ESPN.com's Top Moments 1995-2015

Rob Tringali for ESPN

As part of ESPN.com's continuing 20th anniversary celebration, we highlight some of the top teams, athletes and moments that characterized sports from 1995-2015.

On Monday, we recognized teams that collected NBA championships, NCAA titles, Olympic gold medals, Stanley Cups and a myriad of other accolades over the past two decades. Tuesday we highlighted athletes that rose above and are forever imprinted in the consciousness of the fan.

And finally, we look at moments of the last 20 years. Fans can easily recollect Brandi Chastain's World Cup celebration, or Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield's ear, or Michael Jordan's flu game. But what tops the list?

Our staff chose the following touchstone moments as the best of the best. The story of each moment is told through the lens of the experts, writers and voices who witnessed them and coaches and athletes who participated.

20. 2001: D-backs rally in 9th to beat Yankees in World Series Game 7

This is the story of a baseball game that made hearts pound.

That made a 42-year-old baseball player pray.

That turned a 6-foot-10 starting pitcher into the world's tallest closer.

That somehow ended with the team that always wins trudging off the field while somebody else celebrated.

This is the story of a World Series that reminded the planet why there is no better sport on earth.

That made the impossible seem possible.

That left the poets and historians searching for ways to digest where it fit into the fabric of the great sporting events we have witnessed in a lifetime.

This was a game, this was a World Series that explained why they play and why we watch.

"This was a World Series that had it all," said Mark Grace, after his team with the purple pinstripes, the Arizona Diamondbacks, had knocked off the New York Yankees 3-2 in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. "So I don't think it surprised anybody that the seventh game of this World Series ended crazy. It didn't end normal because it couldn't end normal. I don't think anybody expected it to."

-- ESPN.com senior baseball writer Jayson Stark

19. 2001: Piazza's HR in first Mets home game after the 9/11 attacks

It just kept going.

Soaring off into the New York night. A baseball carrying an entire city's emotional baggage.

There's no telling how far Mike Piazza's eighth-inning game-winning home run against the Braves at Shea Stadium flew on Friday ... because how do you measure the healing power of a swing.

More than 400 feet? How do you quantify what sport truly means to a society.

For whatever period of time -- the instant when bat met ball, the duration of the ball's flight, or the entire frenzied celebration as the ball landed beyond the fence and Piazza glided around the bases -- the 41,325 fans in attendance and the millions of other New Yorkers who saw it on TV could forget.

Forget the fear, the pain, the suffering, the death, the destruction.

A moment, maybe a fraction of a second, maybe a full minute, of pure, mindless joy.

-- "SportsCenter" anchor John Anderson

18. 2015: Malcolm Butler's INT helps Pats thwart Seahawks' repeat

As the final seconds ticked off, the Patriots were in their goal-line defense when his coaches called for goal-line corner 3, then shouted, "Malcolm, GO!" He knew this play. In practice three days earlier, Patriots receiver Josh Boyce had beaten Butler on a goal-line slant from backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Butler had mistakenly stepped back from the play and allowed too much separation.

Coach Bill Belichick chided Butler, "Seattle's going to run that play, Malcolm. Don't get beat on it."

Now just seconds were left in the Super Bowl, and as Butler sprinted onto the field, he said he was thinking, "We're in goal-line corner 3. Why 3 corner on the goal line when they have Marshawn Lynch?"

"In my head," Butler said, "I'm going over the play from practice. I said to myself, 'If they run that play, I'm going to be there. If they run something else, I'm in trouble.'"

They ran the play. He jumped the route. He intercepted Russell Wilson's pass in one of the most dramatic plays in Super Bowl history.

-- ESPN.com columnist Jackie MacMullan

17. 1997: Baseball retires Jackie Robinson's No. 42

They came, by the tens of thousands, to honor one of history's greatest, most dignified and strong-minded individuals.

They filed in, one after another, to stage a tribute to a special, courageous man who endured a living nightmare, day in and day out, just so others like him could get a chance, an opportunity, to play the game that America so embraced.

Jackie Robinson. The name has an extraordinary sound, a special meaning to it. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. When you hear the name, you can feel the warmth of the man, and you can hear his soft, kind voice, and you can see his eyes of honesty and sincerity, because you've seen him and heard him on video, and you just know he's just the type of person you'd be proud to emulate.

-- ESPN.com contributor Rick Weinberg

16. 2006: Kobe Bryant scores 81 points against Toronto Raptors

Is 81 enough?

Eighty-One, people.

I'd say so. I'd say all those pre-Christmas wails about Kobe Bryant ripping us off by hanging 62 points on the Dallas Mavericks in three quarters and then sitting out the fourth can suddenly be recalled with a chuckle.

