In memoriam: Athletes and important sports figures who died in 2020

In memoriam: Athletes and important sports figures who died in 2020

December 23, 2020

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2020 has been the year that challenged us all. 

The sports community said its final farewells to some of its most iconic names, some taken from us too soon and too young. The impact of the deaths of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna reached far beyond those who knew the significance of the No. 24 jersey, and as we near the one-year anniversary of their passing, their legacy continues to touch the lives of so many.

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The deaths of baseball greats like Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Tom Seaver were bittersweet – as fans mourned their loss, they also reminisced about the glory days of America’s favorite pastime.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame said goodbye to some of its most legendary members including Don Shula, whose memory will no doubt live on in the legacy of the ‘72 Dolphins. 

As we head into the new year, here are just some of the sports figures we lost in 2020:

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DAVID STERN 

NBA commissioner David Stern speaks at a press conference prior to the opening night game between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Oct. 26, 2010, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Davis Stern was the longest-serving NBA commissioner, having sit from 1984 to 2014, and is credited with growing the league into the global phenomena that it is today. The NBA gave way to seven new franchises under Stern, who also helped found the WNBA and the NBA G League. The league’s international presence grew significantly under Stern, with nearly 150 international games and broadcasts in more than 200 countries and territories, in more than 40 languages. Stern died on Jan. 1. He was 77. 

DON LARSEN

Pitcher Don Larson of the New York Yankees delivers the first pitch to Jim Gilliam of the Brooklyn Dodgers as catcher Yogi Berra and umpire Babe Pinelli look on during Game 5 of the 1956 World Series on Oct. 8, 1956, at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (Stanley Weston/Getty Images)

Baseball great Don Larsen remains the only player to pitch a perfect game in World Series history when he did so with the New York Yankees in 1956. Larsen played for seven different teams in his 14 season career spanning from 1953 to 1967, finishing with an 81-91 record. He died of esophageal cancer on Jan. 1 at the age of 90. 

KOBE BRYANT

In this March 28, 2016, file photo, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant waves as he walks off the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Highly regarded as one of the most iconic names in sports history, Kobe Bryant tragically died on Jan. 26 when he, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash in California. He was 41. Bryant was drafted out of high school in 1996 and would go on to have one of the most lucrative NBA careers, winning five NBA championships, the 2008 league MVP and was an 18-time NBA All-Star. 

TOM DEMPSEY

Placekicker Tom Dempsey of the New Orleans Saints on the field during a game against the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 25, 1970, at Atlanta Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. (Diamond Images/Getty Images)

NFL kicker Tom Dempsey was best known for kicking a 63-yard field goal for the New Orleans Saints against the Detroit Lions in 1970 that was achieved with a flat-front shoe made specifically for Dempsey, who was born without toes on his right foot and without fingers on his right hand. He played 11 years in the NFL before retiring. He died on April 4 after a bout with coronavirus. He was 73. 

DON SHULA

Dan Marino (left) and Don Shula (far right) before a Miami Dolphins game against the New York Jets in 1985. (Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

Largely considered one of the greats coaches in NFL history, Don Shula’s greatest accomplishment was leading the unbeaten Miami Dolphins to the Super Bowl during the 1972 season – making them the only team to finish an entire season undefeated. They won the Super Bowl the following season as well. Shula finished his career as a four-time NFL Coach of the Year and holds the record for most wins ever by a head coach with 328. He died on May 4 at the age of 90. 

BOB WATSON

Bob Watson of the Houston Astros bats against the Philadelphia Phillies during a Major League Baseball game circa 1978 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pa. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Bob "The Bull" Watson died on May 14 after battling stage 4 kidney disease for several years. He was 74. Watson was a longtime first baseman and outfielder for the Houston Astros but played several seasons for the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves before retiring in 1984. He became general manager for the Yankees in 1995 and became the first Black general manager to win a World Series the following year. 

