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Black sports history from the year you were born

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Mike Hewitt // Getty Images

Black sports history from the year you were born

For more than 100 years, Black athletes have shaped the course of American sports. In the early 20th century, it was much harder for Black athletes to make an impact in their respective fields, but there were plenty of trailblazers, nonetheless. The Negro Leagues provided an outlet for hundreds of talented baseball players who were then disallowed from suiting up for teams in Major League Baseball. Boxing was another sport Black athletes excelled in, with many famous Black boxers becoming world champions and fighting in some of the country’s most storied venues.

Jesse Owens made a thunderous statement for Black athletes at the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Nazi Germany. A decade later, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, and professional sports forever changed as Black athletes quickly made their marks in a variety of leagues.

As Black athletes became more accepted in the American sporting landscape, they began using their platform for different causes. Few figures have used their voices like Muhammad Ali, who protested wars and was proud of his Muslim faith. Soon after, Tommie Smith and John Carlos sent their messages to the world at the 1968 Olympics, inspiring future social justice champions like Colin Kaepernick.

Stacker compiled a list of Black sports history from the year you were born. These memorable sports moments from the past century were compiled using information from professional league record books, statistical databases, museums, historical articles, and other official sources. The criteria for significant events included representation in international sporting events, record-setters, first coaches, most valuable players, major achievements, milestone markers, and Black athletes revolutionizing leagues and rules.

With athletes like Lamar Jackson, Sloane Stephens, Mookie Betts, and Brittney Griner on the rise, just wait to see the history Black athletes make in the years to come.

[Pictured: Michael Johnson carries the American Flag after winning the Gold in the Men's 200 meters during the 1996 Olympic Games.]

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Baseball Hall of Fame // Wikimedia Commons

1920: Negro National League

Rube Foster was one of many advocates for a professional baseball league for Black athletes. In 1920, the Negro National League was formed at a YMCA in Kansas City. In the coming years, future Hall of Famers like Satchel Paige rose to stardom in this league.

[Pictured: A team photograph of the 1916 St. Louis Giants of the Negro League.]

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

1921: Fritz Pollard becomes a player/coach

Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard was a man of many firsts. Pollard was Brown University’s first Black player, and became professional football’s first Black coach, later going on to play for and then couch the Akron Pros. Later that decade, Black players had all but disappeared from American professional football.

[Pictured: Fritz Pollard posing for a pass.]

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Topical Press Agency // Getty Images

1922: Battling Siki becomes boxing champ

Louis Mbarick Fall, known in the ring as Battling Siki, took on light heavyweight titleholder Georges Carpentier. Allegedly, the fight was fixed for Siki to lose, but after getting hit by Carpentier, Siki knocked out Carpentier to become champion.

[Pictured: 'Battling Siki' from Senegal, training to meet Georges Carpentier for the world light-heavyweight championship in 1922.]

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Transcendental Graphics // Getty Images

1923: KC Monarchs reign supreme

The Kansas City Monarchs were one of the inaugural franchises of the Negro National League. After the Chicago American Giants won titles from 1920-22, the Monarchs stopped a four-peat by capturing the 1923 pennant.

[Pictured: An early photograph of the Kansas City Monarchs.]

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Le Miroir des sports // Wikimedia Commons

1924: DeHart Hubbard makes Olympic history

At the 1924 Summer Olympics, DeHart Hubbard became the first Black American to win an individual gold medal. A long jump specialist, Hubbard went on to win Big Ten and NCAA titles at the University of Michigan. In 1957, Hubbard was elected to the National Track Hall of Fame.

[Pictured: William DeHart Hubbard, winner of the long jump at the 1924 Olympic Games.]

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Thompson, Paul // Wikimedia Commons

1925: Harry Wills megafight controversy

Harry Wills was a top heavyweight contender in the 1920s, and in 1925, agreed to fight Jack Dempsey. But the governor of New York later canceled the fight, fearing race riots between Wills, a Black fighter, and Dempsey, a white fighter. Wills received $50,000 in compensation.

[Pictured: Harry Wills in 1916.]

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Chicago Daily News // Wikimedia Commons

1926: Tiger Flowers

In February, middleweight Tiger Flowers took on champion Harry Greb at Madison Square Garden. Flowers won a unanimous decision and became the first Black American middleweight world champion. In 1927, Flowers died following complications from surgery.

[Pictured: Tiger Flowers standing in a boxing stance in a corner of a boxing ring in a room in Chicago, Illinois.]

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David // Flickr

1927: Luther Farrell’s rubber arm

During the 1927 Negro League World Series, Luther Farrell pitched a rain-shortened, seven-inning no-hitter for the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants. Farrell actually gave up two unearned runs and his Game 5 gem staved off elimination. In total, Farell decided five games in the series, but Atlantic City ultimately lost to the Chicago American Giants, five games to three.

[Pictured: Negro League logo/patch from the early '90s.]

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Transcendental Graphics // Getty Images

1928: Eastern Colored League folds

For much of the 1920s, the Eastern Colored League was considered one of the major Negro Leagues in the U.S. However, the league folded in 1928, with long-standing arguments over money, players, and scheduling.

[Pictured: The Negro League Baltimore Black Sox pose for team portrait sometime during the 1925 season.]

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1929: American Negro League formed

Filling the void left by the Eastern Colored League, the American Negro League formed in 1929. The Baltimore Black Sox won the first league championship.

