End-alls, Not Be-alls

July 28, 2014

Everyone is in search of perfect endings. No matter how much we enjoy a film or a book, it's ruined if the last scenes or pages disappoint. (See The Sopranos.) We want close games to finish the right way, on an athlete's heroism, not on a referee's call or a wild pitch. We look for poetic, fantastic, emotionally compelling last acts. Come through in the clutch. Go out strong. Stick the landing.

It is no different with the careers of great athletes. We expect them to have storybook finishes, and when stars come out of retirement or stay way past their prime, there is always a collective cringe over damage to their legacies—which is to say, to our memories of who they were. Athletes are aware of this too. In grooving a fastball to Derek Jeter in the All-Star Game last week, Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright was hoping to create yet another moment in what has amounted to a seasonlong standing O for the Yankees' legend.

Even when a final act seems perfectly scripted (as Jeter's promises to be), there can be a temptation to rewrite it. Swimming icon Michael Phelps, who two years ago earned his record 22nd medal in what we thought was his final Olympics, is beginning his comeback. He and Jeter are passing each other on a moving walkway, one headed toward the exit as the other rejoins the fray.

At 29, Phelps is still young enough to have a reasonable chance to at least come close to peak form. His first few races have been encouraging—he won the men's 100-meter butterfly in the Bulldog Grand Slam on July 11 in 51.67 seconds, less than a half second off his gold-medal-winning 51.21 in the 2012 Games. Still, his finish in London seemed so neat, with four gold medals and two silvers. "You get a question like, What will this do for your legacy?" Phelps said before a meet last month. "It doesn't matter." In the spring he had talked of traveling, playing golf and gaining 30 pounds during retirement—and of how badly he missed being in the pool. "If I don't become as successful as you-all think I would or should be and you think it tarnishes my career," Phelps said, "that's your opinion."

Why can't we accept that endings are like beginnings? They aren't always magical or memorable, and sometimes they're just messy. There was no reason to pity Michael Jordan when he decided to tack on a couple of mediocre—by his standards—years with the Wizards to his nearly flawless Bulls career. We went overboard on the mockery of Brett Favre when he played about three "final" seasons before retirement finally stuck. Great players shouldn't be shamed for having a hard time letting go.

Sometimes they see the difficulty of the transition coming. At 35, Kobe Bryant knows that time is running short on his NBA career. "I'm afraid," Bryant said last Friday at a promotional event for Showtime. "It's about having that next wave of things, which is scary as hell, but it's fun at the same time." It wouldn't be a shock if Bryant, whose single-minded passion is one of the qualities that has made him a star, one day finds it so difficult to settle into retirement that he pulls a Phelps. If he does, or if he eventually extends his career in some sort of off-the-bench, limited-minutes capacity, so be it. Let Kobe decide whether to play on; we can decide whether to watch.

Placing so much value on the way the greats exit is ultimately shortsighted because the endings that are less than classic tend to fade from memory anyway. Does anyone really recall that Ronnie Lott played his last two seasons as a Jet? That Steve Carlton finished up with the Twins? That Mark Spitz, winner of seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, came out of retirement at 40 but failed to qualify for the '92 Games?

Lesser players can hang on as long as they want—Julio Franco was just DH'ing for the independent Fort Worth Cats at 55—but legends are not accorded that luxury. If Jeter chose to come back to the Bronx, there would be tsk-tsks about his inability to adjust to life after baseball. But that, in Phelps's view, is our problem. A fitting ending is whatever the athlete wants it to be.

When stars come out of retirement or stay past their primes, there is always a collective cringe over damage to their legacies— which is to say, to our memories of who they were.

Which legend left the game at just the right time?

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PHOTOJOHN BURGESS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

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