FAREWELL TO GIANTS

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTS - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.”

Score­board

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.

ROSS D. FRANKLIN / AP FILE

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.

FRANK GUNN / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS VIA AP

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.

MARK HUMPHREY / AP FILE

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.

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