By Mark Starr
Even looking back through the prism of basketball's "Dream Team" era, there is little to rival Bob Cousy's ball-handling wizardry. The Boston Celtics legend was all-NBA first team in 10 of his 13 seasons. When he retired in 1963 at age 34, Cooz was the highest-paid player in the game, though his $75,000 salary would be meager meal money to today's stars. After retiring he took a $12,000 college coaching job, ran a basketball camp and didn't look back. Not until seven seasons later, when the Cincinnati Royals, looking to pump up attendance in a dying National Basketball Association town, courted him as a player/coach. Cousy was flattered and, although 41, cocky enough to think he might be able to pull it off. He had stayed in excellent shape playing golf and tennis and more than held his own on the basketball court with the spry college kids who staffed his summer camp.
When Cincinnati began talking six figures, Cousy leapt back into the fray. Though Cousy would coach the Royals for four-plus seasons, his playing comeback flopped, lasting just seven games and all of 34 minutes. "It took me about 11 minutes of actual playing time to realize it wasn't going to work," says Cousy, who was slowed by a leg injury and the inexorable passage of time. The worst fiasco came against a New York Knicks team bidding for a then-record 18th straight win. With Cincinnati up five and just 16 seconds left, Cousy threw the ball away. New York won in the final seconds. He quickly called it quits. "I feared I was going to tarnish something that I had accomplished over 13 years and that I was very proud of," says Cousy today.
Is there a former pro sports star who hasn't heard that siren call? One who doesn't believe that, renewed by a stint on life's sidelines, he could coax one more season out of his arms, legs and, of course, heart? The late Wilt Chamberlain not only believed that he could make an NBA comeback at any time, but that he could play tight end in the National Football League, hold his own with the heavyweight champion of the world, and sleep with every woman he met. (We have only his word that he succeeded at one of those fantasies.) Over the past decade, there has been a steady stream of former stars willing to risk their reputation -- what Cousy called the "tarnish" -- on a comeback dream: Reggie White in football; Ryne Sandberg in baseball; Magic Johnson in basketball; Mario Lemieux in hockey; Diego Maradona in soccer; Billy Johnson in skiing; and every grandfather who ever held, for even a brief second, a world boxing title. But Michael Jordan took it to another level. Once the most celebrated sports star of the modern era began flirting with that notion last spring, the comeback assumed a rosy glow that isn't warranted by precedent.
Indeed, the scenario for sports' senior citizens emerging from retirement has seldom been gratifying. At worst, it has weaved between tragedy, pathos and farce. Bill Johnson languished in a coma at 41, after a crash on the slopes stilled for all time his dream of downhill glory redux. Maradona, bloated by years of drug and alcohol abuse, was sadly revealed as a shell of his once majestic self. And the continual parade of boxers, on the path from proud champions to stumblebums, never seems to stop. It's brutal to watch someone like Roberto Duran go from "Hands of Steel" to the ignominy of "No Mas" to the kind of ring buffoon right out of the timeless Requiem for a Heavyweight.
It's not all horror stories. More typical, perhaps, are the comebacks that turn out simply to be letdowns -- the Ryne Sandbergs or Reggie Whites who exit with Hall of Fame credentials and return to perform more like minimum-wage journeymen. White, who had averaged almost 14 sacks a year during an illustrious NFL career with Philadelphia and Green Bay, re-upped with Carolina at age 38 and added just five and a half sacks to his career totals. Sandberg, who rejoined the Chicago Cubs at age 36, averaged .254 over two more seasons, nearly 40 points below his previous career mark. The only comeback likely to have a significant upside is the rare one -- call it "the Capriati" -- that occurs in the athlete's prime performance years.
Fans, especially middle-aged ones, prefer not to believe this because, in a real sense, the comebacks are as much our own. If the players aren't yet too old, then neither are we. We point gleefully to this past season's successful return of sports' second most famous superstar-turned-fat-cat-owner. At 35 and after three and a half years off the ice, Mario Lemieux jumped out of the Pittsburgh Penguins owner's box to bag 35 goals in 43 games. It was an impressive achievement, replete with highlight-film moments. But hockey is atypical. While most comebacks falter in the legs, hockey can spare its elders by limiting ice time. Which explains how Gordie Howe's playing career spanned 34 years. Not to take away anything from Super Mario, but he scored a very high percentage of his goals on power plays, capitalizing on his deft touch and upper body strength rather than on robust legs. No knowledgeable fan could have confused this Lemieux with the dominating player of his heyday.
