The saddest part about any sportsman’s death

To be honest, news of Kobe Bryant’s death on Sunday didn’t really hit me that hard. Sure, it’s sad, especially because his young daughter died with him — along with seven other people I don’t see anyone publicly mourning. But I’m not a sports fan in any way, shape or form. I consider organized sports to be a huge waste of time and money. So Kobe was only ever in my consciousness as some guy who — I think — played for my home team, and I don’t even know whether he was active or retired. And it was… basketball, maybe?

Now that paragraph is going to infuriate a lot of people, but that’s kind of my point, and the point of this piece. The only time I ever see straight men of the uber-masculine “he-man” sort show any kind of emotion is when a beloved sportsman dies or suffers some kind of tragedy. And yes, it’s always a sportsman, never a sportswoman.

Case in point: the sports media couldn’t have given two wet warm shits about HIV and the AIDS crisis until Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was HIV+. Suddenly, it was wailing and gnashing of teeth, and to all of those sports reporters AIDS was the worstest thing ever. Ironically, Magic is still alive, but it took this very weird cult-like behavior around sports figures to start to turn the tide.

And it’s only certain sports. Contrast the reaction to Magic Johnson with the reaction to Greg Louganis revealing, in 1995, that he was HIV positive. He didn’t get the same outpouring of bro love. Instead, he was criticized for daring to injure himself and bleed into a pool in 1988 when he knew that he was HIV+. (No, Magic did not receive any criticism for fucking a ton of women after he was diagnosed. That got crickets.)

By the way, Louganis is also still alive.

Panem et circenses. Bread and circuses. You might recognize that first word as the name of the capital in the Hunger Games series. The idea is to provide meager nourishment and spectacle in order to distract people from the real issues of the day.

And organized sports certainly provide the circus, along with the illusion of nourishment. But what about the deaths that should have given everyone pause in just the first three weeks of this year?

Qasem Soleimani – was it legal or not? Hans Tilkowski, Luís Morais, and Khamis Al-Dosari, all sportsmen who died way too young, but you don’t care because they’re not American and played soccer. Silvio Horta, who wrote for TV and film. Neil Peart, oh yeah, I’ll give you your bitching and whining over that. Elizabeth Wurtzel, bros say “who?” Edd Byrnes, actor we’ve all forgotten. Buck Henry, actor and writer we should not have forgotten (“Introducing Lord and Lady Douchebag!”), Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R. and keeper of the LOTR stuff; Efraín Sánchez and Pietro Anastasi, two more footballers. Er, sorry. Soccer players; Hédi Baccouche, former Prime Minister of Tunisia; Terry Jones, Welsh actor and comedian of Monty Python fame; Jim Lehrer, American journalist.

And yet… the straight white male world only loses its shit over the loss of a person whose talent was bouncing and throwing a ball.

Pardon me for intentionally trivializing, but it really is infuriating when any celebrity death goes into bread and circuses mode and distracts from the really important stuff going on. Yes, let’s take a moment to be sad about it — but let’s not allow it to make us forget all of the far worse things happening right now.

Yeah, Kobe is dead, and I’m sorry for his friends and loved ones, but for all of the impact he actually had on my life (total: zero) I’m not going to waste a lot of time thinking about it. And if it seems like the time I took writing this article was focused on… thinking about him, no, it wasn’t. It was more invested in thinking about all of the other people we’ve lost in the first 26 days of 2020.

Icons passing

One sure sign of incredible talent is becoming a cultural icon. What defines a cultural icon? Somebody who is famous for generations after they’ve actually done their final work. One of the major examples in the Western World is, of course, William Shakespeare. You know his name. You know his plays. All of this even though he died 408 years ago, which is 287 years before anyone now living was born. Yes, you read both of those numbers correctly.

Closer to home, though, there are names of people I can mention who did their final work and/or died long ago that are still known to all current living generations, right down to Millennials, and probably even Gen-Z: Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Marilyn Monroe. James Dean. The Marx Brothers. Charlie Chaplin. Buster Keaton. I mean, just the fact that every one of those links goes to an official site for the named person should tell you a lot, considering that they all died before the internet was officially born.

It can go back even further — Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Aeschylus. And if you throw in political leaders like presidents and monarchs and emperors, the list gets really long. In your own lives, it includes your parents and grandparents and, if you’re lucky, maybe even at least a great-grand round, if not great-great.

