I was as surprised by the reaction to Michael Jackson's death as I was the death itself, though I shouldn't have been. Is there anyone in sports whose death we'd react to in a similar way?
I don't mean that in a glib way. (Mostly.) The strangely moving aspect of Michael Jackson's death was how we so quickly dismissed the freakshow he'd become over the last 20 years and focused almost solely on the music, and just how fucking great it really was. His death shouldn't have shocked us as much as it did; clearly, something was wrong with that guy. But it did what death is supposed to do: It gave us the needed perspective to hark back and reevaluate the artist, understand what it was we'd truly lost, give us something to all share as one. If you would have told me two weeks ago that Michael Jackson's death would turn into a week of shared grief, I would have thought you were crazy. That weirdo? Come on. And now that it has happened, in retrospect, it seems obvious we'd react this way. We'll actually all remember where we were when Michael Jackson died. Never would have thought that.
And it got me to thinking: What sports deaths would cause us to have that reaction? Who in sports could die right now and jolt people in that way? Who would shake us like that? Whose death would cause such an unconscious re-evaluation?
So, this week's Ten Humans is a thought experiment. It's my list of the 10 people in sports who, if they were to die tomorrow, would inspire similar recalculations in the public consciousness. Whose death would affect us the most? It's a little morbid, I grant you. But I think it's instructive.
A few parameters to let you know where I'm coming from:
1. Age Matters. If, say, Willie Mays died tomorrow, it would be tragic and awful, and it would cause countless reminisces from Baby Boomers — I'm pretty sure there'd be a Bob Costas-Billy Crystal special within the hour — but I'm not sure it would be shocking. That is to say: Willie Mays is 78 years old. The same goes for Vin Scully, or Bob Pettit. Epic figures. Great men. But old. Their death loses points because of their own longevity. Sorry.
2. Culture Importance. Stan Musial was a better baseball player than Pete Rose, but he hasn't contributed nearly as much to the national conversation as Charlie Hustle. We account for that.
3. Historical Recalculation. When Michael Jackson died, we really did dismiss the weirdness — and, perhaps, evil — and remembered what truly made him great. We even felt a little bad for forgetting about that in the first place. That's a factor too: Roger Maris' death grew in significance because we had pegged so wrong in the first place. Our own guilt, revisited upon death, adds to the equation. It's the Man, now that we look at it, we were harsh to that guy principle.
4. Shock Value. Obviously, we remember Len Bias' death more because he was 22 when he died. In the same way you are inherently sadder when a relative dies suddenly than you are when they've spent 15 years slowly wasting away in a funeral home. It's not fair — after all, dead is dead, and it sucks to die no matter how old you are — but them's the breaks.
5. Specific Vivid Memories. The true joy from the Tyson movie — the only real joy, if you ask me — is watching the montage of knockouts, those massive bursts of violence that made him Mike Freaking Tyson. Anyone who watched sports back then remembers just how amazing it was to watch Tyson, and can share those memories, in the same way you could share memories of the Michael Jackson Trapper Keeper you had in the third grade.
Anyway, those are the parameters I'm working from here. What deaths would effect sports fans in a Michael Jackson way today? Here are my nominees. Let's hear yours too.
Muhammad Ali. Kind of a no-brainer, and even though he's old — only 67, actually — and feeble, the public outpouring of affection for him would be enough to stop most normal conversation for a day or so. ESPN's upcoming "30 for 30" documentary series — which you'll be hearing a ton about over the next couple of months — features one film on Ali's fight with Larry Holmes, back when Ali had a mustache and got himself pummeled. It's going to inspire a whole other round of Ali worship ... not that he'll need it. Ali was dominant, important and charismatic, and his late-in-life deification has allowed most people to forget how truly (and unfairly) despised he was at one point by the national media that now reveres him. I think Jeremy Schapp will be on television for 30 consecutive hours when Ali dies.
Charles Barkley. It's insane what Barkley gets away with, even today. Let's not forget: Not only did he get charged with a DUI a few months ago, he told cops it was because "I was gonna drive around the corner and get a blow job." He took a month off, and by the time he had returned, everyone had forgotten about it. Barkley is charming, funny and hilariously blunt, and all this obscures that there seem to be some legitimate demons bubbling underneath there somewhere. (The guy threw a man through a plate-glass window.) Generally speaking, we've all had this quiet grand vision for Barkley; he's too smart and fascinating not to run for public office, or cross over to the mainstream non-sports culture in some dramatic way. But he's not living the most healthy life either. If Barkley died, there would be a palpable sense of loss, and what might have been. Plus, you could just run clips of him talking for about three full days.
Steve Bartman. The glory of Bartman is that he shut up. The guy could have had a reality show by this point, or become some sort of unofficial Cubs spokesman in the wake of the 2003 NLCS. But he didn't. He released one statement about his broken Cubs fan heart, and then was never heard from again. Still, we've all kind of assumed that at some point, he'd return, perhaps right before the Cubs made it to the World Series again, and all would be forgiven. Cubs fans would realize how awful they were to him — and they were quite awful — and the guy could reach full absolution by throwing out the first pitch. I bet he'd get a standing ovation, and we'd recognize the depth of our sins. But what if that didn't happen? What if he were hit by a bus this week? We'd never have closure on the Bartman story, never have a full conclusion to a story that we cruelly invented for him. Bartman would end as a ghost, just two minutes in the public eye, vanishing forever, leaving us alone, dealing with what we had wrought.