Basketball, a game grounded in running, is far less charitable to aging legs. The toll is exacted most noticeably in shooting. It is heresy to point this out, but in his final championship season with the Bulls when he turned 35 years old, Michael Jordan had wretched shooting marks, at least by his own career standards. Few of basketball's great scorers, particularly at the more mobile positions, have fared well past that age, even without a retirement stint. Magic Johnson, who suited up again with the Lakers at age 37, four and a half years after retiring because of an HIV infection, was one NBA superstar who discovered the vast difference between being in great shape and being in game shape. In his comeback season, he averaged five points fewer than his career mark and had his worst shooting percentage ever. But the failure ran far deeper than lackluster numbers. One of the most exuberant players in history, the spark plug for five Lakers title teams, Magic was now deflated, indeed defeated, by a generational chasm between him and his new teammates. Which may be why Johnson repeated, "It's over, I'm done" not just once, but more than a dozen times at his farewell press conference.
Magic's relief seems lost on many. Few modern athletes have the excuse of financial security that propelled Cousy and others who soldiered for relatively modest wages during pro sports' adolescence. "It's as simple as ëthe smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd,'" says Stephen Greyser, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and a noted sports guru. That accounts, too, for why so many pro athletes can't retire, which in many ways is the emotional equivalent of a comeback. In Roger Angell's recent book, A Pitcher's Story, which chronicles David Cone's dismal final season with the Yankees, Cone's wife explains the despair that keeps him going. "His greatest fear is that he'll never find something to replace what pitching has meant for him," she said. "It's on his mind all the time." (Cone's tenacity was vindicated by his "comeback" season this year with the Boston Red Sox.)
Richard Keelor, an expert on aging and sports, says, "It's very easy for athletes to become emotionally addicted to the excitement, drama, prestige and adulation." What in life compares with the deafening roar with which Yankee Stadium fans have blessed their heroes? Joe DiMaggio was intoxicated by it, unable to accept anything less than its full measure. He assured that by rationing his visits and refusing to step onto the field unless he was introduced as baseball's "greatest living ballplayer." Sports' golden era may be long gone. Still, even its immortals have but a glimmer of what happens when the fan embrace goes global. When the dream in the Dream Team is the world's. When there are 57 channels with nothing but Tiger Woods on.
Because sports' economic scale has kept pace with celebrity's, retiring stars seldom have to figure out a second career or a path to financial security. Without necessity prodding them, they drift into idleness, punctuated by nothing more compelling than golfing forays. There is plenty of time to dwell, even to obsess, on yesteryear glories. Ironically, it's only the golfers, the real ones, who have come up with an ideal solution. With the senior circuit, the players can fade away gradually, weaned through a slightly dimmer limelight until, like Arnold Palmer at 71, they conclude that it's finally time to set the putter down.
Put the old-timers on a slightly shorter, less treacherous course and they can still wow us. But golf may be a unique model. Nobody wants to see Reggie Jackson hit them out of a Little League park, Carl Lewis run the 30, or Julius Erving slam-dunk on an eight-foot-high hoop. Moreover, we fans don't need it. The transcendent sports moments of our lives -- Carlton's Fisk's home run, Montana's TD toss to Dwight Clark, Brandi's bra, Michael's steal and shot -- are etched in our memories. And when there's a lapse, we aging fans now have at our fingertips, in ESPN Classic and its ilk, the sports equivalent of Viagra -- getting us up for the games and the glory 24 hours a day.
The athletes, whose glories we celebrate, may never be able to find quite as satisfying an alternative. A life of sand wedges, annuities and parent-teacher conferences can't deliver the emotional adrenaline to rival sports stardom. But the comeback is far more of an illusion than a solution. After the first thrilling hurrahs, a hero's performance is measured in decidedly unsentimental terms. Indeed, perhaps even harshly because, with disappointment, there is a sense of betrayal. The tradeoff for a few more hits, hoops, goals or standing ovations is almost always a large blemish that stands forever as the final chapter of a storied career.
Mark Starr is the national sports correspondent for Newsweek.