It may be only July, but I can’t recall a calendar year with as many significant losses (measured a few ways) in the world of sports. In one month alone — a span of 26 days in June, to be precise — the world lost Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, and Pat Summitt, each the face of his or her sport for multiple generations, transformative figures whose impact somehow exceeded their achievements in the arena of competition. Come December, these three will lead reviews of “those we lost” and not just in sports media.
But there are two other endings in sports, both traumatic in their own way to athletes and their fans. One is retirement, often called “the first death” for a person accustomed to the cheering of thousands as part of a workday. The second is the departure of a longtime franchise icon for another city and uniform, the shedding of one fan base — accompanied by emotional outbursts from one extreme to another — for a new band of loyalists ready to, as Jerry Seinfeld would have hit, cheer “the laundry” that much more.
Come November, five certifiable NBA superstars — each with at least one MVP trophy, either for the regular season or NBA Finals — will not be wearing the uniforms we grew to see as an extra layer of skin over the last decade.
• Laker legend Kobe Bryant retired in April, having completed the first 20-year career spent entirely with a single franchise in NBA history.
• Five years after earning MVP honors at the age of 22 with his hometown Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose was traded to the New York Knicks, the NBA’s island for misfit toys.
• After 13 years and three NBA titles with the Miami Heat, Dwyane Wade signed a two-year deal to essentially replace Rose as the face of the franchise in Chicago.
• In the biggest free agent exodus since LeBron James departed Cleveland for Miami, Kevin Durant waved goodbye to Oklahoma City — his professional home for eight years — and joined the Splash Brothers in Golden State, forming the greatest shooting trio in NBA history. How many shots Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are prepared to give up for Durant will be a swing factor in the latest super-team’s championship aspirations.
• Finally — and this felt most final among the NBA endings — Tim Duncan announced his retirement after 19 seasons and five championships with the San Antonio Spurs. No player in basketball history is more the perpetual Face of the Franchise than Duncan. The Celtics had Russell and Bird, the Lakers West, Kareem, Magic, and Kobe. Even Michael Jordan spent two seasons in a Washington Wizards uniform. A century from now, Tim Duncan’s will be the name NBA fans identify with the Spurs. His absence next season will be glaring, even if San Antonio wins a sixth title.
The Boston Red Sox will soon be searching for a new designated hitter, David Ortiz having announced his retirement after already accomplishing the unthinkable by winning three World Series in a Bosox jersey. At last week’s All-Star Game, the American League dugout emptied for players to hug Ortiz individually as he was removed for a pinch runner. Baseball gets endings better than most sports, perhaps because the institution has been around so very long, and seen so many departures.
Shortly after the All-Star Game rosters were announced, I tweeted my view that the game would be diminished without St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina in uniform. (Molina had been named to the team the previous seven years.) A few of my followers — Cardinal fans, most of them — liked the sentiment. One expressed dismay, though, pointing out Molina’s pedestrian numbers (.259 batting average, two home runs). He didn’t deserve to be an All-Star.
That critic was right, of course, as we measure sports season to season. There are (at least) three National League catchers with better numbers this season than the eight-time Gold Glove winner behind the plate in St. Louis. There are shinier stars with more popular “brands” than the 34-year-old backbone of two world championship teams, Molina’s best days likely behind him.
But that wasn’t the point I aimed to make. Molina is to the Cardinals as Ortiz has been to the Red Sox, as Wade was to the Heat and (to some degree) what Duncan was to the Spurs. Furthermore, like Bryant, Duncan, and Durant, Molina has enriched his sport by his level of play over an extended period of time. But that time is approaching its end. And it’s an ending I, for one, will not greet with enthusiasm.
All good things must come to an end? 2016 may already have its epitaph.