- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2001

The mullet was forgivable. The short shorts excusable. And the striped headband touchingly quaint.
But the genuine, real deal, straight from the forest, patio furniture-esque wooden racquet?
Bjorn Borg really should have known better.
During his brief, egregiously misguided 1991 comeback, Borg sought nothing less than to reverse the flow of tennis time. And then some. Clad in full 1970s regalia, girding for his first match in a decade, the 11-time Grand Slam winner took to the clay courts of Monte Carlo clutching a black wood racquet.
The results were hardly surprising. Facing a graphite-wielding nobody named Jordi Arrese, Borg, 34, was blown off the court, his anachronistic toothpick no match for Arrese's oversized boom stick.
Borg's saving grace? That he wasn't playing football thereby avoiding the severe head trauma associated with leather helmets.
"That was a disaster," said tennis historian Bud Collins. "I went over to London to watch him. There he was with a wooden racquet, at the Queen's Club, practicing against some third-rate English player as if it was life and death. It was a farce, really."
When it comes to ill-fated returns, Borg has plenty of company. There's Magic Johnson, woefully out of touch with his teammates. Jim Palmer, woefully out of touch with his hamstring. Muhammad Ali, woefully in touch with Larry Holmes' fists.
We bring this up, of course, not to dissuade Michael Jordan's impending comeback truth is, we'll be first in line at MCI Center but rather to illuminate a larger sporting truth immutable as labor strife, inevitable as salary escalation.
For many athletes, the road back from retirement isn't merely a dead end it's a one-way exit ramp off the side of the Grand Canyon.
"It's so unique to have a successful comeback," said boxing and sports historian Bert Sugar. "But athletes have always tried. They're immortal, they don't know when enough is enough is enough."
Indeed, if sports history teaches anything, it's that those who cannot remember failed comebacks of the past are condemned to repeat them. Particularly those named Sugar Ray Leonard.
Consider the fate of legendary Boston Celtics playmaker Bob Cousy. A ballhandling maestro who helped steer the Celtics to six NBA titles, Cousy retired in 1963 as the league's all-time assists leader.
Six years after his emotional Boston Garden farewell ceremony, however, Cousy returned. Enticed by what he later dubbed a "Godfather offer" that is, a hefty contract he couldn't refuse the Cooz signed on as a player-coach for the Cincinnati Royals. At 41 years of age.
Seven games later, he quit for good. The sum total of his efforts? Five points. 10 assists. And 34 minutes of playing time.
"And that cost Cincinnati a player, too, because the Celtics still owned Cousy's rights," Sugar said.
Likewise, tennis great Mats Wilander discovered during a mediocre mid-1990s comeback that while he wasn't interested in retirement, retirement was keenly interested in him.
A seven-time Grand Slam winner, Wilander returned from a two-year hiatus in late 1993. He logged three seasons of extra time, never advancing past the fourth round of a major tournament.
"It was a mental thing," Collins said. "The thrill was gone. He had already done everything. When he came back, his heart wasn't in it."
Wilander isn't alone. Disenchanted with his subpar play, Ryne Sandberg walked away from the Chicago Cubs in 1994. In his 1996 return, he hit just .244.
Similarly, hockey star Guy LaFleur's late 1980s comeback spanned three seasons, but the then-balding Flower barely resembled the on-ice assassin who previously had recorded six straight 50-goal campaigns.
Reggie White, the Bible-thumping defensive lineman who cited divine inspiration for a previous comeback, collected $1 million of Carolina Panthers manna for a less than heavenly 5.5 sacks last season.
In his March farewell, White took a page from his savior's mercy-laden playbook, promising that his third retirement would be his last.
"I will always miss the locker room and the guys, but I know God's will for me to move on to other challenges because it's not in me like it used to be," he said. "So no more retirements, no more returns." Boxers are seldom so sensible. Befitting a sport whose principal focus is the persistent application of percussive force to the cranial region, pugilism has spawned more unwanted comebacks than those perpetrated by Tony Danza (who, perhaps not coincidentally, once was an amateur fighter himself).
"Boxers continue to come back like bad pennies," Sugar said. "Nobody seems to be able to tell a boxer when to quit. Or when to stay quit. It's never ending. Look in the record books. Too many fighters' last entry is 'knockout by … ' "
Sure enough, Pernell Whitaker lasted just over three rounds in his April comeback bout, injuring his left shoulder in a TKO by a no-name club fighter. Famed heavyweight Joe Louis 37 and broke, it should be noted was knocked right out of the ring by Rocky Marciano.
The once-great Ali endured a fearsome beating from Holmes, his former sparring partner, in a lopsided 1980 fight that owed less to the Marquis of Queensberry than Wes Craven.
"Ali was a walking time bomb in that ring that night," longtime fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco later said. "He could have anything from a heart attack to a stroke to bleeding in the head." Ali now suffers from Parkinson's syndrome related to his boxing career.
Why are so many comebacks a one-way road to ruin? Blame time. As the body ages, muscle mass decreases. Reaction time slows. Tendons tighten. Joints creak. And stamina slips.
