Michelangelo was sculpting another Pieta just days before he
died at 88, and John Glenn orbited the Earth 134 times at 77,
and Thomas Edison was dreaming of his 1,094th U.S. patent when
he passed away at 84, and nobody said of these men that they
should have retired years earlier, while still at the peak of
their powers. Yet we routinely make that demand of our athletes.
(The very fact that we refer to them with the possessive
pronominal adjective--"our"--presumes volumes, doesn't it?)
Sportswriters are always telling Pete Sampras or Cal Ripken Jr.
or Mario Lemieux to hang it up now, before their skills diminish
further, so as to preserve our best memories of them.
Meanwhile, no such edict applies to us. Sportswriters work until
we keel over dead, pitching facefirst onto our laptops. When
that day comes for me, and my forehead slams into the keyboard,
filling the screen with a dyslexia of letters, I hope my
colleagues stand around and say snidely, "That's the best thing
he's written in years."
I plan to work way past my prime--perhaps I already have--and I
can't imagine why athletes should do differently. Sure, most of
us need the money, and Michael Jordan does not. Money, however,
is not why Jordan has returned to the NBA to play for the
Wizards. (Indeed, he will donate his first season's salary to
charity.) Rather, Jordan wants to play basketball again because
playing basketball is what he does best. That is why we should
all simply shut up and let him. If anyone deserves a chance to
Be Like Mike, shouldn't it be Mike?
Jordan, everyone knows, cannot possibly duplicate in Washington
the triumphs he achieved in Chicago. He can never eclipse--or
even approach--his last moment on the court: splashing in a
last-ditch jumper to win the NBA title. So what? When other
artists reach a peak of perfection, they don't stop creating. If
they did, the world would have been denied Picasso's Guernica
and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Hemingway's The Old Man and
the Sea. Don Knotts could not conceivably have improved upon
Barney Fife, but we are richer for the fact that he nevertheless
did not deny us the pleasures of Ralph Furley.
So, having composed his masterly Ring Trilogies, Jordan is free
to give us his Guernica, his Ninth Symphony, his Ralph Furley.
We have seen him in red: Now let us have his blue period. If we
sometimes have to cover our eyes, our eyes will also be opened
to unexpected delights. In 1980, at age 75, Henry Fonda was a
long-faded film star making, in his twilight, cheesy television
disaster flicks. And why not? Actors act. In 1982, at 77--42
years removed from his only other Oscar nomination for
acting--Fonda won the Best Actor statuette for On Golden Pond. A
mere 4 1/2 months after that, he died, happy, no doubt, in the
knowledge that he hadn't "gone out on top" four decades earlier.
Of course, professional sports are physically demanding in a way
that acting or painting or composing are not. The sports
marketplace is more cruel and immediate as well: Nobody becomes
a great point guard posthumously. NBA players who are not
appreciated in their time become, very quickly, ex-NBA players.
So, too, with other athletes. If Sampras were unable to compete
at his game's highest level--as many suggested in August--he
would have found himself at home on Sept. 9. Instead he was
playing in the U.S. Open final.
Thank goodness, then, for the guys who don't listen when we tell
them to retire. Because of them we were treated to Ripken's home
run in this year's All-Star Game and Lemieux's flirtation last
season with his league's MVP trophy. Boxers and NFL quarterbacks
are exceptions to this, two types of athletes whose health is
imperiled by staying too long on the stage. Would that Ali, or
even Aikman, had hung it up when everyone told him to.
Jordan's health, though, is not in question, only his fitness:
He should be allowed to play for as long as a team will have
him. It's not his duty to cede the spotlight; let someone take
it from him. Someday, sooner than you think, a player will come
along whose brilliance is equal to Jordan's--or greater, in a
different way. So don't forget that Michelangelo was still
sculpting just before he died in 1564. But bear in mind, too,
what happened two months after his death.
Shakespeare was born.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO