FAREWELL TO GIANTS
Mighty oaks fell in sports in 2016, transformational figures who reshaped the games and the culture — from Muhammad Ali to Gordie Howe, from Arnold Palmer to Pat Summitt.
And there was loss much too soon, too.
A.E. Housman’s famous poem To An Athlete Dying Young tells of a runner and his town, and how “shoulder-high we bring you home.” So it was with the Miami Marlins and 24-year-old star pitcher Jose Fernandez, killed in a September boating accident.
Along the way, other lives lit up sports across the years:
Baseball said goodbye to Ralph Branca, Monte Irvin and Joe Garagiola. Basketball lost Jim McMillian, Dwayne Washington and the fierce Nate Thurmond.
Gone in boxing are Aaron Pryor, Bobby Chacon and Alex Stewart. In football, Buddy Ryan, Dennis Byrd and Dennis Green.
Hockey mourned Andy Bathgate, Rick MacLeish and Tom Lysiak.
Soccer is now without the great Johan Cruyff. On television, tennis and the NBA are diminished with the loss of Bud Collins and Craig Sager.
On that last ride, the hearse windshield was covered with so many flowers the driver could barely see the road, let alone the throngs lining the streets.
Muhammad Ali was back where it all began, in Louisville, Kentucky, where he launched a career that would shake sports like no athlete in history.
He was a three-time world heavyweight champion, an audacious mix of speed, dazzle and brute force — the stark counterpoint years later to the shuffling man with a whisper, wasted by Parkinson’s.
His fights with Joe Frazier were an epic trilogy. He proclaimed himself “The Greatest” — and he was. He did it with skill and guile, boasts and taunts, in prose and rhyme, and always with a twinkle in his eyes.
Ali understood the marketplace and the showmanship that go with ticket sales. He fought everywhere and said they would know him in an Asian rice paddy.
He lost his prime years, 1967-70, for refusing military induction during the war in Vietnam.
He spoke up when that wasn’t in fashion. He changed his religion and his name and became a lightning rod for a country on edge.
Time softened the rancor. By the end, he was a national monument. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he stood, shakily, with torch in hand at the cauldron.
“The man who has no imagination,” Ali once said, “has no wings.”
Howe came out of the hard Canadian prairie and presided over his sport for five decades, becoming as elemental to the game as the ice he dominated.
Even Wayne Gretzky acknowledged the preeminence of the Detroit Red Wings No 9, and it was no coincidence Gretzky wore No 99 as a tribute to his hero.
Howe joined the NHL just after World War II, and in 25 seasons in Detroit scored 786 goals and 1,807 points. He led the Red Wings to four Stanley Cups and was named league MVP six times.
Howe was a unique blend of vision, presence and toughness. High sticks and fists were the flip side to his majes- ty on the ice.
Family was paramount, and when he left the NHL at 45 to join the renegade World Hockey Association, nothing gave him more pleasure than to play alongside sons Mark and Marty with the Houston Aeros. After the two leagues merged in 1979, Howe returned to the NHL for one more season with the Hart- ford Whalers — at age 52.
“Gordie was the ultimate professional hockey player,” said former Philadelphia Flyers captain and fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke.
His was a life well played. When golfers today look around at the big prize money, the television coverage, the sponsorships and the place golf holds in the sports conversation, they can take a 3-iron from their bag, hold it aloft and thank Arnold Palmer .
“He was The King, and always will be,” said longtime rival and close friend Jack Nicklaus.
Palmer didn’t care much for the regal honorific. His roots were in western Pennsylvania,
Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
Fernandez fled Cuba by boat at age 15, making a successful escape on his fourth attempt. But as the sea proved a starting point to stardom, so it was the finish.
On a September night after a game, Fernandez and two friends died when their boat crashed at high speed into rocks near Miami Beach.
The medical examiner found alcohol and cocaine in his system.
Fernandez was twice an AllStar for the Miami Marlins and had a 38-17 record in four seasons. He was NL Rookie of the Year in 2013, with a future possibly pointed to Cooperstown.
Muhammad Ali, pictured here in 1974, proclaimed himself ‘The Greatest’ and lived up to that moniker with skill and guile, boasts and taunts — but always with a twinkle in his eyes.
Hockey legend Gordie Howe poses with his lifetime achievement trophy at the 2008 NHL awards ceremony in Toronto. Howe was the greatest player in the world’s toughest team sport for more than two decades, winning four Stanley Cup championships and six league MVP awards with the Detroit Red Wings.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt signals to her players during a game against Rutgers at the 1998 NCAA Women’s Mideast Regional in Nashville, Tennessee. Summitt coached the Volunteers basketball squad for 38 years, and even future NFL superstar Peyton Manning sought her advice when he played college football at Tennessee.