These are the sports moments from 2023 that the staff of Defector enjoyed.

Carlos Alcaraz Beats Novak Djokovic At Wimbledon

It was inevitable. Carlos Alcaraz, the most brazen prodigy to hit men’s tennis since Novak Djokovic, would boot Djokovic from a major tournament. The two men are, after all, separated by 16 years. While Djokovic is as resistant to age-related decline as he is to conventional medicine, this result was going to happen someday, and it would be on-the-nose symbolic, and we’d all write pat headlines about torch-passing and call it a day. But it wasn’t supposed to happen this soon and in this place. Not with this 20-year-old naif, who’d succumbed to lethal full-body anxiety cramps when he had to play Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open just a month earlier. Not on a lawn, given that Alcaraz had hardly logged 40 hours of grass-court tennis in his entire pro career. And certainly not in the damn Wimbledon final, playing against a man who had won that very championship match seven times already.

Wrong place, wrong time—the correct cadence of progress was abandoned. This promising young fellow was meant to fight, play a frisky tiebreak or two, generate a few of his usual indelible highlights, receive a Seminar On Excellence from his elder, and return home to Spain, chastened and inspired, to plot out his next attack on history. But the career of Carlos Alcaraz looks to be one of disorienting shortcuts, of just-add-water instant mastery. He did not play perfect tennis—you wouldn’t lump this match in the technical masterclass of the 2008 Federer-Nadal final—but he brought something cruder, untrammeled, spoken in drop shots, mad sprints, unjustifiable self-belief.

It was something more beautiful than perfect tennis: a young person bending reality to his will, insulating himself from the premature resignation that infiltrates the minds of all Djokovic’s young opponents in critical matches. Two days before this fight, Alcaraz said, bizarrely, that the final would be the best day of his life. What sane tennis players would say that ahead of a match against their sport’s undisputed GOAT? Alcaraz decided it was going to be true, and then, suddenly, it was. Watching him figure out how to conquer the grass and Djokovic, in real time, over five sets—with a hangover, and a shaky stream, bumping around on a bus in small-town Oregon—justified the whole enterprise of sports fandom. I’d absorb thousands of hours of the ordinary, just for the tiny chance to be struck dumb by something like Carlos Alcaraz. – Giri Nathan

The Heat Beat The Celtics In Game 7

I really thought the Heat had blown it. I was fully ready for the endless “first team to blow a 3-0 lead” jokes that were going to come my way in various group chats. When Derrick White hit that impossible fucking putback in Game 6, when the Heat’s second Finals appearance in four seasons was crashing and burning, I have to admit I thought it was over. The Heat had to win Game 7, on the road, in Boston, with absolutely no momentum? Fuck.

In the two days between Games 6 and 7, I started rationalizing the impending loss to myself. Hey, the Heat were the eighth seed! This is a great overachievement! Caleb Martin looks like a goddamn superstar! We can work with this. At no point before tip-off did I truly believe that Miami would stop the onrushing tide of Boston and win Game 7. I certainly did not think that the Heat would absolutely annihilate the Celtics into an early offseason. Silly me.

I have a rule that was born from the Big Three Heat era: I will not be on my phone at all during elimination games. The first time I employed this rule was Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, when LeBron James went turbo mode and sapped Boston’s will to live with 45 points. I kept it up through the 2013 NBA Finals—for me, a voluminous Twitter user, not posting right after the Ray Allen shot was brutal, but I celebrated by straining my shoulder jumping around my apartment in solitude—and ever since. Usually, I am a ball of nerves during these elimination games, with no outlet to text or tweet or Slack my worries away. During this specific Game 7, though, I never thought about my phone. I was too busy cackling.