[Pictured: Three Baltimore Black Sox players.]

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Agence de presse Meurisse // Wikimedia Commons

1930: Panama Al Brown becomes champ

Alfonso Brown was born in Panama and grew up in Harlem, where he took up boxing at a gym on West 116th Street. Brown became the first world champion born in Latin America, and made the Boxing Hall of Fame as one of the sport’s early bantamweight titans.

[Pictured: Boxer Al Brown in fighting stance.]

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National Baseball Hall of Fame Library // Getty Images

1931: Negro National League disbands

As the Great Depression spread across the U.S., financial hardships caused entities like the Negro National League to shut down. The St. Louis Stars won the 1931 championship.

[Pictured: Josh Gibson jogs to home base during a Negro Natonal League game.]

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Keystone-France // Wikimedia Commons

1932: Eddie Tolan enters the record books

After an injury derailed a promising football career at the University of Michigan, Eddie Tolan took up track and field. At the 1932 Summer Games, Tolan became the first American track athlete to double up with gold medals at the Olympics, winning the 100m and 200m races.

[Pictured: Eddie Tolan in 1932.]

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1933: An NFL exodus

Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp were the last two Black players in the NFL by the 1933 season. After the season was complete, the NFL wouldn’t have another Black player until 1946, when Kenny Washington signed with the Los Angeles Rams.

[Pictured: Ray Kemp in 1933.]

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Harrison Studio // Wikimedia Commons

1934: Josh Gibson’s legend grows

Accurate statistics from the Negro Leagues are hard to come by due to inconsistent record keeping, but few baseball historians contest the impact of slugger Josh Gibson. In 1934, in a game at Yankee Stadium, Gibson hit a home run that reportedly flew out of the mammoth park. Other reports claim Gibson once hit 84 home runs in a season, and more than 800 during his career.

[Pictured: Josh Gibson in 1931.]

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1935: John Henry Lewis earns a title

John Henry Lewis became the first Black American to win the light heavyweight title when he defeated Bob Olin in 1935. Despite being champion, Lewis had to forfeit his fight purse due to a small crowd. Still, Lewis remained champ for four years.

[Pictured: Black and White photo of 1935 Light Heavyweight Champion John Henry Lewis.]

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1936: Jesse Owens runs into history

Held in Berlin, the 1936 Summer Olympics were intended to be an affirmation of German superiority (at least by the plans of the Nazi party). Jesse Owens smashed those perceptions by winning four gold medals. Forty years later, Owens was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

[Pictured: Jesse Owens takes part in the long jump event in a USA versus British Empire meeting at White City stadium in west London in 1936.]

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Carl Van Vechten // Wikimedia Commons

1937: Joe Louis reaches the mountaintop

After an upset loss to Max Schmelling in 1936, Joe Louis rebounded by winning the heavyweight championship a year later. Louis then avenged his loss to Schmelling in 1938, and went on to become one of the world’s most revered prizefighters.

[Pictured: Portrait of boxer Joe Louis.]

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Keystone // Getty Images

1938: Henry Armstrong’s trifecta

In 1938, Henry Armstrong won world titles in three different weight classes, and became the only boxer to hold three such belts simultaneously. A member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, Armstrong was the featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight champion in 1938. Many boxing historians consider Armstrong one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters of all time.

[Pictured: Henry Armstrong speaks into a microphone after winning the world welterweight title at Harringay. ]

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Maurice Terrell // Getty Images

1939: Jackie Robinson enrolls at UCLA

Before becoming a baseball icon, Jackie Robinson excelled on the gridiron in college. In his first year at UCLA, Robinson garnered national headlines as a running back. Robinson had transferred from Pasadena City College; at UCLA, he competed in track, football, baseball, and basketball.

[Pictured: Robinson doing the long jump for UCLA.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1940: No encore for Jesse Owens and others

Due to the war in Europe, the 1940 Summer Olympics were canceled. The cancelation of the Games meant no repeat performance for Jesse Owens, after his gold medal win in Berlin. Instead, Owens returned to Ohio State University.

[Pictured: Jesse Owens, Ohio State's sensational athlete, is shown in the midst of running a sprint.]

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Bowman Gum // Wikimedia Commons

1941: The Life of Satchel Paige

In June, LIFE Magazine featured Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige, replete with flattering quotes from the likes of Joe DiMaggio. Seven years later, Paige made his Major League Baseball debut and helped the Cleveland Indians win the World Series.

[Pictured: Cleveland Indians pitcher Satchel Paige.]

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LOOK magazine // Wikimedia Commons

1942: World War II threatens Negro Leagues

With American forces fully invested in World War II and young men from all backgrounds being drafted into the military, the Negro Leagues suffered a decline in players. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were among those who fought in the war, with a reported 119 Negro Leaguers serving in the early 1940s.

[Pictured: Robinson, wearing his Army uniform, receives a military salute from his nephew Frank during a visit to his home in Pasadena, California, circa 1943.]

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Stephen Dunn // Getty Images

1943: Eddie Robinson’s commitment to Grambling athletics

In 1943, Eddie Robinson coached basketball at Grambling State University. What made Robinson’s hiring unique was that he already coached the football team. Robinson held both jobs for several years, but coached the football team until 1997, sending hundreds of players into the pros, which helped earn him induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

[Pictured: Head Coach Eddie Robinson of Grambling State University talks with his team during Media Day at Robinson Stadium in Grambling, Louisiana.]

