Saying goodbye is never easy. Just ask a sports legend.
This week, we're witnessing the beginning of the end for three of sports' greatest superstars.
One is retiring. One should retire. The other might be forced to retire because of injury.
Kobe Bryant. Peyton Manning. Tiger Woods.
Bryant, the Lakers great, announced this week that this will be his last NBA season. Manning, one of the best quarterbacks ever, wants to keep playing, but a foot problem and diminished play have his future in question. And Woods, in the conversation for best golfer of all time, might have to walk — or limp — away because of a series of injuries.
It's hard to call it quits.
"It's tough to come to grips with it when it's time to make that announcement,'' Lightning general manager and hockey Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman said.
No player wants to retire too early and leave records, championships and money on the table. No player wants to hang on too long and risk embarrassing himself and tarnishing his career. For every athlete, the decision is different.
Hockey icon Phil Esposito can point to the exact game when he knew it was time to walk away. It was Jan. 2, 1981, a month shy of his 39th birthday. In the midst of a subpar season, Espo and his Rangers were playing the crosstown-rival Islanders. He was dealing with a painful skin rash. It was then he realized he no longer had the enthusiasm, even when going up against a bitter enemy.
He gave it two more games and that was it. In the middle of the season, after 1,282 games over 18 years and more goals at the time than anybody in NHL history except for Gordie Howe, Esposito hung up his skates.
"I just knew it was time,'' Esposito said. "I wasn't enjoying it. I was miserable.''
Was there ever a time when the Hall of Famer wished he had stuck around a little longer?
"To this day, I wish I had kept playing,'' he said. "I always second-guess myself about walking away when I did, but I also knew it was the right thing to do. I wasn't helping the team, and they needed to get younger. I didn't want to be the guy holding the team back.''
That's similar to what Kobe is going through with the Lakers. It's time for the Lakers to move on, but that's impossible to do as long as Kobe is treated as the best player. And, frankly, he isn't good enough to be any team's best player anymore.
"You have to know when to step away,'' Yzerman said. "Problem is, when you're a prominent athlete, you're given a lot of respect as far as playing time and whatnot.''
Retiring not only allows the Lakers to start looking forward, but it takes the pressure off Kobe. The narrative now surrounding Kobe is no longer about how he can't play, but it's time to enjoy all he has done as he goes on his farewell tour.
"You never want to stay too long,'' Esposito said.
In the case of Manning and Tiger, however, it isn't just eroding skills that have their carers in jeopardy. It's a never-ending series of injuries. Manning cannot play at the moment, and Tiger's latest back troubles have sidelined him to the point that he announced this week that he has no idea when or if he will return. Saying the rest of his career "is gravy'' made it sound like a man who is starting to come to terms with the idea that he will never be able to perform the way he used to.
"For me, it was physical, too,'' Yzerman said. "It got to the point that I couldn't even train properly, let alone do the things in games that I was used to doing.''
When that happens, a player has a choice: play in a reduced role far below his standards or retire.
"For me, I asked, 'Am I happy with the way I'm playing, with what I'm contributing? Do I feel good about this?' '' Yzerman said. "Ultimately, the answer was I was not. I really wasn't.''
That's why Yzerman never regretted his decision, even though he was still a decent player and left a Red Wings team that was still a Stanley Cup contender.
"Not once ever,'' Yzerman said when asked if he wished he had played longer. "Once I made the call, it was like a weight off my shoulders, and I never looked back. If anything, I look back at my career and I wouldn't have come back for (my final season).''
Mostly, it comes down to desire. Or lack of it.
"I just didn't want to play anymore,'' said Tino Martinez, the Tampa native who spent 16 seasons in the majors playing for the Mariners, Yankees, Cardinals and Rays. "I was tired of the travel. I was tired of the schedule. Everything started to irritate me more. About halfway through the season, I knew I was going to be done when the season was over.''
Martinez didn't tell anybody he was retiring, but his decision was confirmed late in the season when he didn't get into the lineup for nearly two weeks.
"The more I sat and didn't play, it didn't bother me quite as much,'' Martinez said. "I was content with it.''
Martinez probably could've played another year or two. Yzerman would have been gladly welcomed back by the Red Wings. Same with Esposito in New York.
"I thought, I'm not going to go back just to put numbers on the back of my baseball card,'' Martinez said. "I didn't think that was the right thing to do. I retired at the exact perfect time.''
When is the perfect time?
"You're the only person who can make that decision,'' Yzerman said. "It's your career.''
The "who'' is not complicated. It's the "when'' that's the hard part.