The final score does a good job of telling this tale: Miami won 103-84, and it was only really in doubt during a Celtics run in the third quarter. Other than that, Miami was comfortable throughout, getting 28 points from Jimmy Butler and 26 from Martin. The wind was sucked out of both the arena and the matchup with Jayson Tatum’s early injury, and Jaylen Brown kept up his mystifying penchant for turnovers (eight in Game 7). The joy I felt from seeing sad Boston fans was only topped by seeing a despondent Bill Simmons caught on camera:

The Heat would go on to get rolled by Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets in the Finals, which was a bummer, but after living through the near-collapse, I wasn’t all that sad. The eight-seed Miami Heat got to the mountaintop, with some stumbles to be sure, and closed out its most hated rival in as dominating a fashion as I’ve seen, at least since LeBron James and Dwyane Wade crushed Derrick Rose’s dreams in the close-out game of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. After days of worry and disappointment, I learned an important lesson (though I’m sure to forget it come this season’s playoffs): Just trust in the Heat. They might not do it every time, but they’re so annoying to everyone else that I should never count them out. Then again, I might not have enjoyed the sight of an entire Boston fanbase near tears quite as much if I hadn’t convinced myself of the worst possible outcome. – Luis Paez-Pumar

Hamburg SV’s Own Goal Against St Pauli

The greatest thrill of professional team sports comes in those electrifying moments when teammates—brilliant athletes on their own, capable of stuff I can scarcely imagine—link together their skills and smarts and reading of the game so perfectly that they appear to be sharing one nervous system, seeing the game through the same set of eyes, a egoless mode in which they can unlock divine levels of improvisation and creativity. Soccer, with its fluidity, its mechanical constraints, the general impossibility of even the greatest individual players simply taking over the game to the degree their counterparts can in basketball, is great for this. At its best and most sublime it can, if only for a moment, let you glimpse or imagine or think beautiful ideas about humanity itself, about collectivity and interdependence and transcendence. Every soccer game I watch is at least in part a search for this high.

Of course what makes that stuff possible isn’t magic, but rather practice and experience and common context and all types of other shit. Rhythm. Confidence. Trust. Health. Terms like “form,” “fitness,” and “sharpness,” applied to players and teams, are efforts at itemizing the ingredients, like the different parts of an engine have their own names and material conditions. It’s all very delicate, is what I’m saying. When all the parts work, it works; when all but one of the parts works, it doesn’t work.

I might not have expected to find anything particularly moving in a slapstick own goal by a second-division German soccer team; in any case “makes you feel warmly toward the human race” is not, I feel confident stating, even one of the reasons why this own goal zipped around the internet wildly enough to reach my attention in the first place. And yes, it’s true, the first 500 times I watched Hamburg SV’s center-backs and keeper make a dang Naked Gun set piece out of a simple but perhaps too-cute effort to play the ball through a St Pauli press a couple of weeks ago I laughed and laughed. It’s funny! Those doofuses! Look at those dang doofuses.

But here is a chance to see a sort of negative image of what I love most sincerely about team sports. If the accomplishment of a brilliantly worked team goal necessarily requires an almost ecstatic state of harmony between people, well, here is a no less vivid demonstration of just how badly we need each other, and the degree to which the normal, mundane functioning of our workplaces and communities depends on interconnections anybody might generally take for granted.

None of the three Hamburg players directly involved in this mess—keeper Daniel Heuer Fernandes and center backs Stephen Ambrosius and Guilherme Ramos—tries anything all that baldly insane, here. It’s three short boop passes and an unplanned clearance attempt; the entire catastrophe happens and is over within five seconds. Worse yet, the whole thing appears to have been more or less scripted (except for how it turned out). At the edge of the six-yard box, Fernandes plays a short pass to Ambrosius, coming over from the left (from Fernandes’s perspective), and immediately darts out in that direction. The idea seems to be to draw St Pauli’s aggressively pressing forwards over to one side and then get the ball back to Fernandes in open space behind them.