So when we lose true icons during our own lifetimes, they become a matter of mass mourning across generations, and we lost two of them this week. I’m referring, of course, to Doris Day and Tim Conway. It’s a perfect example of how humans are naturally drawn to contrasts — it is far more tragic when comedic actors pass away.

It’s also very telling that their deaths blew up social media.

I saw posts from people of all generations about both of them, even though Day was 97 and Conway was 85. She made her last two films in 1968, then went on to focus on animal welfare, only coming back to do a brief TV talk show in the 1980s, most notable for her interview of previous co-star and good friend Rock Hudson, who was visibly emaciated due to AIDS. He would die because of it a year later — the first high-profile public figure to be outed in this manner. Ironically (because he’d always been closeted until then), this was a big impetus for the whole gay rights AIDS treatment/ACT UP movements. Doris stuck by him through it all and all the way to the end, which says a lot about her character. This also made her a gay icon, more on which below.

Her film career and music career almost completely overlap — 1948 to 1968 for the former, and 1945 to 1967 for the latter.

As for Conway, although he kept working into this century, after doing one episode of 30 Rock in 2008, he only made two more appearances in 2013 and 2015 on TNT and the Hallmark Channel. Arguably, though, he is probably most well-known for his role in The Carol Burnett Show from 1975 until it ended in 1978 — kind of surprising, really, since the show actually ran for eleven seasons, beginning in 1967, and yet he is mainly associated with it. The big reason that Conway became iconic for those three years is because the show was syndicated and, like I Love Lucy, has been rerun almost continuously since it went off the air.

There’s another icon for you. Lucille Ball. When Gillian Anderson popped up playing her in American Gods, you didn’t need any explanation no matter how young you are. See how that works?

For me, I first saw a lot of those classic Doris Day films in the 80s and 90s thanks to the miracle of video rental. And, by that point, since we all knew that Hudson was gay and he was dead, it made those rom-coms they made together in the 50s and 60s all the more… interesting. She always had this reputation as being virginal and he’d always had the reputation of being homosexual, so they were sort of the perfect couple. Toss in Tony Randall — who was the prissiest straight man on the planet — and it became really entertaining high camp.

There’s a reason that Doris became a gay icon, at least in WeHo in the 80s and 90s, and a lot of that had to do with a place called Video West — sadly, another victim of the internet and streaming. They had all of her movies, and I think they might have even had a Doris Day section, so the old queens who ran the place passed the torch to us twinks who were renting.

And so on.

But she also became an icon to everyone else for very similar reasons. She did the right thing when it was necessary, and she made some really entertaining films over the course of only twenty years. Imagine that for a second. Her film career was only about one fifth of her life.

As for Conway, as I mentioned above, he  actually benefited from the internet, because so many of his clips from The Carol Burnett Show wound up online thanks to that show being replayed constantly, and a YouTube search for “Tim Conway Carol Burnett” will turn up a treasure trove of clips. (Currently, of course, it will also result in a lot of news stories lamenting his passing, but that’s just how it works.)

One thing I loved about Tim was that he could make anyone else on stage with him crack in a heartbeat while keeping a straight face, and one of the most famous moments in which he did that is his “Elephant Story” from a “Mama’s Family” sketch on The Carol Burnett Show. Here it is:

If this one doesn’t make you fall on the floor laughing, you have no soul. He’s clearly making it up on the fly, so he’s an improviser after my own heart, but the more sincerely he does it, the harder he makes it for everyone else not to just lose it. This is comedic brilliance, it is why Mr. Tim Conway is an icon, now and forever, even if you were born two or three decades after he last appeared on Carol’s show. (And Vicki Lawrence is no slouch for having added the button to the scene that kills everyone.)

As for Doris, let me leave you with this — one of her most famous songs in a famous Hitchcock film, Que Será Será from his second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

By the way, she really nails the Spanish pronunciation, too. In context, she’s singing the song in order to send a signal to her kidnapped son that Mom and Dad are here, which makes the lyrics even more meaningful near the end. This is basically a woman with a metaphorical gun held to her head trying to put on a brave face, and Doris nailed it.

So there you go. There are reasons that people become icons, and Doris and Tim definitely earned that status. The Earth is a sadder place for them having left it, but we are fortunate that what they left behind is so damn wonderful. Search them up, watch their stuff, and enjoy. They’d like that.

Who are your favorite icons who died long before you were born? Share in the comments!