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1944: The Bob Montgomery-Beau Jack rivalry

Over two years, boxers Bob Montgomery and Beau Jack staged one of the sport’s most intense rivalries. In their final fight, Jack defeated Montgomery, tying the series at 2-2. All of Madison Square Garden fights sold out and went the distance, but a tiebreaking fifth fight never materialized.

[Pictured: Black and White photo of Black World Lightweight Champion boxer from Goergia Beau Jack.]

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National Photo Company // Wikimedia Commons

1945: Branch Rickey signs Jackie Robinson

Branch Rickey was an ardent advocate for breaking down baseball’s color barrier. Rickey extensively scouted Negro League players and in 1945, signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract. Before signing him, Rickey interviewed Robinson and peppered him with racial slurs, to see how the young ballplayer would withstand taunts from fans.

[Pictured: Branch Rickey between 1909 and 1919 when he was playing.]

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STR // Getty Images

1946: Jackie Robinson debuts; Josh Gibson exits

Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league affiliate Montreal Royals in the spring of 1946. Robinson encountered repeated verbal attacks over the course of the season, but proved to be every bit of the talent the Dodgers had hoped for. Meanwhile, Josh Gibson played his last season in the Negro Leagues, and died less than a year later.

[Pictured: Jackie Robinson as he signs a then-record contract to play.]

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1947: Jackie Robinson integrates baseball

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first Black player to play in a Major League Baseball game. The Dodgers won, 5-3, but more importantly Robinson opened the door for hundreds of Black and minority ballplayers to enter the big leagues in years to come.

[Pictured: Jackie Robinson grounds a ball at first place while warming up for an exhibition game against the New York Yankees.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1948: Alice Coachman and Audrey Patterson blaze Olympic trails

At the 1948 Olympics in London, Audrey Patterson won a bronze medal in the 200m, becoming the first Black American woman to win an Olympic medal. A few days later, Alice Coachman became the first Black woman to win a gold medal in track and field. Coachman later became the first Black female athlete to endorse a product, signing on with Coca-Cola.

[Pictured: Alice Coachman of the Tuskegee Institute Club is seen as she wins the high jump event at the National Women's Track and Field meet.]

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United States Information Agency // Wikimedia Commons

1949: Jackie Robinson named MVP

In 1949, Jackie Robinson led the majors with 37 stolen bases and a .342 batting average. Those accolades led Robinson to the National League MVP award, the first won by a Black player. Black players would go on to win eight of the next 10 NL MVP awards.

[Pictured: Jackie Robinson in his Brooklyn Dodgers Uniform, 1950.]

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Hult Studio // Wikimedia Commons

1950: The first Black players enter the NBA

During the 1950-51 season, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Chuck Cooper, and Earl Lloyd became the first Black players to enter the NBA. All three hold different distinctions—Cooper was the first to be drafted by an NBA team, Clifton was the first to sign an NBA contract, and Lloyd was the first to enter an NBA game.

[Pictured: The Boston Celtics basketball team practicing the pick and roll with Chuck Cooper on the far right.]

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1951: Duke Slater is immortalized

The College Football Hall of Fame inaugurated its first class in 1951. Duke Slater was among its members. A star tackle and All-American at Iowa, Slater went on to become a Superior Court judge.

[Pictured: Football player Frederick Wayman "Duke" Slater.]

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McCabe // Getty Images

1952: Floyd Patterson emerges on the boxing scene

At the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Floyd Patterson won middleweight gold. Patterson knocked out all five of his opponents, a rarity in Olympic boxing, and went on to win 55 professional bouts and become the youngest heavyweight champion of the world.

[Pictured: American boxing champion Floyd Patterson in training for his upcoming fight against Henry Cooper.]

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1953: Don Barksdale continues to break barriers

In 1948, Don Barksdale became the first Black player named to the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Five years later, Barksdale became the first Black NBA player to be named to the All-Star team. In 2012, Barksdale was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

[Pictured: Basketball player Don Barksdale of the Boston Celtics poses in Boston on Nov. 24, 1953.]

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JERRY SISKIND // Getty Images

1954: Willie Mays enters the record books

Willie Mays burst onto the MLB scene in 1951, winning the NL Rookie of the Year award. But it was in 1954 when Mays became part of baseball lore, with one of the most memorable seasons of any player to-date. Mays won the batting title and MVP, then in the World Series made an over-the-shoulder catch that is still considered among the best defensive plays in baseball history. The play helped the New York Giants win the World Series.

[Pictured: John F. Kennedy Jr. with baseball player Willie Mays at Shea Stadium in New York June 3, 1972.]

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1955: Black ballplayers quickly make their mark

A decade after Jackie Robinson signed a professional baseball contract, Black baseball players had made their presence known throughout MLB. In 1955, Sam Jones became the first Black player to toss an MLB no-hitter and Don Newcombe became the first Black pitcher to win 20 games (the following year, Newcombe became the first Black Cy Young Award winner).

[Pictured: Professional baseball player Sam Jones.]

