The Joy of Six: second comings and sporting comebacks
All 6ft 9in of Earvin "Magic" Johnson towers above the microphone stand in November 1991. His body language betrays his nerves. With his hands in his pockets, he looks to either side of him, again and again and again, but he never looks ahead to the attending press and cameras. A man so smooth with his hands on the court, now fumbles at the microphone, struggling to bring it under his control, like an errant pet escaping its master. He stutters over the first few words of his speech. Then it comes: "Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today." With those words out of the way a weight has been lifted and his trademark smile returns, but this time it's a sad variation. "I guess now I get to enjoy some of the other sides of living … that because of the season and the long practices and so on. I just want to say that I'm going to miss playing."
The tributes to the finest point-guard ever to play in the NBA came rolling in – even the then president, George HW Bush, got involved describing him as "a hero, a hero for anyone who loves sports" – and so too did the votes for him to play in . It turned out he did not have to miss basketball for too long. He entered the Orlando Arena to a thunderous ovation from the crowd. He left with 25 points, nine assists, a closing three-pointer (his third in a row) that ended the game and the MVP award. "Ladies and gentlemen, you just can't orchestrate it better than that," said the commentator Dick Enberg, "but when you're great, you deliver on cue." Johnson's comeback did not stop there. He was drafted in for the Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics, where he was one of the brightest among some refulgent stars. With the gold medal won, he decided to return to the NBA, a move that was welcomed by some but left others with misgivings. "Look at this, scabs and cuts all over me," said Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz. "I get these every night, every game. They can't tell you that you're not at risk and you can't tell me there's one guy in the NBA who hasn't thought about it."
Those sort of sentiments put Johnson off that comeback but he did return aged 36 in the 1995-1996 season. The Lakers won 20 of the 32 games he played in, with Johnson averaging 14.6 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds. Even though the Lakers left the play-offs earlier than he would have liked, losing in the first round to the Houston Rockets, Johnson deemed his return a success. "I am ready to give it up," he said. "It's time to move on. I am going out on my terms, something I couldn't say when I aborted a comeback in 1992."
The Nürburgring crash should have been it for Niki Lauda. In 1976, in the dangerous combination of wet and dry at the notorious German track, his Ferrari spun off at a corner on the second lap and spiralled across the track before being consumed by flames. He was pulled from the smoking wreckage by four fellow drivers and a marshal. At that stage in the season, he had won five grands prix, leaving him 36 points head of his nearest rival and odds-on to reclaim his Formula One title. But that was the least of his worries. The crash had left him with broken bones, a badly burnt and disfigured face and blackened lungs from the minute's worth of toxic fumes that he had inhaled. A priest arrived at his hospital bed. Lauda thought he was there to encourage him to keep on fighting but instead the priest administered the last rites.
Six weeks and two races later, his head adorned with blood-soaked bandages, Lauda raced in the Italian Grand Prix; he finished fourth. The next two races were set for North America. In Canada, Lauda failed to finish in the points but south of the border at Watkins Glen he took third spot. That left him three points ahead of rival, James Hunt, with just the race at the Fuji Speedway to go. The rain in Japan came down in industrial-sized buckets, accompanied by a treacherous combination of mist and fog. The organisers gave the drivers 15 minutes to test the track but Lauda's Ferrari remained covered. He was adamant it would not go ahead but those in charge had other ideas. Hunt took an early lead but on his second lap, Lauda pitted, talked to his team and got out of his car. He had quit the race. "My life is worth more than a title," he would later say.
Hunt, despite some skids and protracted pit-stops, finished third and won the championship by a point. In Italy, Lauda was called a coward and Enzo Ferrari made plans to replace the Austrian. An enraged Lauda responded by winning the title in the next season with two races to go and leaving the Italians for the Brabham team. He retired two seasons later saying he was "tired of driving around in circles" but that wasn't the end of Lauda. Three years later McLaren enticed him back with a multimillion-dollar deal and within three season he had claimed his third and final F1 title in 1985, a feat almost as remarkable as his return from his horrific crash.
Justine Henin had it all. Fleet of foot, a volleyer like no other and with a one-handed backhand as beautiful any piece of classical art. Martina Navratilova said she was one of the few stars she would pay to watch and the sports writer Joel Drucker described her style as akin to "watching a rainbow". Plenty of sport stars come equipped with variations on these skills and this style but few possess the mental capacity and strength to translate them into success. Henin was one of the few. By the time that she retired in May 2008, at the age of 25, she had 41 singles titles, including seven grand slams, to her name. In 2007 alone she won two grand slams, including her third straight French Open, a further eight other tournaments and 63 of 67 matches in which she took part.
Given her success and status, the world of tennis recoiled in shock at her announcement but the signs were there that tennis had taken too much of a toll. She had lost four times in the previous four months – the nadir of which was a third-round defeat in the German Open to Dinara Safina, an opponent to whom she had never before lost a set – and it was obvious that her body was battered and bruised from the constant battles with fitness. "This is the end of a child's dream," she said. "A new future is ahead and I won't go back on this decision." : "There was a flame that was relit which I had thought had been put out for ever."
At the start, there were signs that she would rediscover her former power and glory – she reached the final of the Australian Open as a wildcard before moving into the top 20 in the world with in 2010 – but that success was fleeting. She exited Indian Wells in the second round and did not make it past the first one in the Madrid Open. She then and played no competitive tennis until the mixed doubles event at the Hopman Cup in Australia the following January. Finally, she suffered the ignominy of her earliest grand slam exit since 2005, losing to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round at the 2011 Australian Open. The second retirement was not such a shock. "In these recent months I have rarely been spared of the pain," she said. "The doctors told me my elbow is too fragile and therefore I cannot continue my profession at this high level … After having considered the advice of doctors, it is now clear and accepted that my career finally ends."
