With 2020 coming to a close, many of us will welcome the New Year and put all the troubles and chaos in the rearview mirror.
While much of the year’s headlines focused on COVID-19, the presidential election, racial injustice, police brutality and the economic crisis — let us fans take a moment to reflect on some of the great sports figures who died in 2020.
There were many athletes, coaches and administrators who died, so please forgive me for not naming all of them. Here is a list of some of the more notable sports figures who I believe had the greatest impact.
David Stern (77) — There has never been a sports commissioner who was more beloved than Stern. Starting in 1984, Stern turned the NBA into a global sport through the ‘90s and 2000s. Some of his bigger accomplishments include enhancing the league’s audience worldwide, helping form the WNBA and G-League and launching NBA.com and NBA TV. He was the boss of some of the game’s greatest to ever play, such as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Locally, Stern was criticized for not stepping in to stop the Seattle Sonics relocation to Oklahoma City in 2008. When he retired in 2014, he became the longest-tenured commissioner in the history of major North American sports leagues. Stern was also inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Kobe Bryant (41) — It hurts to write this. It’s way too early for the Black Mamba to be included on a list like this. For myself – and most sports fans – this one hurt the most. I can still recall the day I heard about this. It was difficult for me to process what I was reading. The headline was so simple: “NBA star dies in helicopter crash.” The last name I expected to see was Kobe’s. I know Kobe wasn’t the greatest example of what a true humanitarian exemplified, given his sexual assault case from 2003 and a plethora of on-the-court issues with fellow players about his selfish play, but man did I love seeing that guy compete. Kobe was hands down the toughest basketball player I saw growing up (Jordan was before my time). I also love that he did it all on one team, the team that arguably has the biggest bullseye on its back every year given the Lakers history of championships. To me, this is the most shocking sports death since either Thurman Munson or Roberto Clemente in the 1970s.
Don Shula (90) — There’s no way I couldn’t have not put Shula on this list. He’s the winningest coach in NFL history – a league where it’s arguably the hardest to win in – and was the coach of the only undefeated team in league history (1972 Miami Dolphins). He also won the 1968 NFL Championship as the Baltimore Colts head coach. In his 33-year career, he only had two losing seasons. I can’t see any other coach having his record of success, it’s just too hard in a competitive league like the NFL. Notable coaches under Shula’s coaching tree include Chuck Noll, Howard Schnellenburger and Marty Schottenheimer. Shula was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
Jerry Sloan (78) — I always had such an affinity for Coach Sloan because he seemed like the type who always put his hard hat on and let his team’s play do the talking. I would love to play for him. Nicknamed “the Original Bull,” Sloan was the first player to have his number retired in Chicago. He then became a coach with the Bulls before taking the helm of the Utah Jazz. Sloan ended up compiling a total of 1,221 wins, placing him third all-time in NBA wins at the time of his retirement. He is one of two coaches in NBA history to record 1,000 wins with one team (Utah Jazz) and coached them to 15 consecutive playoff appearances from 1989-2003. He is perhaps most known for his team’s loss to Jordan and the Bulls in the 1997 and ‘98 NBA Finals. He coached Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone and was inducted himself in 2009.
Lute Olson (85) — As a Pac-12 graduate, I had to include the iconic Arizona Wildcat’s basketball coach. How infectious was that smile? He kept grinning all the way through his last days. Olson put Arizona basketball on the map and made the program what it is today; an expectation of competing for a conference title every year and earning a place in the NCAA Tournament. He was also known for developing his players for the NBA, including Steve Kerr, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Gilbert Arenas, Damon Stoudamire, Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton and Andre Iguodala. Many of those players weren’t highly recruited but Olson’s development put them in a position to succeed. Olson’s Wildcats won the National Championship in 1997, the last Pac-12 team to win that title.
John Thompson (78) — Thompson was a true pioneer in sports, becoming the first African-American head coach to win a major collegiate championship in basketball, leading the Georgetown Hoyas to the 1984 championship. He coached the Hoyas from 1972-1999, earning 596 wins. Thompson was another coach credited with putting a program on the map and making them a contender year in and year out. He coached Patrick Ewing, who was part of his ‘84 title team. Thompson was a role model for many kids growing up in poverty and was known for helping kids succeed in life just as much as on the court. Other notable players he coached included Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo.
Tom Seaver (75) — Finally we get to my favorite sport – baseball. “Tom Terrific” was a huge part in putting the abysmal New York Mets on the map in the late 1960s. The pitcher earned the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 1967 and later won three NL Cy Young Awards in his nearly 20-year career. Seaver played a huge role in the Mets huge upset victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series, which earned them the nickname “The Amazing Mets.” By the end of his career, he compiled 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts, a 2.86 earned run average and a no-hitter in 1978. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.
Bob Gibson (84) — Continuing the pitching theme, “Gibby” was the most intimidating guy to toe the rubber. During his 16-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals, Gibson won two World Series and two Cy Young Awards, while also winning the NL MVP in 1968, a feat that is hard to come by for a pitcher. Gibson was known for his competitive fire on the mound and dominating opposing batters. The pinnacle of his career was in 1968 when he posted an unheard of 1.12 ERA and recorded 17 strikeouts in Game 1 of the World Series. That year was known as “The Year of the Pitcher” due to all the dominant pitching performances in baseball, led by Gibson. Sometimes referred to as the “Gibson rules,” the MLB lowered the pitching mound the next year from 15 inches to 10 inches.
Diego Maradona (60) — There’s no way I could write this list without including one of the greatest soccer players of all time. The Argentine was known for his vision, passing, ball control and dribbling skills. His small stature gave him a low center of gravity that allowed him to move with great fluidity, some traits that were replicated by fellow Argentine Lionel Messi. Maradona’s charisma was never lacking, and he always played with an authentic joy and love for the game. Off the field, he was known to party and was banned in both 1991 and 1994 for abusing drugs. He is perhaps most known for helping Argentina win the 1986 World Cup, while also playing for clubs Barcelona and Napoli.
Honorable Mentions: Don Larsen, Hall of Fame Pitcher; Al Kaline, Hall of Fame Right Fielder; Gale Sayers, Hall of Fame Running Back; Whitey Ford, Hall of Fame Pitcher; Joe Morgan, Hall of Fame Second Baseman, Tavaris Jackson, former Seahawks Quarterback, Lou Brock, Hall of Fame Second Baseman