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Athletes Never Know When to Retire

Why must it end like this so often?

Shaquille O'Neal shuffles around the court vainly seeking one last ring. Chipper Jones hobbles, with an average 60 points below his career level, contemplating retiring. Ken Griffey Jr. leaves the Mariners after a sad sad stint trying to reignite the spark of the Mariners as he did last year. David Beckham makes millions to sit on benches or model clothes while limping up and down the field.

The Greeks would say "call no man happy until he is dead." In athletic terms they were all too right, but then the Greeks invented what we call athletics. Humans, demigods, athletes reach an instant, a true apex of their talent and achievement. It lasts for a limited time but that apogee generates an an extraordinary human moment, an aura for them  and their career. For the Greeks this moment defined the song that would be sung for them, their glory and reputation. For us who see and sing the song it reminds us why it is good to be human.

The ideal moment captures the pinnacle. This is the moment to leave. Few of us have moments like these, very very few understand and leave at the height of their glory.

The Greeks knew that an athlete or hero should retire at the perfect moment, the synthesis of accomplishment and glory. Sophocles' tragedies recount the quiet horror of loss after the heroic has faded and the human remains. Heroes, demigods, the ones who get it right shun the slow decline, the gradual loss of speed, coordination, endurance that enable them to be a master of their craft.

Remember, athletes make a bargain with their body; a bargain they must lose. The greatest athletes maintain rigorous training and conditioning. They carve from their physicality all that their bodies can give long past what a normal body could give. But in the end, our bodies betray us, and athletes feel the betrayal more deeply than anyone.

Michael Jordan got it right. The perfect shot, a classic Jordan shot that clinched the Bulls’ sixth title in the last second of the deciding game. This is the moment, the leave now moment for the Greeks. Jordan knew it in his soul, and he left the game, the absolute grand master. The greatest player of the 20th century.

Lance Armstrong got it. He retired the day of winning his unbelievable seventh consecutive Tour de France. Beneath this triumph lay his battle and survival against testicular cancer and founding a national movement to fight cancer, I still wear his yellow LIVESTRONG band on my wrist.

Something drew them back to Act II. Jordan returned for several desultory years. Armstrong returned and races here and there as a side show and fends off more charges of doping. Both were shadows of their former greatness; their return diminished rather than enhanced them and their accomplishments.

Interestingly two who got it were coaches and maybe the tempered wisdom of age helps. John Wooden knew he reached his apogee but also knew that he had given all he had. His love of the game and passion had banked; rather than continue to gather trophies without joy, he retired after his 10th. NCAA championship. Dean Smith at North Carolina made a similar choice when he was the winningest NCAA basketball coach and after two national championships. He retired on a 27 win season and Final Four appearance because he could not bring the same passion to the game.

The other remains an enigma but a great athlete who retired at the absolute height of his accomplishment and fame. Sandy Koufax of the Brooklyn Dodgers stands as a towering pitcher of the mid twentieth century. One of the great pitchers of all time,  the youngest player to enter the Hall of Fame, he retired with intense arm pain and problems after winning 3 Cy Young awards and two World Series in four years. The only pitcher to record more strike outs than innings pitched, he dominated hitters. He pitched  four no hitters and one perfect game in a six year span. His last year was pitched in excruciating pain and over his doctor's objections, and he still won 27 games and the Cy Young. He retired at the end of the World Series.

The Greek gods would understand them.


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