Sports heroes lost in 2008

December 23, 2008 8:44:14 AM PST
One is remembered not so much for crushing blocks - although he made it to the Hall of Fame with plenty of those - than for the dense, exacting language of contracts that would leave NFL players richer than they ever hoped. Another simply wanted to win a college championship with the best players he could put on the court. In the process, he sent a racial barrier in the South tumbling, and basketball was never the same.

Yet another took us to exotic places, expanding the reach and possibilities of sports television. He was an elegant guide in a network blazer, and one day in Munich in 1972 the grim task fell to him to say, "They're all gone."

Gene Upshaw, Don Haskins and Jim McKay died in 2008, each leaving a distinct stamp, each taking sports on a new road.

Upshaw played guard for 15 years for the Oakland Raiders, helping them make the Super Bowl three times, winning twice. In a way, that was just the start. He went on to spend 25 years as head of the NFL Players Association, resetting the balance of labor and management. He was one of the few African-Americans to lead a major union.

In August, with another season about to begin, Upshaw died at 63 of pancreatic cancer. He learned he had the disease only days earlier.

"Gene Upshaw's career successes as a professional football player and a union leader are unparalleled," Raiders owner Al Davis said. "He is as prominent a sportsman as the world has known."

Upshaw could be harsh and direct, and didn't always say what was polite or expected. Many retired players felt betrayed, insisting he didn't do enough for them. Others felt his relationship with the NFL commissioner's office was far too cozy.

But the confluence of free agency, an advantageous salary cap and mega television deals came on Upshaw's watch, and a long river of cash flowed.

"He was very tough but also a good listener," former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "He never lost sight of the interests of the game and the big picture."

It took a movie, "Glory Road," to educate a new generation of basketball fans about Haskins and a college then called Texas Western. Haskins, an old-school coach who cared for his players and demanded much of them, died at home of congestive heart failure at 78.

"He took a school that had no reason to be a basketball giant and made it into one," said coach Bob Knight, a Hall of Famer, like Haskins.

In 1966, Haskins started five black players in the NCAA title game against an all-white, mighty Kentucky team coached by Adolph Rupp. The symbolism was unmistakable. Haskins, who was white, wasn't interested in political gestures. He was a coach who needed a win. And his team did just that, beating Kentucky 72-65.

Hate mail and death threats followed. But it wasn't long before the entrenched ways of recruiting changed, and black players were suddenly welcome in once-forbidden territory.

"Coach Haskins lived to be a winner not just in the X's and O's," said Nevil Shed, a starter on the 1966 team. "And he instilled in us that on the court you had to do your best, but after all this basketball you have to be a winner in life."

McKay spanned the globe, illuminating his audience with tales of barrel jumping and thoroughbred racing - even of some forsaken ski jumper careening down a mountain. He died on his Maryland horse farm at 86.

"Wide World of Sports" became McKay's signature, the show taking viewers to far-flung precincts in the days before such excursions became a television staple. But his most riveting report came at the 1972 Olympics, where Palestinian terrorists kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes. McKay was summoned to work and stayed at his post. By the time the raid to free the hostages ended, they were all gone.

"I was full of emotion," McKay said. "But when you are a professional, it is important to communicate what it is like, to capture the moment."

McKay had no use for bombast or self-promotion. Crisp detail, clear perspective and lyric touches were his tools of choice.

"He was the personification of class and style," sportscaster Al Michael said. "There has never been a more respected individual in the business, and deservedly so."

McKay's sure eye and voice would have found a place at last spring's Kentucky Derby when Eight Belles ran second to Big Brown and then collapsed. An ambulance rolled onto the track and the filly was put down. With the memory of Barbaro still fresh, it was another somber day for horse racing on national TV.

"Losing animals like this isn't fun," Eight Belles trainer Larry Jones said. "It's not supposed to happen. We're heartbroke."

The sport also lost two horses who were dazzling fillies in their day: Genuine Risk, the 1980 Kentucky Derby winner, and Winning Colors, the 1988 Derby champ and the last filly to capture the Run for the Roses.

In baseball, Buzzie Bavasi died at 93 after a lifetime of showing how a front office is run. He built Dodger teams that won four World Series titles in Brooklyn and Lofense from the famed Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s were stripped with the deaths of 59-year-old Ernie Holmes and 58-year-old Dwight White.

Also, Gene Hickerson, a Hall of Fame guard who blocked for Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, died at 73; Jack Mildren, the wishbone quarterback at Oklahoma who became the state's lieutenant governor, was 58; and Georgia Frontiere, who brought the Rams from Los Angeles to her St. Louis hometown in 1995, was 80.

In hockey, Pit Martin, an All-Star in the 1960s and '70s, died at 64 in a snowmobile accident in Quebec. Golf is now without two U.S. Open champions: Tommy Bolt (1958), dead at 92; Orville Moody (1969) at 74.

Boxing's Joey Giardello, a former middleweight champ who sued filmmakers over a depiction of a title bout against Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, was 78. South Korea's Choi Yoi-sam, 33, and Mexico's Daniel Aguillon, 24, never made it that far, dying from injuries in the ring.

Christopher Bowman, a compelling figure skater who won two U.S. titles but partied much too hard, had an accidental overdose at age 40 in a cheap Los Angeles hotel.

Austrian tennis player Horst Skoff, once ranked 18th, died at 39 of a heart attack. Hamilton Jordan, chief of staff for Jimmy Carter before forming the men's pro tennis circuit in the 1980s, was 63.

Gordon Bradley, 74, enjoyed a career in which he coached Pele and Johan Cruyff in the North American Soccer League and also ran the U.S. national team.

Sports also saw off two men whose names tower over their pursuits: chess master Bobby Fischer, 64, and mountaineering's Sir Edmund Hillary, 88.

But no one held the stage like Paul Newman, who died at 83. The Oscar-winning actor and entrepreneur could also drive pretty well. He was once part of the winning team in the Daytona 24-Hours endurance race. He was 70 at the time, and still the coolest guy at the track.

"The sport is a lot more exciting than anything else I do," he said. "And nobody cares that I'm an actor."