There’s a cliche about life beginning at 40. Don’t give him any ideas.
Anyone for the Fourth Coming?
Michael Jordan of the Washington Wizards turned 40 last week. He’s still playing in the NBA almost 10 years after announcing his retirement, and arguably playing better than anyone ever has at 40.
He insists this is his final NBA season, but can Jordan be too good to leave? It’s becoming like the old cliffhanger radio serials: Tune in next time …
“I remember years ago talking about how age 33, 34 was the pivotal age for guards,” said former Chicago Bulls and current Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who urged Jordan to return to the Bulls in the mid-1990s when Jordan was playing baseball after his first retirement.
“Oscar Robertson got a championship, and the next year the wheels fell off. Walt Frazier the same thing. Jerry West. They played until they were 34, 35 (35 in both cases). I don’t remember anyone before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing after 40. But now you see guards doing it. It’s remarkable.”
So just what do you give the man who has everything? Youth, of course. It’s what everyone seeks as they get older, and Jordan is no exception.
He vowed to a nation at the All-Star Game that this really is his final goodbye to basketball. But after a year away from it, what better way to hold off the advances of age than by returning to be around the kids and just playing ball? Peter Pan never grew up, after all.
And 40 no longer is the outer limit for athletes.
John Stockton of the Utah Jazz continues to be an effective player as he approaches 41 next month. He remains among the top point guards, averaging 11.3 points and 7.7 assists, and no one truly expects him to retire after this season.
Likewise with teammate Karl Malone, who will turn 40 in July. Malone is averaging 20.3 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, and friends expect him to sign a multiyear contract after this season.
The player being credited with the Portland Trail Blazers’ turnaround is Scottie Pippen, who will turn 38 before next season and who now says he expects to play a few more years.
“You’ve got to look at the private jets, the hotels on the road,” Rick Mahorn said, who dragged himself through a final season at 40.
“When I started we were on commercial flights, no charters. Plus you have the athletic training centers and you’re able to build your body and keep in shape like we never did.”
Pride clearly is a factor with great players like Jordan and Malone – they don’t want to be embarrassed. Their workout routines are exceptional. But Stockton? A bully would want to kick sand in his face at the beach.
Money has been a factor in longevity for some players, like Pippen, who didn’t start getting their big paydays until their mid-30s.
“I played until almost 40 for the opportunity to make some money that I didn’t make early in my career,” said Chicago native Eddie Johnson, currently a broadcaster for the Phoenix Suns.
“I don’t know about young guys now. They make in five or 10 years what it would (have taken) me 25. I don’t know with guys like Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Stephon Marbury.”
Several players at last week’s All-Star Game were asked about playing until they were 40, and all agreed they wouldn’t. Jordan also said that when he was 25. In fact, Jordan had so many other interests then he insisted he wouldn’t even be part of basketball when he retired.
But things change. There’s no spotlight, no adulation and less money when you leave the arena. There are fewer endorsements. But what players miss most of all is the arena. Competition is a habit that proves almost impossible to kick.
“I remember talking about how I’d like to play 10 years,” recalled Mahorn, now a broadcaster with the Detroit Pistons. “Then I ran into Caldwell Jones, who was doing his year-to-year thing. He said, ‘Whatever you do, retire only when they don’t want to pay you anymore.’ The key, obviously, was not being hurt … though expansion helped a lot.”
It helped many big men hang around. Among those falling just short of playing at 40: Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Artis Gilmore, Alton Lister, Danny Schayes, Tree Rollins and Sam Perkins.
Abdul-Jabbar went on to play until he was 42 and was still averaging in double figures when he retired in 1989. Robert Parish finished up on the Bulls’ bench in 1997 just a few months shy of his 44th birthday, playing about 10 minutes a game in half of the games.
Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy was coaching Cincinnati when he came back seven years after he’d retired.
“It was a promotional thing,” Cousy insisted.
“Michael has surprised me. He’s impacted the team. Not to the degree he did before, but he’s been more effective than I thought he would be. Parish had those bookends in Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. It neutralized the pressure on him.”
Most agree it’s time for Jordan. Only brief glimpses of the Jordan whom fans revere are there anymore. But there’s always the lure of the game. It’s hard for them all to leave, and more difficult for the best.