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AFP via Getty Images

1956: Althea Gibson wins the French Open

Althea Gibson captured the singles and doubles titles at the 1956 French Open (then called the French Championships), becoming the first Black American woman to win a Grand Slam tournament. Over the next three years, Gibson won 10 more Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles. In 1963, Gibson became the first Black woman to join the LPGA Tour.

[Pictured: Althea Gibson after winning the Wimbledon lawn tennis championships.]

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ABC Television // Wikimedia Commons

1957: Jackie Robinson retires

Instead of accepting a trade to the rival Giants, Jackie Robinson retired from baseball in 1957. Five years later, Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Before his death in 1972, Robinson briefly worked as a commentator for televised baseball games on ABC.

[Pictured: Publicity photo of Jackie Robinson as an ABC broadcaster for "Major League Championship Baseball".]

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Bruce Bennett Studios // Getty Images

1958: Willie O’Ree breaks hockey’s color barrier

Willie O’Ree became the first Black player to play for an American team in the NHL. O’Ree, born in Canada, made his debut for the Boston Bruins. O’Ree suffered racial attacks over the course of his career, but remains enmeshed in the game; in 2018, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

[Pictured: Willie O'Ree skates with the puck as the New York Rangers defend during their NHL game circa 1961.]

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Jay Publishing // Wikimedia Commosn

1959: Ernie Banks: Let’s win two

Ernie Banks popularized the phrase, “ Let’s play two!” in reference to his fondness of doubleheaders. In 1959, Banks won his second consecutive MVP award for the Chicago Cubs. Banks played all 19 of his MLB seasons in the Windy City, and earned the nickname “ Mr. Cub.

[Pictured: Baseball player Ernie Banks in 1964.]

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Douglas Miller // Getty Images

1960: Cassius Clay and Wilma Rudolph dominate Olympics

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Cassius Clay won gold in the light-heavyweight boxing class. Wilma Rudolph, who overcame polio as a child, won three gold medals in track and field. Both ascended to new heights of celebrity after their Olympic triumphs.

[Pictured: The finish of the 100 metres race at the Olympics in Rome with Wilma Rudolph, taking the gold.]

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Shreysagi // Wikimedia Commons

1961: Ernie Davis strikes a pose

Ernie Davis, a running back from Syracuse, became the first Black player to win the Heisman Trophy, the award given to college football’s top player. Davis broke many of Jim Brown’s Syracuse rushing records, and was the first overall pick of the 1962 NFL Draft.

[Pictured: Ernie Davis holding Heisman Trophy after his 1961 victory of it.]

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Jim McIsaac // Getty Images

1962: Buck O’Neil on the bench

The Chicago Cubs made Buck O’Neil the first Black coach on a major league managerial staff during the 1962 season. O’Neil spent 11 seasons in the Negro Leagues and later became one of the biggest supporters of the Negro League Museum.

[Pictured: Former Negro League player John 'Buck' O'Neil speaks at Clark Sports Center during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 30, 2006.]

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William Lovelace // Getty Images

1963: Sonny Liston ascends to top of boxing world

Sonny Liston already held the WBA heavyweight title, but in 1963, he became the first WBC heavyweight champion when he defeated former champion Floyd Patterson. In attendance for the fight was Muhammad Ali, who went on to defeat Liston twice over the next two years.

[Pictured: World heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston in 1962.]

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AFP via Getty Images

1964: Joe Frazier and Bob Hayes star at Olympics

The 1964 Summer Olympics were held in Tokyo. Joe Frazier, competing with a broken thumb, won gold in the heavyweight boxing division. Sprinter Bob Hayes set a world record in the 100m, then went on to play 11 years in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl in 1971.

[Pictured: Joe Frazier during a training in Kingston before his match against George Foreman.]

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1965: Bill Russell adds to his hardware collection

After the 1964-65 NBA season, Bill Ruseell was awarded his fifth MVP honor. Today, the MVP winner of the NBA Finals is awarded the Bill Russell Trophy.

[Pictured: Bill Russell, during his first years with the franchise.]

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University of Texas at El Paso // Wikimedia Commons

1966:Texas Western’s all-Black starting five

Texas Western became the first NCAA team to win a national championship with an all-Black starting five lineup. Texas Western defeated Kentucky’s all-white starting five in the title game; later, Kentucky star Pat Riley congratulated Texas Western players after the game.

[Pictured: Members of the 1966 Texas Western national championship team accept the trophy from the 1966 UTEP student yearbook.]

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1967: Muhammad Ali refuses to enlist

As thousands of American citizens were being drafted into the military, Muhammad Ali refused to enlist. Ali was stripped of his title for objecting to the Vietnam War. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali said in 1967.

[Pictured: Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) talks to television reporters after arriving at London's Heathrow airport.]

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Douglas Miller // Getty Images

1968: Olympic protests and unfathomable feats

With Bob Gibson posting a 1.12 earned run average, Bob Beamon jumping farther than any man before, and Arthur Ashe winning the U.S. Open, 1968 was arguably one of the most important years in Black American sports history. Along with these moments of triumph were poignant displays of protest. American Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised fists in the air on the medal stand to represent Black unity, while other articles of their outfits represented poverty and the history of lynchings.

[Pictured: Bob Beamon breaks the Long Jump record at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, 20th October 1968.]

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New York World-Telegram // Wikimedia Commons

1969: Lew Alcindor is #1

After winning three NCAA titles, UCLA’s Lew Alcindor was the first overall pick of the 1969 NBA Draft. Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, more than fulfilled the expectations of the top pick, winning six titles and leaving the NBA as its all-time leading scorer.

