Michelangelo was sculpting another Piet� just days before he died at 88, and John Glenn orbited the Earth 134 times at 77, and Thomas Edison was dreaming of his 1,094th U.S. patent when he passed away at 84, and nobody said of these men that they should have retired years earlier, while still at the peak of their powers. Yet we routinely make that demand of our athletes. (The very fact that we refer to them with the possessive pronominal adjective—"our"—presumes volumes, doesn't it?) Sportswriters are always telling Pete Sampras or Cal Ripken Jr. or Mario Lemieux to hang it up now, before their skills diminish further, so as to preserve our best memories of them.
Meanwhile, no such edict applies to us. Sportswriters work until we keel over dead, pitching facefirst onto our laptops. When that day comes for me, and my forehead slams into the keyboard, filling the screen with a dyslexia of letters, I hope my colleagues stand around and say snidely, "That's the best thing he's written in years."
I plan to work way past my prime—perhaps I already have—and I can't imagine why athletes should do differently. Sure, most of us need the money, and Michael Jordan does not. Money, however, is not why Jordan has returned to the NBA to play for the Wizards. (Indeed, he will donate his first season's salary to charity.) Rather, Jordan wants to play basketball again because playing basketball is what he does best. That is why we should all simply shut up and let him. If anyone deserves a chance to Be Like Mike, shouldn't it be Mike?
Jordan, everyone knows, cannot possibly duplicate in Washington the triumphs he achieved in Chicago. He can never eclipse—or even approach—his last moment on the court: splashing in a last-ditch jumper to win the NBA title. So what? When other artists reach a peak of perfection, they don't stop creating. If they did, the world would have been denied Picasso's Guernica and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Don Knotts could not conceivably have improved upon Barney Fife, but we are richer for the fact that he nevertheless did not deny us the pleasures of Ralph Furley.
So, having composed his masterly Ring Trilogies, Jordan is free to give us his Guernica, his Ninth Symphony, his Ralph Furley. We have seen him in red: Now let us have his blue period. If we sometimes have to cover our eyes, our eyes will also be opened to unexpected delights. In 1980, at age 75, Henry Fonda was a long-faded film star making, in his twilight, cheesy television disaster flicks. And why not? Actors act. In 1982, at 77—42 years removed from his only other Oscar nomination for acting—Fonda won the Best Actor statuette for On Golden Pond. A mere 4� months after that, he died, happy, no doubt, in the knowledge that he hadn't "gone out on top" four decades earlier.
Of course, professional sports are physically demanding in a way that acting or painting or composing are not. The sports marketplace is more cruel and immediate as well: Nobody becomes a great point guard posthumously. NBA players who are not appreciated in their time become, very quickly, ex-NBA players. So, too, with other athletes. If Sampras were unable to compete at his game's highest level—as many suggested in August—he would have found himself at home on Sept. 9. Instead he was playing in the U.S. Open final.
Thank goodness, then, for the guys who don't listen when we tell them to retire. Because of them we were treated to Ripken's home run in this year's All-Star Game and Lemieux's flirtation last season with his league's MVP trophy. Boxers and NFL quarterbacks are exceptions to this, two types of athletes whose health is imperiled by staying too long on the stage. Would that Ali, or even Aikman, had hung it up when everyone told him to.
Jordan's health, though, is not in question, only his fitness: He should be allowed to play for as long as a team will have him. It's not his duty to cede the spotlight; let someone take it from him. Someday, sooner than you think, a player will come along whose brilliance is equal to Jordan's—or greater, in a different way. So don't forget that Michelangelo was still sculpting just before he died in 1564. But bear in mind, too, what happened two months after his death.
Shakespeare was born.