The Longform Guide to Sad Retired Athletes

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
April 27 2013 8:00 AM

The Woe After the Show

The Longform guide to sad retired athletes.

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Allen Iverson watches a 76ers game with CEO Adam Aron at the Wells Fargo Center on May 23, 2012.

Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images for Reebok.

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Stepping off the field for the final time is tough for any athlete, but it was particularly brutal for the following group.

The Silent Season of a Hero
Gay Talese • Esquire • July 1966

The complicated post-baseball days of Joe DiMaggio.

“Two hours later, dinner and the speeches over, DiMaggio was slumped in O'Doul's car headed back to San Francisco. He edged himself up, however, when O'Doul pulled into a gas station in which a pretty red-haired girl sat on a stool, legs crossed, filing her fingernails. She was about 22, wore a tight black skirt and tighter white blouse.

“‘Look at that,’ DiMaggio said.

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"’Yeah,’ O'Doul said.

“O'Doul turned away when a young man approached, opened the gas tank, began wiping the windshield. The young man wore a greasy white uniform on the front of which was printed the name ‘Burt.’ DiMaggio kept looking at the girl, but she was not distracted from her fingernails. Then he looked at Burt, who did not recognize him. When the tank was full, O'Doul paid and drove off. Burt returned to his girl; DiMaggio slumped down in the front seat and did not open his eyes again until they arrived in San Francisco.”

Allen Iverson, NBA Icon, Struggles with Life after Basketball
Kent Babb • Washington Post • April 2013

Basketball’s iconoclast is now a broke recluse.

“For the past three years, as Iverson chased an NBA comeback, his marriage fell apart and much of his fortune–he earned more than $150 million in salary alone during his career–dissolved. Now, those who once ignored past signals have recognized that basketball may have been the only thing holding Iverson’s life together.

“‘He has hit rock bottom, and he just hasn’t accepted it yet,’ says former Philadelphia teammate Roshown McLeod.

“A few minutes before 8 o’clock, a black Suburban pulls into the players’ parking lot. At 7:59, the passenger door opens, and Iverson climbs out, shouting profanity. Then he notices Aron, who wraps his arms around Iverson. They walk toward the entrance, Iverson still shouting, for one more night under the lights.

“‘God gave him this great gift,’ says Pat Croce, the former Sixers executive who selected Iverson first overall in the 1996 NBA draft. ‘But you knew one day, he was going to take it away.’”


How and (Why) Athletes Go Broke
Pablo S. Torre • Sports Illustrated • March 2009

Five years after they leave the league, 60 percent of NBA players have nothing left. In the NFL, it’s closer to 80 percent after just two years. A breakdown of the economics of retirement.

“It began in the winter of 1991 when he sank $300,000 into the Rock N' Roll Café, a theme restaurant in New England designed to ride the wave of the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood franchises. One of his advisers pitched the idea as ‘fail-proof, with no downsides,’ Ismail recalls. He never recouped his money and has no idea what became of the restaurant.

“Lesson learned? If only. After that Ismail squandered a fortune funding not only that inspirational movie but also the music label COZ Records (‘The guy was a real good talker,’ says Rocket); a cosmetics procedure whereby oxygen was absorbed into the skin (‘We were not prepared for the sharks in the beauty industry’); a plan to create nationwide phone-card dispensers (‘When I was in college, phone cards were a big deal’); and, recently, three shops dubbed It's in the Name, where tourists could buy framed calligraphy of names or proverbs of their choice (‘The main store opened up in New Orleans, but doggone Hurricane Katrina came two months later’). The shops no longer exist.”

Love Me, Hate Me, Just Don't Ignore Me
Nancy Hass • GQ • January 2012

Terrell Owens at 38: unemployed, nearly bankrupt after losing his shirt in a electronic-bingo entertainment complex development plan gone bust, father of four children (one of which he has never met), frequent bowler.

“Bowling is his escape, one he wishes had been there for him on those sweaty teenage nights in the Alabama town where he grew up, skinny and unpopular, so dark-skinned that the other black kids razzed him nonstop, and later, to take the edge off marathon weight-lifting sessions at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He learned to bowl for a charity event early in his stint with the 49ers, and he hit the lanes whenever he could during the fifteen seasons he spent in the NFL, racking up stats that make him one of the greatest wide receivers in league history—second only to Jerry Rice in career receiving yards—and a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer. Bowling is chill, especially for a guy like him who never did like the clubs, never drank much or bothered with drugs. And a massive chill is what Owens—idle, adrift, desperate for cash, fending off rumors about his mental health—needs right now. Bad.”

Chasing Jose
Pat Jordan • Deadspin • March 2008

Before he was a Twitter savant, Jose Canseco was a juiced-up terror.

