Coach K's corner in the triangle of retirement

Mike Krzyzewski lived out one of the cruelest of life’s lessons this past weekend: Everything that ends, ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.

K, as you may have heard, is in the latter stages of a year-long farewell tour, the by-now-well-choreographed last dance where an aging legend gets one last turn on the stage. Despairing, nostalgic friends and begrudgingly admiring foes alike pay homage to the legend. The rest of us start figuring how long the icon has been a part of our lives — a decade, since childhood, forever — and try to come to terms with sports’ final message: nothing lasts forever.

Tucked in the otherwise Duke-heavy news this weekend was a dispiriting report on another fading legend. Roger Federer, hanging at a Swiss ski resort — of course he was — indicated that he wasn’t planning to return to the court until late summer at the earliest, meaning he’ll miss at least three of the four Grand Slam events of the 2022 season, including Wimbledon, his onetime empire.

Knee injuries have brought Federer low; he’s played in only two of the last seven Grand Slams, and hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinals. He’s more than four years removed from his last Grand Slam victory, the 2018 Australian Open, and every tournament that goes by puts more distance between him and his era of dominance.

And then there’s Tom Brady, who retired earlier this year with a botched announcement totally at odds with the strategic management of his brand. Assuming Brady doesn’t come back — which is not a bedrock assumption; more on that in a moment — he represents the third point of the athlete-retirement triangle.

Go out with a bang, go out with a whimper, go out in silence … these are the ways that legendary careers end. The only thing they have in common is that they all end, but their final chapter tells a story in itself. These are the options available to the legends and legends-to-be who are in their last days on the field, starting with a yearlong parade.

Group A: The Farewell Tour

You can blame Michael Jordan for the rash of “Last Dance”-style documentaries soon to come on every legend’s final days, but you’ve got to go back half a decade earlier — to the 1988-89 NBA season — for the start of the farewell tour trend. That year, Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar traveled from town to town, receiving a shower of gifts, speeches and adoration. Rocking chairs, motorcycles, plaques … every city rained treasures down on Abdul-Jabbar, setting the stage for ever-more-lavish productions to come. (Abdul-Jabbar was regarded as impossibly ancient at the time of his tour; he was 41, three years younger than Brady.)

The routine is simple: the legend announces this upcoming season is their final one, setting off an onslaught of adoration. It’s an immensely lucrative endeavor; who wouldn’t want to get a look at an icon in uniform one last time?

Cal Ripken, Chipper Jones, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Allen Iverson and many others trod the gift-lined farewell-tour path before Coach K. The Yankees, being the Yankees, turned Derek Jeter’s Re2irement 2our into a weepy, triumphant coronation, complete with t-shirts, baseball cards and other merch to help fans show their Re2pect.

Yes, the icons in Group A enjoy a year’s worth of love. But others aren’t quite ready to put an expiration date on their careers.

Group B: Hanging On For One More Year (a.k.a. ‘How can we miss you if you won’t go away?’)

What do you do when you can’t do the thing that’s given your entire life purpose? We as sports fans don’t spend enough time thinking about what comes next when stars leave the field and the cheering stops. Some athletes are so competitive they think they can face down Time itself; others just hang on because they can’t imagine what else they could possibly do.

Michael Jordan un-retired twice, lured back by the intoxicating draw of competition and the need to prove himself against three generations of NBA stars. Brett Favre stiff-armed Aaron Rodgers for three seasons before bouncing to two more teams. Virtually every boxer ever has come back for one more big payday long after their best days were behind them. Since he hasn't officially wrapped his career, Federer fits in here, since getting even one more Grand Slam would be an immense challenge.

So many times, the game moves past players before players are ready to move past the game. This is how you end up with Willie Mays on the Mets, Emmitt Smith on the Cardinals, Jerry Rice getting cut from the Denver Broncos in training camp. To us, it seems like a pathetic scene. To the players, it’s grasping onto whatever they can, just to play one more game, no matter how little they’ve got left in the tank.

Group C: I’m Out

The third option is the easiest: walk right out the door one day and never return. Tim Duncan did that back in 2016, when he retired in mid-July. Three years later, Andrew Luck did the same thing. Larry Bird called it a career shortly after playing for the 1992 Dream Team.

If Abdul-Jabbar is the avatar for Group A, and Favre the standard-bearer for Group B, then Group C’s symbol has to be Barry Sanders. He walked away from the Detroit Lions in 1999, still at the top of his game, announcing his departure via fax. That’s how you peace out.

Group C also includes the players who tip their hand shortly before the end of their last season, so they get a little bump of love without the spectacle of a full-scale Retirement Extravaganza. Wayne Gretzky waited until just before the very last game of his career to announce his widely-anticipated retirement. Snowboarding legend Shaun White did the same thing at this year’s Olympics, announcing days before his final run that he would conclude a career that spanned five Olympic Games.

A subset of Group C is the one-day contract, where a franchise attempts to make up with a departed legend by re-signing them to a one-day deal so they can retire as a “member” of the team with which they were most associated. It’s a nice gesture, but until a star makes demands for, say, a bit more playing time, it’s entirely a symbolic and face-saving one.

Brady fits in Group C, for the moment, but it’s entirely possible that he’s biding his time for a one-more-year return in San Francisco or elsewhere. He hasn’t exactly gone quietly into retirement — having your own production company to sculpt your narrative is a bit removed from a Barry Sanders fax — so the suspicion is there that Brady might jump up a Group or two.

All of this leads up to one of the great retirement questions of the early 21st century: How will LeBron James wrap up his career? It’s impossible to envision him going quietly, no matter what team he ends up with. James might be the first player to get two (or three) entirely distinct retirement tours … and if he ends his career with more points than Abdul-Jabbar, he’ll have earned them all.

One way or another, though, the end will come for him, too. The only question is how he’ll face it.

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 05: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils looks on as he is recognized prior to a game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 05, 2022 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 05: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils looks on as he is recognized prior to a game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 05, 2022 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)


Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at

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