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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Don't Call it a Comeback: 10 NBA Players Who Returned

Long before Li'l Penny was a gleam in Penny Hardaway's eyes and decades before L.L. Cool J announced his own comeback by rapping, "Don't call it a comeback," NBA players returned to action after absences lasting at least a season. The trend can be traced at least as far back as George Mikan--the NBA's first superstar--and several other members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List have decided, with varying degrees of success, that they had unfinished business on the court. Here are the stories behind 10 comebacks by NBA All-Stars, listed in chronological order, with scoring averages from their first return season listed in parentheses:

1) George Mikan, Minneapolis Lakers (1955-56; 10.5 ppg in 37 games)

Mikan retired prior to the 1954-55 season, the first year that the NBA used the 24 second shot clock. He had just led the Lakers to three straight championships and five titles in a six year period. After sitting out one year, he decided to return. Mikan was only 31 years old but he was not able to recapture his former glory, posting career lows in scoring, rebounding and assists.

2) Cliff Hagan, Dallas Chaparrals (1967-68; 18.2 ppg in 56 games)

Hagan spent the first ten seasons of his career with the St. Louis Hawks, helping them to an NBA Finals victory over Bill Russell's Boston Celtics in 1958. He retired in 1966 but the Dallas Chaparrals of the upstart ABA lured him out of retirement with an offer to be player-coach. He performed well in both capacities, making the All-Star team in 1968 while coaching Dallas to a 46-32 record and a berth in the Western Division Finals. His success did not prove to be long-lived, though, and in the 1970 season he averaged just 5.7 ppg in three games as a player and was replaced as coach in January after Dallas started the season 22-21.

3) Richie Guerin, Atlanta Hawks (1968-69; 5.6 ppg in 27 games)

Guerin served as the Hawks' coach for the last three seasons of his playing career, 1965-67. He retired prior to the 1967-68 campaign but after a year off--during which he won the Coach of the Year award as the Hawks went 56-26--he came back in 1968-69. His regular season numbers the next two seasons were not great but he did average 16.5 ppg in two playoff games as a 38 year old in 1970.

4) Bill Walton, San Diego Clippers (1982-83, 14.1 ppg in 33 games)

Walton's injury history has been well documented, including the fact that he missed far more games than he played in during his career. Walton sat out the entire 1978-79 season due to injury, played in only 14 games in 1979-80 and then missed every game of the next two seasons. It seemed like his career was over but, with his minutes closely monitored, Walton was a productive player in 33 games in 1982-83. He then played in 55, 67 and 80 games in the next three seasons, culminating in a Sixth Man Award as a member of the Boston Celtics' 1986 championship team.

5) Dave Cowens, Milwaukee Bucks (1982-83, 8.1 ppg in 40 games)

Cowens once took a hiatus at the height of his career, so he did not seem to be a prime contender to come back after he retired in 1980--but in 1982 he decided to play for his old teammate Don Nelson, then the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. His comeback was brief and not particularly impressive but the Celtics managed to pry backup guard Quinn Buckner from Milwaukee in exchange for Cowens' rights, which they still owned.

6) Bernard King, New York Knicks (1986-87, 22.7 ppg in six games)

The miracles of modern surgery have enabled players to routinely return from ACL tears but this used to be a dreaded, career-ending injury. The gritty, determined King vowed to beat the odds and he did so in remarkable fashion. He had been at the absolute height of his powers in 1984-85, cruising to the scoring title with a career-high 32.9 ppg average when he blew out his knee. He missed the rest of that season, all of the 1985-86 season and most of the 1986-87 season. I still remember watching a CBS halftime feature about King's strenuous rehabilitation process; it included footage of him shooting jumpers from each elbow and culminated with him throwing down a driving dunk but no one could have imagined at that time how much NBA basketball he would still play. King returned for a cameo with the Knicks late in 1986-87 and showed that he could still be a big-time scorer. His game was noticeably less explosive but he had added a face-up jumper and could still will his way to the hoop at times. The Knicks declined to keep him, so he signed with the Washington Bullets as a free agent. His scoring average increased from 17.2 ppg in 1986-87 to 20.7 ppg, 22.4 ppg and 28.4 ppg. The latter figure ranked third in the NBA in 1990-91, trailing only Michael Jordan and Karl Malone; Jordan was a rookie when King first got hurt and Malone was still in college. In 1991 King became the first player with a reconstructed ACL to play in the All-Star Game. Injuries forced him to miss the 1992 season but he came back again in 1992-93, averaging 7.0 ppg in 32 games with the New Jersey Nets before calling it a career.