At 31, Leonard was still serviceable in his 1987 comeback bout against Marvin Hagler. Four years later, Terry Norris battered Leonard badly in comeback No. 4.
Undaunted, Leonard gave it one more go in 1997, suffering an ugly loss to Hector "Macho" Camacho (who, at 34, was hardly spry himself).
"Leonard's legs weren't with him," Sugar said. "They cramped up in the Camacho fight. His jaw got in the way of a couple of punches in the Terry Norris fight. And so on.
"In boxing, the last thing that goes is your power if a man stands in front of you, you can hit him, and probably the same way. But your movement is another thing. As you slow down, you become cannon fodder."
The same holds true in other sports. Swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, but at age 41 failed to even qualify for the U.S. national trials during his 1991 redux.
When Jordan mounted a successful comeback in 1995 at the relatively young age of 32 his signature dunks were replaced by a less demanding, more efficient turnaround jump shot.
Dominique Wilkins wasn't so lucky. A high-flying dunk machine in his prime, Wilkins returned to the NBA from a stint in Europe in 1999. However, the 38-year-old was less Human Highlight Film than Pine, Waiver Wire and Videotape, averaging 5.0 points in 27 games with Orlando.
"I don't know if it's skills [that diminish], or just your explosiveness, your quickness," Golden State Warriors coach Dave Cowens said in an interview transcript released by the team. "It's being able to do it at the same pace, the same speed.
"You can think that maybe by taking a couple of years off, [the] body would be refreshed. But it's a little bit of a fool's game."
Cowens knows firsthand. The erstwhile Celtics star attempted a 1982 comeback with Milwaukee, playing in 40 games before a major thigh injury forced him to call it quits.
Baltimore pitcher Jim Palmer retired in 1984 with a trio of Cy Young Awards, then tried to revive his Hall of Fame career in 1991. Thirty-eight pitches into spring training, the 45-year-old underwear model tore his hamstring.
More recently, aged tennis star Boris Becker had to scrap a U.S. Open comeback exhibition match against fellow graybeard John McEnroe after hurting his foot. And Jordan, 38, missed four weeks of practice this summer with a pair of broken ribs.
"I was in pretty good shape going into camp, so the conditioning part [wasn't that hard]," Cowens said. "What I had, and I fear will be Michael's problem, is when you start getting beaten up a little bit.
"Your body gets resistant to injury because that's what it's used to doing day in and day out. Then all of a sudden, it's not used to doing that and you ask it to do it. Therein lies the problem."
In other forgettable comebacks, the problem is less a matter of injury than of losing touch with the sport, with equipment, with (suddenly) younger peers.
Borg spent $25,000 on custom-made replicas of his old wooden Donnay racquet, foolishly disregarding the high-tension graphite models that had utterly transformed tennis. (He also hired a 79-year-old Welsh martial arts guru to act as his coach. But never mind.)
Magic Johnson promised to instill a win-first attitude in the factious Los Angeles Lakers during his 1995 comeback. Instead, he seemed to mimic his immature teammates.
Cedric Ceballos went AWOL for four days, peeved at Johnson for cutting into his playing time. Nick Van Exel received a seven-game suspension for knocking referee Ron Garretson across a scorer's table. Dubbing himself an "ultimate team player," Johnson blasted both.
Shortly thereafter, Johnson received a three-game suspension of his own for bumping referee Scott Foster. And during the Lakers' first-round playoff flameout against Houston, the Ultimate Team Player whined about a lack of playing time.
That summer, Johnson retired for good.
"I thought players would want me back," he told USA Today. "But a lot of them were jealous that I was back because they thought I was taking their moment."
Yet despite Johnson's example and the sorry stories of so many others ill-advised comebacks continue.
Jordan nearly convinced a corpulent Charles Barkley to join him in Washington. Long jumper Mike Powell hopes to make the 2004 Olympics at age 40. Downhill skier Bill Johnson, a 1984 gold medalist, tried to return and almost lost his life in a March accident. Boxer Roberto Duran now 50 is still fighting.
Why bother? For some, it's the money; for others, adulation. A few do it out of boredom. A handful just love to compete.
In every case, Sugar said, the underlying factor is hubris a supreme, if sadly misguided arrogance that insists the normal rules don't apply.
"Everyone thinks they're unique," Sugar said. "Show me an athlete, and I'll show you someone who says, 'I can do it.' They all carry that inner confidence.
"History is lost on them, because they're dealing with the history of themselves. That's all they know. They don't see what's in the mirror."
Borg certainly didn't. Two summers after his humiliating loss to Arrese, he surfaced at Moscow's Kremlin Cup for a final fling. Oversized composite racquet in hand, he battled Aleksandr Volkov to a third-set tiebreaker before bowing out for good.
"I saw him play his last match," Collins said. "He actually had a match point. And he had given up on the wooden thing. He was fit and he could run, but he couldn't do anything else. The players felt a little sorry for him. He just couldn't get back with it. He was just another player."
Sooner or later, everyone is.

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