Unlike celluloid, sports comebacks rarely go distance
“Rocky Balboa,” the movie about a beloved champion boxer who returns to the ring after a long retirement, runs 102 minutes. This is roughly the same duration of many reallife comebacks.
In the film, Rocky, played by Sylvester Stallone, gets back in after being out for more than 20 years, and you don’t need to know the ending to guess it won’t be all bad. But in professional sports, Hollywood endings are rare. History is strewn with the bent, aged bodies of athletes who had the good sense to call it quits and the bad sense to try, try again.
Still, Bob Cousy can laugh about it now.
One of pro basketball’s all-time great players, “The Couz” established the prototype for the modern point guard and helped found the National Basketball Players Association. He retired in 1963 after winning five straight NBA championships, six in all, with the Boston Celtics. Six years later, he became coach of the Cincinnati Royals, the highest-paid coach in the league, a big name hired to boost sagging ticket sales. But that wasn’t enough. Royals general manager Joe Axelson persuaded Cousy to return to the court at age 41.
“It was a business reason, and I allowed myself to be talked into it,” Cousy, now 78, said earlier this month from his home in West Palm Beach, Fla. “It was a morbid franchise. We had two [future] Hall of Famers, Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas, and they still couldn’t make it go. Joe came in at the same time I did, and he said, ‘Hey, let’s wake up the community.’ Part of it was the arena. It wasn’t very attractive to fans.”
The plan was for Cousy to play about 15 minutes a game backing up Robertson. The comeback lasted 34 minutes over seven games. Cousy had five points, 10 assists and committed 11 fouls before benching himself forever.
“The good news was I was the head coach and I recognized the futility of it, and I was able to take myself off the active roster,” he said.
Cousy finds the experience more funny than sad and doesn’t mind talking about it. He knows his legacy remains intact. He had a strong sense his comeback was a bad idea, “but I gave it my full attention,” he said. “Sitting out all that time just wasn’t practical or realistic. It was more to sell tickets than anything else. And even that didn’t work.”
Such an attempt was unusual for its time. When players quit back then, they became coaches or sold insurance or stayed home and drank a lot of beer. Whatever they did, they stayed retired. Now, coming back “is fashionable,” Cousy said. “Everyone retires and goes back three times.”
Sometimes it seems that way. But most retired players remain so because of injuries or the natural erosion of their skills. Occasionally, a Barry Sanders walks away healthy and in his prime and never looks back. It would surprise a lot people if the New York Giants’ Tiki Barber, who will quit after the playoffs even though he can still play, returns to the field. These, however, are rarities. Players generally retire because they have to. And sometimes they unretire because they believe they have to.
The idea of Rocky Balboa coming back after a prolonged absence is not as farfetched as it seems. Boxers, more than any other athletes, seem less equipped to stay away. It has been said boxers never really retire. Sugar Ray Leonard made five comebacks. The inspiration for Leonard’s nickname, the great Sugar Ray Robinson, was among the first to come back in the 1950s with sad results. Since then, a long list has come to include the likes of Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson and George Foreman, one of the few who successfully returned. He did it by reinventing himself as a jolly fat man and beating up a bunch of nobodies.
Basketball players Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson were multiple retirees. Jordan first quit in 1993 to play baseball, and when that didn’t work out, he rejoined the Chicago Bulls (“I’m back”) after a 1 1/2-year absence and won three more championships. But he was still in his prime. Then he left for good, or so it seemed, and joined the Washington Wizards in 2000 as part-owner and front office executive. But the familiar itch came back. Jordan returned to the court in 2001 for two more seasons, and it just wasn’t the same. Even Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, couldn’t pull it off.
Johnson, meanwhile, retired in 1991 immediately after announcing he was HIV-positive. He returned after being voted to play in the 1992 All-Star Game despite not having played during the season and was named MVP. After competing for the gold medalwinning Dream Team in the Summer Olympics, he quit again. After a brief, unsuccessful stint as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson, one of the NBA’s greatest point guards, came back yet again in 1996 at the age of 36 as a power forward and played in 32 mostly uneventful games before giving it up for good.
Tennis great Bjorn Borg, seven-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Mark Spitz, hockey legend Guy Lafleur and Reggie White, the NFL’s all-time sacks leader at the time, are among others who tried to come back after absences of varying length. All failed miserably.
Why do they do it? Other than Cousy and perhaps a few others, most athletes say they miss the competition.
“There’s nothing else in life like competition and sport,” sports psychologist Bob Rotella said. “It’s one of the few things in life that gets you really emotional. Guys miss it. It makes them feel alive. [. . . ] Most athletes never get rid of the idea of seeing how good they can get. They want to see if they can do it again.”
But there might be a larger reason. And except mainly for boxers, many of whom squandered millions, it isn’t the money.
“They have what we call exclusive athletic identity,” said another sports psychologist, Todd Kays. “They grew up their whole lives in their sport. They have a lot of success in their sport, they have a lot of money and fame in their sport and when you take that away their whole life as they know it is gone. They crave being respected for their identity, and when they leaving, it’s not there anymore.
“They want to feel special,” Kays said. “It’s the driving force behind it, particularly for the ones who have been established. I’m working with a PGA player right now. He has money, but money is not the driving force. He misses feeling special.”
Baltimore Orioles broadcaster and former pitcher Jim Palmer had no self-esteem issues when he tried to return to the mound seven years after finishing his 19-year career with a 268-152 record. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990. The next year, at the age of 45, his comeback never made it past spring training. In his only exhibition game appearance, he allowed two runs and five hits in two innings against the Boston Red Sox and packed it in the next day.
Palmer was well into his broadcasting career when “ESPN wanted to reward me for my work by paying me less money,” he said. That soured him, but it wasn’t the sole motivation.
“I enjoyed doing what I did all those years, and I guess part of you says you can still do it,” he said. “I thought I could probably pitch a year or two. I was already in the Hall of Fame, and nobody had done that.”
He might not have needed to feel validated as a person, but Palmer did miss “the winning and being part of something special,” he said. “It wasn’t for the money. It wasn’t about anything other than you want to see if you can still do it. You want to see if you can still help.”
Also, he noted, the “standards” for pitchers had changed. When he joined the Orioles in the mid1960s, starters were expected to go nine innings. “Now they weren’t asked to do as much,” he said.
Palmer worked out, even enlisting his son as a catcher during a late-night pitching session in a prep school gym. He thought he was in good shape, but there were blisters and calluses, and he was, after all, 45.
“Your body doesn’t respond as well,” he said.
Most athletes fail in their comebacks because they simply cannot do what they used to do.
“After the age of 30 to 40, we start losing muscle mass,” said Lynn Millar, professor of physical therapy at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich. (the current home of Ali). “We actually have nerve changes taking place, meaning that response and reaction time slows a little. For a normal Joe Blow it might not be distinctive, but for an athlete it might be significant.”
Getting older and sitting out a sport, even for a short time, can have a profound effect. Cousy said he stayed in “relatively good shape” by working out at his camp in New Hampshire, but he still had to delay his comeback because of a pulled groin muscle. Whatever he did to prepare, it didn’t come close to replicating his regimen as a player. Neither did Palmer’s pre-comeback routine.
“For an individual who was an elite athlete, if you don’t maintain the same rigorous training schedule, you lose fitness and functional capacity,” said Jay Graves, professor of exercise and sport science and dean of the College of Health at the University of Utah. “Once you lose that, it’s more difficult to get it back than it is to maintain it.”
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