Turns out Kobe's Dec. 20 detonation was not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for No. 8 to make a run at 80-something points. No one was cheated after all.

Maybe Kobe and his pal Phil Jackson, when they reached that joint decision to stop abusing the Mavs because the Lakers were up by 34, knew they wouldn't have to wait long for another chance at it during an up-for-grabs game.

Why not? You can believe anything on a night like this...

Sunday will be remembered as the best day in the NBA in a long, long time. There was a nationally televised buzzer-beater in Minnesota from Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala to cap a 19-point comeback in the afternoon ... and then Seattle's Ray Allen beating Phoenix with a way-out buzzer bomb at the horn of overtime No. 2 in a 152-149 throwback thriller ... and then simply the greatest individual performance ever recorded: Bryant's 81 points in a 122-104 come-from-behind victory over the Toronto Raptors.

Yes. Better than Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point night.

-- ESPN.com NBA senior writer Marc Stein

15. 2006: Vince Young leads Texas to comeback over USC

Sitting on the stage with [coach Mack] Brown were senior All-American safety Michael Huff; tight end David Thomas, who caught 10 passes, six of them for first downs; and, of course, [George W.] Bush's latest successor as the governor of Texas, Vince Young.

As Brown and the players posed with the four different No. 1 trophies, the junior quarterback couldn't help himself. Young ruffled Thomas' hair and kept playing with the back of Huff's head. Like the USC defense on Wednesday night, Young's teammates couldn't stop him, either.

Young's 267 yards passing and 200 yards rushing will be talked about for as long as Texas fans flash the Hook 'Em sign. He reveled in the joy he saw in his teammates after he scored the winning touchdown from 8 yards out with 19 seconds to play.

"All I do is go out there and play for my teammates and do whatever it takes to get the W," Young said. "Just to see them guys' eyes, their emotion, that's a memorable moment for me that I'll remember for the rest of my life."

-- ESPN.com senior writer Ivan Maisel

14. 1996: Muhammad Ali lights the flame at the Atlanta Olympics

Unfortunately, all the punches he suffered had taken an effect. In 1984, he learned he had Parkinson's disease, a neurological syndrome characterized by tremors, rigidity of muscles, and slowness of speech and movement. While the disease has left him a shadow of his former self, he still attempts to spread goodwill. Only now he does it with smiling eyes rather than his Louisville Lip.

At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Ali again stood alone in the spotlight. With the world watching, his hands trembling, he steadied them to light the flaming cauldron to signal the start of the Games. Tears were shed by many as the man whose beliefs had once divided a nation was now a unifying -- and beloved -- force.

-- ESPN.com contributor Larry Schwartz

13. 1998: Mark McGwire hits home run No. 62

When he opened 1998 by hitting four homers in four games, there was talk -- from the media and fans, but not from McGwire -- about breaking [Roger] Maris' record.

When he hit his 50th on Aug. 20, he had accomplished something that not even Ruth had -- three consecutive 50-homer seasons.

On Sept. 8, against the Cubs' Steve Traschel, McGwire hit No. 62, a laser over the left-field fence. At 341 feet, it was his shortest homer of the year. Crossing the plate, he hugged [his son] Matthew, the Cardinals' bat boy...

"Babe Ruth?" McGwire said. "That's crazy. People bringing me up with Babe Ruth. It still blows me away."

-- ESPN.com contributor Larry Schwartz

12. 1996: Kerri Strug fights off pain, helps U.S. win gold

Her leg feels like it's on fire. She has less than a minute to decide whether to jump again. The U.S. has a big lead over Russia. With her coaches urging her on, the 18-year-old Strug gets ready for one more vault despite the pain in her leg.

"I could feel the gold slipping away," she says later. "I felt like I had to do it. I felt I owed it to everyone." Anesthetized by adrenaline and determination, Strug lands her second vault with her teeth clenched and eyes watering. She holds her feet in place long enough to appease the judges, then crumples to her knees and calls for help.

Her 9.712 clinches the gold medal for the U.S. as it wipes out the team's low score (Dominique Moceanu's 9.2). The U.S. wins by 0.821, meaning Strug could have forgone her second vault and the Americans still would have won on the strength of Moceanu's mark.

Strug is carried to the victory stand by her coach, Bela Karolyi, and she shares in the glory of the U.S. winning its first team gymnastics medal. Then she is taken to the hospital.

-- ESPN.com contributor Larry Schwartz

11. 1995: Reggie Miller scores eight points in 8.9 seconds

I had the pleasure of being on the court when Reggie scored his eight points in 8.9 seconds against the New York Knicks in the 1995 playoffs, and it was a sight to behold.

