A handful of the most dominant, durable and clutch competitors of their generation called it a career in 2016, leaving us with indelible memories
MAINTAINING STARDOM in Los Angeles requires talent, dedication, charisma and a knack for reinvention. Kobe Bryant possessed all of the above, arriving as an 18-year-old Lakers rookie in 1996 and hanging on for two decades despite major personality conflicts, a sexual assault allegation (the criminal charges were dropped, and a civil suit was settled) and serious late-career health issues. The Kobe Show drew ratings in good times and bad, as his Michael Jordanesque scoring ability, thirst for the limelight, unstinting work ethic and unapologetic self-belief inspired both a cult following and legions of detractors.
Could Bryant have played nicer with Shaquille O'Neal and been more coachable for Phil Jackson? Could he have moved the ball with greater frequency, especially after a devastating Achilles injury? Certainly, but doing so would have been out of character for a hair-trigger shooting guard who savored the Black Mamba moniker he bestowed on himself.
Rather than bending to long-standing criticism that he was too cocky and selfish, Kobe racked up bragging rights galore. He claimed five NBA championships. He scored 81 points in a game, topping everyone but Wilt. He even unseated Jordan as the NBA's third-highest all-time scorer. His last season ended with a self-indulgent but spectacular 60 points on a career-high 50 shot attempts. After 20 years Bryant exited stage left the only way he knew how: with a bang.
IT'S BECOME something of a tradition for a star athlete, upon announcing retirement plans, to be showered with gifts at every stop. Tamika Catchings, the WNBA's Miss Congeniality, was supposed to play along. She couldn't. She's a giver.
At Duncanville (Texas) High she contributed quintuple doubles. At Tennessee she provided a championship as a freshman. With the Indiana Fever, her only WNBA team since being picked third in the 2001 draft, she delivered a title in '12 during a decade of tireless, end-to-end work as one of the East's most dominant players.
For her final act, the 6'1" Catchings went all out. After road games in 11 cities, as well as one game in Indianapolis, she hung around to mingle with fans—many of whom were eager to buy her game-worn uniforms and other memorabilia. So she took their money ... and then promptly gave it back. Through her eponymous foundation, which has been around for more than a decade, she issued grants to local organizations promoting fitness, literacy and mentoring. Altogether, she donated more than $100,000. Catchings called it her Legacy Tour.
The label fits. Catchings, 37, claimed many basketball achievements—four Olympic gold medals, 10 All-Star nods, the 2002 Rookie of the Year and the 2011 MVP award among them. But she'll be best remembered as one of the game's greatest gifts.
WITH EACH medal won, over the course of four Summer Games, Michael Phelps made the transcendent seem ordinary. Most Olympians dream of winning a single medal; Phelps earned 28 of them, 23 gold, 10 more than any other athlete in history and more than dozens of entire nations. Phelps redefined excellence in a way that will be studied and appreciated for generations.
To the American viewers, Phelps became a quadrennial reality-television show: first The Boy Wonder, later The Superhuman Fishman and eventually The Comeback Kid. His impact on his sport and the Games has been so powerful that even as the 31-year-old Phelps steps away from competitive swimming and adjusts to life as a husband and father, his audience awaits the announcement of his return for 2020.
WE'VE ENDURED enough weepy retirement press conferences, followed shortly by unretirement press conferences, to appreciate how difficult it can be for an athlete to know when to quit. You don't want to leave while you've got something left. You also don't want to hobble through a long trail of late-career losses that can diminish your legacy.
Peyton Manning's legacy was, in many ways, singular. He became not just a record-setter, as the all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, but also an archetype: the ideal pocket passer, the noble face of a franchise who could lift the play of his less-talented teammates and carry them along for the ride. It's no surprise that Manning's retirement, after 18 seasons as an NFL quarterback, was among the best ever executed. Four of those seasons—including 2013, when he was the league's MVP for the fifth time and SI's Sportsman of the Year—came after the longtime Colt had his neck rebuilt before signing with the Broncos. By '15 he was, at 39, all but finished physically. During the regular season he threw nine touchdowns against 17 interceptions as he battled plantar fasciitis.
