Sports deaths 2015 include Banks, Berra


Associated Press



Losses hit Philadelphia in 2015 with the deaths of two 76ers centers — backboard-busting Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone, who gave basketball a math lesson with his playoff sweep prediction of “Fo’, Fo’, Fo’” that fell just short.

Joining them was Dolph Schayes, the Syracuse Nationals center who briefly played for and coached Philadelphia in its Wilt Chamberlain days.

There were losses in baseball of Joaquin Andujar, Dean Chance, Darryl Hamilton, Tommy Hanson, Bill Monbouquette, Al Rosen.

In hockey, the bespectacled Islander coach Al Arbour and the great Canadiens winger Dickie Moore.

Losses of boxing champions Gene Fullmer and Bob Foster.

And in football of Ken Stabler, the left-handed quarterback of the renegade Raiders, and Garo Yepremian, whose slapstick field-goal attempt lives on in Super Bowl lore.

And those while on the job: IndyCar driver Justin Wilson, struck by debris at Pocono and gone the next day at 37.

Below, other losses, lives that soared across the games:

ERNIE BANKS

Lots of players are in the Hall of Fame. But how many bring a credo, a way of life, with them? “It’s a great day for baseball. Let’s play two.” Ernie Banks wouldn’t have it any other way.

He came up in the old Negro Leagues, a skinny shortstop with a whip-fast swing and sinewy wrists, playing his way into the hearts of Chicago baseball fans.

At a time when the National League could point to the mighty Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, Banks stood beside them as noble peer. He died at 83.

He played 19 seasons and hit 512 homers. And he did it for the Cubs, who for more than a century have crafted the art of frustration and defeat.

Banks never made it to the postseason but he did make the All-Star team 11 times and was MVP in 1958 and 1959. He was a Gold Glove shortstop before switching to first base.

But the stats, in all their indisputable evidence, don’t’ account for why there is a statue of “Mr. Cub” outside Wrigley Field or his No. 14 flies on the left-field foul pole.

Banks spoke to the transcendent joys of sports. He always found time to chat with fans. He never was ejected from a game and never argued with umpires. Why stoop to such pettiness when it’s a privilege to play baseball?

YOGI BERRA

After all the countless tributes — his decency, his friendship, his love of family, his dignity, his faith, his wit (intentional or otherwise), his valor in battle — it’s important to never lose sight of this:

What a player he was.

Yogi Berra, the anchor behind the plate of all those imperious Yankee teams, played 19 seasons in the majors in a career covering three decades. He was the American League MVP three times (1951, 1954, 1955). He played on 10 World Series winners and in 75 World Series games — both records. He made 18 straight All-Star teams.

Casey Stengel once said Berra understood how every hitter should be pitched to. He caught Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, his leap into the pitcher’s arms a moment frozen in baseball history.

But No. 8, the Hall of Famer with that welcoming mug of a face who died at 90, was more than all the compilation of his records. He managed for George Steinbrenner, and stood head and shoulders above the owner’s unending tirades.

Berra always had the right thing to say, and say it as only he could.

He became the country’s everyman philosopher, coming off the bench to pinch-hit for Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken knew he was in special company when Berra was around.

“When Yogi spoke, everyone was quiet and hung on every word,” he said. “He owned the room.”

FRANK GIFFORD

His was the golden life.

The USC All-American with chiseled looks who became the face of the great New York Giant teams of the 1950s and ’60s and then rode another wave of celebrity in the “Monday Night Football” booth and as husband of TV host Kathie Lee Gifford.

Frank Gifford often said his life was divided into three parts, and each was a blueprint in elegant living. Not everyone at Yankee Stadium shares a locker with Mickey Mantle.

Gifford — a running back, defensive back, wide receiver and special teams player — played in five NFL title games and was the league’s MVP in 1956. Giants co-owner John Mara called him “the ultimate Giant.”

In 1960, a pulverizing hit by the Eagles’ Chuck Bednarik (who also died this year, at 89) left Gifford with a head injury so severe he didn’t return to football until 1962. In 1964, Gifford was back in the Pro Bowl.

For many, though, Gifford was the calm at the center of the rollicking storm of “Monday Night Football.”

DEAN SMITH

If college basketball had a Mount Rushmore, a place in the mountainside would be carved for Dean Smith.

He was the soul of basketball at North Carolina. He led the Tar Heels to 11 Final Fours, won national titles in 1982 and 1993, gave the sport its clock-draining Four Corners offense, earned an Olympic title in 1976 and coached some of the game’s best. Among them was Michael Jordan, who said he loved Smith for always being there when he needed him.

Roy Williams, the current Tar Heels coach, lauded Smith as the “perfect picture of what a college coach should have been.” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Smith helped “mold men of integrity, honor and purpose.”

Smith died at 83, his basketball roots going back to Kansas, where played on a Jayhawks team coached by Phog Allen that won the 1952 NCAA title. Smith would go on to surpass Adolph Rupp for the most coaching victories in men’s Division I (879 in 36 seasons). Krzyzewski now has the record.

Off the court, Smith left a different imprint. He was among the first to recruit black athletes in the South, helped integrate a Chapel Hill restaurant and, in his way, spurred the civil rights movement.

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Associated Press

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