The 7 Most Important Athletes of 2022

Messi finally did it. Photo: Niviere David/ABACAPRESS.COM/Shutterstock

It’s been an action-packed sports year, and one that felt refreshingly normal-ish after two years of disarray and turmoil. But as usual, the world’s biggest athletes didn’t only draw attention for what they did on the field. In the first of two pieces wrapping up the sports year — we’ll look at the ten biggest stories later this week — here are the most important sports figures of 2022. Some were crowned as champions, some said good-bye, and some were at the center of every conversation whether they wanted to be or not.

Stephen Curry

Heading into 2022, Curry had already fundamentally changed the way basketball is played (I’m pretty sure no one really cared who held the record for three-pointers before he came along). This year, he did something maybe even more unlikely: He won his fourth NBA championship, perhaps his most impressive of all. This one came without Kevin Durant and was just two seasons removed from the Warriors going 15-50. (Curry was hurt that season.) An argument could be made that Curry — not LeBron James, not Kevin Durant, not even Kobe Bryant — is the most truly popular player in the NBA since Jordan. Almost everyone likes him, and almost no one despises him. He’s the guy your kids want to be on the playground and the one all your non–sports fans still know and cheer for. This may have been his signature year. And even Holey Moley is good!

Brittney Griner

If you weren’t familiar with Griner before February 2022, that’s your loss. Griner was an eight-time All-Star WNBA player, a two-time scoring champion, a member of the WNBA’s all-time team, and the captain of a gold-medal-winning Olympic team. But when she was detained in a Moscow airport for allegedly having hashish oil in her bag — mere weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine and set into motion a sociopolitical crisis we’re still knee-deep in today — she became a global symbol. Griner’s arrest and detention shed light on a lot of unsavory things: Russia’s cold, calculated use of a star athlete as bargaining chip; the practice of WNBA players having to play overseas to make a living; and the willingness of many Americans (a minority but certainly more than you would have ever thought) to side against the politically active Black lesbian sports star and with, uh, Vladimir Putin. Griner might be the best women’s-basketball player on the planet, and she’s now definitely the most famous. Now that she’s home, she has thankfully committed to playing this season.

Kyrie Irving

It is fair to say Irving had a full year! On January 5, he played his first game of the season after being banned by the Nets over his unvaccinated status. Two months later, New York City mayor Eric Adams lifted the vaccine mandate for indoor activities but not for Irving; a month after that, following some backdoor meetings with the Nets, Adams let Irving play. A month after that, Irving flipped off Celtics fans during the playoffs. The Nets spent most of the off-season trying to trade him — as well as Durant, who demanded a trade himself — but were ultimately forced to keep him. Irving then promoted an antisemitic film on Twitter, which led to another suspension. For a while, you legitimately wondered whether Irving would ever play basketball again, particularly when he refused to back down after the video. But then he returned and reminded the Nets why they wanted him in the first place. Over the weekend, Irving hit a buzzer-beater for a team that’s actually starting to look good again. Now that Irving is playing well for a winning team, expect him to blow it all up again in 2023.

Aaron Judge

Just to be as clear as possible, the home-run champion is still Barry Bonds and likely always will be. That fact should not diminish how transcendent Judge was in 2022. He hit 62 homers (an American League record, at least) and led a deeply flawed Yankees team that was built entirely around him much further into the playoffs than it probably deserved. He is the next “true Yankee,” the first since Jeter. And unlike most others who have earned that distinction, he’s popular pretty much everywhere. The huge contract he signed with the team in the off-season may end up being an overpay, but the Yankees really had no other choice, and, besides, you can’t argue he hasn’t earned it. Is it possible he’s now bigger than the franchise he plays for?

Lionel Messi

The “greatest soccer player of all time” debate has being raging so long and so furiously that it almost diminishes Messi to even have it. But it feels as if, this year, we got a definitive answer. Messi had achieved every honor a player could possibly dream of except for the biggest trophy of them all. So he just went out and propelled Argentina to a World Cup in his final go-around. There is no better possible way to cap a career. Even the greatest career.

Dawn Staley

Is Staley the most underappreciated basketball coach on the planet? She took her first bench job in 2002, coaching the Temple Owls women’s team when she was still a WNBA All-Star player. She quickly reached 100 wins faster than any other women’s coach, then moved to South Carolina, where she won two National Championships including a truly dominant one in 2022 in which her Gamecocks smashed the long-hated Geno Auriemma and his Connecticut Huskies. She did that just after she won a gold medal coaching the women’s Olympic team (including Griner) in Tokyo to add to the three she won as a player. She also has called out LeBron James, canceled games because of racist fan behavior, and says she wants to be a coach in the NBA, where she thinks she would be “highly successful.” Would you doubt her at this point?

Serena Williams

All respect to Roger Federer, another all-time great who retired this year, but there’s an argument that the most stirring sports event of the year — until the World Cup anyway — was Serena’s extended good-bye at the U.S. Open. She has been a part of our lives for so long it’s difficult to imagine watching sports without her, which is why witnessing her final run in Flushing was so inspiring and moving: It reminded us of what we had, what we lost, and all the great memories that remain.

The Seven Most Important Athletes of 2022