In 1996, the L.A. Lakers selected guard Derek Fisher with the 24th overall pick in the NBA Draft. In 1998, the Pittsburgh Steelers nabbed wide receiver Hines Ward in the third round of the NFL Draft. Both men would go on to help their respective teams win multiple titles. Both men would make crucial plays that rank among the greatest in championship history. Both men would set team records at their position.
And then, this spring, both men would face a similar decision. On March 2, the Steelers released Ward. On March 15, the Lakers dealt Fisher to the mediocre Houston Rockets; the Rockets then traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Two aging veterans, both in the twilight of their careers, both brushed aside by the teams they loved. Ward elected to call it quits, holding an emotional press conference to announce his retirement. Fisher decided to press on, negotiating a buy-out with the Rockets that allowed him to pursue employment with a true contender.
Who got it right? If history is any guide, Ward's decision provides the best chance for an untarnished legacy. And yet, relatively few athletes choose that path. The temptation to hang on several years too long proves too strong for many players to resist. Prominent examples abound:
• Brett Favre famously came out of retirement several times to play with multiple teams after parting ways with the Green Bay Packers in 2008. Though he managed some statistical success in these final seasons, a return trip to the Super Bowl eluded him, and he significantly soured his once rosy public image, even turning fans in Green Bay against him.
• Ken Griffey Jr. tallied 30 homeruns and 93 RBIs in 2007, his last complete season with the Cincinnati Reds. The following year, as his numbers dipped, the Reds traded the slugger to the Chicago White Sox. He rejected rumors of possible retirement and played two subsequent years with the Seattle Mariners, batting .214 and then .184 before finally calling it quits midway through the 2010 season after being benched for lack of production.
• Shaquille O'Neal captured the fourth NBA championship of his career in 2006 with the Miami Heat. Two years later, he was traded away and began a three-year stint in which he played for Phoenix, Cleveland, and finally Boston. His production dipped in each successive season as injuries mounted, and his quest for the elusive fifth title ring went unrealized.
• Michael Jordan achieved what seemed the perfect exit from basketball in 1998, hitting a game-winning shot to secure the Chicago Bulls third consecutive championship. But he couldn't stay away. In 2001, he left retirement to play three seasons with the Washington Wizards. His individual production remained strong, but the team was plagued with in-fighting and went nowhere. His final game was a meaningless blowout loss.
Hanging on for extra seasons added only rancor and embarrassment to these stars' public legacies. Quitting at the first sign of twilight could have spared each man such grief.
Why do so many athletes struggle to exit sports gracefully? Maybe it's for the same reason they first aspired to play the professional game. Maybe playing at the highest level as long as possible is worth whatever scorn may come. Maybe they just want to compete. As Derek Fisher's business manager Jamie Wior recently explained, "Derek's desire to win a sixth championship is what drives him and will continue to drive him as he moves forward."
That sounds honorable enough. Maybe Green Bay fans should reconsider Favre's legacy. Maybe Ward should reconsider his retirement.