Notable Sports Deaths of 2020: November & December

By Anthony McClean, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus

As the year slowly begins to wind down, BASN has devoted the final days of 2020 and the early days of 2021 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 months of November and December.

NOVEMBER

Titus Davis, college football star (11/12)

Davis, one of the greatest receivers in Central Michigan University and brother of NFL receiver Corey Davis, died from renal medullary carcinoma, a rare form of kidney disease. He was 27. The native of Wheaton, Illinois, Davis ranks first in CMU history in receiving yards with 3,700 and touchdown receptions with 37. He is fourth in receptions with 24 and became the first player in FBS history to catch at least eight touchdown passes in each of his four college seasons. He caught a record 13 touchdown passes in 2014 and had four touchdown catches in CMU’s 49-48 loss in the Bahamas Bowl against Western Kentucky. Davis was a four-time Mid-American Conference all-league honoree, earning freshman all-American honors his first season at CMU.

DECEMBER

Rafer Johnson, Olympic decathlete (12/2)

Johnson won the decathlon gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and was the first Black American to be the flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic team. He died at the age of 86 in Los Angeles. Johnson was dubbed the world’s greatest athlete in 1960 when he won the decathlon gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Johnson ran a personal best in the 1500 meters, giving him the gold. He had previously won the silver medal in the decathlon at the 1956 Olympics. Johnson later became an actor, starring in the Elvis Presley film “Wild in the Country.” He worked for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and helped to apprehend Sirhan Sirhan with former football star Rosey Grier after he assassinated Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Johnson co-founded the California Special Olympics and was selected to light the Olympic flame at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

Dick Allen, MLB star (12/7)

Allen, the former Phillies slugger who won over a generation of fans by blasting home runs that often left Connie Mack Stadium, died at his home in Wampum, Pa. He was 78. Allen played nine of his 15 major-league seasons in Philadelphia, beginning his career as the National League Rookie of the Year for the star-crossed 1964 Phillies. He hit .318 that year with 29 home runs, which frequently soared over the ballpark’s left-field roof and into North Philadelphia. Allen had been battling cancer, but a cause of death was not announced by his family. He was a seven-time All-Star and won the American League MVP Award in 1972 with the Chicago White Sox. He also played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Oakland Athletics and finished his career in 1977 with a .292 batting average and 351 home runs.

Roger Moret, MLB star (12/7)

Moret was one of the aces on the Red Sox pitching staff as they reached the World Series in 1975. The lefthander was also one of the most dominant pitchers in Puerto Rican baseball. He died in his home of Guayama, Puerto Rico, at the age of 71 from cancer. Moret played for the Boston Red Sox (1970-75), Atlanta Braves (1976) and Texas Rangers (1977-78). The sidearming Moret’s aim for the strike zone was as erratic as his personality, but when he had control of both he was a capable winner. He led the AL in winning percentage twice for the Red Sox, going 13-2 in 1973 and 14-3 for the AL champions in 1975. Otherwise, he was 20-22 in a nine-year ML career. 

Tommy “Tiny” Lister, WWE wrestler/actor (12/10)

Lister, a former professional wrestler who was known for his bullying Deebo character in the “Friday” films, has died. He was 62. Mr. Lister’s manager, Cindy Cowan, said he was found unconscious in his home in Marina del Rey, California. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Cowan said Mr. Lister was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this year. She said the actor overcame the virus, but he became sick about a week ago and recently had trouble breathing. The cause of death has not been released. Lister started his career as a pro wrestler, standing 6-foot-5 with broad shoulders at about 275 pounds. His early roles included HBO football series “1st & Ten” along with movie appearances in “Beverly Hills Cop II,” which starred Eddie Murphy, and “No Holds Barred,” the 1989 film where his character Zeus challenged Hulk Hogan in a wrestling match.

Charley Pride, baseball star/musician (12/12)

Pride, one of country music’s first Black superstar whose rich baritone on such hits as “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” helped sell millions of records and made him the first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, has died. He was 86. As a young man before launching his singing career, he was a pitcher and outfielder in the Negro American League with the Memphis Red Sox and in the Pioneer League in Montana. After playing minor league baseball a couple of years, he ended up in Helena, Montana, where he worked in a zinc smelting plant by day and played country music in nightclubs at night. Pride was part of the Texas Rangers’ ownership group for the last 10 years. After a failed tryout with the New York Mets, Pride visited Nashville and broke into country music when Chet Atkins, head of RCA Records, heard two of his demo tapes and signed him.

