December is a time for reflection. To look back and try to make sense of the year we’ve just had. And for whatever reason, this year has been especially difficult to make sense of. To say 2016 has been unpredictable feels like calling Aaron Rodgers an OK quarterback. It’s a pretty big understatement.
To borrow from one of the year’s breakout pop culture hits, Stranger Things, it feels like somewhere along the way, we all stumbled into the Upside Down. Take the sports world, for instance.
Cleveland went from perennial punchline to small-market juggernaut. The U.S. won the Ryder Cup for the first time in nearly a decade. The deep-pocketed Yankees were trade deadline sellers. The Cubs. 2016 was a year that had many questioning the Sports Gods. Or at least, marveling at their sense of irony.
See, sports are as much about narrative as athletic achievement. It’s why we keep watching year after year. And we were treated to some pretty unbelievable twists in 2016. Here’s a look back at some of the many ways this year flipped the script.
The NHL All-Star Game
Conventional Wisdom: John Scott didn’t belong in the All-Star Game.
The Upside Down Version: That Gary Bettman played the villain in this story wasn’t exactly much of a shocker. But even so, no one expected a Hollywood ending for journeyman enforcer John Scott and his unlikely All-Star Game saga. After a fan campaign launched the 6-foot-8 grinder and his five career goals to the top of the 2016 voting, the league tried to talk Scott out of participating. Then he was shipped from Arizona to Montreal and sent down to the AHL for good measure. In the end, the league decided to honour the vote and give Scott his All-Star start. He promptly scored two goals, earning MVP honours and a full-on Rudy moment when Scott’s teammates carried him around the rink on their shoulders. And yes, the movie’s already in the works.
Super Bowl 50
Conventional Wisdom: The Broncos would need a vintage performance from Peyton Manning to win.
The Upside Down Version: When John Elway brought Manning to Denver, it was widely assumed that getting an all-time top 10 quarterback would be the final piece in the puzzle for the Broncos, multiple neck surgeries or not. But after losing to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, by the time a hobbled Manning and the Broncos made it back to the big game two years later, everyone assumed that Peyton would have to turn back the clock in order to lead the underdog Broncos past the Panthers and regular season MVP Cam Newton. In the end, Manning couldn’t do it, throwing for a whopping 141 yards, one interception and zero touchdowns. And it didn’t matter. Denver and their league-leading defense won in spite of Manning. Not because of him. Sending one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history out on a high note, following one of his worst performances.
The Premier League
Conventional Wisdom: Leicester City had a better chance of collectively being struck by lightening than winning the English Premier League.
The Upside Down Version: There’s being an underdog. And then there’s being a 5,000-to-1 underdog. Before 2016, Leicester City FC had never won the title in the club’s 132-year history. Then, well, 2016 happened, and the ultimate underdog rattled off improbable victory after victory, making good on those early season long shot odds and costing bookies over $11 million in payouts. Who says the house always wins?
Welcome to Believeland
Conventional Wisdom: God hates Cleveland.
The Upside Down Version: Golden State’s 2016 title had already been sewed up for months by the time the Warriors met up with the Cavs for their NBA Finals rematch. The only question left was how many games it would take to cap off their record-setting 73-win season. But as a 3-to-1 series lead slipped away from the Warriors, so did the usual narrative for thousands of fatalistic Cleveland sports fans. When the final buzzer sounded, the Cavaliers won their first title in franchise history as LeBron made good on his promise to bring a championship to his hometown (the city’s first in 52 years), going from Cleveland goat to GOAT. Then, a few months later, the Indians would make the World Series. And the Browns? Well, they’re still the Browns… Not even 2016 is that powerful.
NBA Free Agency
Conventional Wisdom: The Raptors don’t resign their young superstars.
The Upside Down Version: When DeMar DeRozan opted out of the final year of his contract in June to become an unrestricted free agent, you would’ve forgiven Toronto fans for having flashbacks to T-Mac and Chris Bosh. Still, DeRozan said all the right things. About how he wanted to stay a Raptor, how he wasn’t planning to meet with any other teams. Then again, no one expected Durant to go to Golden State, either. But only a few hours into July 1st, reports trickled out that the Raptors had resigned their star shooting guard to a massive $139 million contract. And in an even bigger surprise, he’s actually been living up to the deal so far this season.
The Curse is Broken
Conventional Wisdom: Wait until next year.
The Upside Down Version: Even as the Cubs were coasting to 103 wins and the NL Central pennant, Chicago fans spent the better part of the playoffs waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it’s hard to blame them. After all, the team had racked up more curses than World Series appearances during their 108-year title drought. But after magically coming back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Indians (again: irony), Chicago finally managed to reverse the curse in the most dramatic way possible – with a rain-delayed, extra-inning Game 7 win – sending disbelieving Cubs fans into the offseason happy for the first time in over a century. Holy cow.