NBA

Twenty-five years since Michael Jordan said 'I'm back': When sports stars returned

By Sports Desk March 18, 2020

Michael Jordan stunned the world with two simple words 25 years ago.

In an era before innovative social media announcements were the norm, Jordan released a statement through his management company "in response to questions about his future career plans" on March 18, 1995.

His response of "I'm back" signalled the return to basketball of one of the all-time greats.

Here, to mark the anniversary of that press release being issued, we look at Jordan and other greats who performed retirement U-turns.

 

MICHAEL JORDAN

Whether you are an ardent NBA fan or have simply seen Space Jam, you know the story. Chicago Bulls star Jordan retired in 1993 after his team three-peated and shortly after his father's death, stating that "the desire is just not there any more".

For the next year, Jordan turned to baseball as a minor league player as he pursued a dream his father had of his son making it in the MLB. Then, amid rumours he was heading back to the NBA, came that Jordan utterance: "I'm back". 

The Bulls, led by perhaps the greatest ever, would win three successive championships again between 1996 and 1998 at which point Jordan retired once more. He then came back for a two-year stint with the Washington Wizards before finally calling it a day once and for all in 2003.

 

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER

Seven-time Formula One champion Schumacher was 37 when he announced the 2006 season - when he was pipped to the title by Fernando Alonso - would be his last.

However, he remained around F1 as an advisor for Ferrari and returned for Mercedes to race in 2010 saying: "I have the energy back."

He would appear on the podium just once across three seasons, though, and he retired again in 2012, a year before he suffered severe head injuries in a skiing accident.

 

KIM CLIJSTERS

A former world number one and the 2005 US Open champion, Clijsters retired at the age of 23 due to a series of punishing injuries.

Clijsters got married and gave birth in her time away from sport, and then after appearing in an exhibition match held at Wimbledon in 2009, the Belgian returned to the WTA Tour. In just her third tournament back, Clijsters won the US Open, becoming the first unseeded woman to win the tournament in the Open era and the first mother to win a grand slam since 1980.

She triumphed at Flushing Meadows again in 2010 and won the Australian Open in 2011, recently returning to tennis for a third time after a seven-year hiatus.

LANCE ARMSTRONG

American Armstrong retired as a seven-time Tour de France champion in 2005. But the story, of course, didn't end there.

Dogged by doping allegations during his career, Armstrong faced questions again when he returned, aged 37, in 2009 and finished third in that year's Tour.

Armstrong retired once more in 2011 while he was the subject of a federal investigation into doping allegations. Another probe from the United States Anti-Doping Agency led to charges which resulted in Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour titles in 2012, with the cyclist publicly coming clean on his doping the following year.

 

GEORGE FOREMAN

There was a full decade between Foreman's 47th and 48th fights.

He lost on points to Jimmy Young in 1977, falling ill in the dressing room after the bout and suffering what he said was a near-death experience, leading him to find God.

A born-again Christian, Foreman returned at 38. Despite defeats to Evander Holyfield and Tommy Morrison in title bouts, Foreman would become heavyweight champion of the world again in 1994 - at the grand old age of 45 - by stopping Michael Moorer.

BRETT FAVRE

Long-time Green Bay Packers quarterback Favre, the king of indecision, bowed out from the NFL in March 2008, passing the baton to a certain Aaron Rodgers. However, he had a change of heart four months later. The Packers, who wanted to move on with Rodgers, traded Favre to the New York Jets.

After one season with Gang Green, Favre retired again. And then he performed another U-turn, paving the way for him to join the Minnesota Vikings, one of Green Bay's arch-rivals.

He enjoyed by far the best year of his career with the Vikings in terms of quarterback rating (107.2) but Minnesota lost the NFC Championship Game. More indecision followed after that, though 2010 would prove to be the final year of a Hall of Fame career.

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  • Tiger Woods' major debut became a tale of Burnt Biscuits, tough lessons and Augusta awe Tiger Woods' major debut became a tale of Burnt Biscuits, tough lessons and Augusta awe

    Nervous as hell, Tiger Woods stood over his first putt at The Masters and gave the ball a fair thunk towards the hole, near as dammit 25 feet away.