7) Sidney Moncrief, Atlanta Hawks (1990-91, 4.7 ppg in 72 games)

Few people seem to remember how great Moncrief was during his 10-year career with the Milwaukee Bucks, when he won consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards (1983 and 1984) and made the All-NBA First or Second Team five times. Chronic injuries dogged him during his final three seasons and he retired in 1989. After a year off, he felt well enough to return to the court. Moncrief's 72 games played in 1990-91 were his most since he appeared in 73 contests in 1985-86 but he put up career-lows across the board and called it quits for good.

8) Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls (1994-95, 26.9 ppg in 17 games)

King's comeback is probably still the most remarkable and inspiring but Jordan's comeback proved to be the most successful. After leading the Bulls to three straight titles in 1991-93, Jordan retired to play minor league baseball. The Major League Baseball work stoppage blocked his path to the big leagues--Jordan vowed never to cross a picket line--so he turned his attention back to the court, rejoining the Bulls near the end of the 1994-95 season. The Bulls had gotten off to a slow start due to injuries but were just starting to put things together when Jordan returned. They went 13-4 down the stretch and won a first round playoff series versus the Charlotte Hornets before losing to the Shaquille O'Neal/Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic. Jordan went through a fierce conditioning program that summer, the Bulls shored up the power forward position by signing Dennis Rodman and Chicago made history in 1995-96 by winning a record 72 games. Chicago won the championship and followed that up by capturing the next two titles as well. Jordan led the NBA in scoring all three seasons, winning two MVPs and three Finals MVPs. He hit the game-winning shot in the 1998 Finals and seemed to ride off into the sunset...until 2001 (see below).

9) Magic Johnson, L.A. Lakers (1995-96, 14.6 ppg in 32 games)

After he announced in 1991 that he had "attained" the HIV virus, Magic Johnson immediately retired. He was voted into the 1992 All-Star Game anyway and won the MVP. That summer he played for the Dream Team in the Olympics but Magic did not play in a regulation NBA game for the next four NBA seasons, although he did have a brief 5-11 stint as Lakers coach in 1993-94. By 1995, fears about playing against an HIV positive player had dissipated and the league had rules in place pertaining to bleeding players and blood on uniforms (which is why Steve Nash had to sit out against the Spurs in this year's playoffs when his nose was gushing blood all over the place). Age and various medical treatments had added a lot of weight to Magic's once lean frame but he decided to come back to end his career on his terms. He was not the player that he had been in his prime but he still had the ability to find the open man, rebound and provide timely scoring.

10) Michael Jordan, Washington Wizards (2001-2002, 22.9 ppg in 60 games)

Not content with two storybook endings to his career--first in the 1993 Finals and then in the 1998 Finals--Jordan tempted fate by returning to the court again in 2001, this time as a 38 year old Washington Wizard. Closing team practices to the public so no one would see how he had to drag his weary, battered old knees up and down the court, Jordan gritted his way through 60 games. He made the All-Star team and showed flashes of his old greatness but he also showed uncharacteristic fatigue at times, often starting strongly in games only to fade down the stretch. Jordan had rushed back without properly preparing his aging body and he paid the price. The next season, Jordan was in much better condition and his shooting percentages and rebounding went up, though his scoring and assists dipped a bit. He played in all 82 games and logged 3031 minutes, remarkable feats for a player who turned 40 during that season. Jordan made the All-Star team again but, unlike his previous comeback with the Bulls, he was no longer an MVP or even an All-NBA level player. He was simply a very good player, which still was quite an achievement at his age. Jordan was unable to lead the Wizards to the playoffs in his two season return and was very disappointed to be fired as an executive when he retired for the final time; he had assumed that he would simply step back into his front office position with the team.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 PM



At Sunday, August 12, 2007 8:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Magic's comeback was by far the best and most meaningful in my mind. It was really inspirational

At Sunday, August 12, 2007 8:53:00 PM, Blogger roger said...

jordan should of never returned the third time, he should of went out on the shot agianst russell, witht that said he averadged 20ppg at 40 years old that was great still,

bernard king was great if he didnt get injured alot he could of been up there with anybody great player, who had a great midrange game.

