- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Bud Greenspan used to take some needling for his rose-colored view of sports and the people who play them, but Greenspan never apologized and thank God he never changed -- especially not when it came to the Olympic documentaries he was best known for. Greenspan used to say that critics who complained that his work was willfully blinkered or egregiously incomplete had their arithmetic wrong, at minimum.
"I choose to concentrate 100 percent of my time on the 90 percent of the Olympics that is good," Greenspan once said. "I find the goodness in people, and I present them as people first and athletes second."
It's interesting to imagine what Greenspan, who died at his New York home on Christmas Day at 84 years old, might have chosen to highlight about the other sportsmen and sportswomen who also passed away in 2010.
An examination of UCLA coach John Wooden, who died just a cross-court pass shy of his 100th birthday, would have been right in Greenspan's wheelhouse. The filmmaker might have found Yankees owner George Steinbrenner a far less interesting character study than the team's first manager during the Boss' tenure as owner, Ralph Houk, who also died this year. Houk was a decorated World War II veteran who won the 1961 and 1962 World Series for the Yankees after returning to baseball with the very un-Steinbrenner-esque view that "I don't think you can humiliate a player and expect him to perform."
Greenspan might have smiled sympathetically at how former NBA center Mel Turpin picked up the nickname "Dinner Bell Mel" at University of Kentucky because a student manager there was assigned to prevent Turpin from snacking.
Being the individualist he was, Greenspan probably would've enjoyed longtime place-kicker/quarterback George Blanda, who played in the NFL until he was 48 years old and once groused that the years he gave up smoking and drinking in his 20s were the worst of his life. (The obvious punch line? Imagine how long Blanda could've played if he had taken worse care of himself. )
Greenspan's deftness as a storyteller could've allowed him to succeed where others failed in understanding what really made a hockey goon like Bob Probert fight or what made Jack ("Call me Assassin") Tatum unable to speak, let alone apologize, to Darryl Stingley for years after his devastating hit on Stingley left the New England Patriots receiver paralyzed.
The way Greenspan covered sports is largely out of vogue now. He worked up close and personal long before "ABC's Wide World of Sports" ever turned it into a slogan. His career began at a time when athletes were still content to be known as people, not brands or entertainers actively cultivating personal fan bases. He often took us to out-of-the-way places where athletes' accomplishments were still received by their countrymen as some proof of national character. Many of the portraits he drew felt like parables about what's possible, even for the least fortunate among us.
The way Greenspan illuminated how people in other parts of the world regard sports was a terrific launch point for the rest of us to compare how we regard sports and our own countries. He liked the out of the way. The overlooked.
The International Olympic Committee hired Greenspan to make its official Olympics film 13 times, and Greenspan was working on his documentary on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games right up to his death.
Greenspan's career spanned the tumult of the 1960s, the Israeli massacre in Munich and the Cold War politics of the '70s and '80s, plus numerous propaganda bonanzas, doping scandals, judging shenanigans and payoffs to IOC members. Yet his films barely mentioned any of that. Still, I believe time will prove Greenspan's apolitical bent had its merits. When you scrub that sort of context out, what are you left with? How about this:
Sports can introduce us to people, but their shows of humanity are why we remember them.
You probably couldn't have dragged Greenspan to watch -- let alone document -- even 30 seconds of "The Decision," LeBron James' 60-minute exercise in narcissism this past July.
But dear, departed Manute Bol would have been Greenspan's kind of guy.
Bol began his 10-year NBA career in 1985 as a gasp-inducing sideshow. He was a 7-foot-6 Dinka tribesman who claimed to have descended from African kings and once killed a lion with a spear in his native Sudan. He went on to immerse himself in the roiling politics and relief efforts in his war-torn country in his post-NBA life. The work Bol did and how it ultimately cost him his life when he died in June at age 47 from kidney failure is awe-inspiring and heartbreaking.
Greenspan was enough of a world citizen to understand how Bol could leave but never quit his strife-torn homeland. Bol's conscience wouldn't let him.
In that way, he was similar to one of Greenspan's favorite subjects, Tanzania's John Steven Aquari. When Greenspan asked Aquari why he insisted on finishing the 1968 Olympic marathon despite a bleeding, injured leg that left him hobbling into the stadium more than an hour behind the early finishers, Aquari eyed him and said, "My country didn't send me 5,000 miles to start the race. My country sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race."
On a more local level, Greenspan, a native New Yorker, could surely relate to Giants slugger Bobby Thomson. Thomson, long before he passed away in August, said the famous home run he hit off Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca to win the 1951 NL pennant -- the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" -- was "the best thing that ever happened to me. It may have been the best thing that ever happened to anybody."
Greenspan excelled at spotlighting how even one moment of athletic transcendence like that -- good or bad -- can resonate a lifetime.
When All-American Girls Professional Baseball League star Dorothy Kamenshek competed in the 1940s, there was no way of presaging that the story of her and her contemporaries would ever be told at the baseball Hall of Fame, or become the subject of a hit Hollywood movie called "A League of Their Own." Kamenshek, who died at age 84 this year, just loved playing baseball for the sake of it.
Cubs fans have said they'll miss Ron Santo for the way he kept his enthusiasm for a day at the ballpark even after late-life physical challenges beset him.
The passing of Sparky Anderson, the only manager ever to win a World Series in both leagues, started a retelling of all the self-deprecating stories he used to tell on himself, such as, "I see now they're even puttin' 'ain't' in the dictionary, so I'm good, man. I'm covered."
People are funny, all right. Don Meredith is probably remembered more for crooning, "Turn Out the Lights, the Party's Over" on "Monday Night Football" than for his All-Pro career as a Dallas Cowboys quarterback.
Walter Frederick Morrison must have understood something vital about play -- the simple pleasure of just goofing around, as opposed to competing. That insight led him to invent the only toy many of us have never outgrown, the Frisbee.
Other notables who died this year include legendary baseball flamethrower Bob Feller, basketball's Dick McGuire and football's Don Coryell, who had "Air" before his last name long before Michael Jordan.
Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell didn't play sports. He was, of course, a radio announcer for the Detroit Tigers the last 42 years of his career. But I have a hunch Greenspan might have loved telling Harwell's story.
Harwell was so good at his job, even as a young man, that Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey traded minor league catcher Cliff Dapper for him in 1948. Sixty-two years later, Harwell, 92, was still sharp as a tack when he died of cancer in May. Watching the dignified, even upbeat goodbye speech he gave at Tiger Stadium shortly after declining any more life-extending cancer treatment was as emotional to Michiganders as Lou Gehrig's speech, in which he claimed to be the luckiest guy in world though he knew he had ALS, was to New Yorkers.
Fans would later eulogize Harwell as everything from their "voice of summer" to "the soundtrack of my youth." They reminisced about his honey-coated Southern drawl and trademark calls such as, "He stood there like a house by the side of the road!" when hitters struck out looking.
Harwell was another one of those people sports introduced us to but whose humanity we'll remember more.
He was a devout man, and he welcomed every new baseball season by reading this Bible passage from the Song of Solomon on air. It began:
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone
The flowers appear on the earth
The time of the singing of birds is come
Harwell was asked in one of the last long interviews he gave whether he had any parting words to his following. Knowing his remarks wouldn't run until after he died, Harwell said something that could stand for everyone in sports who passed away in 2010:
"I hope that you will always remember I was there at one time."
How could we forget?
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.