    Crowds were already swarming for Woods, the college kid making his major championship debut in a pairing with the defending champion, Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal.

    The date was April 6, 1995. A quarter of a century ago. A drizzly Thursday in Georgia.

    THE BALL THAT KEPT ROLLING

    Nineteen years old and accordingly fresh-faced, Woods was already a mighty draw, the Stanford student a prodigy around whom hype had swirled since he was barely as tall as the putter he now gripped tightly.

    His ball shuffled closer to that first hole, rolling by, just needing to hold up. No birdie then, but a par four at the hole they call Tea Olive would have been a satisfying, becalming start. This, famously, is where Ernie Els in 2016 would shamble to a quintuple-bogey nine.

    As Woods was about to discover, its green demands the utmost care and concentration.

    Woods had taken a close enough look at that first putt, studied the undulations of the green. Heck, he had played the course already that week in practice rounds alongside Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Raymond Floyd and Fred Couples. This time, though, the ball had shot off his putter just a touch punchier than necessary.

    Just hold up. Stop rolling. It kept rolling.

    "People on the other side of the green started moving," Woods remembered. "It's never good when you hit a putt and people start to move."

    AN ENQUIRING MIND OPENS DOORS

    By the time Woods woke on the morning on his Masters bow, he could plot out a good map of Augusta National.

    Not just the course and its colourful flora, but the corridors, nooks and crannies of its clubhouse were becoming imprinted on the mind of the teenage Woods. He was staying for the week in the Crow's Nest, the quaint, rather rustic second-floor accommodation reserved for players from the unpaid ranks, with Woods in the tournament by virtue of being the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.

    He knew where the Butler Cabin was to be found, should the need ever arise, and a little after-hours exploration had seen him try many an unlocked door to discover what lay behind.

    An enquiring mind led him to the champions' locker room.

    "There was no one in there, so I walked through," Woods said. "No ghosts that I know of."

    Woods not only dreamt of becoming Masters champion, he realised millions expected him to someday triumph. Sports Illustrated had already run a nine-page feature, conscious of his rare talent.

    Norman, who had been twice a runner-up by that stage, said on the eve of the tournament that the rookie possessed the game to carry off the Green Jacket that very Sunday.

    Woods climbed out of bed and went for a morning run before heading to the practice range with coach Butch Harmon.

    CHICKEN ON THE MENU

    Woods was the boy wonder with the world in his feet. His game had everything. Everything, that is, but the ability to have a second stab at that first Masters putt; to rein it back, grin to the crowds, and play it again.

    That stray ball duly rolled off the first green, down an embankment, and came to a muddy rest 50 feet away from the hole.

    Woods turned to caddie Tommy Bennett, the experienced Masters bag man he had hired for the week. Bennett went by the nickname 'Burnt Biscuits' - earned the day he scalded himself on the leg when illicitly snaffling freshly baked treats from his grandmother's kitchen.

    Back went the putter, out came a short iron.

    Down among the patrons, squirming amid his first Masters humiliation, Woods played a recovery shot that could have turned out better, leaving a dicey bogey putt. He later berated himself for a "chicken shot", just as he had after the timid sand wedge to the green that left the long-range putt, that led to all this palaver.

    If there was any solace to be taken from that torturous misread moments earlier, it at least prepared Woods for putt number two.

    This time, as Woods later wrote in his Masters memoir, Unprecedented: "I made it. Great start to my Augusta career. Hit the green in regulation, and then hit my first putt off the green."

    STAYING FOR THE WEEKEND, SIR?

    Not every golfer who flunks Augusta's first hole lands a mega-money book deal.

    From that inauspicious start, Woods has proceeded to win five Masters titles, most recently last year when he ended an 11-year trophy drought at the majors, sealing his comeback from back injury woes and the scandal that upended his career.

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    In 1995, Woods shook off the dropped shot on that first hole of his Masters career, seeing his name up on the leaderboard briefly before signing for a level-par 72.

    A repeat in round two earned a stay for the weekend. As the lone amateur to make the cut - Trip Kuehne, Lee S James, Guy Yamamoto and Tim Jackson fell by the wayside - Woods was king of the Crow's Nest.

