There were so many this year.
Sports in 2020 was an unending state of mourning. It was as if every week, sometimes days, another luminary fell, bringing a cascade of condolence and remembrance.
It began New Year’s Day, a harbinger of what the year held, with the deaths of David Stern and Don Larsen. Not long after came a seismic jolt, the helicopter crash of Kobe Bryant in the fog-shrouded California hills that reverberated across sports and across continents.
Deep into the year, a bookend to Bryant, Diego Maradona died from a heart attack in Argentina weeks after brain surgery, the waves of grief rippling across soccer. It seemed a whole wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame was ripped away -- Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro. Football lost a big piece of its heart: Don Shula, Gale Sayers, Paul Hornung, Bobby Mitchell. Gone from college basketball was John Thompson, as imposing and important a coach as any.
The losses, of course, came against a backdrop of a pandemic, its number of fatalities rolled out daily on TV screens. Sports took its place in the grim procession, even if COVID-19 was not listed on the death certificate. For fans of a certain age, it was as if the lights dimmed on a generation of players who long illuminated the game.
What was left were snapshots and YouTube montages and endless conversations -- the soaring move to the basket, the steely command on the mound, the slashing run past tacklers, the burst of an impossible goal. It’s all a fan could ask for.
Bryant was among nine who died that January day, including 13-year-old daughter Gianna. He was 41, less than four years removed from the NBA, and on his way to a youth tournament. Bryant is the game’s fourth-leading scorer. He spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, 18 as an All-Star, and won five titles. He was a generational player who left an imprint with his swoops and scores, his touch and grit. Purple and gold became colors of mourning. “It doesn’t make no sense,” the Lakers’ LeBron James said. “But the universe just puts things in your life.”
Maradona was the soul of Argentine soccer whose magic extended to Italy, where he bewitched Napoli fans. He carried Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title, his two goals in a quarterfinal against England among soccer’s greatest: the “Hand of God” goal -- he later acknowledged it came with his hand, not head -- and another in which he shredded an entire defense. He died at 60, his health undercut by cocaine and obesity. One commentator in Argentina likened him to the “great masters of music and painting.”