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Best of the Best

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They came in all forms. Young and old, rookie and veteran, tall and tiny. Some burnished their legacies, others offered tantalizing glimpses of what lies ahead. They were stunning on the field and inspiring off it. THEIR ACCOMPLISHMENTS HELPED MAKE 2017 A MOST REMARKABLE YEAR IN SPORTS

NFL

TOM BRADY

AT 40, deep into his 18th NFL season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is destroying more than just defenses. He's climbing the lists of all-time leaders, bolstering the argument that he's the greatest football player ever and changing the paradigm for older athletes across all sports.

It's not enough, apparently, that through Week 13, Brady ranks fourth in passing yards (65,956) and third in touchdowns (482), or that he has won five Super Bowls and four Super Bowl MVPs. He won both the championship and the award again last February, after an epic comeback triumph over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI—and then he told the world he wanted to play until he was 45, at least.

He seems to mean it. Brady is the only non-punter or -kicker over 40 playing in the NFL. The next-oldest offensive starter is 38-year-old Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and Vikings cornerback Terence Newman is 39. And yet Brady leads the NFL in passing yards (3,374) and passer rating (111.7), while throwing 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions. That's what 40 looks like. For Brady, anyway. He's a league MVP candidate yet again.

It's harder and harder to argue that Brady isn't the best quarterback of all time. He has won more championships than the men above him on the all-time lists—Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Brees—and he may pass them anyway in the years ahead. Then there's Joe Montana, Brady's idol, the 49ers legend and a QB who's still considered the best ever by some. Brady has already won nine more playoff games than Montana, while throwing for 209 more touchdowns and 24,399 more yards. That's no longer a debate. Brady has become Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky—the unassailable GOAT.

Imagine his numbers after the 2022 season, when he's won, say, eight Super Bowls and passed for more than 80,000 yards. Injury, age, a freak accident—there's much that can still go wrong. Regardless, Brady is the NFL's top performer, now and forever.

—Greg Bishop

NBA

RUSSELL WESTBROOK

THE LEGEND of Russell Westbrook will live on for decades. In 2016--17 the Thunder point guard averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961--62 to average a triple double for the season. What started as one of the most competitive MVP races of the past 20 years ended with his winning easily, beating the Rockets' James Harden by a significant margin. With each eye-popping box score, each mind-boggling fourth quarter, he made it impossible to vote for anyone else.

The MVP award doesn't mean Westbrook's performance was without flaws. His usage rate—a metric that tracks the percentage of a team's plays used by an individual player—was 41.65%, the highest in NBA history, inciting many debates about the wisdom of focusing a team game on one person.

Critics were bolstered in Oklahoma City's first-round series against Houston. The Rockets had superior balance and a more efficient player in Harden. In the final game of the 4--1 series loss, Westbrook took a career-high 18 three-pointers and made just five. He went down shooting, literally.

Maybe that's part of the Westbrook legend. When his 2016--17 season is discussed years from now, it could be dissected as both a memorable performance and a cautionary tale—the year Icarus won MVP.

But obsessing over what went wrong misses the point. It's better to remember a game on a Wednesday in late March against the Magic, who built a 21-point lead in the second half. It looked like the sort of halfhearted regular-season matchup that NBA fans have been conditioned to ignore. Then Westbrook went to work.

He exploded for 19 points in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter, including a full sprint into a 31-foot game-tying three to force overtime. He won the game in OT—of course—finishing with 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists. That was Westbrook in 2017. Great, crazy, unsustainable, unforgettable.

—Andrew Sharp

NHL

SIDNEY CROSBY

HERE WE are again. How can anyone argue otherwise? With all due respect to Connor McDavid's 100-point MVP season for Edmonton and the playoff heroism of Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson, who tugged his team into the Eastern Conference finals while nursing four torn tendons in his left foot, 30-year-old Sidney Crosby still wears the icy crown. All hail the emperor Penguin.