The last game Manning ever played was similarly pedestrian: 13 of 23 for 141 yards, no touchdowns, an interception and a lost fumble. That game, though, was Super Bowl 50. His performance was enough to give Denver and its dominant defense a 24--10 victory over the Panthers, earning Manning his second ring. Even if his teammates were now largely carrying him, Manning still had just enough left for one last win.
A month later, during what will surely be his lone retirement presser, Manning said, "Maybe I don't throw as good or run as good as I used to, but I've always had good timing." When it comes to ending a career, no one has had better.
DURING AN era of chest-thumping he stood out from the start, a big-eared former swimmer from the Virgin Islands, a laconic 7-foot "power forward" lacking in hops and monikers who showed emotion only when called for a foul (which, clearly, obviously, are-you-blind?, Tim Duncan did not just commit). He was perhaps the greatest winner of his generation—a five-time champion and two-time MVP—as well as its best defender, forever stationed in just the right spot.
He was also one half of the NBA's most endearing bromance—someday we'll watch Pop and Timmy on Broadway, just as we saw Magic/Bird—a pairing of wry, straight-shooting men that began during an Atlantic Ocean swim many years ago, when Duncan, having recently been drafted No. 1 by Gregg Popovich, dared his new coach to keep going, and he did. To the end Duncan embodied consistency and longevity like few have, earning his 15th All-Star appearance at 38. He was many things—island guy to the core, foil to KG, the most essential third of San Antonio's Big Three, the rare star to play his entire career in one place. Few in any sport have been as respected by their peers, and even fewer have slipped into retirement with less fanfare. Which, of course, is just how Duncan wanted it.
IT'S WEIRD, this new, KG-free version of the NBA. So long was Kevin Garnett in our lives that Karl Anthony-Towns, the big man Garnett mentored last season with the Timberwolves, was born 12 days after KG's first game. Twenty-one seasons. Fifteen All-Star appearances. Nine All-Defensive First Teams. One MVP.
But Garnett represented far more than the sum of his numbers. He was a key figure in the prep-to-pros movement, the first lottery pick in 20 years to come straight out of high school. He was a revolutionary defensive player—a 7-footer who moved like a guard, one so determined not to be called a big man that he insisted on being listed at 6'11". He was also a legendary teammate and practice player, and a true antagonist in an era of make-nice superstars. To go up against Garnett was to weather a tsunami of s--- talk. No one did the crazy eyes like KG.
Garnett didn't even play basketball until high school, then arrived as a 19-year-old in Minnesota, where he became beloved. He finally won a ring in 2008, during his six-year stretch in Boston, the bald, scowling inspiration of a Finals victory over the hated Lakers. Garnett retired having played more minutes than everyone but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. And, like his longtime nemesis Duncan, KG preferred to keep the public at arm's length. So we shall remember him for what he was on the court: One of the game's greatest competitors and a presence unlike any other.
DAVID ORTIZ'S feet carried not just his burly 230 pounds but also the formerly cursed Red Sox and, at times during his 14 years there, the city of Boston itself. But even as he was busy putting together the greatest farewell season in baseball history—at 40 he batted .315 with 38 homers and 127 RBIs and led the majors in OPS and doubles—the designated hitter never wavered from his promise that it would be his last. Ortiz's feet, chronically aching for at least five years, couldn't endure another. "He was essentially playing on stumps," his physical therapist would reveal after the playoffs.
Still, the end came sooner than anyone expected: at 9:21 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 10, when he was pulled from Game 3 of the ALDS against the underdog Indians for a pinch runner. "Let me wear this uniform one more day!" Ortiz screamed to his teammates, encouraging them to stave off a surprising three-game sweep.
It didn't happen. Less than 40 minutes later he waved a teary goodbye from the Fenway Park pitcher's mound. It was on the same infield where, three years earlier, he had celebrated his third World Series championship and where, six months before that he had helped heal a community traumatized by the Boston Marathon bombing by defiantly proclaiming, "This is our f------ city!"
During his final press conference the owner of three rings, 541 career homers and a city's eternal love said, "I can't ask for God for no more than what he gave me." Bostonians could have said the same, but about Big Papi.