In the huddle before he proceeded to take over the game and truly cement his legacy, he told us all we needed was a couple of 3s and a steal. He told us that we were going to win the game even though we were down 105-99 and that we just needed to knock down a shot.

I'm not going to lie. I thought it was nice of him to say those things, but I didn't see there being a shot of it actually happening.

Then he went out and did it.

It was mind-blowing, and I didn't and I don't think anyone on our team really truly appreciated it immediately after the game because we were all still in shock. Honestly, I'm still in shock that we came out with a win in that game, but he wasn't surprised at all. He knew that he had done the work to put himself in the position to win, and that's what he did.

-- NBA analyst and former player Mark Jackson

10. 1997: Jordan battles flu, makes Jazz sick

This one stands out because some of the opponents were there, some of the factors that created the great games in memory for him were about overcoming obstacles to win against the odds and bringing it out of the jaws of defeat. This was about fatigue. This was about having to go somewhere extra to get the reserve or resolve to find a way to win this game. And then everything worked in his favor. He had his opportunity to win it at the end of the ballgame with this 3-point shot.

-- Bulls coach Phil Jackson

9. 1997: Tyson bites Holyfield's ear in rematch

What can be said about this fight that hasn't been said already? Mike Tyson's second reign as heavyweight champ had ended shockingly when Evander Holyfield stopped him in the 11th round the previous November. Tyson then lost both completed rounds of the rematch, after which he came out for the third without his mouthpiece and took a bite out of Holyfield's right ear when the two were in a clinch. Bedlam ensued: Holyfield leaped away in pain, Tyson shoved Holyfield in the back, and referee Mills Lane docked Tyson two points. When battle resumed, Tyson promptly bit Holyfield on the other ear, and Lane disqualified him. Still one of the most infamous fights in boxing history and, sadly, the action that arguably most defines Tyson's in-ring career.

-- ESPN.com boxing writer Kieran Mulvaney

8. 2003: Cubs' NLCS run turns when fan interferes with foul ball

There are few words to describe how awful I feel and what I have experienced within these last 24 hours.

I've been a Cub fan all my life and fully understand the relationship between my actions and the outcome of the game. I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play.

-- Cubs fan Steve Bartman

7. 2008: Giants upset previously undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl

Perfection has too many moving parts. Too much luck required. No, this was it for them.

The Patriots' season is history, but not historic. They didn't choke, but they definitely suffered from a lack of oxygen. Pinching the air tube shut was a New York Giants team with just enough nerve, just enough composure to leave this Jiffy Pop-looking stadium with a 17-14 win and the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Anybody who tells you this was the greatest Super Bowl upset of all time has it wrong. But it was the greatest missed opportunity in NFL history.

-- ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski

6. 2000: Tiger Woods wins three majors in one season

At 24, Woods is mature beyond his years. His ability to outline a game plan and follow it is unmatched. On Sunday, he arrived at the 16th hole [of the U.S. Open] with a 13-shot lead. An errant drive was followed by a wayward approach shot. His chip rolled some 12 feet past the cup. The screws tightened. The putt rolled in. Woods glared as if he had just preserved a 1-shot lead. Afterward, he said, "I didn't want to make a bogey all day." Mission accomplished.

Nick Faldo said on Saturday that the game of golf had changed, that Woods had rewritten the way he is teaching his 11-year-old son to play.

This is Nick Faldo, the game's most dominant player during the late '80s and early '90s, admitting the notion of "low and slow" has been replaced by a grip-it-and-rip-it, swing-as-hard-as-you-want mentality. When his kid asks him what he needs to do, Faldo responds with, "swing harder."

Now Woods has what he's always wanted, the U.S. Open trophy. And with one eye on history and the other on [Jack] Nicklaus, he heads to Scotland for the British Open, where bookmakers overseas may take him off the board because the odds would be ridiculous.

Think about it; you wouldn't want to bet against the guy.

-- "Baseball Tonight" host Karl Ravech

5. 1996-98: Michael Jordan and Bulls three-peat

No matter how confident you are as a coach, you really don't want to go into a seventh game on an opponent's court. We've never played a Game 7 in the Finals, and there was no reason to start now.

Michael hit a layup to make it 86-85. And then he came from the backside and stole the ball from [Karl] Malone. At that moment, I think we were of one mind. I was waving for him to go downcourt. I think he saw me out of the corner of his eye waving off a timeout. The flow was the right thing at the moment, so we didn't want to stop.

