- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Eventually, sports break your heart. The Little League star becomes the American Legion bench warmer. The high school hero becomes the major-college zero. Or maybe the high school hero can cut it at a big-time school — but the dream dies there.

It’s no different for pro athletes. It just happens a little later in life, that’s all. A hotshot rookie comes along, an arm gives out, a step is lost — and suddenly the athlete is scrambling around for an assistant coaching job, or perhaps TV work.

It isn’t often somebody cheats the hangman, as the song goes. To leave a sport on your own terms, while still competing at a high level … it’s almost unfair. But David Robinson just pulled it off with the San Antonio Spurs, walking into the sunset with the NBA championship trophy under his arm, and Roger Clemens is having a pretty swell time himself in his last season with the New York Yankees. In the space of a week, he won his 300th game, struck out his 4,000th batter and flirted with a no-hitter.

Robinson and Clemens are truly the blessed of the blessed — and we in Washington can attest. We just saw Michael Jordan’s sayonara season with the Wizards turn into a disaster of epic proportions. Not only did the team miss the playoffs (again), but Abe Pollin refused to reinstall Jordan as president of basketball ops and booted him out the door like he was on a 10-game contract.

When arguably the best player in basketball history can’t script a more graceful ending than that, well, it makes you realize how difficult this retirement business is. Even if you’re lucky enough to call your own shots, to hang ‘em up when you decide to, it can go badly. Sometimes horrifically so.

Robinson seems like a Golden Child now. After all, when he signed his last contract two years ago, there was no indication the Spurs were on the verge of a title. Not with Lakers in the midst of a threepeat and the Kings and Mavericks on the rise. Granted, San Antonio had won the crown in ‘99, but that was in a strike-shortened quasi season. Heck, at the time Robinson announced his intentions, Tony Parker hadn’t even played a game for the team.

But people (Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitzki, Rick Fox) got hurt, Robinson’s 37-year-old body held up for one last glorious run, and the Spurs sneaked off with the championship. David, of course, was hardly the dominating force of old, but he still managed to average 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in the playoffs.

Clemens’ exit is even more impressive — from the individual standpoint, at least. He’s still ringing up more than a strikeout an inning, still keeping his ERA under 4.00 in an offensive era. And he’s just as resolute as the Admiral about calling it a career, no matter what kind of season he and the Yankees have. It wouldn’t make any difference, he says, if he won his seventh Cy Young Award and the Yanks won their 27th World Series; it would just make it better.

You think of Cal Ripken hitting .239 in his final year — for an Orioles club that went 63-98. You think of Dan Marino losing his last game 62-7. You think of Larry Bird being chased to retirement by a bad back. Swan songs like these are a lot closer to the norm. Fame has many privileges, but fairy tale farewells, alas, aren’t one of them. When the bell tolls, it matters not if your name is Willie Mays or Emmitt Smith or Wayne Gretzky — not usually, anyway.

Ah, the Great One. Wouldn’t it have been more romantic if he’d led the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals in his last season instead of serving as a showpiece for a crummy Rangers team? Unfortunately, his timing was a bit off. As for Smith, does anybody really want to see the quintessential Cowboy running around in a Cardinals uniform this fall? But Emmitt isn’t content with breaking Walter Payton’s rushing record, it seems; he wants to take a stab at immortality, too.

They’re all mortal, though. It’s merely a matter of how they go out, how neatly they exit the stage. And it’s the rare athlete who does it with the grace of a Robinson or a Clemens (or, a few years back, a John Elway). Maybe it’s self-awareness; more likely it’s luck. But whenever one of them makes a clean getaway, defies the laws of sports, it’s hard not to wish more careers could end like that, without so many hearts breaking.

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