At Sunday, August 12, 2007 9:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I may have undersold Magic in the post. MJ's first comeback was clearly the most successful in terms of on court accomplishments but Magic's return--particularly considering that many people thought that Magic's HIV diagnosis was in effect a death sentence--was certainly inspirational as well. My reasoning was that King overcame an ACL injury in a way that no one prior to him had. Magic never actually became sick--in terms of having AIDS symptoms--as far as we know, so once his doctors got him on the right drug combinations his comeback was more about overcoming psychological barriers than overcoming physical barriers but of course those psychological barriers are very significant.

At Sunday, August 12, 2007 9:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

King was a beast and he had one of the all-time "game faces." In 1984, the NBA players voted him MVP over Larry Bird in a Sporting News poll (Bird won the official award, which is voted on by the media).

At Sunday, August 12, 2007 10:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone was glad to see Jordan come back the 1st time. If he hadn't of retired the first time, the Bulls would have 8 championships.


At Monday, August 13, 2007 12:31:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

King was unbelievable. Growing up in Brooklyn everyone wanted to be him. He had his demons but we didnt care. He should be in the HOF (of course you know I think its fraud)

Jordans 3rd comeback was to build the Wizards franchise and teach players, which he did. Stats wise it doesnt count.

At Monday, August 13, 2007 1:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob Cousy also came back after a layoff of 7 years, occasionally calling his own number off the bench while coaching the Royals. I remember Bill Bradley vividly describing Cooz shooting free throws at the end of a tight game against the Knicks.

At Monday, August 13, 2007 1:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that Vednam, a frequent reader and commenter here, will disagree with you on that one but I'll let him speak for himself if he so chooses. We had an interesting discussion of that subject in a different thread, the basic issue being did retirement allow MJ to rejuvenate himself to win more titles or would he and the Bulls have kept winning anyway after they got the first three titles. Of course, the whole question is purely hypothetical but it's fun to discuss anyway. I lean more in the direction of the Bulls continuing to win but that is far from certain because injuries are always a possibility plus one has to remember that the roster would have been different; Grant may have stayed, which means Rodman probably would not have been signed.

At Monday, August 13, 2007 1:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Of course the stats count in a literal sense but I feel what you are saying. A lot of people would just as soon forget that MJ ever wore a uniform other than Chicago's. One thing that I liked about MJ as a Wizard is that he brought the effort and intensity every night; the mind was always ready and willing, even if the body was breaking down. I've talked a few times here about his flying two -handed block on Ron Mercer, which was featured in his "Love is..." commercial. To me, that block represents what MJ is as much as any single play. The fact that he put up several 40-plus point games at that age is pretty special, too.

At Monday, August 13, 2007 1:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I left Cousy out because that was not a true comeback. The Royals were shorthanded, so Cousy put himself in a handful of games for a few minutes. He had no intention or plan of ever being a full-time player again. The guys on my list all came back with the intention of playing full-time, even if that did not completely work out or only happened for one year.

For the record, Cousy averaged .7 ppg (you read that right) in seven games in 1969-70, playing a total of 34 minutes. You know it wasn't a real comeback because Red Auerbach and the Celtics did not get compensation for his rights the way that they did for Cowens :)

At Monday, August 13, 2007 11:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember Moncrieff in the Hawks.

He had no knees left, but he was still the best guard in the team and gave a lesson every night of playing hard within your limitations. A true pro.

I remember there was one pre-NBA player who made a return at around 40 years of age. He played a couple games as player-coach and according to newspaper clips it was a disaster. I can't remember the name, though.

At Wednesday, August 15, 2007 11:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous 2

jordan should of eneded in 98, one of the all time great players unquestioned, probably the best ever, magic could of put up better numbers if he didn't have to retire at 30 years old. and b king was and is a legend that game in 84 agianst the pistons will always stand out to me agianst isiah.


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