Larry Bird. Oh, heavens, to imagine the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth from the aging white sportswriter set! Bird was heaven-sent for the casual sports fan: Talented, hard-working, scrappy and, yes, white: He became the example of Doing It The Right Way even while hundreds of others were also, lo, doing it the right way. Bird's death would bring forth all the stories about how There Can Never Be Another Bird, even though there are Birds everywhere, particularly people fortunate enough not to have grown up in French Lick. Bird dying would be an elegy for a time period that never actually existed. And Lord, in New England no one would stop drinking for a month.
Magic Johnson. Along those lines, Magic's death would hark us back to that day in 1991, when two different worlds collided in a way nobody quite understood. In a way, Magic should die of a heart attack, or a kitchen accident: Something that has nothing to do with this HIV at all. (Considering it has been 18 years since he was diagnosed, this seems somewhat likely.) Magic has gone through so many incarnations that his death might, in a fashion similar to Michael Jackson, remind us of his true genius as a basketball player, rather than the embarrassing spectacles of his television work. We'd all find ourselves lucky to have had the extra time, even if he didn't always use it wisely.
Michael Jordan. Man, lots of basketball players here. Still, the other MJ has to be included. He's probably the closest we have in sports to a Michael Jackson, actually, someone who came around and dominated at the exact perfect social time to have everyone on the planet watching his every move. Jordan had our complete attention in a way no athlete has had since, and surely, the first week of retrospectives would be just like Jackson's, with everyone talking about where they were when he hit the Ehlo shot, or won his first title, or retired (the first time), or beat Byron Russell. We don't have many true traveling roadshows anymore, the circus coming and taking over, and Jordan and those Bulls teams might have been the last glimpse of it. Jordan's just young enough to that we'd all wonder what his next step would be; it still seems unbecoming that the great Jordan's final act could be as absentee president of the freaking Bobcats. There has to be a third act, right?
Pete Rose. For years, people have said the only way Rose is going to make the Hall of Fame is if he's willing to wait until after he dies. Well, we'll find out! I happen to be of the belief that Rose's sins were far worse and for damnable, in baseball terms, than using steroids or HGH or whatever, but with every year that passes, it's more obvious that my view is in the minority. Rose — a guy who becomes more profoundly unlikable the more you learn about him — could benefit from the whitewashing death provides a reputation, and he'd be seen as the sad exile rather than the monstrous pit of self-indulgence he ultimately became, and probably always was. A baseball player was once anonymously quoted as saying, "the only way you'd like Pete Rose was when he wasn't in the room." Death is the ultimate exit from the room. Rose's sins are the sort that we can't forgive while he's alive ... but are easy to let go once he's dead.
O.J. Simpson. There will be no re-evaluation on O.J.'s death: He'll go down in history as a brutal double-murderer, as a relic of a decade in which we, as a country, made a compulsion out of meticulously obsessing over events that didn't actually matter. (Simpson trial, Monica Lewinsky, Y2K.) In fact, it won't be as an athlete that we'll ever really think of O.J. Unlike Michael Jackson, it seems unlikely there will be a revisiting of Simpson's athletic career. As accomplished as his gridiron life was, there were no signature champion moments that could be replayed to offset the wretchedness of what would come later. O.J. was the beginning of empty, gawking culture, a culture we all revel in. Now we use it as distraction. Back then, the rest of the world, the part that didn't involve the O.J. trial, was the distraction. Simpson will be a symbol of a time in American history in which we were all very, very stupid. It seems fitting.
Mike Tyson. Even more so than Magic, the secret surprise about Tyson is that he didn't actually die before now. Tyson has comfortably settled into pseudo tragic hero / comedic punchline now, which is odd, because it wasn't that long ago that he seemed the very nexis of our entire sporting culture, the dividing line between Real Sports Fan and Gawking Sideshow Rubber Necker. Tyson's death would be perhaps the most similar to Jackson's; we watch the old videos of him and be reminded how dominant, how violent, how holyshit he really was at one point. His highs didn't last long, and they were over by the time most of us graduate from college, but at its best, there was nothing like it. It would be worth it to watch that over and over, and I suspect, ultimately, we'd forget the Robin Givens and the Mitch Green and the eating of children.
Vince Young. Ideally speaking — at least for this column's conceit — Young would have died three years ago, when he was at the peak of his powers, the amazing Texas quarterback who pulled off one the greatest single-game performances most of us have ever seen. He could have been our Len Bias then, the one who got away. Instead, he went pro, and that's when all the great college stories explode. But with Young, there's the sense of a mental issue, something in his brain standing in the way, an inner torment that perhaps even he does not understand. Young would be the ultimate little-boy-lost, a superhuman talent who reached the top and then collapsed before any of us, particularly him, noticed what was going on. Any list like this needs a true athletic tragedy. Young's is already happening. Hopefully he can turn it around ... but, as the song goes, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think.
Other nominees: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Wayne Gretzky, Pele, LeBron James, Mark McGwire, Terrell Owens, Cal Ripken, Derrick Rose, Bud Selig, Bill Simmons, David Stern, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods.