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Marquette University won the NCAA basketball title last night over North Carolina, and you'll have to pardon me if I don't get some of the details straight. You see it's kinda hard to watch a basketball game when your ballet-crazy brother keeps switching the channel to check out what's happening with the Harlem Dance Company special.
It's common knowledge that last night's 67-59 win over the Tar-Heels was Al Maguire's last game as Marquette's coach. Now I'm not going to say anything dramatic like "Oh! What a fitting way to end a glorious career!" but it does make one think about what an important asset timing is in an athletic career.
The great ones don't always go out so great. Everyone thought Bill Russell timed his retirement from coaching and playing perfectly in 1969, with a World Championship in his pocket, but the lure of sport itself (along with some big money) coerced him back into the basketball scene. He now bides his time unglamorously as coach of the mediocre Seattle Supersonics.
The story's the same but the sport is different with another legend. The late Vince Lombardi, after his initial retirement, said he "missed the fire on Sundays," and upon returning to the pro football coaching ranks, he did little to kindle a championship in Washington.
It's even more difficult for the athlete to know when to quit. Baseball heroes Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays hardly went out as such. Mantle could barely walk during his last year and hit a dismal .234. Mays couldn't throw the ball and failed to reach the .200 mark in his final season. Just last spring I saw Henry Aaron smoking cigarettes in the dugout during a Milwaukee game.
And the list goes on. Stan Mikita looks pathetic on the ice now, trying vainly to keep up with his flashy younger counterparts. Arnold Palmer needs divine intervention to one-putt a green, much less win a tournament. Rod Laver won two Grand Slams in tennis but hasn't reached the finals of a major tournament since Jimmy Connors' first communion.
But what does it take to finish at the top of one's game?
A lot of times tragedy permanently granitizes the athlete at the top of the mountain. One need look no farther than baseball's Roberto Clemente or auto racing's Peter Revson as examples of what A.E. Housman was trying to say in "To an Athlete Dying Young" when he penned "Now you will not swell the rout/Of lads who wore their honor out."
But tragedy can also falsely canonize a player and his career. Brian Picolo's losing bout with cancer did more for his stature as a player than touchdowns do for O.J. Simpson. The fact that Picolo died after averaging less than 250 yards per season with the Bears leaves a dubious mark on the athletic hero image that people now hold of him.
What is it in sports that pushes an athlete or coach to "give it one more try?" It can't just be the money, especially for superstars living in a world of endorsements and acting careers. It's got to be something more, so much more that we cannot empathize with a Hal Greer or a Bob Gibson hobbling and wheezing their former glories into anti-climax.
So to Muhammed, Fran, Hondo, Yaz and The Golden Bear--good luck! Try to follow the examples of Ted Williams, Jimmy Brown, and John Wooden. Get up there with Al Maguire and see what fun it is to be able to watch from a permanent box seat on top of the mountain.
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