Losing Our Legends

Greats: Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Brown, Rod Laver, and Gordie Howe, together in 1990. Ticket scalping in heaven is about to be absurd. (Photo by Jim Smeal/WireImage)

 

Loss is hard.

Almost everything in sports is governed by the zero-sum principle: someone wins, someone loses (unless we’re talking about a non-knockout soccer match, the occasional NFL game, or the 2002 MLB All-Star Game). Every day, sports writers and pundits and armchair goaltenders (me) are tasked with talking or writing about loss because it’s just a part of the games we love. Someone has to lose.

Last week, we all lost. Badly.

Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe existed in two different universes. One, a speed-talking, speedier-jabbing, bravado-filled humanitarian from Kentucky. The other, 14 years his senior, a Saskatchewan native everything-man who was simply known as “Mr. Hockey.” In most circles, the passing of these two giants never did more than share a newspaper page. I was as shocked as any to learn of Howe’s passing while simultaneously watching Ali’s funerary procession. But when that reality set in, I was beset by sadness: two men who I’d never met were both gone, and my core was shaken. It was then that I recognized just how unique my relationship to these legends truly was.

There’s no way to miss the fact that Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. is, was, and always will be a Son of Louisville. His winding, 19-mile funeral procession through the streets of Kentucky’s largest city – reportedly years in the making[ADD LINK] – was a veritable showcase of mid-South Americana. As residents were interviewed, the sense was that the world was being invited to see a city that seems lost and forgotten, and has a history steeped in some of this country’s most vile practices. To see Ali’s hearse traveling down Grand Avenue with children running alongside its travels up Broadway were all at once sobering and inspiring. Louisville, Kentucky, America–all coming together to celebrate the life of the one man who had the power to make that union possible.

The Louisville Lip.

And I cried.

I sat in my office unable to speak, watching the stream in a corner of my computer monitor, while my own slight stream of tears flowed from the corner of my eye. If Ali is a Son of Louisville, I’m a stepson. Both of my parents are native Louisvillians (yep, that’s the word. And while we’re at it, it’s “Loo-uhvul”…say “Looeyville” or “Dee-troit” and we’re fighting). Their families are native to Louisville. They grew up in the West End in the 50’s and 60’s, the height of the Jim Crow South. Not only have I heard the stories of my father and his friends being chased for blocks by white teenagers who waited for them outside of the YMCA every day, but I’ve walked and driven the streets on which it happened. I’ve seen the shotgun houses, and can still smell my Granny’s house on Dumesnil Street. My great-grandmother lived around the corner from the Clay home. My mother went to Ali’s elementary school, though a few short years after him. She blows my mind with stories of a young Clay coming to her window when she was a bank teller, and of all of her coworkers swooning; or of the times a younger Clay, standing on the corner with scores of children all around, would proclaim his current and future greatness. I’ll never forget the “rumor” that one of my father’s sisters was dating Clay in high school. A man that was surreal to so much of the world’s population was 100% real to my own family.

So, I cried to see part of my childhood experience broadcast to the world in such an amazingly powerful, albeit knee-shakingly sad light. Ali transcended race – and the racialization of Louisville – through the life he led. Even as a polarizing, imperfect figure, he became greater than the color of his skin and the problems that came with it. There is no better mascot for the Thin Line Collective than the man who, in and of himself, represents all aspects of Race, Sport, and Culture. He deserves more than this; we continue on in spite of that.

Growing up in Metro Detroit, you couldn’t miss the name Howe. Gordie Howe is to Red Wings hockey what Ty Cobb is to Tigers baseball. He is what Mickey Mantle is to the Yankees. He was our own personal living legend.

I like to cite 1994 as the birth of my hockey fandom. While all I can remember is the indelible image of Mark Messier shaking then lifting the Stanley Cup, it was around then that I started paying attention.

Mr. Hockey’s “softer” side.

By that time, Mr. Hockey’s career in earnest was long over. His son, Mark, was a Red Wing seeking a Cup, keeping the legacy alive. Though the Wings lost to the Devils in 1995, the Howe name was still long Detroit mythology. Gordie came back, making a 1-game appearance with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL in 1997 to make him the only player in NHL history to have played a professional hockey game in six different decades. He was Mr. Everything. He innovated the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” – where a player scores a goal, gets an assist, and gets into a fight – because his game was so complete. Really – other than being a pro wrestler, how else do you get your nickname trademarked? How else do you get Wayne Gretzky calling YOU the greatest player ever? He is myth. He is legend.

He is gone.

I started playing hockey in the 6th grade. As I’ve lamented before, there weren’t exactly an abundance of Black players for me to look up to and identify with. But if you didn’t know the name Howe, you didn’t know hockey. Even though his playing career was before my time, seeing the white “9” on the red, winged-wheel sweater still meant a lot. And let’s face it: at a time when the Lions, Tigers, and Pistons all sucked, the Red Wings hot streak in the late 90’s-early 00’s made it easy to become infatuated with all things “Hockeytown.”

As a philanthropist and lifelong hockey addict, Howe continued to put his time, energy, and money into youth hockey. Sure, he’s no Ali in the grand scheme of things; personally, I don’t have that same connection to his legacy as I do to Ali’s. There is no When We Were Kings filmed about a great Howe showdown. But I remember. And he mattered. Even late in life, battling with dementia, Howe’s stem cell surgery gave us all hope and told us that a wounded Mr. Hockey would still live forever.

And as Ali’s hearse made a left turn and my phone blew up with Bleacher Report and SportsCenter alerts about Howe’s passing, I cried.

Death is not easy. It’s the finality that we know is inevitable (unless you’re Philip J. Fry). It puts life into perspective by offering a glimpse of the other side. It shakes us to our core because we learn that even the most exalted of our heroes is not long for this world. Life is the zero-sum game that we, often unfairly, compare our sports fandom to in ways that never seem so egregious until it’s time for us to eulogize.

Two pieces of my childhood left the earth in short order. And part of that little boy doesn’t know what to do.

This piece was originally published on The Sports Fan Journal.

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