Now they're getting it. They're leaving on top, with minimal fanfare and no looking back. First Jordan, then Gretzky, now Elway. Off into the night—or onto the golf course. Gone, just like that, in a span of four months, gone before any owner could demean our memory of them with a stupid or desperate trade, before last-act whispers (is he washed up?) could build into a humiliating roar.
This is textbook stuff, writ larger in the case of this trio. Get out before you have to but not before you want to. Though it makes perfect sense, hardly anybody does it.
Most athletes err on the side of embarrassment—which with all those incentive clauses and guaranteed contracts pays better. But these three were so self-assured and so accomplished, not to mention so rich, that they could afford to place their confidence in history, which will treat them better than their futures in uniform would have.
You have to dredge through a lot of years to find a similar string of departures by stars of such magnitude. How about 1928, when Ty Cobb and Gene Tunney lit out for the links? Or '51, when Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis left the building? Most memorable of all until this year, perhaps, was '66, when Jim Brown and Sandy Koufax went out on top only four months apart.
If the graceful exit were easy, it would have been executed more often by great athletes. But Muhammad Ali couldn't leave, and neither could Willie Mays. Think of the mystery that might surround Joe Namath if he hadn't limped through those final seasons. Imagine further that Ali, Mays and Namath had gone out in their prime. We wouldn't wince when thinking of the way they hobbled into history.
Jordan, Gretzky and Elway—they left right. They left pretty. Anybody who watched them in their last games (which in two of three cases were championships) saw them close enough to their peaks to fully appreciate them. To the end these guys displayed the same talent and force of personality that elevated their games from the get-go. Jordan's swagger, Gretzky's grace and Elway's determination weren't dulled by age or eroded by exposure.
The athlete's final act is one by which we measure him forever. Did he quit too soon, choosing a storybook ending instead of a grittier, more sustained sort of achievement, or did he stay too long, trading tomorrow's lega-7 cy for today's cheers?
Or, far less likely, did he balance his own rightful selfishness—an essential characteristic of any high-octane athlete—with the needs of his game and produce, in his perfectly timed retirement, one final masterpiece?