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Bill Russell and Retirement

Three weeks ago, on July 31, 2022, the former Boston Celtics’ imposing center, Bill Russell, passed away, at age eighty-eight. Over thirteen seasons at Boston, from 1957 to 1969, he collected a total of eleven championship rings, a record never since eclipsed or matched.

When he retired in 1969, he moved to Mercer Island, in Seattle, Washington, and it was there he passed away. For fifty-three years, he enjoyed a well-deserved retirement in the cool Pacific Northwest, although he coached seven seasons in the NBA in the 70s and 80s.

Thirty years ago, today, on August 18, 1992, Larry Bird, another Boston Celtic great, announced his retirement from the NBA.

Michael Jordan, spectacular shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls, retired three times from the NBA. After ten years with the Bulls, he quit before the start of the 1993-1994 season, to play for, of all things, a Minor League baseball team.

Then, in March of 1995, he returned to lead the Bulls to three more NBA championships.

In 1998, Jordan retired a second time from the Bulls, but then in 2001, at age 38, he returned to the NBA, playing for the Washington Wizards for two seasons, before retiring for good in 2003.

Last week, on August 11, Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ premier quarterback, announced that “he would take a break during training and miss two pre-season games.” Last February, he announced his retirement from the NFL, but then a month later, he thought otherwise and tweeted, “I’m coming back for my 23rd season in Tampa. Unfinished business.”

Like Bill Russell, Tom Brady achieved fame and fortune in Boston, winning six Super Bowls for the New England Patriots, over twenty seasons. For the past two seasons, 2020 and 2021, he has played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At 45, he must be the oldest player in the NFL.

Forty-one-year-old Serena Williams announced last week that she is stepping away from tennis, saying, “I’ve been reluctant to admit that I have to move on from playing tennis. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things.”

Age catches up with all players, even the superstars, because their bodies cannot perform at the extreme level required to win. Some retire. Some are let go. Some evolve.

One day the boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard saw floaters in an eye. A doctor diagnosed a detached retina. Sugar Ray cancelled his next fight, had the surgery to repair the retina on May 9, 1982, and on November 9, 1982, announced his permanent retirement from boxing.

Politicians, on the other hand, have a longer runway for their careers than do athletes. Voters and elections force politicians into retirement, or they are termed out and per law cannot run again.

For example, in the presidential election of 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, who, with his wife Rosalyn, returned to their home in Plains, Georgia, where for forty-two years, they have lived a quiet and long retirement.

Born August 18, 1927, Rosalynn Carter turns 95 this year, and Jimmy will turn 98 on October 1.

Bill Clinton served two terms, eight years, as President, and because he could not run a third time, he and Hillary purchased a home north of New York City, at Chappaqua, New York, where they have lived for the past twenty-two years. Clinton marks his seventy-sixth birthday this week, on August 19.

George W. Bush also served two terms, and then he and Laura returned to their home in Texas, where they have lived for fourteen years.

Barack Obama also served two terms, and for the past six years, he and Michelle divide their time between a mansion at Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts, and a home in Washington D.C.

Donald Trump left the White House in January 2021, and returned to his homes, one in New York City and another at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.

One point of all this is that the winners in life—athletes, politicians, or even business owners—can slip anytime, and find themselves outside the game, watching from the stands, while others play the game that they once loved to play. The sword of Damocles hangs over all the stars.

Another point is that retirement can last a long time, often far longer than a person’s working career. For Bill Russell, fifty-three years. For Jimmy Carter, forty-three years.

Yet, some never step aside. Warren Buffett is ninety-one years old, and his business partner, Charlie Munger is ninety-eight years old. Neither are in a hurry to let others assume their positions.

After President Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, Congress invited the general to speak. He closed his speech to the joint session with an old Army ballad. “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Some do not retire. Some evolve. Some just fade away.