Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Best Athletes Who Retired After Winning a Title

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorMay 18, 2020

Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Best Athletes Who Retired After Winning a Title

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    The end of every superstar professional athlete's career isn't always graceful.

    Babe Ruth hit .181 for the 1935 Boston Braves, who finished 38-115.

    Wayne Gretzky scored a career-low nine goals for a 1998-99 New York Rangers team that finished 13 points out of the playoffs.

    And Johnny Unitas had four forgettable games for the 1973 San Diego Chargers, owners of a 2-11-1 record.

    Those three athletes are legends in their own right, and they certainly are not alone in experiencing a less-than-ideal finish to phenomenal careers.

    In fact, only a select few can say their teams went out on top right before they left the game. Perhaps some of those athletes were past their primes, but they left the game as champions.

    Here's a look at the five best athletes in American team sports history who retired after winning a title.

Michael Jordan

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    Jordan retired three times during his illustrious career and did so after winning back-to-back-to-back titles on two occasions, first in 1993 and then in 1998.

    Jordan never missed the postseason during his Bulls tenure, which lasted from 1984-1993 and then from 1995-1998. The "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons knocked Jordan's Bulls out of the playoffs each year from 1988-1990, but Jordan got the last laugh with an Eastern Conference Finals sweep over the Pistons in 1991.

    The rest is history, as Jordan became an icon en route to leading the Bulls to six titles and Team USA to a gold medal win in the 1992 Summer Olympics.

    A brief retirement from 1993-1995 bisected two three-peats for the Bulls, who won from 1991-1993 and then 1996-1998.

    Jordan played a pivotal role on the Finals-winning play prior to both of his Bulls retirements. He found John Paxson for a game-winning three in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals. Then, in 1998, he crossed over Bryon Russell of the Utah Jazz and nailed a mid-range jumper for the win.

    Jordan won the NBA Finals MVP prior to both of his Bulls retirements and the NBA MVP in 1998, when he piloted the Bulls to a league-best 62-20 record despite wingman Scottie Pippen missing 38 games due to injury. At age 35, Jordan posted a league-high 28.7 points per game while playing all 82 contests and averaging 38.8 minutes a night.

    MJ came back to the league a second time in 2001, when he joined the Washington Wizards. He retired after two championships without a playoff appearance in D.C. but still left the game as the unquestioned greatest basketball player to ever live.

Peyton Manning

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    Former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning couldn't have enjoyed a much better second act to his career.

    A neck injury forced him to miss the entirety of the 2011 season. The Colts, who struggled to a 2-14 record and earned the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL draft as a result, decided to go in a different direction and take a new franchise signal-caller in Stanford's Andrew Luck. Manning was released on March 7, 2012.

    The Broncos took a gamble on signing Manning to a lucrative five-year deal, but it paid off quickly as the quarterback arguably looked better in Denver, immediately leading the team to a 13-3 record in 2012 behind 37 touchdown passes.

    Denver won two AFC championships and made the playoffs during all four of Manning's seasons, which were capped by a Super Bowl 50 win over the Carolina Panthers in February 2016.

    Manning struggled in year 17 at the age of 39 (nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions) while batting injuries that kept him out for six games. However, behind an excellent defense and stout run game, the signal-caller was able to help guide his team to its third-ever Super Bowl win.

    Manning soon retired and capped a Hall of Fame career that included five NFL MVP and two Super Bowl wins. He threw 539 touchdown passes and completed 65.3 percent of his attempts for 71,940 yards.

John Elway

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    Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway lost the first three Super Bowls of his career by a combined score of 136-40.

    Although the Broncos faced off against three teams that were NFC powerhouses that won multiple Super Bowls in the 1980s (the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers), it was still a shock to see Denver blown out as badly as they were following a trio of AFC title game wins, all of which came versus the Cleveland Browns.

    Unfortunately for Elway and the Broncos, the team was unable to seriously contend for a Super Bowl in the six years that followed outside 1991, when Denver lost to the Buffalo Bills in the AFC title game. The Broncos wallowed a bit in the middle of the NFL standings but never bottomed out.

