Michael Jordan’s final comeback came to an end recently when his Washington Wizards lost, 107-87, to the Philadelphia 76ers. In his last game, Jordan scored 15 points, the last two on free throws that were awarded to him by an intentional foul. To say that his farewell was anticlimactic is no less true for being obvious.
From the beginning, Jordan’s comeback was greeted with predictably split reactions. There were those who were ecstatic to have the game’s greatest player back, and those who felt that he should stay away. Of the latter, the most sanctimonious voices were to be found, as usual, among sportswriters, those guardians of all that is good and pure in American life. The concern was that Jordan would taint his “legacy” by playing past his prime, and obliterate the memory of his game-winning, career-capping jump-shot in the 1998 NBA Finals. That play had enabled him, the sportswriters reminded us, to “go out on top.”
It has always been more important to sportswriters that an athlete go out on top than it is to the athlete. Writers seek endings; athletes hope for adjournments. Leaving the game on the writers’ terms usually requires that the athlete leave before he is ready. Most athletes want to play as long as they can, thereby assuring that they will play past their peak. Jordan was no different. It turned out that his last retirement was not on his terms, after all. He had wanted to keep playing, but Chicago Bulls’ management was dead set on breaking up the team, so Jordan decided to walk.
But he was an athlete whose hunger for the competitive fix knew few equals; perhaps only Muhammad Ali had a comparable addiction to the challenge of besting a rival, and perhaps only Ali has held a similar throne, a king to millions and holder of the mythical title “most recognized face on the planet.” Retirement couldn’t compare to that, so Jordan returned in 2001. It ended 18 months later with a whimper in Philadelphia. No final glory, no romantic ending, just an ending.
You might think the sportswriters would appreciate this, in our age of authenticity and reality TV. Jordan’s final farewell was much more like what we call real life than anything he had given us before. He wasn’t what he had been, but unlike Ali, he could still perform. He did not embarrass himself. His final game thereby lacked both the drama of a final heroic gesture and the pathos of futility that marked Ali’s final appearance in 1981. How much more real can you get?
So there is little reason to mourn Jordan’s comeback or its conclusion. Certainly there is no call for regret that the endless stream of farewell tributes, which started sometime in 1997, have at last run their course. What is sobering about the Jordan comeback is that it demonstrates the enormous difficulty great athletes have in finding a second life after sports.
Jordan’s next steps are uncertain, but they will probably not stray far from the game of basketball. In whatever he does, he will seek the competitive fix that has so far eluded him except in an athletic arena. That’s an impossible order to fill, really, since there is no encore to being king of the world. But before he goes down the typical road of the ex-athlete, he might find instruction in the examples of some who were not satisfied with that designation. For all of the ex-athletes we see broadcasting, pitching products, or signing overpriced autographs, there are some who succeeded in creating new lives. And some didn’t so much as linger in their old ones.
Take Alan Page, for example, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings. He completed his law degree while still playing football, and is now a judge in the state of Minnesota. It is said that his chambers have family pictures and honors on the wall, but no pictures of himself from his football days. Roger Staubach, one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks, runs a group of successful businesses. Robert Smith was one of the best running backs in the NFL a few years ago, but left to go to medical school. Bill Bradley was a starter on great New York Knicks teams who became a senator. They may not have been of Jordan’s stature — who is? — but they knew something about the roar of the crowd and the difficulty of walking away.
There are plenty of other worthy examples, but two stories stand out. Pat Tillman left the Arizona Cardinals after the 2001 season to go on active duty with the Army Rangers, inspired by the September 11th attacks. He walked away from a three-year, $3.6 million dollar contract to do so, leaving behind the roar of the crowd for the grim realities of military life — and a $17,000 salary. His story has received little play, even now when he is deployed in Iraq. Muhammad Ali was lionized for saying no to his country; Tillman can barely make the news for saying yes. But then a man who is willing to leave behind the pampered fantasy world of pro sports for the sands of the Middle East is not likely to care whether the media notices.
And then there is Gene Tunney, heavyweight champion from the 1920s, still the most stunning example of an athlete who left and never looked back. Tunney beat Jack Dempsey twice, retired — just once — and stayed away from the game, preserving his money and his faculties. He became a successful corporate executive, sitting on the boards of numerous companies and banks. He befriended Thornton Wilder and George Bernard Shaw, and pursued a lifelong interest in literature, the arts, and self-improvement. On his gravestone, there is no mention of his athletic accomplishments. Instead, he is remembered for his service in two World Wars. Pat Tillman would appreciate that, even if generations of sportswriters have never appreciated Tunney.
The very uniqueness of these examples, of course, points up their rarity. For most athletes, great and otherwise, it is difficult to imagine another world. The much-worn phrase in this context is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s: “There are no second acts in American lives.” But what constitutes a second act? Like “going out on top,” it is for the athlete to determine, not the scribes. And it will now fall to Michael Jordan to determine what his long-deferred second act will be, and if it’s a role he can live with.
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