past seems like long ago. I’m not that person anymore. I’m sure there’s something I’ve changed here and there.”
Still, he admitted, “At the same time, I do still feel like the same person.” And we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Bill Barnwell: I’m a cynic, so I always used to scoff when I read those stories about how a city was healed or united by a sporting event or a team doing well. Things can’t be that simple, right? And then Boston, my adopted hometown for most of my adult life, was hit by a senseless, tragic bombing. I wasn’t in town for the bombing, but I’d made my way back to Boston one week later when a manhunt for those bombers kept me and many of the people I know up all night and shut down the city for an entire day. It was surreal and unimaginable.
And then, after the immediate relief that surrounded the arrest, I can’t imagine that I was the only one who woke up the next day not knowing what to feel. (Beyond hungover.) I was waiting to head to a wedding that had nearly been canceled the day before during the lockdown and turned on the pregame festivities before the Red Sox game, which saw many of the city officials being applauded by the crowd and the team. And then David Ortiz got the microphone.
Nobody’s ever delivered a line more perfectly than David Ortiz snarling, “This is our fuckin’ city.” I’m convinced of it. And when David Ortiz said that in front of a huge crowd and a television audience, I laughed harder than I might ever have laughed in my entire life. It was so unexpected and simple and perfect. It felt like the first time I’d laughed in a week. I started getting messages from friends who had seen the clip and had the same reaction. We crowded around a phone at the wedding to watch it again on YouTube. We’d all gone through stages of grief, fear, and panic before relief. David Ortiz’s F-bomb was the first time any of us had felt joy since before the bombing, the first time when at least I felt that it was OK to laugh again. That transcends sports. I was wrong about what an athlete or a team could do for those other cities. David Ortiz accomplished something on that day without ever swinging his bat.