Monday, July 2, 2012

What Legendary Black Athletes Do Wrong

There's nothing more pitiful than a legendary athlete lingering in a sport years too long, well after the remarkable skills, once second to none, have eroded. It's painful watching some former great, deep in decline, performing below average.

When the struggling, failing icon is black, it's particularly disturbing to the black community. Some of the good will created by the icon is invariably chipped away by this ugly final chapter.

This athlete rose to become one of the all-time greats, garnering respect, paving the way for other people of color, making all blacks proud. Ideally, this icon should leave the sport with dignity, when the skills haven't gone too far south. But avoid that undignified exit.

This is an issue now because there's a black icon in trouble--tennis star Venus Williams. She and her sister Serena weren't the first big black tennis stars. That honor belongs to Althea Gibson, who won six Grand Slam singles titles in the second half of the 1950s, and Arthur Ashe, the lone black American male to win a Grand Slam singles title. One of the best female tennis players ever, Venus will be forever remembered as a key figure in bringing a black-American presence to a predominately white sport.

No question though, the 32-year-old, five-time Wimbledon champ, who's suffering from a rare, energy-sapping auto-immune disease, should retire. But she's still hanging on, a mere shell of the old Venus. Watching her performance last week at Wimbledon was distressing. She was knocked out by a nobody, 79th-ranked Elena Vesnina, in the first round. Williams couldn't move. She was late getting to balls and when she reached them her returns were underpowered, old-lady-like. Vesnina was consistently fooling Williams and on a few rallies was even cruelly toying with her. In the old days, Williams would have polished off this pesky wannabe in two sets, barely breaking a sweat.

She's following in the footsteps of some other blacks who waited way too long to retire. Center-fielder Willie Mays, one of the top 10 baseball players ever and one of the sport's first black superstars, should have quit when he was traded by the San Francisco Giants to the New York Mets in 1972. But, then in his early 40s, his speed and skills a fraction of what they used to be, he played a year and a half with the Mets. I recall seeing Mays, then in it for the money, play several times. In the outfield, the gazelle had turned into a lumbering moose. It was sad.

So were the final years of the great heavyweight champion Joe Louis. Though his prime years were in the 1930s through the mid-1940s, he was still boxing in the 1950s, hampered by slowed reflexes. To pay a huge IRS debt Louis, whose last serious fight was his loss to Rocky Marciano in 1951, kept fighting--and taking beatings. Even more humiliating, he resorted to wrestling matches from the 1950s through 1972. I actually saw one of those matches in the mid 1960s. It wasn't pretty. Talk about depressing.

So was seeing O.J. Simpson, a raging egomanaic who wouldn't admit he was finished, in his last year, 1979, when his speed was long gone. By then Simpson, whose best years were in Buffalo, was telegraphing his cuts and was too slow to turn corners. In his final game, as a San Francisco 49er (he started as a JC star in San Francisco), with Bill Walsh as coach, Simpson never even got to play. What a way for one the sport's all-time top five runners to conclude his career.

Arguably the best basketball player ever, Michael Jordan stayed one year too long, a year that was at times cringe-worthy. On the heels of all that Chicago Bulls glory, he played two years with the lame Washington Wizards. That final year tarnished his image somewhat. Driven by ego, not a need for money, Jordan, whose 40-year-old legs were largely dead, refused to believe he wasn't good enough to play any more. That year he was, at best, average and, more often, far less than that. He definitely wasn't close to the Jordan we'd come to admire.

I fear there's another casualty just around the bend--golf superstar Tiger Woods. Without Tiger, who's part black, golf would still be considered a white sport. Like Williams he's help bring an invaluable black presence to his sport. Though he's rallied somewhat this year--winning another tournament Sunday--aging Tiger's skills are slipping. In a few years, I can see Tiger, a tenacious competitor, his millions meaning nothing, drastically skidding down hill, struggling to make the cut in tournaments, embarrassing himself but refusing to retire. His identity is so glued to golf that, for him quitting, I predict, will be a messy trauma. Hope I'm wrong.

The problem with all these athletes is that their egos, critical in their drive to greatness, are still in overdrive when their careers are nearly over. Their bodies can't do it any more but their minds tune out this message. It's tough for them to accept performance declines, that the spotlight won't be on them any more, that it's time to retire and begin the next phase of their lives.

In these bleak moments, when common sense is often on hiatus, what's low on their prority list is being a symbol of black America. They're not thinking that a graceful final chapter would add gloss to their legacy and really make the black community proud. Do you think Mays had his status as a black symbol in mind when he was stumbling around the outfield as ancient member of the New York Mets?

Hopefully Venus Williams, who has plenty of money and doesn't need the bucks, comes to her senses soon--for her own good and the good of the black community. Venus, please retire before you become the tennis world's equavalent of Willie Mays.