Open Mic: How Long Should Athletes Hang On?

Joe GSenior Writer IJuly 22, 2008

Quick, what's wrong with that picture?

Well for one, that's Christian Laettner in the background, and I still hate his guts. But that's a different story.

No, the problem is that the greatest basketball player ever is in the uniform of the Washington Wizards, nee Bullets.

I'll admit it; I was sad the first time Jordan retired. He was just over 30-years old and quite obviously had some great basketball still left in him. But he cited a loss of desire to play the game, which we as fans have to respect. It's not our place to force somebody to do something that they get no joy out of.

His retirement after the 1998 season probably should have stuck. He was 36 and had six rings. His Game Six performance against Utah in the Finals remains one of the most impressive postseason performances ever. He could have gone out on top like John Elway, never looked back, and everybody would have been satisfied.

We all know how the story ends.

There was no dramatic ride into the sunset. Rather, there was an awkward comeback with a doormat Wizards franchise that had no chance to compete at the time. There was Kwame Brown and missed slam dunks.

This was not the "Airness" that we had come to know and love. He had gone from "Greatest ever" to being just another good player. He threw in some terrible performances. It was M.J. and a bunch of guys he would outplay as an AARP member.

It's kind of ironic to note that his comeback was tied into another famous comeback, that of Mario Lemieux. Super Mario inspired Jordan with his own comeback in the winter of 2000.

But Mario's comeback went a little differently than M.J.'s. His scoring prowess remained when he returned to competition. He showed several flashes of brilliance, including a goal from a faceoff against Buffalo in 2002. And perhaps most importantly, he shared the ice, albeit briefly, with Sidney Crosby.

When he retired in 2006, Mario had scored 22 goals in 26 games, a very respectable haul. But Mario must have noticed something in his own game that the general public had not yet seen, stating, "I can no longer play at a level I was accustomed to in the past." Graceful? Very.

Why wasn't Mario's comeback and re-retirement as awkward as Michael Jordan's? The big reason was that he didn't come back in an unfamiliar environment, wearing a strange jersey. It was as if he'd just stepped out for a sandwich and then returned. He never left the Pittsburgh Penguins family.

But how do players decide when to hang up their cleats/skates/gloves? Ideally, it should be when they can't compete at the highest level anymore. Major League Baseball is not your company softball team, where Jim from accounting can down four hot dogs and a beer right before the game and still contribute in a big way.

As athletes get older, it gets harder to stay in peak condition.

Rickey Henderson is a notable exception, but he probably should have stepped away before he was relegated to bouncing around the Independent Leagues, hoping for another big-league contract. A player of his caliber deserved a proper retirement party, like Tony Gwynn or Cal Ripken Jr.

So why stick around beyond the peak of their abilities? Some players have the idea in their heads that they need a championship to legitimize their careers, and will desperately try to hang on until they can get a ring.

For example, we all think of Patrick Ewing as a Knick, but he spent time in Seattle and Orlando before he retired. Thankfully, he left before the Bobcats were created, or worse, before Isaiah Thomas could re-sign him.

In 1999-2000, his last season in New York, Ewing averaged a very respectable 15.0 ppg. In the next two seasons, first with Seattle and then Orlando, Ewing averaged a miserly 9.6 and 6.0.

What's more, fans who remembered watching Ewing's silky smooth post moves and turnaround jump shots were forced to watch him struggle up and down the court on aging knees. We all wanted him to get that ring, but his body was telling him "no more!" He probably should have listened.

Dan Marino was the anti-Ewing. He walked away gracefully in 1999 after a sub-par season. No title, no flip-flopping, just a nice farewell to the game he loved. He realized that at 38 (same age as Brett Favre), his body and mind just could not take the toll of more NFL seasons.

Could he still have been effective? He would have at least been better than Scott Mitchell/Charlie Batch/any other Lions QB that I can remember. Would he have been able to find a job? Undoubtedly. But no point in embarrassing himself and tainting the memories fans would have of him.

Not all athletes realize that retirement does not have to be the end of their involvement in sports. Many have retired and become successful coaches, scouts, or owners. There is more than one way to leave your mark on the sporting world, and it does not have to be on the field itself.

So, perhaps instead of desperately hanging on to games that are passing them by, athletes should be more willing to change their roles within the game. Mentoring a player from the bench or helping build a championship team can be just as important as scoring 30 points a game.

Most of us like to remember our heroes as great players throughout their whole careers. By understanding when they can no longer compete, they will help preserve this image of themselves. Plenty of fans have a lot of respect for what guys like Mario Lemieux have accomplished while wearing a suit and tie, as well as a jersey.

Athletes need to realize this and step off the field when their body tells them to.