    Woods wrote himself out of contention with a 77 in round three, but a third 72 of the week came on the Sunday, securing a tie for 41st place, albeit 19 shots behind champion Ben Crenshaw.

    A CHAMPION'S INSTINCT

    Woods' stated goal of becoming "the Michael Jordan of golf" was gaining traction.

    Jordan, incidentally, had delivered his famous "I'm back" message just three weeks before the Masters, launching the second chapter of his NBA career after 18 months in retirement.

    Today, Jordan and Woods are thought to be America's two wealthiest sports stars.

    On his way to Augusta's second tee, back in 1995, Woods had pictured the response of a champion.

    "I told myself to pound it over the bunker on the right, and I did," Woods wrote in Unprecedented. "I had a cocky walk off that tee, because I'd done what I wanted to do."

    Woods made birdie. Olazabal gasped at his gargantuan drive, later half-joking he needed binoculars to pick out Woods' tee shots. This is what the galleries craved, what they have returned time after time to enjoy.

    The new kid on the block finished that week as tournament leader in average driving distance - 311.1 yards - but iron play had let him down.

    'FANTASYLAND AND DISNEY WORLD WRAPPED INTO ONE'

    Woods signed off his maiden Masters with a visit to Butler Cabin, where he spoke of an intention to "go all four" at Stanford. Yet he would spend just two years majoring in economics, bagging a couple more U.S. Amateur titles before turning professional.

    "It’s a tough world out here," Woods said on that first Masters trip. “Right now, I’m only 19 years old and I feel it’s right for me to live it up a little bit. You’re only young once and college is such a great atmosphere and I really love it there."

    He even left behind a letter of thanks to Augusta National, that began: "Please accept my sincere thanks for providing me the opportunity to experience the most wonderful week of my life. It was fantasyland and Disney World wrapped into one."

    Woods added: "It is here that I left my youth and became a man."

    LEAVING, ON THE LATE-NIGHT FLIGHT FROM GEORGIA

    On the Monday morning after the Masters, Woods had a 9am history class. He reputedly made it there, taking a Sunday evening flight from Augusta to Atlanta and another on to San Francisco.

    If he found time to read the reaction to his performance, he might have stumbled on Sports Illustrated Jaime Diaz's verdict.

    "Although Tiger's excellent adventure was satisfying on many levels," Diaz wrote, "it was most important as a reconnaissance mission to lay the groundwork for many future trips to - and almost surely some victories in - Augusta."

    The first Green Jacket arrived just two years later, victory snared by a then-record 12-shot margin.

    And you know what? Woods made bogey at his first hole then, too.

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    Then, in a charity touch rugby match in October 2017, Van Niekerk suffered medial and lateral tears of the meniscus and a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He needed surgery. The 2018 season was written off, meaning he missed the Commonwealth Games. After a winning return in Bloemfontein some 17 months later, Van Niekerk "pushed a bit too hard" and bruised a bone in his knee in training. More months off the track followed; there would be no third world title in a row.

    "Missing out on the Commonwealths, I could get over it, but a world champs was very difficult," he admits.

    "I got some time to train with the guys in Europe and I was basically prepping for the World Championships, so picking up the bone bruise and then still trying to work towards getting fitness but not quite getting there and seeing off the team and greeting everyone was quite an emotional experience. But it definitely did spark a massive hunger inside me and I think, for myself, I use that as motivation to make sure that when I get a chance again, I'm not going to take it for granted."

    That chance was supposed to be 2020, and Tokyo. "I've entered this year as a normal season, so I felt I was ready to compete, I felt I was ready to run. I was training and working as any other year. I made decisions as if I'm about to do a season as usual, so mentally and physically my mind and heart was there."

    Then came COVID-19. As sporting events around the world were pushed back or cancelled, the IOC dithered over moving the Olympics, leaving athletes to continue preparations under clouds of uncertainty. It was particularly worrying for Van Niekerk: as social distancing became the norm in countries across the globe, he was obliged to keep up his training programme despite his coach, 77-year-old Ans Botha, being at risk of serious illness if infected.

    "It was definitely scary," he says. "It was kind of difficult to communicate with her each and every day and she was right there in front of me. I did not know how to communicate with coach and how to interact with coach knowing how easily she could get affected.

