Bill Russell, Serena Williams and Lionel Messi defined sports in 2022

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Russell, Serena, Messi and Griner defined sports in 2022 originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

What a year it was.

Between retirements (and un-retirements), championships and uplifting moments, 2022 delivered countless storylines in the sports world.

But what were the most impactful stories of the year? For better and for worse, it’s hard to narrow things down. The Winter Olympics and FIFA World Cup put two controversial nations on the global stage, while several record-breaking performances happened stateside.

Here are 11 of the biggest sports stories of 2022:

Bill Russell dies, NBA retires No. 6 league-wide

Bill Russell, the NBA’s greatest winner, pioneer and barrier-breaker, died on July 31 at the age of 88. His resume on the court with the Boston Celtics was unmatched – 11 championships, 12 All-Stars, five MVPs in 13 seasons.

But Russell will be remembered for far more than those accolades. He was a leader in the American Civil Rights movement, participating in the 1963 March on Washington. Former president Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. He was the NBA’s first Black head coach, winning two titles as a player-coach.

Shortly after Russell’s death, the NBA announced that No. 6 would be retired across the league out of respect for the legend. Players are also wearing jersey patches with the number throughout the 2022-23 to honor his legacy.

Lionel Messi wins first World Cup in final appearance

The GOAT went out on top, winning what he said would be his final World Cup – though he did reveal that he’s not retiring from Argentina just yet.

The final match between Messi’s Argentina and Kylian Mbappe’s France was an instant classic. Messi scored two goals, Mbappe had a hat trick and the match went to a penalty shootout. Argentina prevailed for its first World Cup since 1986.

Not only did Messi win his first World Cup, he did it as the best player in Qatar. The 35-year-old won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player after totaling seven goals and three assists in seven games.

Tom Brady retires from football, then returns to Buccaneers

After a close postseason loss to the Rams, the GOAT retired from footballfor 40 days. Brady decided to return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers less than six weeks after “officially” calling it a career.

There were many rumors throughout Brady’s five-plus-week retirement – would he be back in 2023, what team would he return to the field with, did his wife force him out of football, etc. Those questions were answered quicker than anyone expected, as he stuck with the Bucs before he and Gisele officially divorced in October.

Brady’s return to the field hasn’t exactly gone smoothly. Tampa Bay’s new coaching staff, combined with a number of injuries, have left people again wondering if the 45-year-old is over the hill. The Bucs are in position to make the postseason despite their 7-8 record, but this story is far from over.

Two tennis legends retire: Serena Williams and Roger Federer

The sporting world lost two more legends to retirement in 2022, except these two have stayed on the sidelines (for now).

Serena Williams, widely considered the greatest female tennis player ever, made her final appearance at the U.S. Open over the summer. The 23-time Grand Slam winner nearly shocked the world, defeating No. 2-seed Anett Kontaveit before falling in the third round. She has teased a Brady-like comeback, so don’t rule out the 41-year-old Williams.

Roger Federer called it a career, too, after several injury-plagued seasons. With 20 Grand Slam titles, Federer dominated men’s tennis alongside Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The Swiss legend played a doubles match with Nadal at the Laver Cup in September to close his professional career.

Brittney Griner freed after months in Russian custody

WNBA superstar Brittney Griner – who was playing professionally in Russia – tried to return home when conflicts between Russia and Ukraine escalated in February. That didn’t happen, as she was arrested at the airport when officials found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.

What ensued was a nearly 10-month battle to bring BG home. She pleaded guilty in Russian court in July before being sentenced to nine years in a dangerous prison. As an openly gay Black woman, Griner was in a vulnerable position in a clearly unforgiving nation.

In December, she was finally freed when President Joe Biden exchanged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner in a prisoner swap. The whole basketball community united behind Griner, who emotionally returned home on Dec. 9.

LIV Golf challenges PGA Tour, poaches big-name golfers

Professional golf drastically changed in 2022 with the emergence of LIV Golf. The Saudi-backed league rose to prominence by offering massive money to PGA Tour stars. The Saudi Arabian government initially pledged $400 million to start the league, with former world No. 1 golfer Greg Norman signed on as CEO.

