It happens every day: A young life is snuffed out in an automobile accident. It's always an incomprehensible tragedy. How could someone so strong and vibrant -- so alive -- be gone in an instant? And sometimes the story of a life and death touches us almost as if the victim had been a neighbor, a friend, even a relative.
Most of the people who contributed to the memorial in front of Angel Stadium for 22-year-old pitcher Nick Adenhart had never spoken to him. But they felt they somehow knew him, and their sense of loss was real. Many had cheered him on in April as he threw six shutout innings hours before an allegedly drunk driver killed him and friends Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart.
The team kept his jersey in his locker the rest of the season and included it in the celebration after their victory over the Texas Rangers that clinched the American League West title. They jogged en masse to the center-field wall, where a picture of Adenhart throwing a pitch was placed after the crash, and poured beer over his head. It was Southern California's most compelling sports story in 2009.
Another inspiring athlete lost his life this year, and while just as heartbreaking, his death wasn't quite as shocking. When you perform flips on flying motorcycles for a living, you're always one under-rotation away from disaster. Jeremy Lusk of Temecula was coming off his best season as a pro freestyle motocross rider, having won a gold medal in the 2008 X Games, when he crashed during an event in Costa Rica. He died two days later. He was 24.
This year started last year for Kobe Bryant on a parquet floor in Boston. The Celtics were celebrating winning the 2008 NBA title after a 39-point Game 6 demolition of the Lakers. He was already plotting a course, steering his infamous stubborn streak toward a dedication to defense and making the players around him better. Bryant had almost 400 assists last season, but still knew when to turn on the faucet and pour in the points: He averaged 33 a game in the NBA Finals as the Lakers rebounded from the disappointment of 2008, cruising past the Orlando Magic in five games. Bryant picked up his fourth ring -- two shy of Michael Jordan -- and was named Finals MVP.