Ambrosius, with the St Pauli guys mere feet away and coming on fast, plays the ball back to Ramos, who is stationed at the corner of the six-yard box. Ramos’s job here seems clear: He is supposed to boop the ball, quickly, back across the face of the goal and against the St Pauli guys’ momentum to Fernandes, who is now all alone over there. Ramos and Fernandes are on the same page about this; they just differ, by a matter of a few yards, on exactly where Fernandes will receive that ball. Fernandes thinks he will be receiving it way out beyond the far side of the goal, in the acre of open space over there, and is going in that direction; Ramos, or anyway Ramos’s foot, thinks Fernandes will be receiving this ball at the far post. You can see the problem: With Ambrosius’s scripted movement having carried him over to Ramos’s side, and with Fernandes having raced out wide, there is nobody over there to handle the pass now meandering its way across a totally unprotected goal. By the time Fernandes reverses course and sprints back to meet this ball, there is no space or time for him to take a composed touch and make a decision; off-balance, sprinting, probably panicking, he tries to boot that sucker as far away as he can—but he gets it with the top of his foot, and absolutely smokes it directly into the roof of his own net.

No small portion of the world’s idiocy, I think, arises pretty much like this, from challenges and ideas that demand a shared vision more granular and more fragile than their participants were prepared for. It takes a recognizable shape, too, like a game of Crack the Whip: Everything looks more-or-less normal until you get to the end of the line, where all that energy resolves into somebody flying into a ditch. If Ramos’s broadly normal-looking pass had been, what, 10 percent less off-target, this might have ended with a panicky but otherwise unremarkable clearance; I’d never have known about it at all. Instead it resulted in the ludicrous sight of poor Fernandes, the end of the whip, flailing, limbs all over the place, scoring a goal on his own team.

And then everybody laughing at him! It’s not fair, except in the sense that sooner or later, it happens to almost all of us. The game ended in a draw. – Albert Burneko

Brittney Griner’s First Game In NYC

This year was the year I finally became a sports fan, specifically of the New York Liberty. At the first few games I went to, I knew very little about the players and relied on Lauren and Wags to explain who was who, meaning who was gay. But the year before I knew about any of the players on the Liberty or even considered going to a WNBA game, I’d been following Brittney Griner’s wrongful detainment and eventual release from a Russian penal colony. The whole saga was horrifying, and I had no idea that the Liberty game I was seeing one Wednesday in July with Wags and Jasper was Griner’s first time playing in New York since her release. It felt surreal to see Griner on the court. Although she stepped on to massive applause, the crowd resumed its practice of booing her when she made free throws, which bummed me out. Hasn’t she been through enough! But the whole game just made me happy, not to see necessarily spectacular basketball but to see a great player who spent nine months in fear and uncertainty back in the hooping game. I hope she had a great time on the court. – Sabrina Imbler

Phillies Daycare Crimes

I have already written so many words about the 2023 Philadelphia Phillies team, and almost all of them are about small moments: the unbuttoned jerseys, the losses in April, the vibe shifts that were so small they were almost imperceptible. This has been one of the hardest offseasons for me in several years. I have missed baseball. I have missed my team in particular. This team is so lovable, so funny, so enjoyable to watch interact with each other that I miss them. It’s not exactly relationship distancing that is causing the pain as much as it is the loss of liturgy. The team plays almost every day until, suddenly, they don’t. The balm of quiet ground balls becomes lost in the darkness of winter. The sluts are gone. Tragedy has struck.

When I look back on this year, when I watched easily 100 of the Phillies’ games, what I have remembered the most is the small moment of joy after they won, which they coined the Daycare Crimes. One way you know that the Phillies are dumbasses is that they have created more lore than any workplace (except honestly maybe Defector) has ever had. The “Daycare” in this story consists of three young players: second baseman Bryson Stott, outfielder and wet-man Brandon Marsh, and my terrible son whom I love so much, Alec Bohm. Despite no longer being the youngest members of the team, they are the silliest.

