Tim Duncan got to go on his own terms. While at one point it looked like he might just play forever, he didn’t.
I used to joke there wouldn’t be a grand ceremony for Tim. One day, he just wouldn’t show up to practice, and everyone would assume he was on an island somewhere, enjoying the rest of his life. There’d be a ceremony of course, and his jersey would float up to the rafters with much fanfare. Pop would say a few short words, crack a dry joke. Then the Spurs would play a game, and everyone would go on with their lives.
In my mind, this was the perfect way to retire. No need for self-affirming, grand gestures or asking everyone to remind you how great they think you are. Just a press release from your own team and one last wave goodbye.
It’s hard to track when the “retirement tour” started in earnest, but my first memory of the full season procession is Kobe Bryant. Every arena he attended, every game he played, the people showed out like it was the last time ever—and it was. Crowds rarely erupt for anyone on an opposing team (unless it’s New York and Kevin Durant) as they did for Kobe that year.
Kobe, who hamstrung his team into a financially crippling deal to end his career, soaked it all up as he did in his prime. He put up shots he maybe shouldn’t have , without the separation his once-peak athleticism had granted him. Kobe didn’t just ride into the sunset; he shot his way there over the course of 82 games. As only he could, he went out in the most Kobe-esque fashion, scoring 60 points on 22-of-50 from the floor. That game, he put up 21 shots up from three, just one shy of the NBA record at the time, making only six. Bryant sucked in all the gravity of Lakers spacing like he did his entire career, even when his body didn’t move quite as fast as his mind did.
I don’t know if that’s what inspired the “retirement tour,” but it sure gave Shaq something to think about. And when Shaquille O’Neal, a man who loves attention as much as he loved destroying innocent rims, is jealous of your fanfare, you know you’re doing something right (or wrong).
This year, we had a contrast of two retirement processions.
Dwyane Wade, despite stating he didn’t want a tour, went on a season-long barter mission. He went city to city, swapping his jersey with various players on opposing teams, “honoring” them one last time. Some games were good, some bad, but Wade entered and left each arena to nearly a standing ovation every time.
This didn’t feel like an athlete retiring; it felt like a season-long Netflix documentary, except it didn’t go too far into that narrative either. The Wade tour was somewhere between a player saying goodbye to the game he loved and the impact he had on both his fans and his peers. Yes, the “jersey exchange” was a thing, and yes, the crowds got one last chance to serenade Wade, but…it never felt real. It felt like a show—a macabre reflection of celebrity culture looking right back at us.
The second tour belonged to Dirk Nowitzki, with much less self-aggrandizing. Up until the very last moment, Dirk never actually told us he was retiring. Even when he made his announcement after his final home game, he never even used the word “retire.” Instead, Dirk simply went on with his job as he would any other year. Sure, Dirk missed the first half of the year, his body in decline, but he went out there and did what he did for 20 years. He played basketball.
With Dirk, the tour felt bittersweet. Perhaps it’s because he had more years on him than Wade did, staying around the NBA longer. Perhaps because there was visible pain every time he ran up and down the court. And while he, again, didn’t say explicitly that this was his swan song, we bought into it like it was. We assumed this is what he wanted and came out to every game like it was his last (well, they were).
What we have mastered with retirement ceremonies are the two extremes. One is the megalomaniac exuberance. The other, a slow clap as a star fades away from the limelight, ushered by memories of greatness. Somehow we’ve missed the middle ground.
The idea behind a retirement tour is that of honoring a legacy. Neither way we’ve chosen does that quite the right way. With the first, it exaggerates every accomplishment and erases every flaw. It is an ideal narrative of an Oscar-winning biopic that has come to life. It’s an 82-game party where everyone around is just trying to do their job. The second is the slow walk to a retirement home each one of us will have to make with one of our loved ones. It’s a slow meander full of memories and a patronizing set of applause for someone already past their peak.
It’s hard to say what precisely we should do. How do we choose to honor the legacy of those who entertained us with their skills for years? How do we show our gratitude to players we’ve bonded with through fandom? Maybe it’s the old man in me, sitting on my porch, screaming for the kids to slow down. Perhaps the social-media-induced fanfare we crave from every moment is what awaits every superstar to call next season their last. Maybe it’s what they want.
Dirk didn’t. Wade did.
The NBA seemed to buy into the latter, giving both Dirk and Wade honorary All-Star selections this year. A chance to appear in the spotlight one more time while the youngsters ran circles around them. With the NBA’s decision, it seems the retirement tour is here to stay.
So what is the answer?
Perhaps the best way to go is to simply not show up to practice one offseason. I don’t know. But what we have now feels too staged and undeserving of the game and the people who have been so real to us all this time.