On the brown-brick high street of Garforth Town, just across from the post office and standing shoulder to shoulder with Thomas Cook, rests the Cielo coffee house. It's a small business run by a husband and wife who wanted to give something back to the surrounding community through reinvesting profits in local activities, services and support. It's the sort of place of which Sócrates would almost certainly have approved. The Brazilian midfielder, who grew up in a military dictatorship, had a life-long interest in politics and was a man drawn to socialist and democratic principles – he would speak at leftwing rallies, he had a son named Fidel and he was part of the Democracia Corinthiana, a movement in which the Corinthians' staff and players all voted over important decisions that affected the club, a noted contrast to Brazil at the time. (On a side note, he once got a late-night summons to the tent in the Libyan desert of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who offered him his support should Sócrates bid to become the president of Brazil.) Most will remember the Brazilian for that beard, that headband, that strut, those flicks, those passes and that two-step penalty style; but few will remember the time he spent five minutes up the road from Cielo coffee house at the local football club, Garforth Town.
It was 2004, he was 50 and long since been retired. The jersey was still yellow but the beard was grey, the long hair cropped and the belly grown. He came on as a substitute against Tadcaster with 20 minutes to go and touched the ball four times, to little or no effect on the match. "We drew the game he played when he came on as a sub," said the Garforth Town owner, Simon Clifford, but he decided against starting him in the next one, "because his warm-up had consisted of drinking two bottles of Budweiser and three cigarettes which we had in the changing rooms." According to Clifford, Sócrates was keen to carry on playing but nothing ever came of it.
It was spring of 1986 and Vincent O'Brien had been in touch. By then, Lester Piggott had been a few months retired – he rode what was supposed to be his last race in Britain in October of the previous year and he had completed a global goodbye tour, before settling down to life as a trainer. It was then that he received O'Brien's call. The Irish trainer was running Tate Gallery in the 2,000 Guineas and would Piggott be interested. Piggott pondered the offer briefly before agreeing. The plan, however, never came to fruition. "When this news was reported in the press, my phone instantly became red hot with indignant calls from people who had produced 'Lester Piggott Retirement' memorabilia the previous autumn. They threatened all sorts of dire consequences if I broke those contracts by returning to the saddle, so I dropped the idea." And the job as a trainer also didn't come about, interrupted as it was by his stint in jail for tax fraud.
After his release, Piggott did some work for O'Brien who eventually asked him: "Why don't you make a comeback?" Piggott was somewhat disinclined at first – "I was only interested in a return to the saddle if I could achieve it at the highest level" – but he swept this hesitancy aside and five years after retiring, one of the greatest jockeys of all time was back in the saddle again. His first run came on 15 October 1990 and his first win came a day later. A mere 11 days after that first victory came what Piggott called "the most satisfying winner" he ever rode. With John Reid out with a shoulder injury, O'Brien needed a jockey to ride Royal Academy in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont Park, New York. Despite having a No1 draw, Piggott got off to a slow start and by the first furlong lay last by a length. He soon moved to the outside and with some clear space ahead mounted his challenge. As they came down to the final furlong that looked to have faltered as Piggott was six lengths behind. However, at that stage, the crowd roared, Royal Academy kicked and Piggott won by half a nose on the outside.
"Piggott has shown such mastery, such beautifully honed skill and judgment since his stunning decision to come out of retirement," wrote Chris Hawkins in the Guardian, "that one wonders why he packed up in the first place as a mere stripling of 50." Piggott won the 2,000 Guineas two years later but his second coming would never quite reach the heights of that Breeders' Cup victory and he retired for good in 1995. "He must rate," added Hawkins, "alongside Gordon Richards, Muhammad Ali, Don Bradman, Pelé and Jack Nicklaus as a sporting giant of the 20th century."
"It was a super normal day. The surf was kinda small, nothing special," recalled Bethany Hamilton eight years after it all happened. Normal it may have been but extraordinary it was about to get. Hamilton, her best friend, Alana Blanchard, and Blanchard's father, Holt, had paddled out on their surfboards to the waters off an area known as Tunnels, a quarter-mile off Makua Beach near Haena, in Hawaii. "It happened so fast, there wasn't much time to think." Hamilton, then aged 13, had an arm either side of her red, white and blue board. "All of a sudden, I felt a tug and right away I knew what was happening."
The sea around her swapped its deep blue for a deep red and a 14ft tiger shark swam away with Hamilton's left arm between its teeth (the shark was later captured, killed and caught with the debris of Hamilton's arm in its mouth). Holt tried to halt the gushing blood with a makeshift tourniquet but by the time Hamilton got to hospital she had lost 60% of her blood. She somehow survived. Doctors described her as "a living miracle" but her miracle was only just beginning.
Hamilton had been a talented surfer since a young age. She won her first competition aged eight and just months before the October 2003 attack she came second in the NSSA National Championships open women's category; the AP report of her attack said: "Bethany is a competitive surfer who already had secured sponsorships and was expected to go pro". For most, losing an arm would have put an end to any hopes of turning that talent into a career but Hamilton was more determined than most. Three weeks later, she was back in the water and back on her board. . A year later she won her first national title. Four years later, she turned professional. "I feel I am glad it happened," she said. "Look at all the good that has come out of it. People come up to me every day and say how my story has encouraged them. Kids will say how it has taught them not to give up."