You want to cause a splinter within the ranks of the Solar Temple of Michael Jordan followers? Ask them whether they think MJ’s second comeback with the Wizards was a good idea. It’s like if Lauryn Hill dropped an album this year: Half her fans would be thrilled to snatch up anything by L-Boogie, while the other half would be terrified of the potential damage to her legacy when she’s clearly not at the top of her game right now.
But really, the concept of “going out on top” is one that has become strangely unique to sports. Since “regular” people don’t make enough money, the prospect of retiring at 35 isn’t fathomable; plus no one is offended if a teacher or a mailman hangs on well past their prime — in fact, we usually applaud it. And because entertainers are born camera addicts and attention sluts, no one expects them to walk away at their peak. (Why else did I see Smokey Robinson squeezing into leather pants and Rod Stewart‘s reanimated corpse jamming on “American Idol” this year?) Physically and financially, athletes are the only ones in position and expected to retire early — only no one can truly determine when it’s too late.
Jordan wasn’t Chicago-style dominant in Washington, but the fact that he was able to occasionally drop 40 or 50 points proved his comeback wasn’t a bad move. For Brett Favre? We’ll find out in one of those midseason Ice Bowls in Chicago or Green Bay. Closer to home for me, Ken Griffey Jr. has been generally bad in ’09, but he’s provided enough memorable moments to make his farewell tour worthwhile. And if Griffey decides to retire at the end of the season, most Seattleites would agree it’s the right time.
This upcoming NBA season, quite a few players and fan bases will face a similar scenario.
“You may not even realize it now, but you’re gonna miss watching guys like Grant Hill, Shaq and Kidd when they’re gone. When all you’ve got left is memories and YouTube, you’ll regret not catching more actual games.”
That was the last of my 21 reasons why you need to get NBA League Pass. Several players fit that description of guys we could be seeing for the last time, and come next summer, they’ll have some tough decisions to make. Each of the players listed below has a contract that expires (or they can opt out) in 2010. Will that be the right time for them to walk away?
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Ray Allen — If the Celtics win a championship, Ray could conceivably retire closest to the top of his game (and healthy) as any athlete we’ve seen since Barry Sanders. No longer a threat to score 25 every night, he’s still an All-Star performer at 34 years old. And Ray will have a TV job waiting for him whenever he leaves.
Tracy McGrady — It’s not that T-Mac hasn’t been the same player since his back really became a problem in 2006; It’s that he hasn’t been the same player nearly as often as he used to be. Slated to pull down $23 million next season, Mac may want to gracefully bow out before he has an embarrassing, Iverson-like summer of 2010 where very few teams will want him.
Shaquille O’Neal — He’s on TV so much you’d think he’s already retired. Phoenix’s medical staff may have breathed an extra life into Shaq’s career, but I’m seeing this Cleveland thing going two years, tops.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas — A sure starter on the Cavaliers’ all-time team (sorry, Brad Daugherty), Big Z is being moved to the bench in real-life, a sure sign that the end is near. A championship or even a Finals appearance would be a nice capper on Z’s career.
Grant Hill — He could’ve signed with a title contender this summer, but either Grant thinks he still has time to chase a ring later, or he’s decided he wants to retire in Phoenix like the other 75% of the people who live there.
Jermaine O’Neal — You know how everyone says Hill is a “young 36” because he basically took a few years off recovering from injuries? Jermaine is an “old 30,” straight from the Jamaal Magloire Academy. Even with the center position in the NBA as thin as it is, this could still be J.O.’s last go-round as a regular starter.
Marcus Camby — So long as he escapes from L.A. standing on two feet, he can still contribute to a contender. Camby has a few more years left to be the next Theo Ratliff before “he can block some shots” no longer justifies the “he only plays 43 games a year” part.
Ben Wallace — He almost quit this summer, but like Griffey, decided to go on a retirement tour with the franchise that made him famous. And just like the Mariners are sitting Griffey out of games regularly, the talk out of Detroit is that Wallace will only see about 5-10 minutes a night. He’ll almost certainly be done after this season. Next up: Is he a Hall of Famer?
Derek Fisher — Maybe he’s the one waiting for Phil Jackson to retire so he can take over. Question: When Fish is coaching the Lakers and Kobe gets on a hot streak, will he tell L.A.’s point guard to purposely jack up a three to break up Kobe’s run, or just get a wistful look in his eye?
Peja Stojakovic — Dick Vitale will pass up a chance to cover a Duke/Carolina game (at Duke) before Peja passes up his option to make $15 million in 2010-11.
Juwan Howard — He’s actually a free agent right now, but I’m foreseeing a brief stint with somebody this year (Chicago?) before bringing the Fab Five era to its official end.
Shaun Livingston — The Thunder have put Livingston in a position to succeed, as the clear backup to Russell Westbrook and the clear second-stringer ahead of Kevin Ollie, where he’ll get decent minutes on a team for which expectations won’t be too high. But if Livingston doesn’t get his game back to where he wants it to be and has to prove himself to another team just to get a contract in 2010, would he instead throw in the towel at 24 years old?
Jerome James — I’ll always remember an interview with Ray Allen back when he and Jerome were on the Sonics, when Ray said Jerome was different from the rest of the guys because he didn’t love basketball. It wasn’t even meant as criticism, just a fact: James didn’t grow up playing ball and dreaming of being in the NBA. He was plucked out of a grocery store in college by a coach who noticed his height, and literally just landed in the NBA than anything else. Bottom line, James never seemed like he wanted this. And after making $30 million more than he had any business making in the game, he might as well walk away when his contract is up and find out what he really wants to do with his life.
Brian Scalabrine — For our sake, please leave. Maybe it’ll inspire Michael Rapaport to stop with his NBA All-Star celebrity game nonsense.
Joe Smith — Here’s a question: Was Joe Smith a draft bust? He was never a star in the League, but he was an effective contributor for about 8-9 years and a decent role player otherwise. Certainly not the worst No. 1 overall pick of all-time.
Tim “Shep” Thomas — He’ll play as long as somebody will pay him. And because he looks the same as he did when he was 19, some coach/GM combo will always think there’s some potential there. Imagine Antoine Walker if ‘Toine had never aged in the face.
Devean George — You can make open shots on “Pros vs. Joes.”
Ricky Davis — Buckets may not have a choice. Really, who would sign him after the Clippers debacle and his previous track record?