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If nothing else, Michael Jordan’s woebegone Wizards comeback proved that he was the greatest after all.
With the NBA playoffs in full swing and the carcass of the 37-42 lottery team still warm, team management leaked questions about Jordan’s “work ethic” to the press, and his former teammates whined that he had been more a tormentor than a mentor since coming out of retirement. So the Jordan Era ends. But then, postseason glory and jersey-retirement ceremonies weren’t in the cards for Jordan here in D.C. Fictional characters like Roy Hobbs go out winning a championship, but as Muhammad Ali knows too well, real-world greatestness means you gotta go out as a loser. You can look it up.
The trend started with Babe Ruth. Baseball geeks have pointed out that Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927 accounted for 14 percent of all home runs hit in the American League that season; today, a player would need to hit more than 300 HRs to show similar superiority. He’s the only player in baseball history to have had two three-homer games in the World Series. He also went 3-0 as a World Series pitcher, including a 14-inning six-hitter with the Boston Red Sox. In all, the Bambino won 10 World Series, the last seven with the New York Yankees. But he didn’t end his career in Gotham or as a winner. Ruth played his final season with the Boston Braves in 1935, meaning that a guy who had palled around with Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, and Tony Lazzeri ended up alongside a cast of no-names including Pinky Whitney, Huck Betts, and Shanty Hogan. The Braves went 38-115, the worst record in the National League. And despite the presence of the greatest offensive player the game has ever known, Boston was outscored by opponents by 277 runs that season. The Yankees retired Ruth’s jersey in 1948. The Braves never did.
And there’s Johnny Unitas. The Colts won three championships with Unitas on the team, the last being the victory over the Cowboys, 16-13, in Super Bowl V in January 1972. He left the game with all-time records in touchdown passes (290), attempts (5,186), completions (2,830), and yards (40,239), among other things, and still holds the record for consecutive games with a TD pass (47, and nobody has come closer than 30 since). He won three MVP awards and was named to the Pro Bowl 10 times. Not wanting to retire and unafraid to sully his 17-year legacy with the Colts, Unitas allowed himself to be traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1973 for cash. Early into his Charger tenure, he surpassed the 40,000-yard passing mark for his career, but otherwise the Southern California sojourn was a disaster. The Chargers opened his one and only season there by taking a 38-0 pounding from the Redskins, and in his last game the squad took a 33-6 pounding from the Chiefs. The team had the third-worst defense and second-worst offense in the NFL that season. The 1973 Chargers were 2-11-1, good for last place in the AFC West Division. Unitas eventually admitted regretting the decision to play away from the scene of his greatest glories. “It was a bad organization altogether, a bad team, and bad ownership,” Unitas said of the Chargers. He was named the greatest football player of the NFL’s first 50 years. The Colts retired Johnny U’s number. San Diego never did.
And there’s Wayne Gretzky. He was dubbed the Great One when he was just 9 years old, and when he was 11, he scored 378 goals in 69 games. Jordan’s partner in the failed MVP.com sporting-goods operation won the NHL’s MVP award all but one year in the ’80s. He made the all-star team 15 times. Gretzky had four 200-point regular seasons; no other player in NHL history has tallied even one. He holds more than 60 scoring records and is the all-time scoring leader in the regular season, All-Star Game, and postseason. But Gretzky wasn’t into his own glories. “If Gretzky was about anything, it was team,” Gretzky biographer Rick Reilly once wrote, pointing out that Gretzky “has the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, 10th, 11th and 12th greatest assists seasons in NHL history.” Gretzky’s teams made the playoffs every year of his stay with Edmonton, and he won five Stanley Cups there. In 1988, he was traded to Los Angeles, and in 1993 he was one bad call away from taking the Kings to their first NHL title. His career ended with a big thud, however, after he was signed by the New York Rangers in 1996 as a free agent. In the 1998-1999 season, Gretzky was named the “Greatest Hockey Player of All-Time” by Hockey News. That season, Gretzky’s last, the Rangers finished with 77 points and a 33-38-11 record, good for fourth place in the Atlantic Division and no invitation to the postseason. The Rangers lost Gretzky’s final game, a game with as little meaning as Jordan’s last, to the Pittsburgh Penguins. There’s a statue of Gretzky in Edmonton, not New York. Dave McKenna