"I've learned never to say never."
-- Former lightweight champion Ray Mancini, who made three unsuccessful ring comebacks. For a high-profile athlete, exiting gracefully can prove as difficult as making a winning free throw, competing against a younger, stronger foe, or simply admitting the game finally has caught up with you.
For Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan, who announced his retirement yesterday, it was none of the above. At 30, he was in his athletic prime, winning his seventh consecutive scoring title last season and averaging a record 41 points against the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.
One parallel could be drawn to Jim Brown, who retired at the prime of his NFL career and never came back, though Jordan said he has left the door open to a return.
Jordan now faces the same emotional hurdle that made a number of sports heroes such as Wilt Chamberlain, Ray Leonard and Bjorn Borg retire prematurely. But few remained retired, drawn back by the cheers, the money or the competition.
Chamberlain, who averaged 50.4 points one NBA season and holds the single-game scoring record of 100 points, retired at 36 after leading the league in rebounding.
There were repeated rumors of a comeback, even at age 46, when he was offered $500,000 to finish the last three months of the season with the Philadelphia 76ers.
But after hearing that he might be viewed as a sideshow, Chamberlain rejected the offer.
"Physically, I'm ready to play," he said at the time. "But mentally, I've gone soft. I'm not hungry anymore."
Like Jordan and Chamberlain, Leonard hasn't had to worry about financial security. But the boxer, who won world titles in four different weight classes, retired three times during his pro career before current junior middleweight king Terry Norris ended his career for good in 1991.
Leonard's first boxing sabbatical was precipitated by retinal surgery in 1982. But two years later, he was back in the ring. Explaining his
change of heart, Leonard said: "My goal is to step down when I'm ready to step down. My eye problem was corrected. I got a second chance."
When journeyman Kevin Howard knocked him down, Leonard quit again, saying: "I've lost the spark. I've lost what wild animal was inside me. There's no sense fooling myself."
In 1989, the fire was rekindled, and he would cap his brilliant careerby upsetting Marvin Hagler. And when he continued fighting at 34, he underlined the true compulsion.
"I'm doing something because I love it and do it well," he said. "I'm not back for the money, glory or adulation. I'm doing it from the heart. It's a challenge. It's for me."
Asked why such boxing legends as Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep and Archie Moore fought into their 40s, veteran trainer Eddie Futch said: "It's the same lure that attracted them in the first place. They love to fight, hear the roar of the crowd. It's hard to give it up once you've tasted the wine."
Some athletes never learn to cope with retirement.
"It's tough to realize you're through," said Mickey Mantle, forced to retire from baseball early because of many nagging injuries. "You really get spoiled."
Boston sports psychologist Dorothy Heinonen, a counselor of athletes for more than a decade, said, "Few ballplayers think seriously about the possibility their career may end one day. When it happens, they have withdrawal pains. Everyone has their own coping skills. Some just don't cope that well, unfortunately."
If you'd like to hear yesterday's Michael Jordan news conference, call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County).
You will need a touch-tone phone. After you hear the greeting, punch in the four-digit code 6006 to hear excerpts of Jordan's statement and of the news conference. To hear Jordan reading his entire statement, punch in the code 6007.
Dial Sunfax at (410) 332-6123 to receive, by fax, a copy of Jordan's statement. After you hear the greeting, punch in the four-digit code 5300.