When we read obituaries, we think about more than the person who has died. We see our parents or, in tragedy, our children. We see ourselves, and we wonder what our own life might look like compressed into a few inches of type. We wonder what will be left out.
In obituaries of athletes we often read about someone of whom we haven't heard much in a while, a biography mostly concerned with youthful triumph, celebrating a relatively short career as compared with, say, scientists or statesmen.
The cantankerous A.E. Housman underlined this idea as a sad one in his most familiar poem, To an Athlete Dying Young:
Runners whom renown outran
December 27, 2010
And the name died before the man.
Think of the couplet above as passing vanity in the longer roll call of the 60 lives SPORTS ILLUSTRATED memorializes in this issue. It is always at the end of the year, in this season of ritual, that we make this accounting. It is fortunate and probably not coincidental that our calendar works this way, that we count our deaths in the darkest days, because remembering brilliant lives brightens us somehow. This is counterintuitive but true, even for those we were closest to: the six members of the SI family who passed in 2010.
Revisiting a forgotten detail makes it possible to connect with it again: What does it tell you that Bob Feller flew his own plane until he was 75? The obvious is still thrilling: Bobby Thomson's most famous of all home runs. ("It may have been the best thing that ever happened to anybody," he said.) The surprising is moving: Manute Bol, giving all he could to his war-torn homeland, even boxing with William (the Refrigerator) Perry for $35,000, which Bol donated to Sudanese orphans.
Many of the athletes honored this year served their country. Yankees manager Ralph Houk was a major in World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star, Silver Star and Purple Heart. Olympic wrestler Henry Wittenberg earned five commendations as a New York City police officer. Feller enlisted in the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor.
Last week, shortly after the death of the relentless and hard-thinking U.S. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the President's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, I received an e-mail from SI's senior contributing writer Frank Deford, who wrote the obit for Feller in this issue. Deford was writing to recount a small move in Holbrooke's accomplished career: "Back when Dick Holbrooke was U.N. ambassador under Clinton, he had a reception at his suite in the Waldorf Towers for several ambassadors whose countries had players in the NBA. Many of the players were there too. It was a very original gesture, at once kind and brilliant. I can't remember if there were any other press there. (He invited me as an old friend.) NBA commissioner David Stern was there and thrilled. It was a wonderful night."
Commissioner Stern remembers it well that in 1999 Holbrooke hosted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and NBA players Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Lithuania), Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Dikembe Mutombo (Congo) and Vitaly Potapenko (Ukraine), as well as the ambassadors from their countries. "Ambassador Holbrooke understood the power of sports to bring people together," Stern says solemnly. For his part Deford sent the e-mail because, like all of us, he is interested in the connections between sports and the rest of life and the meaning of the lives we celebrate this time of year.