And one of the ways they were silly this year is with the “crimes.” The Daycare Crimes are a ritual of lunacy, dumb fun disguised as company culture. In reality, what they are is adding a bunch of bubble gum or sunflower seeds or whatever other dumb shit the Phillies’ players keep in the dugout into the tiny Gatorade-branded cups they use to drink water, and dumping those snacks on whoever is giving the postgame interview on television. So instead of drenching noted non-silly boy Trea Turner in a tub of water, the Daycare members would creep up the steps of the dugout, holding their little cups, and pour them down the back of his jersey. The crime here is being silly.

And isn’t that what sports teams are supposed to do: provide joy, be silly, have fun? – Kelsey McKinney

The Entire College Football Season

This isn’t really a moment, but the entirety of the college football season, which raised the already well-established and shamelessly displayed arts of cynicism (USC and UCLA leaving the Pac-12), betrayal (everyone else leaving the Pac-12 while the leaving only sucked a little), cheating (Connor Stalions and the entire Michigan cesspool of convertible ethics), hypocrisy-turned-brazenness (the SEC becoming the new NCAA only without any interest in enforcement or educational pretense) and rage against a machine you’re trying to join (Florida State calling out the SEC-and-TV-dominated playoff committee while desperately wanting to leave the weakling ACC for the very SEC that cut them out of the playoff). The NFL perfected the monolith of evil some years ago, in which every owner and club gets so much money that they all accept their commonalities, and college football’s response in its attempt to become the second most influential and lucrative sport in America has been to reject common purpose toward full-on cannibalism—staging a bar fight using auto parts and sharpened gardening implements to reduce the number of potential shareholders when the next conference gutting happens. The NFL has cornered the conglomerate model, so college football has chosen the Hunger Games model instead. Clashes of styles are always riveting, especially in a thriving industry that acts like it’s dying. – Ray Ratto

Kings Beat The Warriors In Game 6

The thing about watching your favorite team end a 16-year playoff drought is that you will never feel that exact high ever again. “Things only happen for the first time once,” I wrote the morning after the Sacramento Kings had their long-awaited playoff debut crushed by Steph Curry and Kevon Looney. It’s been two-thirds of a year since the dust settled on that series, and I already look back on it with unalloyed fondness; hell, by the time I had driven back to Oakland from Sacramento after Game 7, I was already feeling waves of the graceful loser’s sickly gratitude. Was the run futile? I asked myself. Of course. Almost all of them are. It’s the process that matters.

And to that end, the balloon-popping Game 7 loss will never ever dull the euphoria of the Game 6 win. If the losses of Games 5 and 7 were the expected, even natural outcomes of a series between the four-time champs and a bunch of unruly zoomers, Game 6 was this beautiful outlier of a game, a spasmodic refusal to die in the face of overwhelming odds.

The Warriors are a curious stylistic foil for Mike Brown’s Kings. The Domantas Sabonis–De’Aaron Fox handoff game isn’t quite the same as the cut-and-move blender that Golden State slices up their opponents with, though both styles rely on a series of coordinated movements like few others in the NBA, which makes them simple to plan for in theory yet difficult to stop. This is especially true for the Warriors, who can always just let the greatest-ever shooter of the basketball simply, well, shoot the basketball. The Warriors basically stopped the Kings by making the hilarious, simple adjustment of giving Sabonis about eight feet of runway and running over the top of his screens, either forcing him to pop an uncomfortable set-shot jumper or forcing Kevin Huerter or Harrison Barnes to drive into a tooled-up interior defense. Most teams couldn’t really neutralize that, but Looney is so huge and Draymond Green so smart (and, of course, dastardly) that Sabonis struggled to put his shoulder into anyone and score at the rim.

