Going Out With A Bang

Going Out With A Bang
Photo: Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images
NBA legend Michael Jordan leaps into the air after his Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. It was his third straight championship and the sixth title of his illustrious career.
Some pro athletes quietly leave the game while others exit in brilliant fashion

When an athlete’s career is built of awe-inspiring moments, beginning, middle and end, then it reads like an essay—balanced and complete. Such was the career of one Derek Jeter, who played in his last game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014.

With Antoan Richardson on second and one out in the ninth, Jeter leaned over the plate in his familiar stance. Baltimore righty Evan Meek delivered a thigh-high heater on the outer edge, where his objective met Jeter’s intention. Jeter drilled it between first and second. Nick Markakis’ throw home was too late to nab Richardson. The Yankees won Jeter’s last-ever home game, 6-5. How many will remember the number 3,465, Jeter’s exact number of hits? How few will forget his last at bat at Yankee Stadium?

Moments. None of us gets a second chance to make a first impression. But in sports that works: for on playing fields, it’s often the last impression that counts. From Babe Ruth to Ted Williams, from Bill Russell to Michael Jordan, from Rocky Marciano to Pete Sampras, from Roberto Clemente to Derek Jeter—athletes have staged fantastic finishes, accomplishing grand exits that are tucked away indelibly in the files of our brains. Which are the best moments? It’s hard to rank them, since we must not only choose the greatest players, but size up the importance of their final games.

>>> 1 Michael Jordan

Some players begin retirement boasting one fabulous finish. Jordan entered two retirements, five years apart, with two fabulous finishes. (His comeback with the Washington Wizards, beginning in 2001, didn’t result in a playoff appearance. He retired for good in 2003.) In 1993, the Chicago Bulls sought to cement their legacy with a third straight title. Against the Phoenix Suns and their most valuable player Charles Barkley, Chicago had only 12 fourth-quarter points in game six: Jordan scored the first nine before John Paxson drained a game-winning three-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining in the game. Jordan—grieving over the murder of his father, James—announced that he was retiring from the game in October. He was off to play baseball with the Chicago White Sox’s minor-league affiliate.

After playing on grass, Jordan returned to basketball in March 1995. He led his Bulls to championship seasons in 1996 and 1997, and entered the 1998 NBA Finals seeking a third straight. The last 59.2 seconds against Utah comprised his magnum opus: he hit two free throws and followed a John Stockton three with a layup before double-teaming and swiping the ball from Karl Malone. He let seconds tick away before driving hard right on Byron Russell, stepping back and hitting an 18-footer to give the Bulls an 87-86 win. Shooting arm extended, he held the pose. His 45 points led Chicago to its second three-peat of the 1990s.

>>> 2 John Elway

Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway had heard it before. He couldn’t win the big game. In Super Bowl XXIV he was 2 and 0—as in two interceptions and no touchdowns—in a 55-10 loss to San Francisco, landing him galaxies away from the 49ers’ Joe Montana. Sure, he had “The Drive” against Cleveland, when he took his team 98 yards in the final 5:43. “Everything is reaction,” Elway shrugged when asked about his uncanny escape-artist mobility and unsurpassed arm strength. In comeback situations, even opposing coaches admitted that their defenders were fearful and back on their heels against Elway. But in January 1998, he was still a 37-year-old playing in his 16th season without a Super Bowl victory.

Elway’s fanatical resolve to grab Super Bowl XXXII was never as clear as it was on the “helicopter play.” Late in the third quarter with the game tied at 17, he darted right and dove. Nailed in mid-flight and sent twirling, he still made the first down deep in Green Bay territory. Two runs later by Terrell Davis and Denver held a 24-17 lead. Undeterred, Brett Favre and the Packers marched downfield to tie the game in the fourth quarter. With less than two minutes left, Davis scored again to give Denver a 31-24 victory. That title was Elway’s penultimate moment.

