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Goodbye...For Now
Steve Rushin
June 28, 1999
When it comes to retirement there's almost no quit in today's sports figures
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June 28, 1999

Goodbye...for Now

When it comes to retirement there's almost no quit in today's sports figures

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No word more richly deserved retirement than retirement. But retirement will never enjoy one, for retirement died at its desk last week, overworked and underappreciated. The word (descended from the French retirer, "to draw back") had appeared drawn of late, and this month it suffered a ghoulish series of setbacks. Retirement was often abused in recent years, and in the end, its life had lost all meaning.

Who delivered the fatal blow? Language police have several suspects, among them:

? Keith Jackson, 71, who a year ago announced his retirement from broadcasting, effective at the end of the '98 college football season. Week after week last fall Jackson received lavish media send-offs from (among many others) GQ, USA Today, ABC Sports and—in a moving first-person essay published in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED—himself. Last week ABC let slip that Jackson will return to the booth this fall for another season of college football, doing Pac-10 games and the Rose Bowl. And retirement suddenly got the sniffles.

? Larry Holmes, 49, who on Friday night engaged in a handbag-swinging contest with another old lady, 46-year-old James (Bonecrusher) Smith, a man whose nickname is apparently a sly reference to his own osteoporosis. The "fight" (in which Holmes prevailed on an eighth-round TKO) was a pay-per-view perversion billed as the Legends of Boxing, with the AARP-sanctioned main event featuring two men with more gold watches between them than you can shake a walking stick at. And retirement began coughing convulsively.

? Boris Becker, 31, who was the subject of international praise for the class and dignity he displayed in bidding a timely auf Wiedersehen to Wimbledon last July. "I feel free," Becker said after announcing his retirement from the tournament. Well, like a sprung felon unable to cope with life outside prison, Becker returned this week to play Wimbledon yet again. And retirement drew up its will.

? MICHAEL JORDAN, 36, who, when it comes to retirement, has retired the trophy. Already in his young life Jordan has retired from basketball, retired from baseball and re-retired from basketball so as to retire from public life. Last year, sentient beings will recall, his indecision regarding retirement made for an endless, coy and highly uninteresting will-I-or-won't-I Japanese fan dance. Naturally, last week the Internet's largest off-shore bookmaker made Jordan a 5-to-6 shot to un-re-retire—to detire? to rehire?—and play for new Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson. (Posted odds were even money that MJ will not return.) And, with a soft wail, retirement said goodbye to its loved ones.

All of these retirement recidivists are not exactly dishonest, mind you, and besides, if you can't deceive the press, who can you head-fake? When New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine is ejected from a game and then captured on TV, in the dugout, wearing an eye-black mustache, then casually tells reporters that it wasn't him, he means, of course, that it was. When New York Knicks president Dave Checketts repeatedly tells reporters that he didn't speak to Phil Jackson about coaching the Knicks, he means, of course, that he did.

And when a professional athlete calls a press conference to say "Hello, I must be going," he means, increasingly, "Goodbye, I must be coming."

Two weeks ago, after winning the French Open, Steffi Graf, 30, said she had "definitely" played her last match at Roland Garros. In which case, so long, Steffi. And see you next year.