It seems self-evident that eras are defined in popular consciousness by the iconic individuals that inhabit them. The Bird-Magic era blended into and was subsequently replaced by Jordan’s dominance in the NBA, just as Babe Ruth ended the dead ball era and helped to drive growth in the sport’s popularity. It is easy to see these events as clear demarcations of separate periods in the history of their respective sports, but there are also other, less concrete, dividers that exist for each individual.
Most of the time these individual eras form because they coincide with a specific time period in the person’s life. If you were a rebellious teenager in Detroit in the 80’s, maybe basketball didn’t pivot directions in 1992 when the torch was handed to Jordan on the Dream Team. Maybe, for you, the defining moment was the dissolution of the Bad Boys and Laimbeer’s retirement in 1993. If you were a baseball fan born in the mid 80’s it is completely possible that 1998, for you, is more recognizable as the year that Joe Carter and Dennis Eckersley retired than as the height of the steroid era and the explosion of the issue of PEDs into the public spotlight.
I’m saying all of this because this year, in all likelihood, is the end of an era for me and many others in my generation. Two threads still connect me to the sporting world of my childhood. The first has been hitting turn-around jumpers for the Los Angeles Lakers for the last 20 years, and the other has shattered records in multiple jerseys on his way to becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. They are the last two monuments standing in the decrepit ruins of my childhood Hall of Heroes, making a final stand before following legends like Ed Reed, Steve Nash, Derek Jeter, and, as an Atlanta kid, Chipper Jones into retirement.*
I vaguely remember watching a couple of games from the end of Jordan’s run with the Bulls, but my family was never fanatical about the NBA in the way that it was with baseball or football, so the necessary repetition wasn’t there for those experiences in front of the living room TV to imprint or have any kind of a lasting impression on a 5-year old kid. Because of this, the first concrete memories I have of professional basketball were playing NBA Courtside 98 on the Nintendo 64. Being a kid (and, therefore, being a member of the worst group of front-runners on planet earth), I naturally wanted to play with the guy in the number 8 jersey on the front of the cartridge. At some point during the hours spent tearing through the virtual NBA with Kobe and Shaq’s video game doppelgängers and the hundreds of hours watching the real Bryant win with O’Neal and then Gasol, the shooting guard for the Lakers became the center of my basketball world.
Peyton Manning was the second non-Falcon that I became attached to in the NFL. The first was Marshall Faulk, but Faulk was already established when I came into sports-consciousness. There is a part of his career that existed outside of my frame of reference. Faulk (and the St. Louis Rams, RIP) holds an important place in my memory, but he is not mine. Manning, like Kobe, was just beginning his professional career when I started following the NFL. There is a feeling of ownership that comes with shared bookends, like a college great who started and ended his playing career during your four years, that you can’t feel with players who come before or after your time. Peyton Manning is my superstar quarterback just as Joe Namath was my father’s.
It’s easy to nitpick at the end of both of these legends’ careers. Peyton is currently being carried to the finish line by a monster defense in the worst individual season of his career. Kobe’s struggles have been dissected for the last few years by every sports media outlet in the country, but here are the cliff notes: bad shot selection, black hole contract, general ballhoggery. That being said, Manning will go down as one of the five best quarterbacks of all time, retiring with the most passing yards and touchdowns ever. Kobe will finish his career as the second best shooting guard of all time, with numbers every bit as impressive as Manning’s and five championship rings to boot.
When the dust settles we won’t be thinking about a torn Achilles tendon or a neck injury. We’ll remember a two-guard with a killer instinct who wanted the toughest defensive match-up night-in and night-out. We’ll remember the brilliant conductor of a beautiful offensive orchestra, the arm and the awards and the audibles.
Perhaps it is pointless, or even disrespectful, to contemplate the retirement of two athletes only a few weeks after the world lost three titans of entertainment, but this is the phase people my age have entered. It was only recently that the names of retiring players began to shock us or have significant meaning. It will be a while still before the names in obituaries will routinely carry weight with us, although the ones that do seem to grow more common by the day. For now, the endings that millennial sports fans feel acutely are more often the conclusion of careers than the conclusion of lives, and I’m thankful for that.
Still, I’m going to miss Peyton and I’m going to miss Kobe. I’m not sure any athlete, especially one who doesn’t play for my team, will ever mean as much to me as these two have. Even though it hurts, I guess I have to acknowledge that it’s time to say goodbye to my childhood heroes – and it’s time to grow up.
*I should note here that Manning has not publicly announced plans to retire, and that this is based solely off of my hunch that this will be his last year (and my opinion that this should be his last year).