Un­like cel­lu­loid, sports come­backs rarely go dis­tance

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Bob Cohn

“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.”

Cour­tesy of MGM Stu­dios

Life isn’t a movie: Sylvester Stal­lone in “Rocky Bal­boa”

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