His last hurrah superseded the first championship. Following a stellar 14-2 season, Denver navigated its way back to Super Bowl XXXIII, this time against the Atlanta Falcons, also 14-2. Heavily favored, Denver built a three-touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter. Their last touchdown came, fittingly, on Elway’s three-yard quarterback draw. The man who passed for more than 50,000 yards, and averaged 4.4 yards when he carried the ball, ended it on a running play. Elway’s aerials netted 336 yards and Davis ran for 102. Playing in his last game, Elway won the Most Valuable Player award. No great player’s finale in Super Bowl history comes close.

>>> 3 Bill Russell

The duo of Sam Jones and Bill Russell were 35, but sought to pull it together one last time in 1969. “One thing we’ve always had on the Celtics is mutual respect,” said player-coach Russell, when asked about the chances of his Boston team making another title run. “And we think that is the most necessary ingredient for a winning combination.” No smack-talking from Russell some 50 years ago—just a succinct, confident prediction. Boston finished fourth with a 48-34 record. No team in the 23-year history of the league had finished that low and won a title. But Russell served notice in the first playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers, blocking 12 shots. After dispatching the Sixers and the upstart New York Knicks in the next round, Boston dueled the Los Angeles Lakers for the title for the sixth time in eight years.

The Celtics fell behind 2-0, then 3-2, before taking game six at home. When a reporter asked about the chances of winning a seventh contest on an opponent’s hardwood, Russell said, “We’ve done it before,” and smiled. Before the game, he got hold of a flier detailing the Lakers’ plans for a postgame victory celebration, which included dropping 10,000 balloons from the rafters at the Los Angeles Forum and piping “Happy Days are Here Again” through the arena. “This cannot happen,” Russell told his teammates, flier in hand. “Tonight, we are going to find out how good they are at track and field. We are going to fast-break.”

With Russell sweeping the boards and releasing outlet passes, Boston bolted to a 91-76 lead after three quarters. Russell scored only six points, but contributed rebound after rebound to Boston’s patented break. Jerry West single-handedly kept the Lakers in it, netting 42 points, and bringing them within a point of catching Boston. But on several straight possessions West was double-teamed, and no teammate could hit a shot. Boston held on for a 108-106 victory.

“Bill, this must have been a great win for you,” said broadcaster Jack Twyman in a postgame interview. Overcome with emotion, Russell couldn’t speak. “I know it’s hard to say what is in your mind now, Bill,” Twyman followed, cueing Russell for a second start: “This has been such a great bunch of guys, and it’s been so fabulous the way they played for me,” said Russell. It was also Jones’ last game. He was second to Russell, and finished with 24 points.

As ever, the subtext was the Wilt Chamberlain-Russell plot. Amidst the Lakers’ comeback, Chamberlain twisted his knee on a rebound, and posted 18 points. No matter. The Celtics won.

Russell had played his final basketball game. That victory gave him his 11th title in 13 years.

>>> 4 Pete Sampras

Tennis players usually don’t last. If one plays well into his early 30s, it’s a rarity. Observers murmured that Pete Sampras was old, slow and a bit softer due to his marriage to actress Bridgette Wilson. But Sampras, already a winner of 13 majors, didn’t get that memo. Nothing in Sampras’ recent performances hinted at a late-career charge in 2002. In the two previous U.S. Opens he had lost to Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt—not exactly Roger Federer and Björn Borg. More to the point, he had lost to George Bastl, ranked 145, just two months before the U.S. Open.

Seeded 17, Sampras showed little court rust in disposing of Germany’s Tommy Haas and rising American Andy Roddick. In the semifinals he knocked off the Netherlands’ Sjeng Schalken in straight sets. But there was no time off between the Saturday semi and the Sunday final. But his Finals opponent, Andre Agassi, then 32, had played a tougher four-set match on Saturday against Lleyton Hewitt. Now Sampras would face the same man, in the same tournament, against whom he’d won his first Grand Slam title in 1990 as a lean 19-year-old.

