We lost so many of them this year.
Maybe there are facts and figures that can dispute this. Every year brings loss, after all. Every year reminds us that time is undefeated, that youthful icons grow old, that the calendar is relentless. Maybe 2020 was no different than 2016 in that sense, or 1997, or 1972. It’s just hard to believe that right now.
On the very first day of the year came the sad news that David Stern, who sculpted and shaped the modern NBA every bit as much as Michelangelo did the Pieta, had succumbed to a brain hemorrhage, and a few hours later, Don Larsen, the Imperfect Yankee, lost a battle to esophagus cancer.
They were the first two names of a sad roster of sporting names who would leave us this year, and looking back a year later it was almost perfectly symbolic that they would be the harbingers. Both, in their own ways, were Everymen who spent plenty of their days as we spent ours, admiring the wonders and the wondrous possibilities of sports.
Stern, son of a Manhattan deli owner, had only a few months before his passing inducted his childhood hero, ex-Knick Carl Braun, into the Hall of Fame, an honor that filled him with the same kind of awe as it might any of us who have spent time as blue-seat denizens.
“I didn’t just root for Carl Braun,” Stern told me in September 2019. “I wanted to be Carl Braun.”
Larsen? He was an ordinary man who had one extraordinary day, and he enjoyed that moment in the October sun every bit as much as you would have, the way I would have, the way all of us in the Wiffle Ball dream brigade would have.
“Hell, yeah, I’m glad it happened to me,” he’d said once. “I think about it every day — and not just once a day. As long as they play baseball, they’ll remember the name ‘Don Larsen.’ That works for me.”
Before the month was out, sadly, we would start to lose the Rushmore names, so many of them, athletes who’d etched permanent places in our memories and our souls. Kobe Bryant and his daughter took an ill-fated helicopter ride in California on Jan. 26. Paul Hornung — the Golden Boy himself — would finally lose a long battle with dementia on Nov. 13, the fourth member of the fabled Packers dynasty to die in 2020, alongside Willie Wood, Willie Davis and Herb Adderley.
In New York, of course, there were the bookend deaths of two of the three greatest pitchers to ever ply their wares on the city’s mounds. Tom Seaver died of dementia and from complications of COVID-19 on Aug. 31 at age 75; Whitey Ford passed at 91 on Oct. 8. Together with Christy Mathewson of the old New York Giants, that troika accounted for 920 victories; between Ford and Seaver, three generations of New York baseball fans in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s learned just how graceful and dignified that position could be.
Baseball was hit especially hard this year. You could field quite the all-time four-man rotation just with those who departed in 2020: Seaver and Ford, joined by Bob Gibson (whose 1.12 ERA in 1968 will almost certainly stand forever in the record books) and Phil Niekro (the greatest knuckleballer of all, who won his 300th game as a Yankee on the last day of the 1985 season).
Your lineup? How about Bob Watson (who helped build the modern Yankee dynasty after a dignified All-Star career) at first, Joe Morgan (back-to-back MVPs in 1975 and ’76) at second, Tony Fernandez (an ex-Yankee, ex-Met, four-time All-Star and .293 lifetime hitter) at short and Dick Allen (almost certainly a Hall of Famer the next time the Veterans Committee meets) at third. Let Horace Clarke be the utility man in that group.
Outfield? You can do a lot worse than Al Kaline (3,007 career hits), Lou Brock (938 stolen bases) and Claudell Washington (another ex-Met and ex-Yankee).
Basketball lost one forever rebounder (Wes Unseld), one forever showman (Curly Neal) and one forever impresario (Tom Heinsohn). Jerry Sloan could’ve either played with them or coached them. Sloan the coach was one of several mountainous mentors who left us in 2020: Don Shula, Lute Olsen, Ray Perkins (who hired both Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick), John Thompson.
And before it was over, 2020 would take the one man who spent some time as the world’s greatest athlete, decathlete Rafer Johnson (whose most important athletic feat might have come years later one awful night in Los Angeles, when he wrested a gun out of the hands of Sirhan Sirhan), and another who was the world’s most beloved soccer player, Diego Maradona. (Give yourself a late holiday present: YouTube Maradona. Even if you don’t get soccer, you’ll see the greatness.)
We will leave this tribute, though, with the words of Gale Sayers, who died of dementia Sept. 23, who was one of the most electrifying men to ever carry a football, and who, a little more than 50 years earlier on May 25, 1970, had introduced us to his friend, Brian Piccolo, while receiving an award at a dinner in New York. For half a century, through the tears of loss, those words have sustained us and sustain us still:
“I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. And tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”
Maybe tonight, ask him to love all of them.
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