    "At that moment, we saw how quickly it was spreading in China and Italy and countries in Europe and we knew it wouldn't be long before it entered our country. That kind of scared me: it's an invisible virus which travels, so I wouldn't even know I'm interacting with coach and spreading the virus to her, so I'm glad she's safe now and can stay away from harm so that, when we get back to work, she'll be ready and healthy."

    On March 24, organisers acted at last, postponing the Games until July 23 next year. For many athletes, it was a disheartening blow; for Van Nierkerk, it was "definitely a relief".

    "My coach being quite elderly makes it quite difficult for me to focus only on training, knowing that I'm around her all the time and how easily the virus can spread and how quickly it attacks the elderly. It definitely did take a bit of a weight off my shoulders in terms of that," he says.

    "Also, we weren't mentally training the way we would love to. I guess the fact the Olympics has been shifted takes a bit of stress off us, and now we can work on keeping our social distancing and staying away from spreading the virus and making sure we kill this thing so we can go back to life as we know it.

    "I don't have any issues with the decisions that were made. Working towards next season and what's left of this season, I want to make sure I'm in good shape and use it as building blocks for the Olympics next year. I see it as a healthy year for myself, where I can use it for building and strengthening that I still believe I need to work on."

    South Africa won praise for a proactive approach to containing the spread of coronavirus, with swift lockdown measures helping to keep confirmed cases below 2,000 and deaths in single figures as of April 5. Van Niekerk has been training at home – "I'm very privileged and blessed," he says, to have a large back garden and gym to use – and he supports the government's approach. "I think we've also seen a positive reaction to it – a lot of people are obedient to it, a lot of people are distancing themselves from society and from spreading the virus, so I see it as positive decisions that our country's leaders have made."

    After so much time out through injury, there is still frustration at having to wait another year for the Olympics, but Van Niekerk, clearly, is not one for negativity. Running at unofficial meets early this year over 100m and 200m, including back home in Bloemfontein, were "quite fun", he says. "Seeing that I still have the speed and still have the strength gave me quite a bit of a boost, and it just gave me a lot of hunger to keep working harder and more efficiently, so that I can be in the best shape for the Olympics. I'm basically just trying to continue off that so I can be in the best shape of my life in Tokyo."

    The immediate goal might be Olympics gold, but Van Niekerk may have more than a medal collection in his sights. He has spoken of wanting to leave a legacy and, while going sub-43 over 400m is the obvious target, his love of the shorter races points at a possible bid for sprinting's triple crown. Bolt was king of the 100m and 200m; Johnson ruled from the half-lap to the 400m. To conquer all three would set Van Niekerk apart.

    It's a remarkable dream, but Van Niekerk, inspired by Liverpool's Premier League title charge and watching friends and family win the Rugby World Cup last year, is a remarkable athlete.

    His is a sport where dozens of people put in hundreds of hours of work often just so one person has one chance of glory, be it with a jump, a throw, or a dash to the line. But he remembers the challenges life threw at him; he remembers those who were with him from those tough beginnings and all the way to August 15, 2016, where one lap of the track in Rio changed his world. And he has never forgotten them. He looks back now not just on the time on the clock or the medal around his neck, but on the people who were there to share it all.

    He recalled: "It was definitely... I was quite nervous. But I felt comfortable, I felt confident in myself. I had an amazing season before, put up some great times. But coming to a Games itself, you need to put in that hard work to make sure that you execute what you've worked for. During that process, it was just about staying calm, staying composed, controlling the controllables and executing the race as best I can.

    "Breaking the world record itself was amazing. I had my family over there and it was amazing and a great way to end my competition, knowing they were there, spending time with them and celebrating with them. Also, the team: my coach, my management team, my sponsors and so on, it was a great experience knowing I could break the world record and honour everyone associated with me for their hard work and sacrifices they put in to put me where I am today. I'll forever be grateful for it.

    "But my mind and my heart are honestly focused on the future and my legacy. It's never been a secret that I want to go sub-43 and it's also no secret how much I love the 100 and 200, so I definitely want to start investing in growth, in every single event that I do, and improve myself every year until the day I retire and whatever legacy comes from that. That's where my focus is at: just to grow and be up there with the greats in the world."

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