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Steve Aschburner

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Julius Erving left the NBA in 1987 as one of the most stylish and electrying superstars in league history.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

These stars walked away, but left plenty on the table


Posted Jul 20 2011 10:28AM

There is an aphorism in show business that, every once in a while, applies to the sports world as well: Always leave 'em wanting more.

Rarely, though, has it applied to the NBA.

When you think of the greatest athletes and biggest names who have, by choice, walked away from their sports, you think of Jim Brown, the Cleveland Browns' Hall of Fame running back whom many people rank as the No. 1 NFL player of all-time. Brown was 29 when he left pro football after nine seasons. Maybe you think of Barry Sanders, hockey's Ken Dryden or golf's Annika Sorenstam.

Most professional athletes get shown the door by injuries, a decline in their playing abilities or a mental fatigue that shows up on the field. That tends to be how it goes for NBA stars in particular, who either suffer some sort of structural blowout or simply can no longer keep up in what arguably is the most physically demanding sport.

Given the fun that many players have competing in the league, the lifestyles they enjoy and the salaries they can draw, is it any wonder that most severance packages would include a scalpel, an hourglass or a crowbar? Most of those from whom we wind up wanting more are either less healthy (Yao Ming, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson) or no longer young (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing) by the time we feel that.

Michael Jordan, certainly, stepped away three times: Once in his physical prime (1993), once not too far past it (1998) and finally when his needle was on "E" (2003). Had Jordan stayed retired the first time, he probably would rank ahead of Brown and Rocky Marciano as sports' version of The Beatles in exiting before we were ready. But he did come back, twice, so we saw the changes in his game, the inevitable decline, the wrinkles.

Here, though, are 10 legendary players who seemed to have something left in their tanks when they called it quits. Maybe they didn't feel it, maybe there were other factors -- contracts, family, life beyond sports -- tugging at them, but based on their stats and general health, they each seemed capable of staying longer. (Feel free to nominate someone as No. 11 for this list.)

In order of their exits:

Bob Cousy: The great Boston Celtics playmaker was 34 when he wrapped up his 13th and final season in the NBA in 1963. He led the league in assists for eight consecutive seasons (1952-60) and helped Boston win six NBA titles in his final seven years. His playing time had dropped off in 1962-63 but pro-rated to 36 minutes, Cousy's stats -- 18.3 ppg, 9.4 assists -- were as good as or better than his career numbers. (We won't count his gimmicky return as a player-coach for seven games with Cincinnati seven years later as a legitimate encore.)

Bob Pettit: What would these numbers -- 22.5 ppg, 12.4 rpg -- be worth in terms of dollars and demand in the NBA today? That was Pettit's season in 1964-65, the last of 11 for him in the NBA. The Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks power forward was better at the end as a 32-year-old veteran than he was as a rookie at 22 (20.4 ppg, 13.8 rpg). He retired as the only NBA star to average more than 20 points per game in every season he played (Jordan was right at 20.0 in his exit year. And sorry, Alex Groza, two years doesn't qualify.)

Bill Russell: Russell clearly was showing signs of wear and tear while turning 35 in 1968-69. He had tendinitis in his knees and appeared to play hunched over, while taking off a few games late in the regular season. But the Celtics' leader, player-coach and defensive star still averaged 42.7 minutes, 9.9 ppg and 19.3 rpg that season. In the postseason, those numbers went up to 46.1, 10.8 and 20.5, with 5.4 assists. Russell didn't tell the Celtics he was through -- they drafted guard Jo Jo White rather than go big for a Russell replacement -- instead selling his story to Sports Illustrated that summer. "Russell was still a great player, but it was the mental part [while coaching and playing] that wore him out," Red Auerbach said.