We spread the floor, and Michael waited until Bryon Russell reached for the ball, and then he went up for a jump shot near the free throw line. I was really surprised, because I thought he would take it to the hoop again because his legs were gone. I didn't know if he could do it, because he was so tired. But Michael always rises to the occasion. He cleared himself, and you can see in the video that he put extra stuff on the shot, and it was perfect.

We hugged at the end. Hard. I knew it was the end of a lot of things. "What an incredible finish," I said to Michael. "What a miraculous story."

-- Bulls coach Phil Jackson

4. 1999: Brandi Chastain's shootout goal wins Women's World Cup

It's still so vivid. You're completely drained at that point -- after an entire soccer game, in PKs [penalty kicks]. You're so exhausted and your adrenaline is so heightened that your senses are actually so acutely aware of every sensation -- the sound of the fans, the heat radiating from the ground, muscles tired, stiff and sore. I'll never forget any of that.

It was complete slow motion between my foot and the net. I remember watching the ball, seeing it spin with the logo and stitching -- I mean, it was that slow, almost on pause. And then it hit the net and the crowd erupted and it's back to real time and the team is running over piling on.

I mean, it was just what happened, exactly how it happened, as I was feeling it. It was spontaneous emotion. At a moment like that, your emotions completely take over and it's just raw reaction and feeling and sensation. You don't think, you just are. You're right there in it, and those feelings -- when they're that raw -- are never wrong. That's the honest truth of the emotion of the moment.

-- U.S. women's soccer team player Brandi Chastain

3. 2008: Michael Phelps nabs eight gold medals in Beijing Olympics

Grab some bench, Carl Lewis.

Turn in your leotard, Nadia Comaneci.

Thanks for the memories, Jesse Owens.

And see ya later, Mark Spitz. Here's a hankie. Now stop crying about nobody flying your smug self over here. History is unfolding just fine without you.

You all had a nice run as the greatest of Olympians, but it's over. You have been replaced on the throne by Michael Phelps. No disgrace being shoved off Mount Olympus by Poseidon in a Speedo.

Before diving into the Water Cube pool Wednesday morning, Phelps got a text message from a high school friend. It said, "Time to be the best ever."

The time was now. History was here. Phelps easily won the 10th and 11th gold medals of his career, the most in Olympic annals.

-- ESPN.com columnist Pat Forde

2. 1995: Cal Ripken breaks Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak

All Cal Ripken Jr. cared about was being in the lineup, for his team, for the fans, every day, every inning, no matter what the score. He never asked out of the lineup, no matter what, no matter how badly he was injured, no matter how much pain or fatigue he was experiencing.

From May 30, 1982, through Sept. 6, 1995, Ripken not only played in every game, he played in virtually every inning. He played in 19,163 of a possible 19,330 innings, a staggering 99.1 percent of the total innings. By 1995, Lou Gehrig's monumental consecutive game streak record of 2,130 that had stood since 1939 was finally within reach.

Ripken was celebrated everywhere he went that year, from Boston to Chicago to Oakland, for Gehrig's record held a special symbolic place in America. Until Ripken, no one had come within five years of Gehrig's mark. To illustrate the enormity of the feat, during Ripken's 2,130 game streak, 27 major league clubs started 522 different shortstops. From the time Ripken started his streak, 3,712 major leaguers were disabled; during the 1995 season alone, 340 major leaguers went on the disabled list from the start of the season until the day Ripken was braced to overtake Gehrig.

-- ESPN.com contributor Rick Weinberg

1. 2004: Red Sox rally from 0-3, beat Yankees to reach World Series

In hindsight, perhaps it was a mistake for the Yankees to raise a "Mission Accomplished" banner above their dugout after Game 3.

After more than 80 years of being stuffed into their lockers by the Yankees, after eight decades of receiving atomic wedgies, after generations of having sand kicked in their faces and their girlfriends stolen away -- and most importantly -- after completing the most extraordinary comeback in baseball history, the Boston Red Sox have finally overcome their hated nemesis to reach the World Series.

Grady Little, you can show your face in Boston again. Mike Torrez, you're forgiven. Don Zimmer, you're off the hook. Tex Hughson and Joe McCarthy, you don't have to worry about graffiti on your tombstones anymore.

As for you, Bill Buckner, well, you'll just have to wait and see whether the Red Sox can beat Houston or St. Louis before you can be absolved of your sin.

"Tonight is about winning the American League and going through the Yankees to do it," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said. "This is for all the great Red Sox teams and players that would have been in the World Series if it hadn't been for the Yankees. The 1949 team, 1978, 1999, last year.

"This is for all the fans who would have been able to go to the World Series if it hadn't been for the Yankees."

-- ESPN.com senior writer Jim Caple