Bryon Russell's Comeback Trail Destined for Dead End

Keith Schlosser@KnicksJournal Analyst IMarch 25, 2009

DENVER - JANUARY 7:  Bryon Russell #9 of the Los Angeles Lakers moves the ball during the game against the Denver Nuggets on January 7, 2004 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.  The Nuggets won 113-91.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by: Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Judging by the increasing frequency of retired NBA stars striding to make a “come back,” it is understandable why more and more are trying to recapture that excitement and steady stream of cash. 

Notwithstanding the desire to regain their old “magic,” however, the odds are decidedly against them—perhaps for the benefit of the NBA. 

Former forward Bryon Russell has become the latest NBA retiree to wonder; “what if?” as he has  announced that he is attempting an NBA comeback.

It is safe to say, however, that a successful comeback is wishful thinking at best. That goal of Russell’s has been inflated by the many who, like him, have wanted to attempt a comeback in recent years. Various signs point to a failed attempt. 

So just how realistic is this goal?

To his credit, while Russell did not garner any awards during his 12-year career, he was a recognizable member of the Utah Jazz squads that battled Michael Jordan’s Bulls for the championship title in the mid-'90s. He was known for his defense and three point shooting.

He last played in 2006, but now claims, like many who desire to come back, that he is in great shape and could play 20 minutes a game. The only problem is, he had not been capable of doing that for a team since the 2001-02 season.

After that season, Russell’s production began to drop—his points per game average dropped over five points, from 9.6 to 4.5, the following season. He battled through two more seasons of injury, but never truly regained his form.

He was aiming to catch on with a contender this season in time for the playoffs, but that never came to fruition. He will now be forced to look for work this off-season or wait again until this time next year. After going through it all, what would make him think he could truly come back?

It is quite easy to understand. Russell is undoubtedly experiencing what many retired NBA stars face.  He left the game at the age of 36, which is a very young age for the average American to “retire.” He also had to adjust to a quiet lifestyle after the rush of NBA excitement, where the media swarmed his team’s locker room during a chase for the title.

Not to mention, he had a great income as a professional basketball player. A recent study shows that 60 percent of NBA players go broke five years after retirement, so the sudden drought of cash has to be disheartening to a player out of work.

The current economic doldrums surely do not help.  Once an NBA star, Dennis Rodman has been seen playing for minor league ball clubs in addition to appearing on various reality shows. These guys were once living the dream and the change of pace has to be a shock to the system.

All that considered, Russell probably would not be able to live the dream any longer. He is now 38 years old. Not only do players lose a step or two as they get older, but the NBA is becoming a league occupied primarily by young upcoming players.

The league’s average age, and a player’s success rate at an older age, have both decreased since Russell’s playing days, which makes the chances of Russell, and players like Allan Houston and Penny Hardaway, quite slim.

Houston has attempted to come back each of the last two seasons, only to be bounced from Knicks training camp both times. He saw a total of six minutes of play in preseason matchups during those two years.

Hardaway, who underwent micro fracture surgery (the same procedure that Russell has undergone), had an unsuccessful stint with the Heat.  Although Hardaway played over 20 minutes a game, he only lasted 16 games before being waived by the team. He shot a career-worst 37 percent from the field.

Last February, big man P.J. Brown came out of his retirement to join the Celtics (a team that Russell hoped to catch the attention of last month) with the team looking to add some “veteran savvy.”  Brown ended up playing in 18 games averaging nearly 11 and a half minutes, posting up averages of 2.2 points per game and 3.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 34 percent from the field.

While having a veteran presence in the locker room is a positive, how much of an impact could Brown possibly have made with those numbers?

An NBA player's comeback attempt, especially in the middle of the season, causes more distraction than anything else. These futile attempts are really nothing more than publicity stunts.

Furthermore, just because a player has experience does not qualify him to sit out half the season or longer and then snatch minutes that the younger players have trained and fought for all season. It puts the younger players at a disadvantage, inhibiting their ability to gain experience through more playing time.

Brown’s engulfing playoff minutes in Boston caused up and coming big man Glen Davis to miss some sorely needed chances last season.

The attempted comebacks of guys like Russell only tarnish their legacies and distract the league.  Chances are Russell’s bid will fail as many before him have and many more will in the future. 

Perhaps it’s time for these former greats to fade graciously into the background, turn the page and go on to the next chapter of their lives.