[Pictured: Alcindor with the reverse two-hand dunk during a victory against Stanford.]

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New York Knicks // Wikimedia Commons

1970: Willis Reed comes out the tunnel

Willis Reed’s dominant 1970 campaign earned him the MVP award and his importance to the New York Knicks was well-known. In the 1970 Finals, Reed battled a thigh injury and was expected to miss the decisive Game 7. But Reed emerged from the tunnel at Madison Square Garden and inspired the Knicks to victory, as well as being named Finals MVP.

[Pictured: 1972 publicity photo of basketball player Willis Reed issued to the media by the New York Knicks.]

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Keystone // Getty Images

1971: Frazier vs. Ali: Chapter I

When Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali agreed to fight on March 8, 1971, the match was billed as the “ Fight of the Century.” Frazier won the first match between the two titans, but would face Ali twice more, including in the famed “ Thrilla in Manila.” Ali won the second and third fights.

[Pictured: In a title fight at Madison Square Gardens, New York, Muhammad Ali goes up against world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1972: Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett protest

Four years after Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged their Olympic protest, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett followed suit. Standing casually and chatting during the national anthem, the duo were responding to mistreatment in America. Collett said: “I couldn’t stand there and sing the words because I don’t believe they’re true. I believe we have the potential to have a beautiful country, but I don’t think we do.”

[Pictured: Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett stand at ease and chat during the playing of the American national anthem at the awards ceremony.]

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Tony Tomsic // Getty Images

1973: O.J. Simpsons runs for 2,000 yards

With a 200-yard performance in the final game of the 1973 season, Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson topped the 2,000-yard mark for the season. Simpson was the first running back to run for 2,000 yards, a feat that has been repeated only six times in NFL history.

[Pictured: Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson (32) carries the ball during a 38-14 victory over the Denver Broncos on October 5, 1975.]

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Texas Rangers // Wikimedia Commons

1974: Hank Aaron hits #715

Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, socking his 715th career homer on April 8, 1974 in front of more than 50,000 fans. A few days after Aaron finished the season with 733 home runs, Muhammad Ali famously knocked out George Foreman in the “ Rumble in the Jungle.

[Pictured: Baseball player Hank Aaron in 1974.]

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Allsport USA // Getty Images

1975: A pair of firsts

The Cleveland Indians hired Frank Robinson before the 1975 season, making him the first Black manager in MLB history. In basketball, Bill Russell became the first Black player inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor he refused at the time, believing others should have been inducted before him.

[Pictured: Former NBA star Bill Russell during a basketball game.]

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Keystone // Getty Images

1976: Edwin Moses begins his legacy

Edwin Moses won gold in the 400m hurdles at the 1976 Summer Olympics. Soon after, Moses won more than 100 straight races, a streak that lasted until 1987. Moses continues to work in the sport, recently partnering with anti-doping boards to prevent proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs.

[Pictured: Edwin Moses, the American athlete, running a lap of honour at the Montreal Olympics after winning the final of the 400 metres hurdles final.]

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United Press International // Wikimedia Commons

1977: Mr. October makes his mark

During the 1977 World Series, New York Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in Game 6 to clinch the title. Jackson earned World Series MVP honors and henceforth became known as “ Mr. October.

[Pictured: Jackson before the third game of the 1973 World Series.]

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Central Press // Getty Images

1978: Muhammad Ali’s trifecta

By defeating Leon Spinks in September 1978, Muhammad Ali became the first three-time heavyweight champion. Sylvester Stallone and Liza Minnelli were among the stars that packed the Superdome in New Orleans, and witnessed what would be Ali’s final victory in the ring.

[Pictured: Muhammad Ali up against Hungarian-born British boxer Joe Bugner in their title fight.]

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Sally Lindsay // Wikimedia Commons

1979: Willie Stargell redefines family

Willie Stargell was a leader of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, affectionately nicknamed “ Pops.” Stargell socked 32 home runs and was named N.L. MVP. In the World Series, the Pirates topped the Baltimore Orioles in seven games, and Stargell also won Series MVP honors. The Pirates’ 1979 theme song was the Sister Sledge disco hit “ We Are Family.

[Pictured: Stargell playing first base for the Pirates in 1979.]

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Rick Stewart // Getty Images

1980: Earvin Johnson’s magical debut

Before the 1979-80 season, Earvin “Magic” Johnson was made the #1 pick by the Los Angeles Lakers. During his rookie year, Johnson helped the Lakers reach the NBA Finals and in the absence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he played center and led Los Angeles to a title. Johnson was named Finals MVP.

[Pictured: Magic Johnson drives past Derrick Harper of the Dallas Mavericks during an NBA game at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, California.]

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Mike Powell // Getty Images

1981: Lawrence Taylor wreaks havoc from the get-go

As a rookie, Lawrence Taylor terrorized quarterbacks and cemented his standing as one of the NFL’s most lethal pass rushers. Taylor was named Rookie of the Year, an All-Pro, and Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.

[Pictured: Lawrence Taylor during the National Football Conference West game against the Los Angeles Rams.]