Last June, Crosby steered Pittsburgh to its second straight Stanley Cup victory, the NHL's first repeat run in two decades. During the regular season the Penguins' captain scored a league-leading 44 goals, his most since 2009--10, and finished second behind McDavid in Hart Trophy voting. Crosby was a steady postseason force as well, with at least six points in all four rounds, and he added three assists in a pivotal Game 5 win over Nashville in the Cup finals. Teammate Evgeni Malkin barely eclipsed him (28 points to 27) for the playoff scoring lead, but Crosby nonetheless earned a second straight Conn Smythe Trophy.

Hours after the Penguins clinched the Cup, in Game 6, Crosby was the last player to exit the visiting dressing room at Bridgestone Arena, still wired from the champagne-drenched celebration. On the walk to the bus, bound for an after-party at the team's downtown hotel, he paused to sign autographs for two fans.

"See you here next year?" one asked.

"Sounds good, man," Crosby replied.

No team has gone back-to-back-to-back since the Islanders in the early 1980s, but the Penguins have the best player in hockey. Why not shoot for one more?

—Alex Prewitt

MLB

AARON JUDGE

AMERICA'S PASTIME seemed near crisis. "Nowadays the true baseball hero, the player big enough to catch the fancy of fans and advertisers outside his own backyard, is rarer than a spotted owl," SPORTS ILLUSTRATED proclaimed in a story detailing the search for a star to help save the game.

That article ran in May 1993—two years before Derek Jeter's major league debut—but that observation could have been made again last year. Jeter had retired after the 2014 season, and in an era of endless entertainment options, who was big enough to rekindle America's love for baseball?

At 6'7", 282-pounds, Yankees rightfielder Aaron Judge fit the bill. His unprecedented 2017 season made him the unanimous choice as AL Rookie of the Year and nearly earned him the MVP, too. (He fell 126 points short of José Altuve's total.) The 52 home runs he hit traveled more than four miles. The 25-year-old flashed his gap-toothed grin on The Tonight Show and glowered on the covers of SI and the MLB: The Show video game. He will star in a series of ads for Pepsi. He got 10 write-in votes for mayor of New York City.

His explosive success came as a surprise even to Judge, who refers daily to a note on his iPhone: .179. That was his batting average in 2016, when he was first called up to the majors and struck out 44.2% of the time. He returned to New York City from his tiny hometown of Linden, Calif., for three days over the winter to work with hitting coach Alan Cockrell on his approach at the plate. The sessions paid off. The final numbers—1.049 OPS, 8.1 wins above replacement, six of the 10 hardest-hit balls of the season—fail to capture the sheer delight he brought not just to the legion of berobed admirers who packed into the Judge's Chambers at Yankee Stadium but also to fans all over the country. all rise, the jumbotron implored periodically, and so we did.

—Stephanie Apstein

HOPE AWARD

CARLOS BELTRAN

AS HIS Delta flight descended toward San Juan last month, Carlos Beltrán stared out the window at two distinctly different swaths of blue. There was the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the sea of tarps covering the countless houses that had lost their roofs. He knew, of course, of the damage Puerto Rico had sustained in Hurricane Maria, but seeing it for himself was stunning.

The trip was Beltrán's first to his homeland since the storm hit on Sept. 20. In the intervening two months he had been busy helping to buoy spirits in another area that had been recently devastated by a hurricane: Houston, where his Astros delivered their first World Series two months after Harvey struck. But his heart had been in Puerto Rico. "I went to the ballpark like a zombie," he says of those first few days. "I was there, but I was not there."

He couldn't sleep. He could barely eat. He just waited, bleary-eyed, for his phone to ring with news of his family. In the meantime he and his wife, Jessica, who is also from Carlos's hometown of Manatí, set up a CrowdRise page to collect funds for their charity, Fundación Carlos Beltrán, and contributed $1 million of their own money. He had been horrified by what he saw on TV: The Category 5 hurricane had left nearly all of the 3.4 million residents without electricity and almost half without water. The death toll is believed to be greater than 1,000.

After six days without any news, his brother, Wilfredo, called, and the normally stoic Beltrán burst into tears. His family was O.K. Wilfredo told him of waiting more than 24 hours in line for gas and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in his car. He made it to the grocery store, only to find the shelves empty. Carlos thought of the postgame spreads that awaited him, his comfortable home and the lavish hotel accommodations on the road. He told Jessica, "We have to do more."