In the end, Sampras used his familiar serve-and-volley and aggressive get-to-the-net approach to top Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7 and 6-4 to win his 14th and final major title. “I had the last word,” said Sampras. “I felt vindicated, like I had just shoved it up everyone’s ass.” Agassi was exceedingly generous in defeat: “Pete was overall a better player than me on the biggest occasions.” Sampras didn’t compete in another professional tournament, but waited until after Wimbledon in 2003 to announce his retirement, lest the urge to return came back. Asked if he regretted retiring, Sampras was direct. “No regrets, no,” he said. “It wasn’t because I couldn’t play anymore. It was because emotionally I was done. It wasn’t the plan—to win a major and end it. It just sort of happened that way. To look back on it, it’s a cool way to go out. To win your last one.”

>>> 5 Ted Williams

Ted Williams stood one last time with a bat in his hands. George Patton with a pistol, Winston Churchill with a cigar—those images are no more fitting than Williams with a bat. It was the bottom of the eighth inning at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960. It was not a World Series game; the Boston Red Sox didn’t reach a Series from 1947 through 1966. Just 10,454 fans attended the game to watch their seventh-place team. No matter. Williams had told the Sox that he would not play the last three games scheduled in New York.

Often touted as the greatest hitter who ever drew breath, he was “The Splendid Splinter,” a hitting savant who would later write The Science of Hitting in which he divided the shoulders-to-knees strike zone into a grid of 77 boxes. He had calculated, for instance, that a belt-high offering on the outside corner was a .380 hot zone, while one low and outside was a .230 sucker’s pitch.

Now he stood in. Now Baltimore’s Jack Fisher threw one by Williams. He peered out and something in the kid’s cocky demeanor hinted that he would get another fastball. He did. Williams drove it into the bullpen in right-center, about 420 feet away. Williams circled the bases “like a feather in a vortex,” wrote novelist John Updike. He toed home and disappeared into the dugout. He had had his battles with the Boston fans and press and would not come out to tip his cap. “Gods do not answer letters,” Updike explained in his essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”

>>> 6 Rocky Marciano

It was September 21, 1955, at Yankee Stadium, and boxing’s heavyweight championship of the world was at stake between challenger Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano. The fight had been scheduled to take place the night before, but the threat of Hurricane Ione postponed the bout. Now, thunder in the form of applause rained down on Marciano when he was introduced.

Why not? The native of Brockton, Massachusetts, was entering his 49th fight. The man whose real name was Rocco Francis Marchegiano had already knocked out 42 of his 48 opponents and was the only undefeated heavyweight champion (no losses or draws). How was it that this smallish 5-foot, 11-inch fighter, who usually fought under 190 pounds, always landed with such heavy blows?

Opponents had been wondering about it for years. Even Moore, who would go on to end his long career with an eye-popping 131 knockouts, got his fill of Marciano’s blows. “Moore is not worrying about being in the corner, but it’s still not a good place for him,” said commentator Bill Corum in round six, his tone ominous. Seconds later, Marciano felled Moore with a chopping right cross to the temple. Moore rose at the count of six. Marciano’s punches kept coming and he floored Moore again. Both fighters seemed exhausted as round eight began. Moore’s right eye was nearly swollen shut, and he was saved by the bell in the eighth. Finally, Marciano landed two thundering left hooks and knocked out his opponent at 1:19 of the ninth round. “I did the best I could,” Moore said. “But Rocky’s a great puncher.”

Few doubted that Marciano would fight a 50th bout. But he announced his retirement seven months later, at the age of 32. “I didn’t get hurt physically while fighting,” Marciano said. “My physical condition has nothing to do with it. My lonesome family convinced me that I should quit while I’m still in shape.” Nearly 60 years after his last fight, he remains the only undefeated heavyweight.