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Holly Stein // Getty Images

1982: Larry Holmes vs. The Great White Hype

With a 39-0 record, Larry Holmes was a dominant heavyweight champion. Muhammad Ali and other greats had retired, so in searching for a marketable opponent, Holmes’ team set up a fight against Gerry Cooney, an Irish-American fighter. The fight was advertised with racial overtones, but Holmes proved to be the better fighter, easily stopping Cooney.

[Pictured: Larry Holmes sits in his corner between rounds of his fight against Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas, Nevada.]

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1983: Lorenzo Charles personifies March Madness

Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler led the University of Houston to the 1983 NCAA title game, and were heavy favorites against North Carolina State. But Thurl Bailey and Derrick Whittenburg kept NC State in the game and the two teams were tied, 52-52, in the waning seconds. Whittenburg sent up a desperation shot, which teammate Lorenzo Charles caught and dunked as time expired, creating a highlight that would be played throughout March Madness for years to come.

[Pictured: Lorenzo Charles in 1987.]

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ALLSPORT // Getty Images

1984: John Thompson’s history at Houston’s expense

The Houston Cougars made it back to the NCAA championship game in 1984, but were upended by the Georgetown Hoyas, coached by John Thompson. The victory made Thompson the first Black coach to win a national title. Thompson became a Georgetown institution, coaching until 1999, and his son, John Thompson III, took over as coach in 2004.

[Pictured: John Thompson coaching from the sidelines.]

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Jonathan Daniel // Getty Images

1985: Michael Jordan changes the game

Michael Jordan earned a reputation as an aerial maestro at the annual NBA Slam Dunk Contest, but at his first event in 1985, Jordan had an even bigger cultural impact. Wearing Air Jordan Nikes, Jordan lost the competition but created a craze with his sneakers. Soon, Air Jordans became among the most popular sneakers in history, and a new market for profitability was created for many young athletes.

[Pictured: A close-up shot of Air Jordans as they appear on the court during the game between the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls.]

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AFP // Getty Images

1986: Mike Tyson becomes youngest heavyweight champ

By knocking out Trevor Berbick in November 1986, Mike Tyson, only 20 years old, became the youngest heavyweight champion ever. At the time, Tyson was 28-0, with 26 wins by knockout.

[Pictured: Mike Tyson during his fight against heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight world champion in history.]

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Rick Stewart // Getty Images

1987: Jerry Rice shatters records

During the 1987 NFL season, Jerry Rice set an NFL record with 22 touchdown receptions. Rice, a 10-time All-Pro, retired with the most career touchdown receptions, and is sometimes listed as the NFL’s greatest player ever.

[Pictured: Jerry Rice runs the ball during the National Football League Super Bowl XVIII game.]

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Russell Cheyne // Getty Images

1988: Florence Griffith Joyner and Debi Thomas shine

Florence Griffith Joyner won four medals (three golds) at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and became the darling of American track and field. Months earlier, figure skater Debi Thomas became the first Black American woman to win a medal at the Winter Olympics, taking home the bronze.

[Pictured: Florence Griffith-Joyner of the United States celebrates winning gold in the Women's 100 metres final event.]

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Mike Powell // Getty Images

1989: Michael Jordan shocks Cleveland

During the 1989 playoffs, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls took on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. In a decisive Game 5, Jordan hit the series-clinching shot over Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo, then emphatically pumped his fist in the air. “ The Shot” was the first of many memorable Jordan playoff moments, and remains a staple of highlight retrospectives.

[Pictured: Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls rests on the court during a game.]

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Al Bello // Getty Images

1990: Buster Douglas shocks the world

At the Tokyo Dome in Japan, James “Buster” Douglas knocked out and defeated heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Douglas was a 42-to-1 underdog. "I knew that going into the fight no one was giving me a chance, but I believed, my people believed,” Douglas said in 2018.

[Pictured: Buster Douglas in a fight at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1996.]

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Ken Levine // Getty Images

1991: Willy T. Ribbs makes racing history

In 1991, Willy T. Ribbs became the first Black American driver in the Indianapolis 500. A native of San Jose, Ribbs raced on several pro and semi-professional circuits, joining the likes of Wendell Scott and Bill Lester as Black auto racing pioneers.

[Pictured: Willy T. Ribbs of the United States maneuvers his car around the track during the Long Beach Grand Prix in Long Beach, California on January 1st 1990.]

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Stephen Dunn // Getty Images

1992: Cito Gaston

In 1992, Cito Gaston managed the Toronto Blue Jays to a World Series title. Gaston is the first Black manager to win a World Series; in 1993, he won a second championship with Toronto.

[Pictured: Cito Gaston on the field before a game against the Angels in 1994.]

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Jonathan Daniel // Getty Images

1993: Chicago Bulls three-peat

Led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, the Chicago Bulls won their third straight NBA title. Following this, Jordan suddenly announced his retirement from basketball.

[Pictured: General view of a Game Three of the NBA finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Phoenix Suns.]

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Al Bello // Getty Images

1994: George Foreman gets better with age

At age 45, George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer to become the oldest-ever heavyweight champion of the world. Foreman won his first heavyweight championship in the 1970s. Like Buster Douglas besting Mike Tyson, Foreman’s win was highly unexpected.

[Pictured: George Foreman wins a round against Michael Moorer in Las Vegas, Nevada.]