Many golfers initially denied interest in the league before making the switch – money talks, as they say. Phil Mickelson was the first big name to commit to LIV Golf, securing a $200 million deal to play. Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Cameron Smith also followed the money, leaving the PGA Tour without a number of stars.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy turned down huge offers to stay with the PGA, retaining their world rankings. LIV golfers were eligible to compete in the majors in 2022, though their future status remains uncertain. Either way, it’s clear that golf has changed forever – all thanks to oil in the Persian Gulf region.

USWNT, US Soccer settle equal pay lawsuit

In a long-overdue decision, the United States women’s soccer team finally got what they deserve: equal pay. The four-time World Cup champions have received less compensation than their male counterparts since the women’s program started in 1985 – despite the fact that the men haven’t reached a World Cup semifinal since 1930.

The fight for equal pay was sparked in 2019, when the USWNT won their second straight World Cup crown in France. Led by stars Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, the women sued seeking damages under the federal Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The deal with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which was struck in February and approved in August, promised the players $24 million – plus bonuses that match the men. When the men reached the knockout round at the Qatar World Cup in December, the women earned three times more than they did for winning it all in 2019 – all thanks to the new prize money agreement.

Aaron Judge sets AL home run record, signs monster deal

Betting on yourself – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In Aaron Judge’s case, his gamble paid off better than anyone could’ve expected.

The Yankees slugger turned down a seven-year, $213.5 million deal in the spring. Then, he put together a contract year for the ages. Judge set the American League record with 62 home runs, MLB’s first 60 home run season since 2001. He broke Roger Maris’ 61-year AL record before New York was swept out of the ALCS.

When the offseason hit, Judge had all the leverage. The 30-year-old had several suitors, including the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres, but opted to return to the Bronx on a nine-year, $360 million deal – a net gain of nearly $150 million from the Yankees’ spring offer. The $40 million average annual value set an MLB record for position players.

Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva doping scandal at Olympics

What’s the Olympics without a little controversy?

There were a number of huge moments in Beijing – the stunning opening ceremony, Simone Biles’ twisties and Mikaela Shiffrin’s ski-outs – but the biggest involved a 15-year-old Russian figure skater. Kamila Valieva, a gold medal favorite for the women’s free skate, tested positive for a banned heart substance in December 2021 but was allowed to compete in Beijing.

It was unclear if she would be stripped of medals, so the plan was to cancel the podium ceremony if Valieva finished in the top three. Shockingly, she faltered to finish fourth in an emotional, tearful competition – Valieva fell twice and stumbled twice to drop her out of podium contention. Months after the Olympics, the figure skating body raised the minimum age to 17 because of the Valieva scandal.

Steph Curry wins first NBA Finals MVP, fourth championship

In perhaps his crowning achievement, Steph Curry captured his fourth NBA championship in June while winning his first Finals MVP.

Curry has been there and done that before – but never to this level. In defeating the Boston Celtics 4-2, the 34-year-old torched the league’s best defense with averages of 31.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He answered the call in every big moment, finishing off the Celtics with 34 points on the famed parquet floor.

The only blemish (if you could call it that) on Curry’s resume was the lack of a Finals MVP. Andre Iguodala won it for the Warriors in 2015 before Kevin Durant took the trophy in 2017 and 2018. With this final trophy in Curry’s hands, the doubters have nothing left to say to the greatest shooter of all-time.

Rich Strike wins Kentucky Derby in stunning upset

In 148 editions of the Kentucky Derby, only one upset was bigger than what we saw in 2022.

Rich Strike, who went off a 80-1, won his first ever race on the grandest stage. The colt wasn’t even in the field until Friday when another horse was scratched. That allowed jockey Sonny Leon and trainer Eric Reed to win the race in their very first attempt.

Not only did Rich Strike win the race… he won it in shocking fashion. Coming down the final straightaway, it appeared to be a two-horse race – between two horses not named Rich Strike. But the 3-year-old thoroughbred stormed ahead in the final moments to steal the crown. Donerail, the 1913 winner at 91-1, is the only horse with longer odds to win the Derby.