Gifts that keep on giving
It’s a rare and happy thing to grow great and old in your craft. It’s a gift, an achievement, and a testament to one’s hard work and unique skillset. However, we tend to overlook sustained greatness across the years, and mistake it for something mundane. But genius that repeats and repeats over the long haul is the rarest gift in the world.
In this era athletes are playing longer than ever before, as technology offers obvious advantages in: conditioning routines, diet, exercise equipment, surgical repair, film study, and even being able to scout opponents on an IPad.
Who knows how much longer or dominant Bill Russell, Babe Ruth, or Dick Butkus could have been if they played in this era. While those legends are long gone, luckily, sports fans today can turn on their big-screen and watch: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis, Tim Duncan, Martin Brodeur, Mariano Rivera, and a select few others who continue to perfect their craft despite already being established giants in their respective sports.
While those players are living, playing legends, they are trumped by two of the most mythical figures in sports still plugging along. Derek Jeter first took a major league diamond on May 29, 1995, and Kobe Bryant first stepped on an NBA hardwood November 3, 1996.
It’s easy to forget how long we’ve had them, and having them still around goes somewhat unnoticed. But, even the harshest critics marvel at Kobe and Jeter’s inspiring battle with Father Time. How they keep churning out the same numbers and continuing to strive for greatness, after hitting points in their careers where a game just shouldn't mean as much anymore.
Jeter in year 18 led the majors in hits with 216, and Kobe in year 17 is once again leading the league in scoring, averaging just over 30 points a night. Not bad for a couple of old men.
The Mamba hatched in Philadelphia during the summer of 1978, and the Captain was born four summers earlier in Pequannock Township, New Jersey, just about a two hour drive apart on the I-95.
Kobe may seem like a spring chicken at 34 compared to Jeter, who will turn 39 in June. But the reality is that Kobe has already logged over 50,000 minutes, and Jeter has already played in 2,743 games.
In basketball years Kobe is an old-man, and for an everyday shortstop Jeter will be a lab-rat of sorts next season, as only magicians Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel played the position at an older age.
Winning, not numbers is what keeps both motivated. But, while Jeter hitting and Kobe scoring seems all but guaranteed, the winning is not. Jeter’s Yankees once again fell short of a Championship in the fall, and the Lakers have not lived up to their lengthy expectations.
Over the years, the two players have watched many others come and go. To put things into perspective, when Jeter first walked into a Yankee clubhouse he joined veterans Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs. Meanwhile, Kobe’s first season as a Laker was now 51-year old Byron Scott’s last.
Things have changed drastically since those days, and in recent years both have watched their iconic owners hand the team down in the family, for better or worse. Derek grew up working for the ‘Big Boss,’ George Steinbrenner, and Kobe worked almost half his life for the one and only Doctor Jerry Buss.
These two men didn’t own just any team, but the two most distinguished ones in sports. Today both teams account for a total of 44 Championships, and no two owners in sports cared about winning and protecting their historic teams brand more than them.
But, as Kobe and Jeter will one day find out, nothing last forever. Last Spring Jerry handed the keys of the Lakers to his son Jim, as he is creeping up on 80 and in deteriorating in health. George handed over his empire to his sons Hank and Hal in 2008, as he spent his final days at home in Florida before he passed away in July of 2010.
For the first time since his death, Yankee fans are starting to see the ill effects of not having George around. While the Laker faithful is finding out the difference between having Jim call the shots instead of Jerry.
The new Yankee regime has made it clear that they are reducing the payroll to $189 million by 2014. Sure, that number is still large, but the Bombers won’t have the financial advantage they once enjoyed, and the term “cutting budget” was never in Dad’s vocabulary.
It appears that the Dodgers will be owners of the game’s highest payroll, a distinction held by the Yankees since 1999. It also looks like the Yankees will have quite a tough time making the postseason for an eighteenth time in 19 years, let alone win a Championship. Navigating through the American League East will be as daunting for the Yankees, as it will be for the Lakers to come out from a stacked Western Conference.
Although, Los Angeles doesn’t have any payroll mandate on their hands, they are slowly climbing out of crisis mode. After building a super-team of their own during the summer with the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, they stumbled out of the gate and currently sit 10th in the West.
The younger Buss hasn't had the same success in picking head coaches as his father once did. Five games into this season he fired the Zen Master’s successor Mike Brown, whom he hand-picked just months ago.
Last year Jim firmly avoided hiring Jackson's assistant Brian Shaw, because he so wanted to purge the Laker organization and put his stamp on the team. With his order, the team dismissed everyone from the assistant general manager, to scouts, and down to even the equipment manager. Who had been washing jerseys and transporting bags since the Showtime era.