“Heidi, Rob told me, is Jose's girlfriend/publicist. She's a ‘cute, little, junior college graduate, who lives with Jose,’ said Rob. ‘She likes to let Jose think she's working hard for him when really all she is doing is fucking things up for him.’ Rob said Heidi lives with Jose without paying anything, which may be literally true, but not figuratively. The price women pay for living with Jose is actually quite high. All those boring days and nights during which Jose rarely speaks, except to say, ‘Where's the Iguana?’ because of Jose's fervent belief that when ‘women talk only bad things can happen.’ All those needles and vials of performance enhancing drugs around the house which his woman of the moment must learn to differentiate, winstrol from deca-durabolin from HGH, and then draw the proper amount of fluid into each syringe and inject that needle and its fluid into Jose's buttocks. All those variations of his moods from steroid-fueled anger to steroid-withdrawal depression. All those startling changes in his genitalia, his penis swelling with steroid use at the same time his testicles are shrinking from steroid use. All those strange women's messages on Jose's cell phone. All those trips to the gynecologist to cure the STDs Jose brought back with him from one of his road trips. And, finally, most depressing of all, all those perfunctory sex acts with Jose, doggy style in front of a mirror so Jose can watch himself perform, his chest muscles and biceps twitching as he works. Which is why Jose's first two wives, Miss Miami, and Miss Fitness America, divorced him.”


Thrown for a Curve in Rhode Island
Matt Bai • The New York Times • April 2013

Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling needed funding for his ambitious video-game startup. Rhode Island politicians needed jobs and a vision for how to transform the state’s beleaguered economy. The story of a $75 million bet gone bust.

“Even in a state that long served as New England’s Mafia headquarters—and a state whose best-known modern political figure, Buddy Cianci, the former Providence mayor, was sent to prison in a federal corruption case known as Operation Plunder Dome—the 38 Studios debacle has registered as a painful embarrassment. (When I called influential Rhode Islanders and told them I was writing about 38 Studios, virtually all of them, even if they had opposed the deal, answered with some version of, ‘Do you have to?’)

“Rhode Islanders are used to being played by their politicians. What makes them cringe is the suspicion that virtually all their elected leaders might have been played by someone else.”

The End and Don King
Jay Caspian Kang • Grantland • April 2013

OK, so Don King isn’t an athlete and he hasn’t technically retired. But he’s certainly sad.

“King speaks of himself as a transformative figure, someone who through sheer intellect, hard work, and determination overcame racism, both overt and institutional, and brought millions of dollars and international adulation to the young black men he promoted. All of this is undeniably true. But Don King's PR problem is that we don't see him as a civil-rights pioneer. We see him as a gangster—and as a gangster, he must adhere to the strict ethics of a gangster movie. He stole, without a hint of mercy or contrition, from his own people.

“There is no forgiveness for the hypocritical gangster.

Welcome to the Far Eastern Conference
Wells Towner • GQ • May 2011

On Stephon Marbury’s (not totally sad!) NBA exile in China.

“In the tiny meeting room, Marbury was ushered to his seat by the Brave Dragons deputy Mr. Song, an unsmiling man with close-mown hair gelled into tidy gleaming barbs. Through the interpreter, a nervous twentysomething who gave her name as Cindy, Mr. Song explained that he was in the process of finding a good factory to start minting Starbury shoes, but that many factories had powered down for the winter and production would likely have to wait until spring. ‘For now,’ he said, ‘we want to concentrate on basketball.’

“‘The business stuff will work itself out,’ Marbury said serenely. ‘I'm not worried about any of that. Right now I want to talk about my living conditions. I don't want to be in this hotel. I want to be in the World Trade.’

“This set off a long, hushed caucus among the Chinese parties. At last Cindy very antsily explained that due to a legal dispute between the team's owner and the World Trade, the hotel issue was a matter of some delicacy.

“Marbury offered another proposal: Perhaps the team could arrange long-term quarters. ‘A three-bedroom apartment,’ said Marbury. ‘With TVs and a chef, and a maid to come every day. I could do that as well. I'm gonna be here for three years. It'd probably be cheaper to rent a place anyway.’

“But Mr. Song pursed his mouth and nodded sourly, giving the impression that he was not in the habit of indulging fussy requests from players. Marbury's Chinese teammates, by way of comparison, didn't get to stay in a hotel at all. They lived by the team's rusting gym on the outskirts of town, in a dormitory of pink concrete with a big pile of coal in the yard.

“Mr. Song agreed to take up the hotel upgrade—a $14-a-night proposition—with his boss, then he turned the conversation to basketball. The Brave Dragons, he said, were promising this year, having recently acquired a second American player, Jamal Sampson, late of the Denver Nuggets. The most important thing, Mr. Song said through Cindy, was that the fourteenth-ranked team finish in the top eight.

“Marbury gave him a straight look and held up his index finger. ‘Number one,’ he said.

“And Cindy went, ‘Yeeeeeeeeahh,’ part weird cheer, part dubious meow. ‘So you will, you will lead our team to the top eight? You promise that?’

“‘Don't worry,’ Marbury said.

“‘Okay! We believe you! Ha! Ha!’ said Cindy, in a tone of forced enthusiasm. ‘So, ah, now Mr. Song want to know, before you come to China, you maintain the trainings?’

“She cast a nervous eye over Marbury's middle, which was a tad softer and rounder than it had looked beneath the lights at Madison Square Garden. Marbury nodded.

“‘Every day?’

“‘Listen,’ said Marbury. ‘All you need to know: When December 10 comes, when they throw the basketball up, I'll be ready.’

“‘Auch!’ said Mr. Song, though whether he meant, ‘Auch—what a relief’ or ‘Auch—this person is completely full of baloney’ was not immediately clear.

"’We believe in you!’ cried Cindy.

"’No problem,’ said Marbury. ‘All love.’

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.

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