For following through on that pledge, Beltrán is the winner of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's inaugural Hope Award, which recognizes athletes who deliver that precious commodity to the place they call home. A few days after his conversation with Jessica, he spoke with Astros owner Jim Crane, a shipping magnate. "What do you need?" Crane asked. "A plane," Beltrán said. Crane chartered three, to take supplies down and then bring people back. Beltrán announced the trip on his personal Facebook page and soon filled the return flights—his family, Dodgers utilityman Enrique Hernández's family, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor's family. Beltrán also called around to hospitals and coordinated transportation to the mainland for cancer patients who needed to continue their treatments. He used the money raised by his foundation—$500,000 plus the $1 million he donated—to buy food and water. He tries to publicize his work, in an attempt to remind the news-weary mainland American public that their countrymen in Puerto Rico still need their attention.

Many other Puerto Rican athletes have also pitched in with their own relief efforts on the island: Olympic tennis champion Monica Puig has raised more than $150,000 and has made several trips to her native San Juan to hand out supplies. Mavericks guard J.J. Barea has raised more than $250,000 and, just days after the storm hit, took the team plane to the island with provisions. And Hernández, who has raised nearly $125,000, added another $2 million by hitting a third home run in Game 5 of the NLCS; Dodgers ownership had pledged the money after he hit his second.

Beltrán has partnered with the National Association of Christian Churches, a nonprofit disaster relief organization that has helped to distribute additional supplies to 22 towns. Beltrán has made several of the deliveries himself. He is a hero in Puerto Rico, so he often finds himself surrounded by fans as he carries boxes down streets where close to 40% of people still lack electricity. They tell him what an inspiration he is, but he derives strength from them. "You talk to people without a roof, without power, and you say, 'How are you doing?'" he says. "And they say, 'We're gonna be O.K.'"

He retired last month at 40 after a 20-year career as an outfielder. He was a nine-time All-Star, and he may well enter the Hall of Fame someday. But in the meantime he has work to do: Beltrán wants his foundation to rebuild 200 homes, to transform his island's skyline back to rows of roofs.

—S.A.

SPORTSKID OF THE YEAR AWARD

BUNCHIE YOUNG

THE PLAYS, which have made the 11-year-old a YouTube sensation, all start the same way. A scrum of young football players converge on the ballcarrier. And then, out of nowhere, a pint-sized blur emerges, exploding past defenders and making his way to the end zone. It's Maxwell (Bunchie) Young, zooming past opponents as if he's in a race car.

It's that blinding speed that clues people into Bunchie. (One of his highlight reels has been viewed more than three million times.) He scored 30 touchdowns in 2016 and 31 this year. He's also a track star. His 2016 time in the 100-meter dash was 12.45 seconds, the top AAU time in his age group, and he runs the 200 in 26.14. That elite speed has already caught the interest of college recruiters. Illinois offered Bunchie a football scholarship—once he graduates from high school.

But his athletic ability is not what defines Bunchie. More than just a dynamic football player and a supersonic sprinter, he's a leader at school and at church, a role model for other kids, and he has an outsized personality to match his big-time talent. It's that winning combination that makes him the 2017 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED KIDS SportsKid of the Year.

At the Kipp Scholar Academy in Los Angeles, Bunchie was elected to serve on the student council. "It's just like how the presidency does it!" says Bunchie, who also worked on posters to get students excited about a sock drive for the homeless. In September he was named student of the month.

Bunchie's goals are ambitious. He wants to make the NFL, of course—but not before taking a quick detour to win gold at the Olympics in track and field. ("For a year, then go back to football," he says.) Bunchie has loved his time on the student council so much that after his football days he wants to become a mayor. "I don't want to sit on my butt all day and be retired," he says. He'd also like to write a book and start a cancer charity.

So you might see him on the track at the 2028 Olympics in his hometown of Los Angeles. You might see him at city hall in the mayor's office. (He already has an invite from Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti.) You might see him at a book signing or a fund-raiser. Wherever he ends up, make sure to pay attention. If you blink, you might miss him.

—Jeremy Fuchs

"After six days without any news, his brother, Wilfredo, called, and THE NORMALLY STOIC BELTRÁN BURST INTO TEARS. His family was O.K.