Athletes don't find it easy to give up their sport—you have a lot of life leftby Benjamin Markovits / January 31, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
I retired at the age of 23. My career in minor-league pro basketball lasted less than six months. Some of the guys I played with in the second division of the German Bundesliga were part-timers—weekend warriors who made a little money on the side by showing up to a late-night practice a couple times a week and giving up their Saturdays to matches. They had real jobs and, in many cases, families and real grown-up lives.
Others were students, for whom it was just another extra-curricular activity, like the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. But for the full-time professionals (I guess I was one of them: I got a free apartment and 1,800 marks a month spending money), playing basketball for a living seemed like a weird delaying tactic. We weren’t going to get rich but it let us put off the end of adolescence a little longer.
Older players, when I asked them “what next?”, would mention a cousin in Split who ran a second-hand car dealership and had promised them a job. Some planned to go into coaching, to stick around the game. Others didn’t like to think about the afterlife, they didn’t see the point. Whatever it is will be worse than this.
Andy Murray is 31 now. If he makes it to Wimbledon and retires then, he’ll be 32. In Milton’s famous sonnet, on his blindness, he says, “When I consider how my light is spent/ Ere half my days in this dark world and wide…” In Murray’s case, it was his hip that got spent; and it’s reasonable to think that he has almost two-thirds of his life to come.
It’s also worth saying that playing sports never allowed Murray to put off the end of adolescence, because in his case it had partly replaced adolescence—at 15 he moved to Barcelona to train full-time at an academy. Milton goes on to write, “And that one Talent, which is death to hide / Lodged with me useless…”
Two-thirds of their life is still to come
Athletes, unlike the rest of us, don’t have to give up on the idea of themselves they have as a kid. But they also don’t find it easy to retire—maybe because they don’t have the practice from growing up.
Bjorn Borg stopped playing grand slams at the age of 26. Yet when Borg unretired again a few years later, he tried to revert to his previous self—the long 70s hair, the wooden racket—as if moving on from the game had really just arrested his development instead of ushering in the next stage.
Michael Jordan quit basketball when he felt he had nothing left to prove, after winning his third straight title. But he dropped one sport only to try his hand at another, to chase his boyhood dream of playing baseball. A funny reminder of the way talent itself can obtrude on our personalities, can inhibit them.
Jordan liked to say that baseball was his first love. He just happened to be a lot better at basketball. And he couldn’t keep away from it in the end: after three more championships, and two more retirements, he bought his home-state team the Charlotte Hornets, and spends his days now running the club.
One of the things I admire about athletes is the way they put up with sudden shifts to their identity. You win Wimbledon and you’re the best player in the world, that’s who you are. A few years and one hip surgery later, you lose in the first round of the Australian Open and you’re ranked 229. That’s also who you are.
Murray is about to go through the biggest shift of all, from player to ex. He hasn’t said what his relationship to tennis is going to be. And there’s still a chance he may go through another round of surgery and rethink—later comments have opened the door to a possible comeback.
Money should not be a problem for him. But if you retire at 32, you have a lot of life left. And it’s harder to pretend, like Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra, “The best is yet to be/ The last of life, for which the first was made.”