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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Air Jordan and Flash 80

Jerry Rice announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday, concluding a 20 year career during which he set numerous records, including the regular season career marks for receptions (1549), receiving yards (22,895) and receiving touchdowns (197). He is 448 receptions, 7961 yards and 67 touchdowns ahead of second place in each of those categories—those numbers would represent an excellent career by themselves!

You are probably thinking, “Great, but what does this have to do with basketball?”

The connection is that when I see Jerry Rice I think back to his rookie season in the fall of 1985 and I remember that another icon in the making was in his second year in the NBA—when Flash 80 began his great run with the San Francisco 49ers, Air Jordan had just been cleared for takeoff with the Chicago Bulls. In the spring of 1986, Michael Jordan scored a playoff record 63 points against the Boston Celtics, inspiring that season’s NBA MVP, Larry Bird, to suggest, “That’s God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

In addition to the records that they set and the championships that they won, Jordan and Rice embodied the beauty of playing for the love of the game. Jordan actually had a “love of the game” clause in his first Chicago Bulls contract that stipulated that he could play in pick-up basketball games in the off-season, something that teams frowned on—or explicitly forbade—at that time, fearing that the player risked injuring himself in unsupervised competition.

Jordan simply loved to play basketball and loved proving that he was the best player on any court at any time. Early in his career Jordan insisted that he would retire before his skills diminished. His first retirement in 1993 after leading the Bulls to three straight championships seemed to fulfill that prediction—but Jordan came back in 1995, only to retire on top again in 1998 after his famous shot over Utah’s Bryon Russell capped off the Bulls’ second three-peat in an 8 year period. However, citing an itch that had to be scratched, Jordan came back again, this time in 2001-02 with the Washington Wizards, for whom he had worked as a team executive. He could still score, but not as prolifically or smoothly as he did during his prime, and he still had a good all-around game, but he had slowed noticeably and was no longer the best player in the game. He spent much of his Wizards career gamely fighting tendonitis that often left him playing on one leg. Michael Leahy writes in his book When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback that the Wizards closed practices to the public so that word would not get out about how much Jordan’s right knee was hindering him. He pushed his body to the absolute limit before the “itch” was sufficiently scratched.

Rice shared the same love of the game. When he suffered a torn ACL and a torn MCL after a vicious Warren Sapp face-mask tackle in 1997, the 35 year old Rice—whose place in NFL history was already secure--set a goal of becoming the first NFL player to return from such an injury in the same season (Rod Woodson missed a whole season but came back in the same season’s Super Bowl). He made it back and had a stirring Monday night football performance, including a touchdown reception—but on that play he shattered the kneecap on the same leg, a result of weakness in the joint because he came back too soon from the previous injury.

Rice recovered from the broken kneecap to catch 492 passes in the last seven years of his career. He made the Pro Bowl in 1999 with the 49ers and again in 2003 with the Oakland Raiders, after a season in which he was a major contributor to the Raiders (92 receptions, 1211 yards, 7 touchdowns—and he turned 40 early in that season!) making it to Super Bowl XXXVII. His totals after the two devastating knee injuries surpass the career numbers of some Hall of Fame receivers.

There is a beauty and a sadness to the way that Jordan and Rice’s careers ended. There is great beauty in loving the game so much that you continue to play even though you have nothing left to prove and you risk being mocked by cynical writers, young fans who don’t remember your greatness and jealous rivals who couldn’t touch you in your prime but salivate at the chance to embarrass you now. Yet, there is sadness when one watches a singular performer unable to dominate the game in his usual manner. Ray Lewis can be heard on NFL Films saying, “The same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry.” Watching the end of Air Jordan’s career and the conclusion of Flash 80’s run, I understand that statement perfectly. I take two memories from Jordan’s Wizards career: first, his soaring, two handed block of Ron Mercer, pinning the ball to the glass to preserve a win against Jordan’s old team, the Chicago Bulls. That clip was later shown in a Nike commercial, with a Jordan voiceover intoning “Love is playing every game like it’s your last.” I’m not ashamed to say that I got goose bumps every time that spot ran; second, the image of Jordan dragging his bad leg up and down the court, trying to act like everything was fine—his heart and determination made you smile and the intimations of his (and our) mortality made you cry. For Rice, my two memories of his dénouement are the aforementioned Monday night comeback from the ACL injury and the fact that last year, on a Seattle team with wide receivers who drop so many passes they should change their names to Edward Scissorhands, Seattle did not even attempt to utilize him at the end of a 27-20 playoff loss to the St. Louis Rams.

Jerry Rice’s retirement leaves me feeling the same way that I did after Michael Jordan’s last season with the Wizards: I am sad that Jerry Rice will no longer play in the NFL—and yet I am glad that he left now rather than spend a season sitting on the bench. Yes, the same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM

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