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VINCENT LAFORET // Getty Images

1995: Michael Jordan returns

Less than two years after leaving the NBA, Michael Jordan returned to the Chicago Bulls, wearing #45. After his first retirement, Jordan played minor league baseball, but never made it the majors. Within a year, Jordan’s Bulls were once more NBA champions.

[Pictured: Michael Jordan argues a foul call against him in the fourth quarter at the United Center in Chicago.]

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Mike Hewitt // Getty Images

1996: Michael Johnson and Muhammad Ali shine in Atlanta

Wearing gold-colored spikes, Michael Johnson sprinted toward history at the 1996 Summer Olympics. Johnson won two gold medals, setting Olympic and World records along the way. The 1996 Games in Atlanta began with one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history, when Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron.

[Pictured: Michael Johnson carries the American Flag after winning the Gold in the Men''s 200 meters during the 1996 Olympic Games.]

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Stephen Munday // Getty Images

1997: Tiger Woods wins Masters

Tiger Woods captured his first major title in dominating fashion in 1997, winning the Masters Tournament by 12 strokes and becoming a sports sensation. Wearing his iconic black cap and red shirt, Woods won his first of five green jackets.

[Pictured: Tiger Woods celebrates after sinking a 4 feet putt to win the US Masters Golf Tournament.]

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Vince Bucci // Getty Images

1998: Passing of the torch

The 1998 All-Star Game saw Kobe Bryant become the youngest-ever starter, at 19 years old. Bryant particularly looked primed to battle against Michael Jordan, who retired again after the 1997-98 season, after winning his sixth NBA title.

[Pictured: Michael Jordan eyes the basket as he is guarded by Kobe Bryant during their February game in Los Angeles, CA.]

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Otto Greule Jr // Getty Images

1999: Ken Griffey Jr. says goodbye to Seattle

During the 1990s, few athletes matched Ken Griffey Jr. in popularity. Griffey had signature shoes, video games, and even starred in an episode of “ The Simpsons.” In his final year in Seattle, Griffey hit an American League best of 48 home runs. In 13 seasons with the Mariners (he returned in 2009-10 for 150 total games), Griffey hit 417 home runs.

[Pictured: Ken Griffey Jr. swings at the ball during a game against the Boston Red Sox at the Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington.]

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Todd Warshaw // Getty Images

2000: Cynthia Cooper-Dyke goes 4-for-4

In the first four seasons of the WNBA, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke helped the Houston Comets win four titles. In each of those four championship runs, Cooper-Dyke was named the Finals MVP. Cooper also led the league in scoring three of those first four seasons, and now is enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

[Pictured: Cynthia Cooper celebfrates on the court after winning game three of the 1999 WNBA Finals against the New York Liberty at the Compaq Center in Houston, Texas.]

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Harry How // Getty Images

2001: Barry Bonds hits 73 home runs

Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, breaking Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record of 70. However, like McGwire, rumors of performance-enhancing drug use began swirling, as prior to 2001, Bonds had never hit more than 49 home runs in a season.

[Pictured: Barry Bonds watches his 73rd home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the game on October 7, 2001.]

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Clive Brunskill // Getty Images

2002: The Williams sisters top the tennis world

Serena and Venus Williams faced off three times in a Grand Slam singles final in 2002, with younger Serena winning all three matchups. However, both sisters held the #1 ranking in the world during that year, and together they won the Wimbledon doubles tournament.

[Pictured: Serena Williams is congratulated by her sister Venus Williams after winning a match in Wimbledon, London on July 6, 2002.]

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Craig Jones // Getty Images

2003: Carmelo Anthony’s freshman frenzy

Syracuse University won its first NCAA men’s basketball title in 2003, led by freshman Carmelo Anthony. A Baltimore native, Anthony led the Orange in scoring, and was named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Months later, Anthony was the third overall pick of an NBA Draft that also featured LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

[Pictured: Carmelo Anthony cuts down the net after he and his team defeated Kansas 81-78 during the championship game of the NCAA Men's Final Four Tournament.]

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Ezra Shaw // Getty Images

2004: The Freddy Adu hype train

Many Americans have long been ambivalent about soccer, but Freddy Adu intended to change those lukewarm feelings. In 2004, at age 14, Adu was drafted first overall to Major League Soccer’s D.C. United. However, despite starring in ads for Pepsi and Nike, Adu did not meet most expectations on the field.

[Pictured: Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber gives Freddy Adu a MLS jersey and scarf during a press conference on November 19, 2003.]

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Doug Pensinger // Getty Images

2005: The NBA’s fashion police

In an effort to curb players wearing expensive jewelry, throwback jerseys, and other attire not deemed “business casual,” the NBA instituted a dress code for the 2005-06 season. Indiana Pacers forward Stephen Jackson labeled the dress code “ a racial statement” against Black Americans, and critics felt the NBA was trying to create an image of its players that catered to corporate America.

[Pictured: Stephen Jackson of the Indiana Pacers stands on the court during a game against the Washington Wizards on February 7, 2005.]

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Brian Bahr // Getty Images

2006: Shani Davis skates to gold

By winning the 1000m in speed skating at the 2006 Olympics, Shani Davis became the first Black American to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games. Davis was also the first Black American male to win a Winter Olympic medal, and has four Olympic medals in total.

[Pictured: Shani Davis competes in the men's speed skating 1000 meter finals on Day 8 of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympic Games on February 18, 2006.]

