We will forever picture in our minds Tom Brady in a… Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform?
Whatever Brady chooses, NBA fans have been down this road. We have seen the greatest players in our game finish out their careers in strange uniforms. We tend to block from our memory. It’s not just a hoops thing, as Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra noted for baseball, Joe Prince-Wright did for soccer, and James O’Brein noted for hockey, legends ending their careers wearing strange uniforms is not a new nor sport-specific phenomenon.
Here are a few of the NBA legends that didn’t finish their career in the uniform you’d expect (with honorable mention to Tony Parker in Charlotte and Bob Cousy in Cincinnati, which just missed the cut).
The NBA’s greatest and most iconic player had the greatest walk-off play to retire on ever: In Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan stripped Karl Malone in the post on one end, brought the ball up, waited until there were less than 10 seconds left, drove hard to the middle of the floor, stopped and crossed back to his left, gave Bryon Russell a little shove, rose up and drained the title-winning jumper with 5.2 seconds remaining. It was an exit fitting a legend.
Then three years later, he came back and played two seasons with the Wizards.
The ultimate competitor could not get his fix working as a team president (and pushing toward ownership, something that happened years later in Charlotte), so he laced them up again. It wasn’t the same. Jordan was still good, averaging more than 20 points a game on some bad teams, and there were flashes of him being his old self.
But, for the most part, we as fans just want to block out those years and remember Jordan stepping off the court as a champion in Chicago.
The center with the best footwork the game had ever seen, the guy who brought two titles to Houston (and the guy drafted in front of Jordan where nobody thinks it was a mistake) ended his career doing the Dream Shake north of the border in Toronto. The Rockets had faded in the West since their championship years (behind a dominant Lakers team at the end) and were looking to move on, while Olajuwon still thought he had a lot to prove, so he eventually agreed to the trade. Houston got the Raptors 2002 first-round pick (Boštjan Nachbar was their pick) and second-rounder (Tito Maddox).
The Dream only played one season with the Raptors, but he was banged up, came off the bench a lot, and averaged just 7.1 points a game for a team led by the high-flying Vince Carter (then just 25). When Olajuwon retired, there was no question he would be pictured in the Hall of Fame as the greatest Rocket ever.
After 15 seasons in New York, leading the team to the NBA finals and dragging Jeff Van Gundy around on his leg, the Knicks icon that was Patrick Ewing was traded to the Seattle Supersonics in a four-team deal. The next summer, he signed as a free agent in Orlando and played there for one season. Father time was winning the race with Ewing those last couple of seasons, he started in Seattle and averaged 9.6 points a game, but was banged up (finger surgery) and coming off the bench in Orlando for 6 points a game. He went on to be an assistant coach for years in the NBA, never getting a shot in the big chair, so he jumped to his alma mater and is now the coach at Georgetown University.
He wasn’t the only Knicks legend shipped out at the end…
WALT “CLYDE” FRAZIER
The best dressed Knick ever and current team color analyst was sent to Cleveland for the final two-plus years of his career (the Knicks had signed Jim Cleamons as a veteran free agent in 1977, and at the time that meant compensation had to go back to Cleveland, and Frazier was the guy). Frazier was not happy with the trade, saying being sent to Cleveland was like “being traded to Siberia.” Injuries and age were catching up with Frazier at that point, and he played in just 66 games across three seasons for the Cavaliers before he left the game, but he averaged 14.6 points a game in those contests. It was not that long before he was rhyming on the broadcasts of Knicks games and cementing himself as a legend in New York. A city that just fits him better than Cleveland.
In 2004, Karl Malone — arguably the greatest Utah Jazz player ever, forever joined at the hip with John Stockton — came to the Shaq/Kobe Lakers to chase a ring, along with Gary Payton. At that point not even the glue of Phil Jackson could keep the dueling egos of the Lakers stars from spilling over, and the team’s role players had aged, but Malone was going to solve those problems, providing depth and a locker room presence. Malone played well that season — 13.2 points and 8.7 rebounds a game — when healthy, but he only played in 42 games that season as injuries caught up with him. Malone was exactly what those Lakers needed in the playoffs, but the injury that had him miss the NBA Finals gave Detroit the opening the Pistons needed to take the 2004 NBA crown. By the next year, Shaq was in Miami and Malone was on his ranch, retired, waiting for the call from the Hall of Fame.