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Leap Day 2024: Kobe Bryant, Wayne Gretzky among star athletes involved in biggest sports moments on Feb. 29

Leap Day is a fun quirk in the calendar that happens every four years, and while it doesn’t come around often, there have been some notable sports moments that happened on Feb. 29. In celebration of this Leap Day 2024, let’s look back at the best of sports on this day throughout the years.

For whatever reason, NHL legends seem to love Leap Day. Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Ray Bourque all created significant moments on Feb. 29. Howe and Bourque etched their names in the history books, and Gretzky made a good impression with a new team.

On the hardwood, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and the Los Angeles Lakers went toe-to-toe in a heavyweight bout with Scottie Pippen’s Portland Trail Blazers in 2000. The Ole Miss women’s basketball program also made headlines on this day in 1992.

Other legendary figures like Hank Aaron and Richard Petty made headlines on Leap Day, so let’s not waste anymore time on looking back at what this unique day has given to sports fans.

1972: Hank Aaron signs first $200,000 contract

In February 1972, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron got a substantial raise from the Atlanta Braves when he became the first player in MLB history to sign a contract worth $200,000 per year. That was a notable upgrade from the $125,000 he made in the years leading up to that.

By that point in his career, Aaron had already spent 17 seasons in the league and hit 639 home runs. After signing that contract, Aaron hit a combined 74 home runs and tallied 173 RBI over the next two seasons. The Braves traded Aaron to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1974, and he finished his career making $225,000 per season there.

Almost 52 years after Aaron got that $200,000 contract, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed superstar Shohei Ohtani to a 10-year contract worth $700 million. How times have changed in professional sports.

1976: Richard Petty wins Carolina 500

On Leap Day in 1976, the legendary Richard Petty picked up his 178th career win at the age of 38. Petty beat out Darrell Waltrip (second) and Cale Yarborough (third) to pick up the victory.

Petty pretty well dominated a race that wound up being a war of attrition. He led 362 of the 492 laps, with Yaborough running first in 25 of them. Bobby Allison did lead 91 laps, but he became one of 17 drivers not to finish the race due to either a crash or engine problems.

After this Carolina 500 win, Petty added 22 more wins to finish his NASCAR career with 200 victories, which is still the all-time record by a wide margin. David Pearson has the second most wins with 105, and Jeff Gordon is third with 93.

1980: Gordie Howe scores 800th NHL goal

When the Hartford Whalers hosted the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 29, 1980, Gordie Howe became the first player in NHL history to score 800 goals. Howe beat Blues goaltender Mike Liut early in the third period to reach the milestone, and it was made more impressive by the fact that Howe was 51 years old at the time.

Howe also got to celebrate the moment with his son, Mark, who was also on the Whalers’ roster at the time. The 1979-80 season was Howe’s last in the NHL, and he scored just one more goal that year before retiring with 801 career tallies.

That stood as the all-time record for just 14 years, when Wayne Gretzky buried his 802nd career goal on March 23, 1994. On Dec. 13, 2022, Alex Ovechkin scored a hat trick against the Chicago Blackhawks to become the third member of the 800-goal club. He passed Howe with his 802nd goal just 10 days later.

1988: Nets hire Willis Reed to be next head coach

The 1987-88 season was a long one for the then New Jersey Nets. They went 19-63 and played under three head coaches, the last of whom was Hall of Fame player Willis Reed. After cycling through Dave Wohl and Bob MacKinnon, the Nets announced Reed as their new head coach on Leap Day in 1988.

Reed went 7-21 to close out the 1978-88 season, and he didn’t fare much better in his first full season on the job. The Nets went 26-56 under Reed in 1988-89, and he was fired after that season. He left New Jersey with a record of 33-77.

It was a tough tenure for Reed, but at least he had a couple NBA titles and an MVP award to offer him some comfort at home.

1992: Ole Miss women’s basketball beats Vanderbilt for first SEC title

In the years leading up to the 1991-92 season, Ole Miss had come close to capturing its first regular-season SEC championship. Finally, with a 59-57 win over Vanderbilt on Leap Day, the Rebels sealed an 11-0 conference record and finished ahead of the second-place Tennessee Lady Vols.

Ole Miss wasn’t able to win the SEC Tournament, but it did go on a run in the 1992 NCAA Tournament. The Rebels entered March Madness as a No. 2 seed, and they took down Southern Illinois and Penn State in the first two rounds before falling to Southwest Missouri State in the Sweet 16

1992: Ray Bourque hits 1,000 career points

It’s not often an NHL defenseman hits 1,000 career points, but that is what Hall of Famer Ray Bourque did on this day in 1992. He had a goal and two assists to become the third defenseman to hit the 1,000-point mark in a 5-5 tie against the Washington Capitals.

It took Bourque just 13 seasons to get his 1,000th point, which is a number that even most forwards fail to hit. Bourque played 10 more seasons at the NHL level, and he still holds the record for most points by a defenseman with 1,579. That is an absurd number, and it’s hard to see anyone breaking that record in the near future.

1996: Wayne Gretzky scores goal in debut with Blues

The St. Louis Blues really pushed their chips into the middle of the table in 1996 when they acquired The Great One from the Los Angeles Kings ahead of the NHL trade deadline. In his debut with the Blues, Gretzky delivered on the scoresheet.

It took just 16:24 for Gretzky to get on the board with his new team, scoring on Vancouver Canucks goalie Kirk McLean on a goal assisted by Stephane Matteau and Brett Hull. That game ended in a 2-2 tie, and Gretzky wound up with eight regular-season goals in his brief tenure with St. Louis.

In the 1996 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blues got past the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round before falling to the Detroit Red Wings in seven games in the second round.

2000: Lakers beat Trail Blazers for 12th straight win

The NBA was treated to a matchup between two red-hot teams on Leap Day in 2000. The Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers were both riding 11-game winning streaks when they met at Rose Garden Arena.

It was a tightly-contested game, but the Lakers pulled out a 90-87 victory, thanks to a combined 45 points from the duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Lakers hit some key free throws in the final minute to hold off Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis and the rest of the Trail Blazers.

The Lakers went on to win seven more games before their winning streak ended at 19 games, and they went on to defeat that very same Trail Blazers team in the Western Conference Finals before capturing an NBA championship.

Bonus: Panthers try to draft Alex Ovechkin arguing Leap Days made him eligible

OK, so this didn’t actually happen on Leap Day, but that quirky extra day played a central role in one of the best NHL Draft stories ever. On the second day of the 2003 NHL Draft in Nashville, then Florida Panthers general manager Rick Dudley argued that Alex Ovechkin was old enough to be eligible … if you ignored Leap Days.

In 2003, Ovechkin missed the Sept. 15 draft eligibility cutoff by just two days. He was born on Sept. 17, 1985. In the ninth-round of that draft, Dudley selected Ovechkin, arguing that he would already be 18 years old if not for those pesky Leap Days.

The NHL didn’t go for that argument, and they rejected the Panthers’ selection. Florida wound up choosing Tanner Glass instead. He was no Ovechkin, but Glass did play in 527 NHL games. Not bad for a ninth-round consolation prize.

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