Wilt Chamberlain: At age 36, having transformed himself into a defense-first center, Chamberlain in 1972-73 averaged averaged 13.2 ppg, 18.6 rpg, 4.5 apg and 43.2 minutes. He made a career-best 72.7 percent of his shots but attempted only 7.1 per game -- compared to the 39.5 field-goal attempts he averaged during his historic 1961-62 season (50.4 ppg). The Big Dipper left for an endless summer of volleyball and socializing, but stayed in such terrific physical shape that comeback rumors persisted into his middle age. The Bulls, Cavaliers, Nets, Knicks, 76ers, Mavericks, Suns and Clippers all allegedly inquired into his availability after he was done. "It's great for the ego to think, at age 50, 52, 53, that guys think I could still go out and play," Chamberlain said in 1991. "And personally, I think I could do it. But I have no desire. The time I had was enough."

Oscar Robertson: Robertson went to Milwaukee in 1970, got the championship ring that he craved in that first year with the Bucks, then stuck around for three more seasons. At the end -- while helping Milwaukee return to the 1974 Finals -- The Big O still was a vital piece, averaging 12.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 6.4 apg and 35.4 minutes at age 35. In the postseason, he played 43.1 minutes, averaging 14.0 points and 9.3 assists. Those would be $50 million numbers now, though they paled next to his stats from his first five NBA seasons: 30.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 10.6 apg. Robertson's work on behalf of the National Basketball Players Association -- filing a class-action lawsuit in a fight toward unrestricted free agency -- had begun in earnest and might have impeded any invitations for Robertson to continue on the court.

Dave Cowens: Cowens was just 31 when he played his last game for the Celtics at the end of 1979-80. He had averaged 14.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 3.1 apg while helping Boston -- in Larry Bird's rookie season -- to a 61-21 record and a spot in the East finals. The 6-foot-9 undersized center, the NBA MVP in 1973, was the consummate hustle player. But he walked away and eventually drove a taxi -- not out of need but out of curiosity -- before making a brief comeback (8.1 ppg and 6.9 rpg in 40 games) for old Celtics pal Don Nelson in Milwaukee in 1982-83.

Julius Erving: Erving deserved a rest by the time he wrapped up his career in 1986-87. To that point, he had carried one league, the ABA, as its brightest and (by the NBA) most coveted superstar, a stylish and electrying player who took Elgin Baylor's above-the-rim game a foot or two higher. Erving also revived interest in the NBA when he entered the league in 1976, joining Philadelphia and helping the Sixers reach The Finals the following spring. Available for and comfortable in interviews, he was the NBA's top ambassador before eventually passing that baton to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. He was 36 when he began his final season, mentoring Charles Barkley while making a farewell tour through the league's cities. But loot at The Doctor's stats: On a 36-minute basis, he averaged 18.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.4 steals and 1.8 blocks. Those aren't far off Scottie Pippen's career numbers.

John Stockton: Outside of Salt Lake City, Stockton's decision to retire at age 41 after the 2002-03 season was vastly underplayed -- not unlike his career overall, which was marked by staggering assists totals, remarkable durability and a bare cupboard of memorable quotes. It might seem silly to suggest that a 41-year-old point guard could exit prematurely, but if you bump Stockton's 27.7 minutes to 36 and assume the same production, he would have averaged 14.0 ppg and 10.0 apg as his swan song.

Reggie Miller: There was a reason that Miller was wooed by the Boston Celtics in 2007-08, the season after which he retired as a lifelong Indiana Pacer. On his way out, the second-best player in the Miller household (behind sister Cheryl) averaged 14.8 ppg, hit 32.2 percent of his 3-pointers and led the NBA with a 93.3 free-throw percentage. But the Pacers' shot to win a championship with Miller on board ended quickly that fall with the brawl in Detroit, spoiling the shooting guard's final season.

Allen Iverson: Even in retreat, based on the small sample of three games in Memphis and 25 back in Philadelphia in 2009-10, a 34-year-old Iverson averaged 13.8 ppg and 4.0 apg while shooting better at the end (43.0 percent) than he had in nine of his 13 previous seasons. Many scouts believed Iverson still had enough skills to help an NBA team last season -- and maybe going forward -- if not for the drama and occasional incorrigibility he packed with him. In the end, he stuck his toe in Turkish waters, perhaps making international competition more appealing to other NBA stars seeking outlets for their games.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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