Furthermore, it was because of Jim that the Lakers said “no thanks” to a reunion with the NBA’s winningest coach, even though the fans and Bryant craved for Phil back on the bench. Bryant isn’t used to his team being the laughing stock of the league, and Jeter surely isn’t used to his Yankees being frugal underdogs heading into a season.
Both are currently stuck on five rings, and adding to that collection wouldn’t come easy. Kobe wants seven rings, one more than Jordan, and Jeter certainly has in his mind another parade or two down the Canyon of Heroes. But, on top of the jewelry, both men want to be immortal—known as the greatest to wear their respective uniform.
Not an easy task considering the Yankees have Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle, atop their Mount Rushmore; while the Lakers have Magic, Abdul-Jabbar, West, and Chamberlain. But both iconic groups are going to have to make room for Jeter and Kobe when they finally call it quits.
In addition to championships, both men are chasing two of the most recognizable achievements in their respective sport. Jeter sits 952 hits short of Pete Rose’s all-time hit-record, and Bryant needs 8,001 points to pass Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time scoring leader.
The two records are thought to be Ruthian, insurmountable, which means they’ll one day be beaten, but who knows when? However, if any two players have a shot, and could play for a quarter of a century, and thrive for at least two solid decades, it's Kobe ‘Bean’ Bryant and Derek Sanderson Jeter.
They are a basketball and baseball geniuses, and have seemingly been dumped in a hot tub time machine. But we all know their running out of time, as honest, sweat-soaked work can only carry an aging superstar so far—even they realize that.
In recent years, their bodies have succumbed to mortal realities like the back spasms Kobe played through last week, and his creaky knees that kept him from practicing all of last season. This year Jeter was banged up heading into the postseason, and his status for Opening Day is uncertain after his ankle finally snapped in Game 1 of the Championship Series.
Both share a competitive nature, work ethic, and appreciation for the game that is shared by only a few special people. Nobody works harder during the offseason— even now, after all the mileage, injuries, hundreds of millions, and all they have already accomplished.
They have a similar old-school mentality, and no matter how injured, or beat up they are everyday they continue to show up for work. But, that begs the question: “for how much longer?” Jeter has been cryptic about his retirement plans, while Kobe has dropped hints about his eventual mortality, including one two Sunday’s ago in his hometown.
“Unless we see each other in the Finals, next year could be my last time," he said of playing in Philadelphia. "It's pretty crazy." His contract expires after next season, and that contract may be his last.
However, last week ESPNs Ric Bucher, reported that someone close to Bryant suggests that he is now focusing in on breaking the scoring record, as that seems more feasible than winning another title.
At his current pace Kobe will finish the season with roughly 32,000 points, and he'd then need to average a little over 26 points for three more seasons to match Kareem. Taking injuries and age into account you have to figure it would take about four more years for him to start sniffing 40,000, when he’ll be 38.
Jeter hasn’t had any similar thoughts about catching Rose, or the “R” word. Even though the Yankee legend may still look and play like he’s 25, the reality is he’s approaching 40. But, he’s made it clear that he isn’t hanging up the spikes anytime soon.
Jeter has quietly made it known that he plans to play until the 2017 season, when he will be 43-years young. It seems as if Jeter will be able to hit right-handing pitcher forever, but the problem is where will he play?
Over the last few years there has been talk about his declining range at short. If he wants to reach the goal of playing five more years, he will surely have to vacate his cherished shortstop position. Jeter privately has said that he will do so, if asked.
It’s a day the Yankees want to avoid, but like fellow core buddy Jorge Posada it’s inevitable. With Alex Rodriguez locked into a contract until 2017 and destined to be the team’s designated hitter, Jeter might have settle for a corner outfield spot.
The notion of seeing number 2 in the outfield is weird, but the end for many great athletes isn’t always as planned. The Bambino played his final 28 games for the Boston Braves, Willie Mays was last seen stumbling through the outfield in Flushing, Jerry Rice called it quits after a few cameos in Seattle, Emmitt Smith finished his days running in Arizona, and Johnny Unitas took his final snap as a Charger.
The list goes on and on, and one has to wonder if Jeter wants to hang around long enough to catch Rose. Over his career Jeter has averaged 181 hits per season, and based on that it would take six more years. But you have to figure he wouldn’t continue at that rate into his forties.
However, he and Kobe continue to surprise in extraordinary ways. They will also always be a top box-office attraction, ensuring they will probably end their careers where it started no matter what.
Laker fans have long cringed at the notion of number 24 hanging up the purple and gold, and Yankee fans can’t imagine life without their Captain. Both men are pushing for more numbers, pushing for more rings, and pushing the only way they’ve ever known.
Luckily, we will hopefully have a few more years from them, but their day in the sun is quickly and quietly approaching. In the meantime, let’s sit back and continue to witness greatness.