Knowing When To Say It's Over

For an athlete, the toughest thing to confront is the end of a career, the moment when it's time to walk away gracefully.

Some, like Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown, had no trouble deciding. Some, like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, didn't quite figure it out in time to avoid embarrassment. And others, like Gordie Howe, had a different agenda to pursue.

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  • Michael Jordan leaves the NBA at the top of his game. After winning the regular-season and playoff MVP awards, capturing his third straight scoring title and leading the Chicago Bulls to a sixth championship, Jordan's statement is clear: There is nothing more to say or do.

    That was how Brown felt in 1965. He was just 29, the NFL's MVP coming off a career-high 21-touchdown season, when he told the Cleveland Browns he was done.

    "I definitely wanted to leave on top," Brown said Tuesday at a function honoring the century's greatest athletes. "I basically did everything I wanted to my last three years. I also wanted to leave on top because I'd seen other athletes who waited around too long and there was sadness in that. I didn't want anyone to feel sorry for me."

    Koufax did the same thing a year later.

    He was the best pitcher in baseball, armed with his fifth straight ERA title and third Cy Young Award after winning 27 games. But he also was tired of the postgame ice baths for his arthritic left elbow and decided, at 30, he wouldn't be doing that anymore.

    They were the exceptions. So was Reggie White, who quit a year ago but changed his mind and played one more season with the Green Bay Packers. He had 16 sacks and won the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Now he's gone again, this time for good.

    "Although I'm in good shape, my body hurts sometimes," White said. "The bad thing about getting ol is that when you wake up, things start hurting and you don't know why. And that's what I've been experiencing this year."

    Howe was hockey's career scoring leader when he quit in 1971 and was parked in an office by the Detroit Red Wings for two years.

    "When I retired, my troubles started from the fact I had a bone removed from my wrist and we weren't a good hockey team," said Howe, also honored at the function. "The fun had left me for a while. But it was still hard to give up."

    That was because his sons, Mark and Marty, were about to graduate from junior hockey to the pros. "I wanted to play one more year because it was the thrill of my life playing with Mark and Marty," Howe said.

    So, Howe came back for seven more seasons and tacked on 189 more goals, finishing his career with 975 -- 801 in the NHL, the remainder in the WHA.

    And what about going out on top?

    "I wanted to enjoy it for as long as I could," Howe said.

    Sometimes the fire that burns in a great athlete is difficult to extinguish.

    "The biggest problem with terminating a career is usually when a player is cut from the team or suffers a career-ending injury," said Daniel Landers of Arizona State, past president of the American Psychological Association's sports psychology division.

    "In Michael Jordan's case, he's voluntarily decided. He's financially secure. He could play longer and do well. We'd like to have more athletes like him instead of athletes who are forced out. His decision to end it is a healthy thing to do."

    What about the others, the ones who hang on too long?

    Ali, probably the most popular athlete of his era, toyed with retirement a number of times, starting as early as 1970 when he was 28. He changed his mind later that year and fought through 1979. By then, he was 37 and the first man to win the heavyweight championship three times.

    It was time to go. Instead, Ali stayed.

    There was a 16-month layoff, ended by a one-sided 11-round loss to ex-sparring partner Larry Holmes. Then he fought again a year later, another loss at age 39, this time to journeyman Trevor Berbick in a bout that was held in the Bahamas because no U.S. commission would license it.

    Leonard did the same thing. After his retina was detached in 1982 he stayed away for two years, then looked bad in a comeback fight, and sat out three more years. He fought again from 1987-91 and then after six years out of the ring, insisted on one more fight, losing to Hector Camacho in 1997.

    "Leonard wasn't ready to quit because the doctors told him to," Landers said. "There is a feeling of invulnerability, the feeling that `I'm special, I'm unique, I'm a superstar.' It's typical of high-level athletes. The quality that makes them great, sometimes prevents them from accepting the end. It's one thing to retire at 65. It's tough to do it at 35."

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