>>> 7 Babe Ruth

It is unsurprising that “The Sultan of Swat” would land on a list such as this. It is surprising that he would land as low as seventh. The Yankees had done the unthinkable: they traded the 40-year-old right fielder to the Boston Braves, who viewed Ruth as a gate attraction, even though Braves’ owner Judge Emil Fuchs promised Ruth a shot at managing in 1936. Ruth soon chafed upon learning that Fuchs had no intention of honoring either the promises of his being a manager or working in the front office.

A declining part-time player, with an average hovering around .150, Ruth asked Fuchs in May to grant him an early retirement. Fuchs persuaded Ruth to stay until Memorial Day, when Boston was playing a double-header.

On May 25, 1935, Ruth gave one last demonstration of the thunder in his bat. Playing against the Pirates at Forbes Field, Ruth logged four hits in four at bats, including three home runs, the 712th, 713th and 714th of his titanic career. The last two blasts came off Guy Bush—the onetime Chicago Cub who Ruth and the Yankees had rocked for nine runs in five innings in a 1932 World Series sweep. The ball sailed clear over the right field grandstand, bounding into the street and rolling to a stop at nearby Schenley Park—the first ball ever hit out of Forbes Field since the park had opened in 1909. The Pirates prevailed 11-7 over the dismal Braves, who would go on to finish with a 38-115 record, one of the worst winning percentages (.248) in history.

Friends suggested that Ruth quit after he hit those final home runs. But he had given his word to Fuchs to remain through the holiday. He retired on June 2, 1935.

>>> 8 Roberto Clemente

On September 30, 1972, Roberto Clemente cocked his bat against New York Mets’ left-hander Jon Matlack. He sized up an off-speed pitch, uncoiled from his crouch and lashed a ringing double into the gap in left-centerfield. The scoreboard at Three Rivers Stadium read: “Roberto is now one of 11 players in major league history to get 3,000 or more hits.” It would be his last regular season hit. Three months and a day later he would be dead, as the DC-7 cargo plane he was taking to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Managua, Nicaragua, went down off the coast of Puerto Rico and was lost at sea.

Truth be told, Clemente had established his own baseball immortality (for anyone who still doubted it) a year before, in the 1971 World Series. In that affair, Clemente, 37, was a one-man tour de force, raking 12 hits, hitting .414 and belting a home run to give the Pirates the lead in game seven of the World Series against Baltimore. Baltimore had led the Series 2-0. In 1972, he was hurt for much of the season and missed 60 games, hitting “only” .312, his lowest mark since 1968.

After his 3,000th hit, Clemente found himself playing three days later, entering as a defensive replacement in the ninth for Gene Clines in right field. But he did not bat in that game. He also played in a losing playoff series against Cincinnati.

A special election of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America was held in March 1973, less than three months after Clemente’s death. He earned 393 of a possible 424 votes. With 93 percent of the vote in his favor, he was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. His body was never found.

>>> 9 Bob Cousy

He was the first of the great Celtics. Cousy made his way to Boston by way of the College of the Holy Cross and was the third pick overall in the 1950 draft, when an outfit known as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks snapped him up. Boston coach Red Auerbach drafted first, but passed up on Cousy in favor of center Charlie Share. His reply to New England fans who wanted Cousy? “I’m supposed to win, not go after local yokels.” Luckily for Boston, Cousy wanted $10,000, $4,000 more than was being offered by Tri-Cities. He didn’t report to camp. He was snapped up by the Chicago Stags, who then folded. Cousy and two other players went into a dispersal draft. Three owners drew lots and Boston owner Walter Brown picked Cousy and signed him for $9,000. Scouts were skeptical. One said, “The first time he tries that fancy Dan [dribbling and passing] stuff in this league, they’ll cram the ball down his throat.”