John Smallwood, journalist (12/12)

Smallwood, who was a sports columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News, died at the age of 55. Smallwood started covering Villanova’s basketball team as the beat writer in 1994. Then, he was promoted to columnist the following year. He was a Daily News sports columnist for two decades. During that time, he received a number of honors while covering the Final Four, NBA Finals, World Series, Super Bowl and other major events. Smallwood documented some of sports’ monumental events. He covered the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the Philadelphia 76ers’ run to the 2001 NBA Finals, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ victory at Super Bowl LII in February 2018.

Jimmy Collins, college hoops coach (12/13)

Collins, who coached Illinois-Chicago to the NCAA Tournament three times in 14 seasons, died at the age of 74. Collins led UIC to a 218-208 record from 1996 to 2010. The Flames posted four 20-win seasons and made the program’s only NCAA Tournament appearances in 1998, 2002 and 2004. Collins played for Lou Henson at New Mexico State from 1967-70. He helped the Aggies reach the Final Four in his last season and was drafted 11th overall by the Bulls. Collins spent 13 seasons as an assistant under Henson at Illinois and was one of the main architects of the 1988-89 “Flyin’ Illini” squad that won 31 games and reached the Final Four. He also recruited Deon Thomas, Illinois’ career scoring leader and a former UIC assistant. Collins was inducted into the UIC Athletics Hall of Fame in 2019.

Bruce Seals, ABA/NBA star (12/15)

Seals, who played three seasons for the Seattle Sonics and helped the team reach the NBA Finals in 1978 before spending three decades mentoring children through the Boys & Girls Club, died in Boston after battling cancer. He was 67. Seals joined the Sonics for the 1975-76 season after two years with the Utah Stars of the ABA, reuniting with Slick Watts, who had been his college teammate at Xavier, an NAIA school in his native New Orleans. Seals, a 6-foot-8 forward, started the majority of games in his first season with the Sonics, averaging 11.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game and helping them reach the playoffs. The Sonics lost to Phoenix in six games in the first round, with Seals scoring 28 and 24 points in the final two games. Seals was also a starter the next season, averaging 11.0 points per game. He lost his starting job the next year when coach Bob Hopkins was fired after the Sonics started 5-17. But he remained a valuable reserve, averaging 7.8 points per game while helping Seattle reach the title series against Washington. Seals played the next three seasons in Europe after a contract holdout from the Sonics.

K.C. Jones, NBA Hall of Fame coach/player

Jones was the steady point guard for the Boston Celtics who helped lead the team to eight NBA titles as a player. He passed away at the age of 88 from Alzheimer’s disease. After his playing career, he won three more championships with the Celtics, one as an assistant coach and two more as head coach. He also won the 1955 and 1956 NCAA championship at the University of San Francisco and an Olympic gold medal with Bill Russell, who would also be a teammate with Boston. While in the NBA, Jones was one of the league’s best defensive players. As a head coach, he won the 1984 and 1986 NBA titles for the Celtics with star Larry Bird. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989.

Ty Jordan, college football star (12/26)

Jordan, a star freshman running back for the University of Utah, died at a Dallas-area hospital after accidentally shooting himself, authorities said. University officials announced Jordan’s death a day after he was named Pac-12’s newcomer of the year, but did not release details. Jordan, a speedy 5-foot-7, 200-pound player, emerged from a crowded Utah backfield to become the focal point of the team’s offense. He finished the season with 597 yards rushing, 11 catches for 126 yards and six touchdowns. Jordan came up as a tailback playing in Mesquite, a Dallas suburb, and was a highly touted recruit. He made a seamless transition to the college game, including three straight 100-yard rushing performances to close out the season.

Cy McClairen, HBCU legendary coach (12/28)

Known and loved simply as “Coach Cy,” McClairen was the cornerstone of the Wildcat athletic program, first as an athlete. The Panama City product earned 12 varsity letters from Bethune-Cookman during his playing days, picking up letters in football, basketball and track and field. In 1952, he caught the famed game-winning touchdown pass in the Wildcats’ homecoming upset of Florida A&M. Later that year, he and future Basketball Hall of Famer John Chaney would lead the basketball team to a SIAC championship and a berth in the National Basketball Invitational Tournament, an NAIA regional that served as the defacto Black College National Championship. The Wildcats advanced to the championship game, falling to Tennessee State. After graduation in 1953, “Cy” was drafted twice, first by the Pittsburgh Steelers and then by the United States Army for a two-year tour of duty, where his football skills were utilized during his stint at Fort Sill (Oklahoma) for one of the nation’s top service teams. McClairen then began a successful six year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who in 1955 kept him and cut a quarterback named Johnny Unitas.

Anthony McClean can be reached via email at anthonymcclean@basnnewsroom.com.

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