I enjoyed watching Michael Jordan with the Wizards. I loved watching Magic Johnson in 1996. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar jogging up the court in 1989? I could dial up a YouTube clip right now and watch it. Emmitt Smith with the Cardinals? Fun. Roger Federer being nothing like he once was for so many years? Compelling. And on and on.
Sports fans and writers love legacies and often want athletes to retire at the top of their game so our precious memories aren’t sullied by watching them score 10 points per game or average 2 yards per carry. Why can’t they leave at the top of their game, like Jim Brown or Barry Sanders or Michael Jordan — at least in 1993?
I’ve always thought this was ridiculous. Athletes should go out when they want, whether it’s when they’re still at their peak or one of the worst in the game. What right does anyone have to tell anyone to retire or to quit? It seems to be an almost-childlike desire to preserve memories, as if anything Michael Jordan did in Washington would erase his six titles or 63-point performance in the Boston Garden.
I enjoy watching sports legends struggle at the end, getting by on their mental abilities as much as their physical ones. When you’ve been blessed with unnatural talent and had the good fortune to become one of the greatest, why give all that up at the age of 30 or even 35?
It turns out athletes aren’t alone when it comes to hurting their legacies and damaging our memories. In New York Magazine, Nick Schager wrote about “The Family and Robert De Niro’s Self-Parody Problem.” Judging by its box office totals, you probably haven’t seen The Family, the story of a mob guy who goes into hiding. The mob guy being famous mobster-portrayer De Niro. Like so many of De Niro’s roles over the past 15 years, clips from The Family will not play when The Oscars remember the actor when he dies. Schager writes of De Niro appearing in movies like Analyze This (and That), and Meet The Parents, “This sort of blatant regurgitation of career-making moments for juvenile laughs seemed beneath De Niro — until, it became evident, the actor no longer cared to be anything more than a parodic version of himself.”
And to that I say, who cares? De Niro is 70 years old. What should we expect from him at this point? What should he demand of himself? He could star in three Zucker brothers Godfather/Taxi Driver/Raging Bull spoofs and spend 90 minutes saying nothing but, “You talkin’ to me?” and it would do nothing to his legacy. And think of those old stories about what the young De Niro would physically put himself through for roles in Raging Bull or The Untouchables. The mental preparation. It’s unrealistic to expect someone to pull that off for four or five decades. Let the man have his terrible comedies and bland dramas.
Pacino too. His hoo-haas! don’t mean Godfather and Godfather II never happened; if The Godfather III couldn’t kill that legacy, neither can Righteous Kill.
The fact is this fate awaits almost all of us, famous or not. It’s especially true in creative fields, although not exclusive. I’m sure my mom did better work as a quality assurance inspector at 50 than at 61.
Take writers. When people list the best nonfiction writers ever, Gay Talese always finds his way into the conversation. People cite Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, his Esquire classic many consider the best magazine story ever. Or his book on The New York Times, The Kingdom and the Power. Or his epic piece on Joe DiMaggio, The Silent Season of a Hero. The Sinatra and DiMaggio stories each ran in 1966, a year that helped make a career. Rarely do people mention Talese’s New Yorker story on Joe Girardi, from 2012. Or his infamous sex book Thy Neighbor’s Wife, from 1981. Yet no one demanded Talese retire the typewriter and live off his legacy and help preserve our memories of his greatest prose. Sinatra Has a Cold stands on its own, regardless of the millions of words from Talese that followed.
Frank Deford is one of the best sportswriters ever but almost all of his famous stories came in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, when he wrote memorable profiles on Jimmy Connors, Billy Conn, Bobby Knight and Bull Sullivan. Deford eventually left Sports Illustrated, where all those classic pieces ran, started The National, had The National fold, returned to SI for the occasional piece and contributed to NPR and Real Sports. He hasn’t necessarily added to his legacy the past 20 years, but it doesn’t take away from the 20 years that came before.
TV shows aren’t immune. Many fans of The Simpsons wish the show had stopped about 10 or 15 years ago. I don’t watch it as much as I once did and do feel like the older episodes were superior but I still enjoy new episodes and prefer it to living in a world where The Simpsons only exists as something that comes on at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. on weeknights.
None of this means the greats are immune for criticism as they age, slow down or lose whatever it was that set them apart from their peers. What was Magic thinking when he shoved a ref in 1996? De Niro’s Showtime is abysmal, depressing to watch. That’s okay.
Because watching legends at their worst helps us remember them at their best. That doesn’t damage a legacy, it simply helps bring it into focus — even when it’s difficult to watch.