Red and the others would soon eat their words. In the mythic lore surrounding Boston drafts and trades, Cousy was one of the greatest tales. He was the NBA’s first great point guard. How great? Using his blind passes and behind-the-back maneuvers, he led the league in assists eight years in a row, from 1953 through 1960, while posting 18 to 21 points per game. Moreover, the “Houdini of the Hardwood” invented the Celtics’ running game and made the fast break synonymous with Boston basketball. Despite the diminutive guard’s dazzle, the Celtics, in the rueful words of Auerbach, “couldn’t get the ball.” They lacked an inside game. Signing center Bill Russell for the 1956–57 season brought a title right off. From 1959 through 1966 the Celtics won eight in a row.

In his 13th season, Cousy played his grand finale on April 24, 1963, scoring 18 points to beat the Lakers as Boston won its fifth title in a row, 112-109 before 15,652 fans in Los Angeles. At a retirement ceremony a month earlier, Cousy broke down twice while addressing the fans at Boston Garden. With his wife and two daughters at his side, he spoke of the camaraderie he would miss. A standing ovation showered down on him.

Looking back on his Boston years he recalled, “Red’s position was always ‘You want to pass a little differently? That’s fine as long as it works.’”

>>> 10 Jerome Bettis / Michael Strahan

“Just get me to Detroit,” Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis told his teammates during the playoff run in 2005. Detroit was the site of Super Bowl XL. Bettis, now in his last season, had never played in one. Michael Strahan, prior to his last game on February 3, 2008, had played in one Super Bowl as a member of the New York Giants. But it’s one he’d like to forget, as the Giants lost to the Baltimore Ravens 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV in 2001. 

Both men enjoyed fine careers. Bettis, known as “The Bus,” because of his ability to carry defenders along who were trying to tackle him, ranks seventh in all-time rushing with 13,662 yards. Strahan owns the record for sacks in a season, but the record-breaking sack was recorded when Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre went into a dive and Strahan fell on top of him. More to the point, both won their first Super Bowl on the last days of their careers. 

Bettis’ title game came first in Super Bowl XL in 2006. The Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 as Bettis ran for 43 yards on 14 carries. The build-up had been more memorable, as Bettis became the rallying cry for the Steelers. Finishing his 13th season, the last 10 with Pittsburgh, Bettis had been a Steeler workhorse, a 5-foot, 11-inch, 252-pound side of beef who had rushed for 1,000-plus yards for six consecutive seasons and who would have fit well with the Steeler’s dynasty of a generation before. 

Two years later, Strahan was playing in Super Bowl XLII, the last contest in his 15-year career. He contributed two tackles and a sack, but with under a minute left the outcome was very much in doubt. Not until Eli Manning connected with Plaxico Burress for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 35 ticks left did the Giants take a 17-14 lead. New England’s Tom Brady missed on two long passes to Randy Moss and the Giants had their third Super Bowl.

Honorable Mentions

Several other players deserve honorable mentions. One of the great middle-linebackers of all-time, Ray Lewis ended his storied career with the Baltimore Ravens with his second world championship. Lewis’ contribution in his last go around was stellar: he led the NFL with 51 tackles in the postseason. His finale was a 34-31 victory over San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII.

In the last at bat of his legendary career, in game six of the World Series against the New York Giants on October 10, 1951, Joe DiMaggio rapped a double in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Yankees held on for a 4-3 victory and their third consecutive Series triumph. It was the ninth championship team DiMaggio played on in his 13-year career, second only to Yogi Berra’s 10.

Joe Montana exited in style, too. As a Kansas City Chief, Montana connected on 26 of 37 passes for 314 yards in his last game, a 27-17 loss against Miami in the wild card playoff game on December 31, 1994.

Before turning over the coaching reigns to Bill Russell, Red Auerbach coached his last game, a game seven NBA Final against the Lakers, on April 28, 1966. Boston won 95-93, giving Red his eighth consecutive title and ninth overall in his stellar 20-year career.

In sports, the next memorable finish will likely come sooner than we expect.

Kenneth A. Shouler, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, is an associate professor of philosophy at the County College of Morris in Randolph, NJ.