Notable Sports Deaths in 2020: May

By Anthony McClean, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus

As the year slowly begins to wind down, BASN will devote the final 12 days of 2020 to look back at the pioneers, contributors, and innovators we lost during the last 12 months. The specter of Covid-19 has been prevalent all year and the sports world was no different.

Today, we focus on the month of May.


Rick Roberson, NBA star (4/3)

A product of the University of Cincinnati, the Memphis native passed away at the age of 73. As a sophomore in 1966–67, he led the 17-9 Bearcats in scoring with 14.3 points per game (ppg) as well as rebounding with 12.5 rebounds per game (rpg). For his career, Roberson ranks fourth in all-time career rebounding average (12.4), behind only Oscar Robertson, Jack Twyman, and Connie Dierking. Roberson was selected in the first round (15th overall) of the 1969 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA and the New York Mets of the ABA. In seven seasons he averaged 9.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. He played in 423 games and had a .440 field goal percentage, .585 free throw percentage, 3,826 points, 3,522 rebounds and 591 assists.

Jim Tucker, NBA star (4/14)

Tucker, who became a two-time All-American at Duquesne died in Jacksonville, Fla., of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 87. Tucker averaged a double-double over three seasons at Duquesne (16 points, 13.4 rebounds) from 1952-54. With Tucker and Sid Dambrot, father of Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot, the Dukes finished in the Associated Press’ Top 10 in all three seasons (Nos. 4, 9 and 5, respectively). Tucker was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals in 1954 and a year later joined Earl Lloyd as the first black players to win an NBA championship. With the Nationals, who eventually moved to Philadelphia and became the 76ers, he averaged 4.1 points and 3.5 rebounds over three seasons. But he set a record in 1955 that stood for 63 years, coming off the bench to record a triple-double in 17 minutes against the New York Knicks (12 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds) at the Onondaga War Memorial in Syracuse. It was the fastest triple-double in NBA history until the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic did it in 14 minutes, 33 seconds in 2018 against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Bob Watson, NLB star, executive (4/14)

Watson, a two-time All-Star as a player who later became the first black general manager to win a World Series with the New York Yankees in 1996, died of kidney failure at 74. Watson, who was nicknamed “The Bull,” made the All-Star team in 1973 and ’75, hit over .300 four times and drove in at least 100 runs twice while hitting in the middle of the Houston Astros’ lineup. He also holds the distinction of scoring the 1 millionth run in major league history, accomplishing the feat on May 4, 1975, against the San Francisco Giants. Bob rose up to become general manager of the Astros in 1993 and made history as the first African American GM of a World Series Champion with the 1996 Yankees. He then oversaw all On-Field Operations for the Commissioner’s Office and played a pivotal role in USA Baseball’s success internationally, including its Olympic Gold Medal in the 2000 Sydney Games.

Ben Williams, NFL star (4/18)

Williams, who was affectionately known as “Gentle Ben”, passed away at the age of 65. He joined James Reed in 1971 to become the first African-American student-athletes to sign football scholarships with the Ole Miss Rebels. The Williams-Reed Football Foyer, located in the Olivia and Archie Manning Athletics Performance Center, pays tribute to the contributions of Williams and Reed. The Yazoo City, Mississippi, native was a four-year letter winner for the Rebels and the first African-American Ole Miss football player to earn All-America honors, drawing a first team distinction in 1975. Williams was also a three-time first team All-SEC selection and member of Ole Miss’ Football Team of the Century. Williams owns the program record for career sacks with 37, including an Ole Miss single-season record of 18 in 1973. Over his career, he amassed 377 tackles, including a career-high 116 as a senior. The Buffalo Bills selected him in the third round of the 1976 NFL Draft with the 78th overall pick, becoming the first African-American athlete from Ole Miss to be chosen in the NFL Draft. The Rebel legend went on to a terrific 10-year career (1976-85) with the Bills, which included a 1983 Pro Bowl selection. Williams saw action in 147 games for Buffalo, including 140 starts. Williams retired as the franchise leader with 45.5 career sacks. He was later named to the Top 50 All-Time Bills team, the franchise’s silver anniversary team.

Dave Smith, NFL star (4/22)

Smith, a member of the Indiana University (Pa.) Athletic Hall of Fame, died in Washington, D.C. at the age of 73. Smith was the first player from IUP to be drafted by an NFL team. The Steelers selected him in the eighth round of the 1970 draft, which also included Pro Football Hall of Famers Bradshaw and Mel Blount. He started seven games as a rookie and all 14 games in his second season with the Steelers, leading the team with five touchdown receptions.  He was a punchline for Johnny Carson and will forever be on the NFL Films blooper reel. Before Leon Lett showboated on his way to the end zone in Super Bowl XXVII, there was Smith’s infamous blunder on “Monday Night Football” in 1970 remains among the game’s biggest blunders. After Smith reeled in a pass from Terry Bradshaw and was approaching the end zone, he put up his hands to celebrate. Just before he crossed the goal line, the ball popped out of his left hand and rolled out of the back of the end zone for a turnover. The Steelers lost the game, 31-14.

Curtis Cokes, boxer (4/29)

Cokes, a Hall of Fame boxer who held the world welterweight title in the late 1960s, died of heart failure at the age of 82. Cokes took the welterweight title in 1966 with a win over Manuel Gonzalez and successfully defended his title five times before falling to José Nápoles in 1969. He was the first boxing world champion in Dallas history and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003. Known for a counterpunching style not popular with some fans, according to the Dallas Morning News, Cokes prided himself on the punches he avoided as much as the ones he threw. Cokes retired with a record of 62-14-4, then went onto become a trainer. He was in hospice for a week before his death, per the Dallas Morning News.

Roosevelt Taylor, NFL star (4/29)

Taylor, who helped lead the Chicago Bears to the 1963 NFL championship title, passed away at the age of 82 in New Orleans.  Taylor was signed by the Bears as an undrafted free agent after playing college football at Grambling State. He played safety in Chicago from 1961 until 1969 helping lead the Bears to victory in the 1963 NFL Championship game. That season he tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with 9 and was selected to the Pro-Bowl. Taylor, who never missed a game in eight and a half seasons in Chicago, was traded to San Francisco in the middle of the 1969 season. He finished his career with Washington, starting at free safety in Super Bowl VII where the Redskins lost to the Dolphins.  

NEXT: June.

Anthony McClean can be reached via email at

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