Anyway, Sabonis put up another clunker with the Kings facing elimination on the road. The team coughed up eight turnovers in the first quarter, and Sabonis would quietly foul out of the game with seven points and five turnovers. And yet the Kings won by 19, led by a bizarre lineup that hadn’t logged a single minute together all season. It’s the gambit this lineup represents that makes Game 6 feel so special. Faced with an opponent who had outsmarted and outmuscled them for five games, Mike Brown jammed on the accelerator and bet that his group of maniacs could outshoot and outrun one of the most shooting-ass, running-ass teams the NBA has ever seen. It worked. Fox and Malik Monk ran point, Terrence Davis was tasked with hounding Steph Curry and (this is the critical part) getting up in his shit and trying to rip it every time he dribbled, Keegan Murray (a rookie who’d mostly struggled) and Trey Lyles were in charge of somehow grabbing rebounds while spacing the floor. It was five-out deathball shit and it was beautiful to watch.

There’s Monk, screaming into the three defenders in the lane, seemingly without any angle to do anything but die until he sproings his arm out at the last second for a stunning finish; there’s Trey Lyles, popping off of a screen, drawing Kevon Looney out to the perimeter, and blowing by him with ease; mostly, there is Fox, making every read correctly, punishing Andrew Wiggins for giving up too much space, responding to every backbreaking Curry bomb (he still had a game-high 29), and generally conducting himself with a shocking level of confidence given the circumstances. They would lose Game 7, of course, but Game 6 was the one that showed there was something real going on here. – Patrick Redford

Simone Biles Does The Yurchenko Double Pike

There’s the technical vernacular for Simone Biles’s history-making vault, and then there’s the way it feels. In the cold parlance typical of every sport, Biles made history by completing a round-off onto the springboard, then a back handspring onto the vaulting table (these are the Yurchenko parts), followed by two flips in a pike position while flying through the air (the double pike part), all concluded with a clean landing.

But all that technical terminology becomes inconsequential to anyone who sees Biles perform the feat in person, which I saw her do this year. No matter how high it looks on TV, I promise you it is higher. No matter how fast it looks on TV, I swear to you it is faster. It seems to approximate the closest thing that gymnastics promises us, the ability to watch human beings, through sheer force, defy the omnipresence of gravity. For a matter of seconds, the basic facts of reality are suspended. Then Biles lands, and the crowd always roars.

There are countless tidbits of background that any person could lob onto this, depending on the angle of their choosing. That Biles taking on this vault was so unprecedented it did not exist in the official code of points for women’s gymnastics; it’s there now because of Biles. Or perhaps that Biles landed the vault, consistently, in a year she also became the most decorated gymnast, male or female, in the sport’s history. Or consider that Biles landed it in international competition, meaning it now bears her name, at an age at which many people once thought no woman could still do competitive gymnastics, in this case the “ancient” age of 26.

But that feels unfair to Biles and to gymnastics. It seems to telegraph that women’s gymnastics, like women’s sports, like women’s anything, need to be explained. They need context. They need reasons. They cannot simply exist because they do. They cannot be news simply because they are. Biles cannot just be great, it must be greatness explained. Except, at some point, words fail. Seeing Biles conquering the Yurchenko double pike—excuse me, the Biles II—this year, again and again, only assured me now more than ever that she is one of the greatest athletes in history. No explanation necessary. – Diana Moskovitz

George Kirby Gets Yainer Diaz To Ground Out In The First Inning

The radio streams on the MLB app and I nearly ended our committed relationship this year. It got that bad. Part of the charm of those streams, and what I still get with the NHL ones, is that from anywhere with an internet connection, you could enjoy the same experience you’d have driving in a car across, say, Cincinnati or Denver or Dallas. It’s teleportation, in that way. But MLB started using simsub on their ad streams, to put their own targeted spots where the local ones used to be. Not only were they clumsily placed, often returning late to the action or cutting off announcers as they outroed the inning, but there were also only, like, seven of them, total. They repeated again, and again, and again at every half-inning or pitching change. One in particular, which began with a ringing alarm clock, almost made me rip my brain in half. It was awful. I only persevered for my love of baseball, rushing to mute at every third out. Then, as I walked home from the train on the night of Sept. 26, listening to the Mariners in a must-win against the Astros, I remembered why I cared in the first place.

One Reply to “Defector’s Favorite Sports Moments Of 2023 | Defector”

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