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Scott Halleran // Getty Images

2007: A Super Bowl first

In Super Bowl XLI, two Black coaches, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, led their teams to the NFL’s final game of the season. Dungy and Smith became the first Black head coaches to coach a team in the Super Bowl. Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts won the game, 29-17.

[Pictured: Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears and Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts pose together with the Super Bowl Trophy during a press conference.]

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Doug Benc // Getty Images

2008: Candace Parker

After leading the Tennessee Lady Volunteers to their second consecutive NCAA title, Candace Parker was the first overall pick of the 2008 WNBA Draft. Parker led the league in rebounds, and was named Rookie of the Year and AP Female Athlete of the Year. Later in her career, Parker became a strong voice in support of female athletes starting families during their careers.

[Pictured: Candace Parker of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers celebrates cutting down the net after their 64-48 win against the Stanford Cardinal during the National Championsip Game.]

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Christian Petersen // Getty Images

2009: King James reigns over all other players

LeBron James won his first NBA MVP award at only 24 years old. James averaged more than 28 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists, and his Cleveland Cavaliers finished the regular season with the best record in the league. LeBron has since won three additional MVP trophies.

[Pictured: LeBron James during the NBA game against of the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on December 21, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.]

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Jeff Gross // Getty Images

2010: UConn can’t be stopped

In late 2010, led by Tina Charles, Maya Moore, and Renee Montgomery, the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team won its 89th straight game. The streak broke the record of the UCLA men’s basketball team, which won 88 in a row from 1971-74.

[Pictured: The Connecticut Huskies hold up the national championship trophy as they celebrate after a 53-47 win against the Stanford Cardinal.]

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Mike Ehrmann // Getty Images

2011: Shaquille O’Neal retires

At the end of the 2010-11 season, Shaquille O’Neal hung up his size 22 shoes. A four-time champion and three-time Finals MVP, Shaq finished his career with 28,596 points. In 2016, Shaq was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with another cultural icon: Allen Iverson.

[Pictured: Shaquille O'Neal guarded by Zydrunas Ilgauskas during a game against the Miami Heat in 2010.]

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Streeter Lecka // Getty Images

2012: Golden Gabby Douglas

Weeks after LeBron James won his first NBA title, Gabby Douglas became the center of the sports world, capturing the all-around competition gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Douglas was the first Black woman to win the all-around, adding another gold medal as the U.S. took the team competition.

[Pictured: Gabrielle Douglas celebrates after winning the gold medal in the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Individual All-Around final.]

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Bruce Bennett // Getty Images

2013: Popeye becomes a proud papa

Seth Jones was selected fourth overall by the Nashville Predators in the 2013 NHL Draft. Jones, the son of NBA player Popeye Jones, became the first Black player to be selected in the top five.

[Pictured: Seth Jones poses after being selected number four overall in the first round by the Nashville Predators during the 2013 NHL Draft.]

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Marc Serota // Getty Images

2014: Michael Sam enters the NFL

Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team, when the St. Louis Rams selected him in the seventh round of the NFL Draft. Sam, however, never played a snap in a regular season NFL game. Sam now regularly shares his experiences in speaking engagements on college campuses.

[Pictured: Michael Sam of the St. Louis Rams reacts during pregame workouts before his team met the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on August 28, 2014.]

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Al Bello // Getty Images

2015: Floyd Mayweather Jr. stops Manny Pacquiao

In a fight years in the making, Floyd Mayweather Jr. defeated Manny Pacquiao. Both fighters were long-considered the best welterweights in the world, and pound-for-pound elites. With the win, Mayweather Jr.’s record was 48-0.

[Pictured: Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao exchange punches during their welterweight unification championship.]

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Thearon W. Henderson // Getty Images

2016: Colin Kaepernick kneels for justice

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem before preseason games to protest the mistreatment of minorities in America. After the 2016 season, Kaepernick was out of the league, with some believing he had been blackballed for his actions. While Kaepernick has not taken an NFL snap since 2016, his message continues to reach the masses.

[Pictured: Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem.]

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Clive Brunskill // Getty Images

2017: Serena Williams passes Steffi Graf

In winning the 2017 Australian Open, Serena Williams passed Steffi Graf for the most Grand Slam titles in the Open Era with 23. Earlier this year, Williams won her 73rd overall tennis tournament.

[Pictured: Serena Williams poses with the Daphne Akhurst Trophy after winning the Women's Singles Final against Venus Williams at the 2017 Australian Open.]

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Julian Finney // Getty Images

2018: Naomi Osaka makes a statement across two continents

Naomi Osaka defeated Serena Williams to win the 2018 U.S. Open and capture her first Grand Slam title. Osaka is half-Haitian and half-Japanese, and resides in the U.S. The win resonated in North America and Asia, where Osaka’s popularity shined a spotlight on the lives of mixed-race Japanese.

[Pictured: Naomi Osaka of Japan poses with the championship trophy after winning the Women's Singles finals match.]

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Andrew Redington // Getty Images

2019: Tiger, Serena, and LeBron cap the decade

Three of American sports’ biggest names were among 2019’s brightest stars. Tiger Woods won the Masters, 11 years after his last major win. Meanwhile, LeBron James and Serena Williams were named the AP’s athletes of the decade.

[Pictured: Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after sinking his putt to win during the final round of the Masters.]

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