Considering all the ups and downs of life, sometimes it's tough to know when your've reached your peak and it's time to hang it up. Consider Michael Jordan.

KNOWING WHEN TO QUIT

June 19, 1998|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,From Sun staff Pub Date: 6/19/98 SUN STAFF

You're Michael Jordan.

OK, you're not -- he has a better jump shot -- but let's pretend.

You have enough money to fill every swimming pool in America with Gatorade. You are recognized as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. You have just drained the game-winning shot to lead the Chicago Bulls to a sixth NBA championship in eight years.

There's only one thing left to do.

Quit.

That's right, hang it up, pack it in, call it a day. Be that rarest of athletes. Go out on top.

Mike Eruzione did. He scored the game-winning goal in one of the greatest sports upsets ever -- the U.S. hockey team's defeat of the mighty Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Then he hung up his skates without even trying out for the National Hockey League.

"To me, that was the greatest moment of my life as an athlete," he says, "and it was time to move on."

Knowing when to quit is one of life's great riddles -- and not just for athletes. There are experts to help you find a job, or change a job, or cope with job burn-out, but when it comes to pulling the plug on a career, you're basically on your own.

Timing is critical. It's the difference between "Seinfeld" and "Murphy Brown." This was the last season for both television shows, but the finale of "Seinfeld" was treated like a national tragedy, while "Murphy Brown's" demise was seen as long overdue.

"Always leave them wanting more," Jerry Seinfeld said.

Or take pop music. The Beatles quit while they were on top, critically and in popularity, while the Beach Boys seem determined to linger as long as there's a backyard picnic that will pay them to perform.

Frank Sinatra represents both sides. He quit too soon the first time he retired, then hung on too long after his comeback.

Sticking around too long is almost an occupational hazard in some professions -- U.S. Supreme Court justices, baseball announcers, rural doctors, child actors, feature writers (just kidding there). But it's most obvious among athletes because their careers are so compressed.

Who can forget the sight of the great Willie Mays dropping fly balls and batting .211 in 1973, his final season with the New York Mets? Mickey Mantle batted .237 in his last year; Babe Ruth hit just .181.

Steve Carlton pitched 24 years, won four Cy Young Awards, but spent his last two years bouncing from Philadelphia to San Francisco to Chicago to Cleveland to Minnesota, trying desperately to latch on with a team. Any team.

Sad, isn't it?

"I grow so weary of hearing that," says Tim McCarver, the former baseball star, current baseball announcer and author of a new book, "Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans."

"That's not sad. That's not sad at all. It's his call."

An athlete's call

McCarver caught most of Carlton's game, and here's his point: Nobody knows what's inside the hearts of superstar athletes. If they believe they can still play, they have earned the right to try.

"You train from the time you put on a jockstrap to be a fiery competitor, and now all of a sudden people are going to tell you to quit?

"I don't want Michael Jordan to step down. I want him to play some more."

Jordan has said he would quit rather than play without his coach, Phil Jackson, and teammate Scottie Pippen. Both have said it's unlikely they will return to the Bulls.

"I have another life, and I have to get to it at some point in time," Jordan said after winning another NBA crown.

Yes, sure, but when?

At 35, he can still play; that's obvious to anyone who saw him win yet another Most Valuable Player award this season or watched him score 45 points Sunday night.

But Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns could still play when he retired in 1965, after leading the NFL in touchdowns scored and yards rushing.

And Sandy Koufax could still pitch when he retired in 1966, after leading the National League in wins, strikeouts and earned-run average.

And Eruzione could still play hockey when he retired after the Olympics. He now works in the alumni development office of Boston University. He also gives motivational speeches and plays in celebrity golf outings.

Has he ever regretted the decision?

"Not one iota."

Granted, Eruzione acknowledges that he was no Jordan (who is?), but he could have played in the NHL for a few years, made some money, hung on like so many others. He says it's harder for athletes to leave today. There are major-league baseball pitchers who struggle to record an out -- we could mention Norm Charlton's name here, but he's only one of many -- but still bring home million-dollar paychecks.

"Hanging on for the dollars is an issue," Eruzione says.

Jordan makes enough money outside of basketball to merit Bill Gates' respect, so money isn't a snag. He has accomplished every goal imaginable as a professional basketball player, so the motivational cupboard is dry.

Starting over

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