A Cynic's Guide to NBA Stars' Twilight Years
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
Watching NBA stars in their primes can be a thing of beauty. Viewing them in their twilight years, long after their best days have come and gone...well, that's a different story.
Legacies are tarnished, and memories are altered in negative ways. For all the younger fans out there, as well as the ones with shorter memories, the denouement of the career is what remains front and center in the memory banks.
It's a shame that we have to remember an out-of-shape version of Shaquille O'Neal who bounced from team to team as he sought just one more championship before calling it quits. How many young fans are going to think less of the Diesel when they reach adulthood, simply because they only remember watching the lesser version?
I'm not just trying to pick on Shaq. Plenty of other players have stuck around far longer than they should.
Think about Karl Malone and Gary Payton teaming up with the Los Angeles Lakers. Michael Jordan retired (twice) before coming back and playing with the Washington Wizards.
Hakeem Olajuwon spent a season either injured or backing up Eric Montross on the Toronto Raptors after he was washed up with the Houston Rockets. Remember when Scottie Pippen—well, a lesser version of the lockdown defender—played for the Portland Trail Blazers, instead of the team he helped win championship after championship?
This phenomenon isn't limited to basketball either, but rather all sports in general. A certain Green Bay Packers quarterback should be springing to mind just about now.
It's quite possible that the love of the game is the sole motivation for basketball players to hang around too long. I'm not going to deny that some players truly love the sport and can't imagine it not being the sole focus of their lives (more on this later).
However, I'm way too cynical at this point. Much as I'd love to believe in the purity of these guys' motivations, years of following sports have convinced me that it would be a foolish endeavor.
There are more than a few ulterior motives convincing players to stick around as just shadows of their former selves.
Bad Investments by Teams
I won't spoil anything for those of you who haven't seen Game of Thrones or read A Song of Ice and Fire, but there's a wonderful exchange between Tyrion Lannister and Bronn, his sellsword, right before the Battle of Blackwater Bay.
Standing up on the battlements of Kings Landing, Bronn tells his employer not to get killed, and Tyrion politely returns the sentiment. Except for the first time, he calls Bronn his friend.
This is met by some level of skepticism from the sellsword, and he asks if they're actually friends now. As you might expect from Peter Dinklage's character, the response is fantastic: "Of course we are. Just because I pay you for your services doesn't diminish our friendship."
Running with it, Bronn simply replies, "Enhances it, really."
The relationship between NBA players and the organizations that employ them works the same way. Things might seem buddy-buddy between the management and players, and the interactions of fans and players have a certain level of meaning as well, but it's all about the money.
Would you retire with millions on the table and a set of clearly declining skills?
Tom Cruise would fit in perfectly as an NBA player, because the stars of the Association constantly demand to have their owners and general managers show them the money.
What happens when a player's skills are diminishing, but the money left on the contract isn't? Do you think they're just going to call it quits and fail to make good on an exorbitant payday?
For the most part, they won't. Millions of dollars are hard to turn down when they're on the table—and trust me, I wish I was making that claim on the basis of personal experience.
NBA teams often make lengthy and expensive investments in star players, ones that often become albatrosses down the road. It's worth investing early on to acquire the player's services, but to draw them in, future sacrifices might be required.
It's these future sacrifices made by management groups across the league that enable players to stick around too long.
Have you ever heard the phrase "believe to achieve?"
I guarantee that most NBA players have, and if they aren't familiar with that exact wording, they've certainly heard a similar message throughout their talented lives.
Talent is only part of the equation when making it to the ranks of the Association. A player also has to have supreme confidence in their abilities, because if they aren't fully confident in what they can do on the basketball court, they won't be as effective.
When doubt is present, the rim shrinks. The ball becomes harder to dribble. Other players suddenly start seeming like hybrid reincarnations of Michael Jordan and Bill Russell.
This confidence isn't something that just goes away with age. As the skills begin to deteriorate, the confidence doesn't wane, and that presents players with an interesting quandary: Do they still have to believe to the same extent if they can't perform at such a high level?
At some point, that previously valuable confidence morphs into irrational confidence, which I think of as a slight variation of cockiness.
It's hard to accept limitations, especially when you've been pushing the boundaries of your abilities throughout your entire life. For most NBA stars, they've always been the best at what they do. They dominated in middle school, stood out in high school, performed at a high level in college and then moved on to succeed at the sport's highest level.
How do you just get rid of that type of confidence?
Way of Life
What happens next for NBA stars after they call it quits on their professional careers?
For the best basketball players in the world, this isn't just a game. It's not only a sport, either. Basketball is simply a way of life.
Guys like Kevin Durant and LeBron James play basketball, but they also live it, eat it, sleep it, dream it and breathe it. James Harden even beards it.
Basketball must actually be life if these players want to reach their highest potential. And the scary part is that it's always been that way.
Ever since they were little, NBA players have devoted their lives to the sport. That's true for the middle school, high school, college and post-college chapters of those lives. They haven't had time to focus on anything else.
While there are those who managed to excel in school while thriving on the basketball court, they're unfortunately not as common. I'm by no means suggesting that NBA players are unintelligent or unable to succeed outside of their specialized niche in society, just merely pointing out that there aren't enough hours in the day.
Many players simply weren't able to devote enough attention elsewhere to develop a backup plan. It didn't seem necessary at the time. Not having a backup plan also means that they don't exactly have a plan for life after basketball.
That can be terrifying, and it's certainly a reason why some veterans milk the twilight of their careers as long as possible.
The ultimate goal in NBA career is to win a ring. Retiring with 10 bare fingers is never a good thing, although it's an inevitable end to many players' basketball lives.
When a former star is in the twilight of his career and those fingers are still empty, the ring-chasing can begin. We've seen it happen so many times throughout the annals of the Association's history.
I've already brought up Gary Payton and Karl Malone, who joined the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2003-04 season, but the Glove and the Mailman are by no means the only examples. Basketball is littered with ring-chasers.
Mitch Richmond did the same thing two years early, putting on the purple-and-gold in hopes of ending his career with the Larry O'Brien Trophy in his grasp.
Kevin Willis played until he was 44 and clearly past his prime, finally winning a championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. During that season, the former star and double-double lock averaged a paltry 4.2 points and 3.3 rebounds.
Chris Webber had considered retirement multiple times, but he still joined a loaded Detroit Pistons squad for the 2006-07 season before being knocked out of the Eastern Conference Finals by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
All of those guys are pretty egregious ring-chasers, but it's an understandable decision. It's also one that plenty more players will make from this point forward.
In a lot of ways, all these reasons are fairly understandable ones for players in the twilight of their careers. It might be cynical to deny that former stars are simply playing for the love of the game, but ring chasing, the uncertainty of post-NBA life, irrational confidence and money all come into play.
Sometimes all at once.
Let's hope that the next batch of declining stars can buck the trend and retire in timely fashion.
Enjoyable as it has been to watch their careers progress, it's better to avoid those twilight years. I don't know about you, but I'd rather remember players at their peaks instead of watching shadows of former stars and having those memories tamper with the more pleasant ones.
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