By Gus Jarvis | Montrose
I still remember vividly the last night I would see John Elway on the playing field wearing his No. 7 Broncos jersey. The Broncos had just won the 1998-99 A.F.C. Championship game and were on their way to their second Super Bowl in as many years.
After raising the Lamar Hunt Trophy, Mr. Elway took a long lap around the field at Mile High Stadium to say thanks to the fans who supported him throughout his Hall of Fame career.
It would be the last time No. 7 would take the field in his home stadium and everyone knew it. John Elway knew it. His team knew it. Bronco fans across the land knew it. Elway, the champion that he is, was orchestrating one of the greatest exits from professional sports of all time. He left the field that evening on his way to the Super Bowl with hopes of winning the Broncos’ second in a row. After that, he was done.
(Wiping away tears.)
And, of course, his exit from the N.F.L. as a player went just as scripted. Elway walked off into the blue and orange sunset with two Super Bowl trophies under his arm – capping one of the best quarterbacking careers of all time – arguably the best. Elway was one of the lucky ones who quit while being at the top and he will go down in history for doing just that.
How will Peyton Manning be remembered? He’ll be remembered in the Hall of Fame, of course, as one of the most successful quarterbacks of all time. He’ll be remembered for his audibles at the line and for his ability to lead a hurry-up offense. He, like Elway, will be remembered for calling it quits while on top. (Although, perhaps, not as confidently.)
Now, I’m not sure what truly went into his decision to retire this year but I think many of us Broncos faithful breathed a sigh of relief when his retirement announcement finally arrived. Nobody wanted to see Peyton try for a second straight Super Bowl title, Elway style, because nobody wanted to see Peyton’s arm fall off on the 43-yard-line next year. Bronco fans should all be thankful he decided enough was enough. He went out a champion without dragging his team through the trenches with a dismal season next year.
For the best of the best in professional sports, when to call it quits is one of the most difficult decisions to make – and a decision that will have an effect his or her legacy.
Take Kobe Bryant for instance. He’s one of the greatest N.B.A. players of all time. His name belongs in the rafters among the names Magic, Kareem, Bird, and Jordan. He was, undoubtedly, a legend on the court. He’s true champion for the Los Angeles Lakers.
His biggest flaw, however, was his inability to call it quits.
I know that in a couple of weeks, Kobe will play his final game. This is his last season and he is, in fact, finally hanging up his high tops. Unfortunately, his retirement should have come two, maybe four, years ago. And while his legacy hasn’t suffered that much (because he really was that good) the Lakers franchise has suffered greatly.
With just seven games left in the regular season, the Lakers find themselves with a rock bottom 16-59 record. The Lakers may not win 20 games this year. Last year it wasn’t any better as the Lakers finished 21-61. In 2014, they finished with a 27-55 record. These are not the Los Angeles Lakers we are used to.
I know there are a lot of different avenues we can go down when discussing the downfall of the Lakers – from poor coaching to injuries – but really, I believe the downfall can be attributed to Kobe’s refusal to retire a few years ago. The Lakers are bad because Kobe’s on the roster.
Now I’m not here to cheaply bash Mr. Bryant. He was one of the best to ever play the game. However, the combination of his exorbitant pay, constant injuries, lack of leadership with young players, and his inability to get along with coaches has severely stunted the growth of an organization that is desperately trying to look forward and beyond the Kobe years.
Even Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak has publicly stated that the Lakers have no hope of improvement until Kobe’s retirement is final.
“We cannot move on as a team until Kobe leaves,” Kupchak told The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “Part of that to me is painful because I’ve been here 20 years with Kobe.…This is a year that’s dedicated to Kobe and his farewell.”
The most ironic aspect of Kobe’s so-called farewell tour this season is that it’s been a complete bust. OK, sure the Lakers can’t win games but they can put Kobe on the court to say goodbye to fans all over the country, to say thanks for the good times. But because Kobe is so beat up, there are nights he doesn’t even dress. The Lakers can’t win. Kobe is too beat up to say goodbye. And he’s leaving the team in a complete shambles.
Were the last few years worth it for the Lakers? Absolutely not. Were the last few years worth it for Kobe? Well, he’s got a hell of a lot of money in his pocket, so, maybe.
I do believe the way and fashion a player exits the game has an impact on his or her legacy. Elway was spot on. Manning was close to screwing it up. Kobe has completely screwed it up.
Kobe’s legacy will depend on how long it will take the Lakers to crawl out of the rut Kobe dug for them.