    However, an influx of talent on the coaching and personnel levels helped Denver roll beginning in 1996, when players such as defensive end Neil Smith, running back Terrell Davis and wideout Ed McCaffrey joined a team that already had talented stars such as Elway, wide receiver Rod Smith and safety Steve Atwater.

    Denver finished 13-3 in 1996 but was upset by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Divisional Round.

    The following year, Denver went 12-4 but was forced into the underdog role after the 13-3 Kansas City Chiefs won the AFC West, forcing the Broncos to the wild card. That proved to be no problem for Elway, as he expertly guided the team through a loaded AFC playoff field capped by a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and a tough defense.

    They then shocked heavy favorite Green Bay Packers, led by three-time NFL MVP Brett Favre. Elway won the Super Bowl MVP and provided one of the championship game's all-time highlights with his "helicopter run" to help set up a touchdown.

    Elway had one more run in him afterward, piloting the Broncos to a 13-0 start before finishing 14-2. He completed 59.0 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions.

    The playoffs were largely a breeze from there, save for a 10-0 halftime deficit in the AFC Championship to the New York Jets, who flailed in the second half and lost 20-10.

    Denver beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-19 in a Super Bowl that didn't seem as close as the score indicated. He went 18-of 29 for 336 yards and an 80-yard touchdown pass to Rod Smith that broke the game open. Elway also added a rushing touchdown.

    Elway soon retired on top, ending an illustrious Hall of Fame career that included an NFL MVP and nine Pro Bowls.

Joe DiMaggio

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    Not only did Joltin' Joe DiMaggio end his career with three straight World Series titles (1949-1951) while patrolling the Yankees outfield, but he also began his tenure with four consecutive (1936-1939).

    In the middle, he won titles in 1941 and 1947 for nine total. That number could have grown, but DiMaggio sat the 1943-1945 seasons while serving in the military during World War II. Overall, DiMaggio won in nine of his 13 seasons and is second on the team's all-time list for most individual World Series wins (catcher Yogi Berra is No. 1 with 10).

    In 1941, DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games, a record that still stands. No one has seriously threatened his mark in eight decades, with the Cincinnati Reds' Pete Rose coming the closest with 44 in 1978.

    DiMaggio finished his career with a .325 batting average, 361 home runs and 1,537 RBI. He became a Hall of Famer in 1955.

    DiMaggio handed off the keys to the franchise to Mickey Mantle after the 1951 season. The two Yankee legends played one season together in 1951 before DiMaggio's retirement. Mantle played 17 more MLB seasons, all with the Yanks.

    Joe D was still quite productive in his final years, even if his days of 56-game hit streaks and MVPs were past him. He smacked 12 home runs and knocked home 71 runners along with a .263 batting average. A clutch two-run homer in Game 5 of the 1951 World Series helped the Yanks take a 3-2 series edge en route to beating the New York Giants in six.

Bill Russell

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    Boston Celtics center Bill Russell was arguably the NBA's GOAT before Jordan came along, winning 11 titles in 13 years and dominating the low post for a C's team that crushed all of its competition in the 1950s and 1960s.

    Russell piloted a dominant team of superstars that included Bob Cousy, Sam Jones and Tom Heinsohn. In the middle was Russell, a University of San Francisco product who effectively shut down the paint every night with his rebounding and shot-blocking prowess. Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds for his career.

    But he may have done his finest work during his last professional year, in his third and final season as the Celtics' player-coach.

    That 1968-69 team was not as dominant during the regular season as past Boston teams, going 48-34 and finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference.

    They certainly were not favored to win the title as the last playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, especially with four NBA teams (the Baltimore Bullets, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers) atop the league with 54-57 wins apiece).

    But the C's beat three of those four teams to win the NBA Finals, first toppling the 76ers in five games before beating the Knicks in six.

    Up next were the Lakers, who added Wilt Chamberlain before that season to a team that already had Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.

    After both teams split the first six games, the Lakers notably set up celebratory balloons in the rafters of the Great Western Forum to celebrate their hopeful Game 7 win.

    That never happened as Russell led the Celtics to an upset road victory, 108-106. Russell led the team with 21 rebounds and six assists in addition to six points. He averaged 9.9 points and 19.3 rebounds for the season.

    No player in major American sports has more titles than Russell: Ex-Montreal Canadiens center Henri Richard stands with him at 11.