Mighty sequoias fell in sports in 2016, transformational figures who reshaped the games and the culture — from Muhammad Ali to Gordie Howe, from Arnold Palmer to iconic college women basketball coach Pat Summitt.

Boxer Muhammad Ali, NHL’s Gordie Howe, golfer Arnold Palmer, and women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt. (AP Photos)

And there was loss much too soon. The famous poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” tells of a runner and his town, and how “shoulder-high we bring you home.” So it was with the Miami Marlins and 24-year-old pitcher Jose Fernandez, killed in a boating accident.

FILE – In this June 23, 2015, file photo, Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez stands in the dugout before the start of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Miami. Fernandez arrived in Miami accompanied by a riveting story. On his fourth attempt to flee Cuba, at age 15, he dived into the water to save someone gone overboard. That person turned out to be his mother. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

Along the way, other lives lit up sports across the years:

Baseball said goodbye to a href=’https://www.apnews.com/27cf921592ea46c7a5fd8e6e08d67635/Branca,-pitcher-who-gave-up-‘Shot-Heard-‘Round-World,’-dies’Ralph Branca,/a the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who spent a lifetime discussing his high-inside fastball that Bobby Thomson hit for “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”; Monte Irvin, 96, the New York Giants Hall of Famer who was part of the first wave of top Black players; and Joe Garagiola, the famously mediocre catcher who brought a comic’s touch to the broadcast booth.

Basketball lost Jim McMillian, the Columbia forward who helped the Los Angeles Lakers team of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West win the 1972 crown; Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, the Syracuse dynamo who sent Big East basketball soaring in the 1980s; and Nate Thurmond, a force at center who could anchor any Warriors team of any era.

Gone in boxing was Aaron Pryor, a relentless fighter who dueled with Alexis Arguello in the 1980s. In football, it was Buddy Ryan, the pugnacious defensive master who coached two NFL teams and was coordinator for the dominant 1985 Chicago Bears; Dennis Byrd, the Jets lineman who went on to walk after being paralyzed in a 1992 game; and Dennis Green, who coached Minnesota and Arizona and was the NFL’s second Black head coach.

Hockey mourned Andy Bathgate, the high-scoring New York Rangers right wing and 1959 NHL MVP. Skiing remembered Bill Johnson, the American downhiller who backed up his big talk with Olympic gold in 1984.

Soccer is now without Johan Cruyff, whose wizardry made the freewheeling Dutch of the 1970s the envy of the sport. Joao Havelange, who built FIFA into a global gold mine and a breeding ground for widespread corruption, died at 100.

Bud Collins and Craig Sager will be remembered for their sports journalism and their fashion choices. Collins, in newspapers and on TV, brought insight, wit and heart to tennis, his passion matched only by his wardrobe’s pinks and prints. Sager, a broadcaster bedecked in sports jackets that spilled out of a psychedelic dream, worked NBA sidelines with diligence and humor, and made a gallant last stand against leukemia.


Muhammad Ali, 74

On that last ride, the one through his hometown, the windshield of the hearse was covered with so many strewn flowers the driver could barely see the road let alone the throngs lining the streets.

Muhammad Ali was back where it all began, in Louisville, Kentucky, where he launched a career that would shake up the country and the world like no athlete before or after him.

He was a three-time heavyweight champion, an audacious mix of speed, dazzle and brute force — a stark counterpoint years later to the shuffling man with a whisper slowed by Parkinson’s and countless punches.

His fights with Joe Frazier were an epic trilogy. He shouted and preened. He reminded us he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He proclaimed himself The Greatest. He did it with wit and guile, boasts and taunts, in prose and rhyme, and always with a wink. He understood the needs of the marketplace and the showmanship that goes with ticket sales.

Ali fought everywhere — Germany, Malaysia, the Philippines, Zaire. He said they would know him in an Asian rice paddy, and who would doubt him?

Ali lost prime years as a fighter, refusing military induction during the Vietnam War. He spoke up when that was not in fashion. He changed his religion and his name. He became a flash point for a country on edge.

Time softened the rancor. By the end, he was a national monument, a global ambassador. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he stood, shakily, with torch in hand at the cauldron. Even then, like a butterfly, he could take flight.

“The man who has no imagination,” he once said, “has no wings.”