TOM SEAVER 

Pitcher Tom Seaver of the New York Mets pitches during a late-1960s Major League Baseball game at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

New York Mets legend Tom Seaver, who earned the nickname "Tom Terrific" during a 20-year career that saw him win 311 games and three Cy Young awards, died on Sept. 2 due to complications of Lewy body dementia and COVID-19. He was 75. Seaver, regarded as the greatest Met of all time, had a 2.86 ERA and struck out 3,640 batters over a career that spanned from 1967 to 1986. He earned 12 All-Star selections, led the National League in wins and ERA three times apiece and strikeouts five times. Elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992, Seaver was on 98.8% of ballots, which was the highest voting percentage ever received at the time

LOU BROCK

Outfielder Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals holding a pipe during batting practice before a Major League Baseball game circa 1979 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Lou Brock, the Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who topped 3,000 hits and retired as the all-time leader in stolen bases, died on Sept. 6 at the age of 81. Brock stole 938 bases in his career, including 118 in 1974 — both of those were MLB records until they were broken by Rickey Henderson. Brock, who had a career batting average of .293, led the majors in steals eight times and scored 100 or more runs seven times. He also accumulated 3,023 career hits. He led the Cardinals to World Series titles in 1964 and 1967. 

GALE SAYERS

Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears carries the ball in a mid- 1960s NFL football game. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers solidified his place as one of the greatest running backs of all time during his seven seasons in the NFL. Drafted in the first round of the 1965 draft, Sayers had an immediate impact on the field. He was named NFL Rookie of the Year after totaling 22 touchdowns and 132 points, both records at the time. He was named to four Pro Bowls, was selected first-team All-Pro five times and was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 1969. Sayers became the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 at just 34 years old. He died on Sept. 23 at 77. 

BOB GIBSON

Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1970. (Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

A Hall of Fame pitcher who played his entire career with the St. Louis Cardinals, Bob Gibson’s career included a National League MVP, two National League Cy Young awards, two World Series MVPs, nine All-Star selections and nine Gold Glove awards. Gibson followed his successful career with coaching jobs for the Cardinals, Mets and Braves. He died on Oct. 2 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. 

WHITEY FORD

In this Oct. 12, 1960, file photo, New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford throws during the sixth game of the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo, File )

Whitey Ford, one of the most talented pitchers in baseball history, who helped lead the New York Yankees to a string of World Series wins in the 1950s and '60s, died on Oct. 8 at the age of 91. The famous left-handed pitcher still dominates the World Series record book with 33 consecutive scoreless innings from 1960-62, World Series games and starts (22), innings pitched (146), wins (10) and strikeouts (94).

JOE MORGAN 

In this Saturday, Oct. 16, 1976, file photo, Cincinnati second baseman Joe Morgan tips his helmet to the fans as he rounds the bases after a homer in the first inning against the New York Yankees at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/File)

Joe Morgan is best known for his role in the Cincinnati Reds back-to-back World Series Championships in the 1970s when he was named the league MVP in both seasons. In his 22-year career through 1984, Morgan scored 1,650 runs, stole 689 bases, hit 268 homers and batted .271. He was also a 10-time All-Star and won five Gold Gloves. Morgan died on Oct. 12 after suffering from a nerve condition, a form of polyneuropathy. He was 77.

HERB ADDERLEY

Cornerback Herb Adderley of the Dallas Cowboys (AP Photo/File)

Hall of Fame defensive back Herb Adderley was one of the best defensive backs to ever play football. He helped the Green Bay Packers reach five NFL championships and won three Super Bowls. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro selection. In his best season in 1965, he recorded six interceptions and three touchdowns with three fumble recoveries. He died on Oct. 30. He was 81.

PAUL HORNUNG

Running back Paul Hornung (5) of the Green Bay Packers carries the ball against the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1960s during an NFL football game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

A 1956 Heisman Trophy award winner, Paul Hornung would go on to become a legendary running back for the Green Bay Packers where he would help bring home their first-ever Super Bowl win in 1966. He finished his career with 50 rushing touchdowns and 3,711 rushing yards. He won the MVP award in 1961 and was a two-time All-Pro selection. Hornung died on Nov. 13 after a long battle with dementia. He was 84.

DIEGO MARADONA

Diego Maradona of Argentina holds the World Cup trophy after defeating West Germany 3-2 during the 1986 FIFA World Cup Final match at the Azteca Stadium on June 29, 1986, in Mexico City, Mexico. (Archivo El Grafico/Getty Images)

Legendary Argentine soccer player Diego Maradona, who helped bring his country a World Cup in 1986 with the infamous "hand of God" goal, died on Nov. 25 after suffering heart failure in his sleep, which caused a pulmonary edema. He was 60. Maradona’s decadeslong career was characterized by his impressive footwork and an unbeatable left foot. Maradona had a short stint coaching the national team and will always be remembered as a national icon.

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