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PostDeath of Kobe Bryant (David Duggan, USA, 02/02/20 4:32 am)
As sports fans everywhere await Kobe Bryant's funeral and public memorial following the crash of his helicopter last Sunday, I thought I would offer an observation about the untimely deaths of several sports icons in their 40s, far too young. That both Payne Stewart and Rocky Marciano also died in private aviation crashes adds poignancy to Billy Joel's lament that "only the good die young."
Marciano, the only undefeated heavyweight champion (49-0), died the day before his 46th birthday in 1969, shortly after filming a made-for-pay-TV simulated fight with Muhammad Ali in which sparring scenes were spliced with a computer simulation. Flying from Chicago to a Des Moines speaking engagement just having had dinner with STP spokesperson Andy Granatelli, he was a passenger in a Cessna 172, a single-engine wings-over-the-cockpit rat trap, flown by a non-instrument rated pilot, who crashed in bad weather two miles from a small airfield in Newton, IA. Marciano, the pilot and a long-time friend of Rocky's died on impact. On learning that Rocky's body had been found still strapped in his seat, wags said "Don't worry: count to ten over him and he'll get up." Curiously, Marciano's reputation has improved since his death. In 1962, The Ring's 40 boxing experts ranked him as the 7th best heavyweight boxer (Jack Dempsey was No. 1), while in 2005, he was ranked by the International Boxing Research Organization as the 5th.
Stewart, who re-popularized plus-fours (i.e., "knickerbocker pants") and tam-o'shanters on the golf course after a 40-year absence, died at 42 when the Learjet in which Stewart's two agents, a golf course architect, and the two pilots were traveling from Orlando to Texas. The plane failed to pressurize, and all aboard died of hypoxia; on autopilot the plane traveled on a northwest vector until it ran out of fuel and crashed at near supersonic speed into a cornfield in Mina, South Dakota. Fighter pilots on routine patrol saw the plane but couldn't tell whether there was any activity in the cockpit because the windshield and windows were iced over. An interception mission from North Dakota's Air Force base accompanied the plane until it began a series of aileron rolls (360 spins along its longitudinal axis-remember Top Gun) and spiraled down at a steep angle leaving a crater 42' x 21' x 8' (length, breadth, depth). Stewart had just won the 1999 US Open at Pinehurst, but to complete his "old school image" he was one of the last golfers to win a major using a persimmon driver (1989 PGA).
Pistol Pete Maravich, though he didn't die in a plane crash, was a walking plane crash off the basketball court where he excelled at dribbling, passing behind his back and shooting (mostly before the 3-point line was introduced in pro basketball in the 1979-80 season); his lead-leading 31.1 points per game average in the 1976-77 season is one of the best for someone not named Chamberlain, Abdul Jabbar, James or Jordan. A lifetime 44% field goal percentage was nothing to write home about, but again that was compiled before separate statistics on 3-point attempts; down close he was deadly. A life-long battle with alcoholism (his mother shot herself rather than confront her own demons) may have helped his prediction that he would not survive beyond his 41st year, but he had found Jesus and died in a pick-up game in Pasadena playing with Dr. James Dobson of the Focus on the Family ministry. He was scheduled to be interviewed later that day.
I can't weigh in on where Kobe (the mark of a great athlete is that he or she is known world-wide by just his first name) ranks among the greats. He has five gold rings to Jordan's six and Bill Russell's 11, and his Lakers lost two NBA finals, unlike Jordan's Chicago Bulls (0 finals losses) or Russell's Celtics (1), but the league is different now with great players coming from Europe, Turkey and China, not only the playgrounds of urban America. His reputation may be tarnished by his pre-op encounter with a hotel employee in Colorado (the media have been curiously silent about that) but what cannot be denied is the exuberance and fun he had playing the game he had learned from his father, an NBA journeyman who closed out his career in Italy. And apparently he had a tireless practice workout ethic where his last rep was as form-perfect as his first. I'm jealous. Sadder still is that his daughter Giuliana died with the pilot and six other people in the helicopter flying in one of LA's legendary pea-soup fogs. Note to self-stay out of helicopters flying in the fog.
Kobe Bryant, Rocky Marciano, Pete Maravich and Payne Stewart, RIP.
JE comments: A sterling tribute to the Greats, David. Another measure of icon status is the "Where were you when X?" factor. Kobe passes this test. I remember when I found out: Aldona and I were crossing into Canada for lunch when the news flashed on her phone.