The Final Game
There is an age-old debate in professional sports: is it better to leave at the top of your game or to play as long as your body will allow? Fans love to take shots at Patrick Ewing on the Orlando Magic or Shaq with the Boston Celtics (or Cleveland Cavaliers…or Phoenix Suns…or…) but who are we to say they should stop doing what they love simply because they aren’t at the peak we will personally romanticize over and over for the next 60 years?
Let’s be honest, final games are rarely remembered after the fact. Nobody has that fairytale ending. Michael Jordan had the perfect ending and even he couldn’t shake the allure of returning two or three seasons later to a team he had never suited up with.
So with Kobe Bryant set to call it a career tomorrow night at the Staples Center, I thought it was a good time to look back at some other h̶i̶s̶t̶o̶r̶i̶c̶̶ final career games for NBA legends.
April 16, 2003
I’ll always defend Jordan’s tenure with the Washington Wizards as significantly better than people remember it being. In his final season at age 39, MJ played in all 82 regular season games averaging 37 minutes per game while scoring 20 per game and pulling down 6 rebounds. Look, he wasn’t the same player he was in 1998 with the Bulls—but holy hell—look at those numbers again. I contend he could’ve maintained an average of 15 points per game well into his mid 40s. I digress.
In his final game, Jordan played 28 minutes and scored 15 points. If you’re going to criticize him for anything it’s that ultimately it was a meaningless game (although you’d still be grasping at straws—look at the roster). His final points came from the free throw line as Eric Snow intentionally fouled Jordan with 1:45 remaining in the game. Michael hit both free throws and was removed from the game to a standing ovation that lasted a few minutes.
Buzzer. Media swarms Jordan. Exit.
May 3, 1987
Bucks 102, 76ers 89
Philadelphia made it to the 1987 NBA Playoffs as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference thanks in large part to a 23 year old Charles Barkley (we’ll fast forward to his final game in a bit), Maurice Cheeks, and a 36 year old Dr. J. Their first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks went the distance and in game five (note to anyone born after 1994: first round series used to be best of five) Erving posted 24 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals although it wasn’t enough to stop the glorious Jack Sikma and his glorious perm who exploded for 18 points and 21 rebounds in the clincher, a 102-98 Milwaukee win.
Side note: look at the highlights of this game and try to not be aggravated by a green clad Bucks team playing on a red accented home court—drives me nuts watching.
May 19, 2005
In was wasn’t even close to the most memorable Pistons-Pacers game from that season, Miller wrapped up his storied career with a loss in game six of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the eventual conference champion. Reggie threw it back to his mid-90s self by scoring a team-high 28 points but Detroit just pulled away in the fourth quarter.
May 2, 1996
Consider this for a moment…this was the last Lakers game played before the Kobe Bryant era. Now that you’ve considered that, I’ll be over here looking at Magic’s game logs from his 1996 comeback (spoiler: it was pretty good).
It had been four full seasons since Magic stepped away from the NBA after announcing he was HIV positive. The comeback wasn’t the abject failure I remember it being at the time. Magic averaged 14.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in 30 minutes per game and included a suspension after he bumped a referee after arguing a non-call. After the season, Magic retired (reretired?) and told reporters, “I am going out on my terms. Something I couldn’t say when I aborted a comeback in 1992”.
April 19, 2000
Grizzlies 96, Rockets 92
After rupturing a quadriceps tendon during a game in early December, Charles Barkley’s career seemed to be over. But Barkley rehabbed the injury in order to make an appearance during the season finale against Vancouver on April 19. Everyone in the building knew it was Chuck’s final game and immediately after scoring a basket, Barkley walked off the court for the final time.
Watch the above video. Didn’t Inside the NBA seem empty without Barkley commenting?
June 15, 2003
This has to be the recent gold standard for final career games, right? With a chance to win a second career championship, David Robinson left everything out on the court (clichés!) by way of 13 points, 17 rebounds and 2 blocks (in a season that saw him average 8.5 and 7.9). Nothing I can type would do Robinson any justice. Watch the video in all of its glory.
May 9, 2011
Heat 98, Celtics 90 OT
This game didn’t necessitate much of a write up. It was a game four loss to the Heat but due to injury, Shaq never played again in the series and the Celtics eventually lost. Not the most dramatic ending. But he made up for it during his career.