Say what you will about Derrick Rose, but he has not had it easy over the course of the last six years, both in terms of his health and his waning popularity with fans and the media. All of this makes it fairly believable that he really was considering leaving the game of basketball during his recent unannounced trip back home to Chicago.
According to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, “Rose’s state of mind was such that for a brief time he talked about walking away from basketball for an extended period of time to clear his mind.”
This is unlikely, obviously, but the idea of a 28-year-old former MVP quitting basketball at such a young age, particularly just as he was starting to look as though he’d gotten his legs back, was shocking. Stars that big just don’t retire this early.
More accurately, they don’t retire this early often. It does occasionally happen, with big NBA stars (or potentially big NBA stars) calling it quits much younger than most of their colleagues. It’s usually some injury or another that does it, not a nervous breakdown, but not all of the most heartbreaking early retirements were due to bum knees. In fact, many of the most memorable are among the most heart-breaking stories in league history.
Magic Johnson, age 31
To this day, Magic Johnson remains one of the league’s most beloved personalities while boasting one of the most successful post-basketball careers of anybody who has ever played the game. Back in 1991, however, most fans didn’t think Johnson would come close to seeing 2017 after contracting HIV, a diagnosis that forced him into retirement not so much because he physically couldn’t play the game, but because he must have believed at the time that his life was essentially over. In the midst of that sort of revelation, it had to have been difficult to continue playing a silly game night-in and night-out.
Johnson didn’t quit playing basketball, however. He was written in as an All-Star starter in 1992 and then played with the Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics later that summer. He staged a comeback with the L.A. Lakers in 1995, just two years after coaching the team, but at age 36 he was nowhere near as spry as he was in his prime. There were more good years left in Magic had he not retired in the first place, but he didn’t want to put other players at risk of contamination and at the time he almost certainly thought his days were numbered. Now that 26 years have come and gone Johnson looks as healthy as he ever has, but it doesn’t make his early retirement any less tragic.
Michael Jordan, age 30
There’s a conspiracy theory that suggests Michael Jordan originally retired from basketball in 1993 because the league was trying to covertly and unofficially suspend him for a gambling problem, but there’s zero evidence to support this, obviously. What did factor into Jordan’s retirement after his third consecutive championship in Chicago was extreme exhaustion, both in terms of his play on the court and in terms of living his life as the biggest celebrity on the planet. Jordan’s father, with whom he was close, also was murdered earlier that year, which he says played an integral part in his decision.
Obviously Jordan came back 18 months later and won another trio of rings, but nobody knew that was a realistic possibility at the time. All anybody saw was one of the league’s all-time greats quitting the game a good six-to-eight years before he should have. To this day, it’s fascinating to consider how many championships Chicago might have won had he never taken his hiatus.
Yao Ming, age 30
Few players have had the international reach as Yao Ming, a man beloved by his home country of China for his contributions to the sport of basketball and the prestige he helped bring his homeland. As an NBA player, Yao always was just on this side of great, averaging 19 PPG and 9.2 RPG for his career. His international fame, however, put him in the mix for the popular All-Star vote every single year despite constant nagging injuries.
Those injuries absolutely were the reason that he was forced to retire. Not only did he grind for the Houston Rockets for the better part of nine seasons, he also spent his summers going all-out for the Chinese National Team. While most NBA players use their offseasons to rest their bodies and maybe go on vacation with their families, Yao kept on keepin’ on, and all that running and jumping took a predictable toll on the feet and joints of a 7’6, 310-pound man. After playing just five games combined his last two seasons in Houston, he and his broken body really had no choice but to quit basketball.
Jay Williams, age 21
Williams, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2002 NBA Draft right behind Yao, was a phenomenon at Duke, where he averaged over 21 PPG for both his sophomore and junior seasons while chipping in six assists and 3.7 rebounds over his three years there. He was lightning quick and considered more of a sure-thing NBA stud than even Yao, and frankly had any team other than Houston been picking first that year, Williams very likely could have been the top selection.
He started as a rookie in Chicago, playing for one of the franchise’s more dismal teams. And while he often struggled the way rookie point guards tend to do, he looked better – more like the player scouts thought he’d be – by season’s end.
And then he crashed his Yamaha R6 motorcycle into a streetlight. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, he didn’t have a license to drive a motorcycle in Illinois, and he also broke the terms of his contract with the Bulls, which stipulated he could not use that particular mode of transportation. The damage to Williams’ body was immense; he severed a main nerve in his leg, fractured his pelvis and absolutely destroyed the ligaments in his left knee.
Williams didn’t officially retire at that point, likely because at 21 years old he still envisioned himself getting better and playing meaningful basketball in the NBA again, but that day would never come. He did stage a comeback with the New Jersey Nets for a month in 2006 and tried out for the Miami HEAT in 2010, but he never came anywhere close to regaining form, leaving behind little other than one of the league’s most intriguing what-ifs.
Bobby Hurley, age 26
Now the head coach at Arizona State University, Hurley was at one point the most Dukiest of Duke point guards ever to have played for Mike Krzyzewski. Hurley’s Blue Devils made the Final Four three times in his four years there, winning the National Championship twice, and to this day he remains the NCAA’s all-time leader in career assists with 1,076.
Of course, he was a lottery pick in 1993, but only a few months into his first NBA season he ended up hurting himself pretty badly in an automobile accident. One day, after a December practice, Hurley’s SUV was smashed into while the player was not wearing his seat belt. He was thrown completely from the vehicle, and the injuries were so bad that for a time it was no sure thing that he would even live.
Hurley did live, obviously, and made it back for the 1994-95 season, though he never was the same following the accident. Four years later, he retired, ending a short, uneventful NBA career after boasting one of the best college careers in modern basketball.
Brandon Roy, age 26
To this day, it remains an absolute tragedy that Brandon Roy only got five full seasons in the NBA. In that time he was named an All-Star twice and earned spots on two All-NBA Teams. As one of the league’s most likeable and promising young stars, Roy looked as though he had a long and perhaps even legendary career ahead of him in Portland. But then his knees started to go, and everything went downhill from there.
In fact, his knees got so bad by 2011 that doctors told him he simply could not hope to play basketball again, so he retired that year while the rest of the league dove headfirst into a lockout, right before turning 27 years old.
Roy sat out that season and attempted a comeback in 2012-13 after undergoing a procedure on his knee, but only five games into his brief stint with the Timberwolves, he suffered a setback and was forced to call it quits for good.
Rose isn’t going to retire in the middle of a season that will determine how many tens of millions of dollars he’ll make in his next contract, but if he did retire it certainly would place him among this list of great NBA players who walked away much earlier than expected.
Thankfully, he hasn’t yet stepped away, but even if he did at least he could take solace in the fact that it was his choice. Too many before him called it quits early because their bodies just wouldn’t let them play anymore.
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