Let us now praise famous men

Updated: December 29, 2006, 4:54 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

A new year always brings regeneration. Reporting a story not long ago about a little town fighting to survive, I was told by a resident that you can't have living without some dying. Those words have stuck with me. Most of the time, they're true. There are no ends, just beginnings.

But this year, after the deaths of so many sporting icons, I wonder. We lost a lot of pioneers in the past 12 months, and looking down the list, it seems as if we're almost out the people who built the games, and, to a degree, the nation that loves them. Buck O'Neil is gone. Lamar Hunt is gone. Red Auerbach is gone. So many others: Bo Schembechler, Byron Nelson. A year ago, Wellington Mara.

Buck O'neil
Douglas Jones/Icon SMIBuck O'Neil was the first black coach in the majors and also the oldest man ever to play in a pro baseball game.
Something is happening. Sure, there are still important people in sports, influential people, like Mark Cuban, David Stern, Tiger Woods, the recently retired Paul Tagliabue. But I don't know if they are really pioneers, not in the same way. An era is passing.

I read an article not long ago from a back issue of The Yale Review. It was about the American frontier and its "closing," according to 19th century writer/philosopher Frederick Jackson Turner. Part of Turner's argument was that America would forever be changed when there were no longer any literal pioneers. The American ethos, he believed, would be damaged without that connection to the men and women who settled the hard land. We would, in essence, forget who were are and, one day, cease to be it.

Is the same true for sports? They already seem more entertainment than competition, but when the last of the first generation of modern sport dies, will something important be lost, too? Was the ethos of American sports -- it's not about the money, winners love pressure, risk creates reward, steak over sizzle -- protected by the mere existence of this group of old men?

Maybe this is too much about nothing and that, in 60 years, someone will write about Cuban like we write about Hunt. It's just that so many connections to our past have been cut.

O'Neil died, and with him, a living link to our history.

We can talk about slavery and racism and segregation in history books, but as long as Buck was alive, we were sure someone was out there, making sure we never forgot.

One time, while we were riding in a car around Kansas City, he mentioned the tribe in Africa from which his family descended. I asked if he'd done a genealogical study. Buck laughed. No, he said, he'd just asked his grandfather, who'd been a slave. Buck was a sporting pioneer in the real sense of the word. He changed people's hearts. Near the end, people saw Buck as a cuddly relic. They forgot he was a fighter, a man who forced others to alter the way they viewed their fellow man.

Lamar Hunt
Mike Ehrmann/WireImage.comLamar Hunt loved his Kansas City Chiefs, and promoted hockey, tennis, soccer and basketball.
Hunt died, leaving holes in the worlds of art, soccer, tennis and, of course, football.

He helped found the AFL and forced the NFL to recognize him. This quiet man who rode the subway when he was in New York had the muscle to pull off a coup too challenging for even Donald Trump. Lamar walked what The Donald talked. Hunt named the Super Bowl. He was a part owner of the Chicago Bulls. His fingerprints are all over America.

Taking a tour of Alcatraz once, I laughed when the tour guide mentioned that Texas businessman Lamar Hunt once tried to buy the island. Of course he did. That's the kind of big life he led, a life that seems impossible in today's specialized world.

Auerbach died.

Want to know a few signs that Red was a giant? Legal Sea Foods in Boston banned cigar smoking for every patron except him. With him dead, there is some question whether his favorite brand of cigar will be continued. Seems he was the only reason it was kept in stock. He couldn't stand cheerleaders at basketball games. Quaint, but if you have ever taken kids to an arena and half expected a cheesy voice to bellow, "Destiny on the main stage," you know what I mean.

Red Auerbach
Neil Liefer/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe Celtics dynasty began when Red Auerbach acquired Bill Russell in a trade with the St. Louis Hawks.
The list goes on. Elden Auker, who was the last living man to strike out Babe Ruth.

Wonder how many people are left on the planet who saw both Ruth and Barry Bonds hit a home run? Auker did. Buck did. A day will come soon when there will be no one alive who saw both Y.A. Tittle and Brett Favre. The world will be poorer that day. So while next year will surely bring improvements and innovations to the games we love, it also will bring us closer to a time when those connections are gone.

The remaining giants are few. There's Al Davis. I saw him in a hallway of a Napa Valley hotel a few years back, shuffling along with a walker. His health has only declined since then. George Steinbrenner, who invented the modern sports owner, seems to be in a slow slide.

When they're gone, when there is no Joe Paterno in Happy Valley or John Wooden in Los Angeles, we will have reached the end of one time and the beginning of another. An important generation is passing, and a new one is taking its place. The sporting ethos is evolving, which isn't always a bad thing. It's just different, and there's always danger when a baton is passed.

The whole time I've been writing this, I haven't been able to stop thinking of a barbecue place I loved while growing up. It sat right off Highway 61 in Tunica, Miss. Well, the old man died and his kids took over and now it's a Chinese restaurant. Makes me sad every time I drive by. It's a good reminder. The future is important, but so is the past.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.