Part of what makes all of the men on this list great is the desire and the passion they brought to the game of basketball. It is what drove them to work hard and become such great players.
Unfortunately, it is that same passion and desire that caused these men to play basketball a little too long at the end of their careers when they were, in some cases, a shell of their former selves—something that leaves a bad taste with the fans who watched these greats struggle at the end of their respective careers.
There is a certain sentimental value that goes with seeing a great player end his career at the top of his game the way Bill Russell, Jim Brown, John Elway and Barry Sanders did.
It gives the fans a sense of poetic justice that this great player left on his own terms, doing so when he was still quite capable of playing the game at a high level.
Unfortunately, the players on this list did not leave the game of basketball under those same circumstances, but it hardly tarnishes the incredible legacies they've left behind.
It's not as though Michael Jordan wasn't a fine player when he played his final two years in the league with Washington. In fact, he averaged 22.9 and 20.0 points in 2001-2002 and 2002-2003, respectively.
But there's something about the lasting image of Jordan hitting that jumper over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.
It was the perfect microcosm for Michael's career: He stole the ball, dictated the pace of the play, made a move, got away with a little push-off, created space for himself and swished one of his patented mid-range jumpers with seconds remaining to win the championship.
It would've been nicer if that had been the end to his career, but no one can criticize Jordan for having such an intense passion for the game that he decided to come out of retirement for a second time in 2001.
Just look at Robert Parish's statistics his last three years in the league, and you'll understand why he's on this list.
After being a starter his entire run in Boston, Parish was relegated to the bench in Charlotte (for two years) and Chicago (for one year).
In his last three seasons, he averaged 4.8, 3.9 and 3.7 points, respectively, and never played more than 17 minutes per game. Granted, he did win a title with the Bulls in 1996-97, but there would've been some closure for his fans if he had retired after his final season in Boston (1993-94) when he averaged 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Scottie Pippen, one of the NBA's 50 greatest players and a six-time world champion, was never the same once he left Chicago.
After leaving the Bulls following the 1997-1998 season, he never averaged more than 14.5 points or shot better than 45.1 percent from the floor, although he did play for a Portland team (1999-2000) that should've won the NBA Championship.
Granted, it was nice to see Pippen retire with the Bulls, but he was a shell of his former self, averaging just 5.9 points in only 23 games. He obviously played a few seasons too many.
His final two seasons in the league, Kevin McHale started only one game, and his scoring average dropped from 18.4 to 13.9 to 10.7.
He shot just 45.9 percent from the floor in 1992-1993, and his career ended in Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs when Charlotte Hornets center Alonzo Mourning nailed a jumper from the top of the key with seconds remaining to send the Celtics home and McHale into retirement.
During his first 11 seasons in the NBA, Tom Chambers never averaged fewer than 16.3 points. In fact, during five of those seasons, he averaged more than 20 points.
Starting in 1992-1993, he was relegated to the bench, his scoring average dropped and he was never the same. At the end of his career, he bounced around the league, playing for Utah, Charlotte and Philadelphia his last four seasons. His final two seasons in the league, he played a total of just 13 games.
During his days in Denver, Alex English consistently averaged more than 25 points. His final season in the Mile High City, his scoring average dipped significantly from 26.5 to 17.9, though still respectable.
His final season (1990-1991) in the league, English was a role-player for the Dallas Mavericks, averaging 9.7 points and shooting just 43.9 percent from the floor.
When I see Hakeem Olajuwon in a Toronto Raptors uniform, I want to say to him what Jay Leno said to Hugh Grant after the actor was picked up in 1995 for soliciting a prostitute:
"What the hell were you thinking?"
It's obvious that during his final seasons in Houston, Hakeem's career was on a downward trajectory. He could've helped his legacy if he had just retired with the Rockets, but he decided to play for Toronto in 2001-2002, averaging 7.1 and 6.0 rebounds in 61 games.
"The Human Highlight Film" as he was known, Dominique Wilkins never averaged fewer than 25.9 points from 1984-1985 through 1993-1994. Unfortunately, the final seasons of his career did not have the same luster, nor were all of them played in the NBA.
In 1995-1996, Wilkins played professionally in Greece, and, in 1997-1998, he played for Fortitudo Bologna in Italy. His final season (1998-1999) in the NBA saw him average just 5.0 points in only 27 games for the Orlando Magic.
Patrick Ewing, one of the greatest players in NBA history, was never the same after the New York Knicks traded him to Seattle following the 1999-2000 season.
In one season with Seattle, he averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds, and it only got worse after that. During his one year in Orlando (2001-2002), Ewing played 13.9 minutes in 65 games, averaging only 6.0 points and 4.0 rebounds.
We all remember the press conference where Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced he was going to retire because he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It was quite shocking, especially considering that he had just led the Lakers to the NBA Finals where they fell to Chicago in five games.
But after sitting out four seasons, Johnson returned midway through the 1995-1996 campaign, where he averaged 17.6 points and 8.3 assists in 32 games before retiring for good.
Easily one of the greatest players to ever play in the NBA, Moses Malone averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game from 1978-1979 to 1988-1989. In his last full season, 1991-1992, Malone averaged 15.6 points and 9.1 rebounds before playing just 11 games the next season because of a back injury.
In his final three seasons of play, Malone played in a combined 83 games, averaging 4.5, 5.3 and 2.9 points, respectively, as his career came to an end.
Following the 2002-2003 season, Karl Malone had a decision to make: Either stay with the Jazz and attempt to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record, or sign with a contender and make one last run at a championship.
He chose the latter.
Unfortunately for Malone, his final season in the league was riddled with injuries. He saw action in only 42 games and came up just short in his quest for a championship as his Lakers were defeated by the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals in five games.
On Dec. 8, 1999 while playing in Philadelphia against his former team, the 76ers, Charles Barkley tore a tendon in his left quad and was carried off the floor.
However, he worked his way back from injury and returned for one final home game when his Houston Rockets took on the Vancouver Grizzlies April 19, 2000. When Barkley was finished, he left the game to a standing ovation and immediately retired afterwards.
Reflecting on playing in his last game after suffering the quad injury earlier in the season, Barkley said, "I can't explain what tonight meant. I've won and lost a lot of games, but the last memory I had was being carried off the court. I couldn't get over the mental block of being carried off the court. It was important psychologically to walk off the court on my own."
It's not as though Isiah Thomas' production took a nosedive his last few seasons in the league. But his last two seasons did see his production slip, especially his final campaign in 1993-1994, where he averaged 14.8 points and 6.9 assists while shooting 41.7 percent from the floor and 70.2 percent from the free-throw line, all career lows.
What made it all the more saddening was how his final game ended.
In his final home game in 1994, he tore his Achilles in a game against the Orlando Magic, forcing him into retirement at the age of 32.
Larry Bird is one of the best players in the history of the NBA, but unfortunately, the last years of his career were marred by injury.
He dealt with serious back pain and had surgery to remove bone spurs from both of his heels, injuries that caused him to play in just six games in 1988-1989, and in 60 and 45 games his final two seasons in the league.
There was certainly something painful and unsettling about seeing one of the game's greatest players end his career playing through such pain.