Monday, March 02, 2015

Greatness With Class

Watching the always gracious and classy Jack Nicklaus interview by David Feherty made me think about which transcendent athletes best handled their fame. Nicklaus certainly comes to mind. Unlike most golfers he remained a force on the PGA Tour well into his forties, winning the Masters at age 46. Now in his seventies Jack still works hard at his many businesses and pulls in an estimated $30 million annually - while taking time to attend all his grandchildren's activities. Other gentlemen golf greats who have also aged gracefully include Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Fred Couples, and Phil Michelson. Contrast Phil with Tiger Woods, whose snarl only grows larger the more his body breaks down.

A close second to Jack would be The Great One, Wayne Gretzky. He walks limp free and with a smile, dabbling in coaching and management. Lately he's mentored his new son in law Dustin Johnson through his struggles and toward greatness on the golf course.

Joe Montana also lives a quiet retirement, having raised a brood of young quarterbacks. He occasionally resurfaces on TV and isn't afraid to poke fun at himself. Joe's frequent target Jerry Rice, himself one of the very greatest football players of all time, also stays classy, making a good showing on Dancing With the Stars. Peyton Manning seems to be following in Montana's footsteps, though hopefully his retirement is handled more gracefully than hanger-oners Joe Namath, Brett Farve, and Deion Sanders. Many elite running backs gracefully retired, namely Gale Sayers, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and Herschel Walker.

In retirement Hank Aaron has remained the classy individual he was as a player - much more so than Willie Mays, who like Mickey Mantle was suspended from baseball for working as a casino greeter. Injuries kept poor Mickey from true greatness (yet he still hit 500 homers). This haunted Mantle throughout a retirement marred by alcoholism and sickness. Though Joe DiMaggio exuded class those close to him saw his selfish streak. Ted Williams was even more crass, and Babe Ruth repeatedly cashed in as the face of baseball with his hands full of smokes, alcohol, and hotdogs (and pockets lined with cash). 

Good guy Greg Maddux could cuss a mean streak but now enjoys teaching minor league pitchers the tools of the trade, unlike his competition for greatest pitcher of his generation: Roger Clemens. Roger, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds have disappeared from public view lest more stories of their steroid use come to light. Similarly Pete Rose continues to make shady deals in retirement, perhaps growing all the more similar to the former crusty hit king Ty Cobb. Even if Rose and Shoeless Joe deserve Hall of Fame induction, Rose remains worthy of the moniker Charlie Hustle for more than one reason. Perhaps Ichiro can bring dignity to the all-time hits leader list. While good guy Derek Jeter has retired the MLB is well stocked with fine young men like Clayton Kershaw, Madison Baumgardner, and Mike Trout. Highly touted hotshots Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig have suffered injuries as well as backlash for their hot-doggery.

Michael Jordan stands tall as one of the greatest ever to play basketball, but his unmatched competitiveness has not served him well in retirement. The media love to report any misstep he might take. Dr. J remains classy but bad investments have caused him to struggle to remain solvent. Wilt Chamberlain remained a controversial figure until death, though adversary Bill Russell remains highly respected. Kareem passed both but failed to garner attention or respect in retirement. After a so-so pro career, all-time colligate scoring champion Pete Maravich may have become more famous in retirement (and death).

Even AIDS could not diminish the popularity of Magic Johnson. He remains a beloved figure in both basketball and business. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, and Phil Jackson became successful general managers and coaches, much more graceful in retirement than their competitive natures showed on the court. Contrastingly, the controversies surrounding Isiah Thomas throughout in his playing days followed him through the coaching and managerial positions he took.

Though the volatile John McEnroe changed the way tennis was played, over the years Mac has become an important voice in the advancement of the sport. While he may have mellowed, he is respected as a tennis giant. After many decades Pele remains the face of soccer, though unlike the titans of other sports he has repeatedly failed to be able to cash in to have a comfortable retirement. Mia Hamm remained the face of the women's soccer movement for a generation, and has gracefully retired to concentrate on motherhood.

In the entertainment industry the greats often seem bent on self-destruction: Elvis, Michael Jackson, Kurt Kobain, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Robin Williams - the list could go on and on. In his old age Elton John has become a parody of himself. Paul McCartney is one of the few legends to hold up well. Many like Justin Beiber sizzle early only to flame out quickly. Will Madonna be able to age gracefully, or will an overwhelming desire for attention cause her to become an aging nuisance? Like many, Will Smith used talent to become one of the giants in Hollywood but personal issues could get the best of him. The same can be said for Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Nicolas Cage. Unlike Charlie Sheen, fellow Brat-Packer Rob Lowe has aged gracefully (if you can call his mid-50's "aging"). Will talented artists like Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift be able to stand the test of time?

This makes me wonder: am I aging gracefully like Nicklaus or begrudgedly like Tiger? It's not too late to change.

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