But not all sports legends leave the athletic stage in such grand fashion. For every Bryant, Ted Williams or John Elway, there are dozens of Hall Famers who departed their sport either injured, out of shape or with greatly diminished skills.
How does Bryant’s last game rank with the exits of other premier athletes? Here are 15 of the best exits:
Rocky Marciano, boxing, 1955
Heavyweight legends Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali all left the ring in defeat, but the Brockton Blockbuster departed as a champion. On Sept. 21, 1955, at Yankee Stadium, Marciano survived a fourth-round knockdown and eventually knocked out Archie Moore in the 15th round to retain the heavyweight crown. Marciano announced his retirement the following year, closing the book on a 49–0 professional career.
Roger Bannister, track, 1954
The British middle-distance standout achieved one of the pinnacles in sport on May 6, 1954, when he broke the four-minute barrier for the mile at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford. But Bannister wasn’t done. In a matchup of history’s first two sub-four-minute milers at the 1954 British Empire Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, he defeated Australia’s John Landy in a career-best 3:58.8 seconds to win the “Mile of the Century.” One month later, Bannister ended his years of running by taking the 1,500 meters at the European championships in Switzerland. Bannister retired soon after to pursue a career in medicine.
Jean Beliveau, Montreal Canadiens, 1971
Le Grand Jean was far from finished at 39. He scored 25 goals in 70 games and capped his Hall of Fame career by helping Montreal win the Stanley Cup in seven games over the Chicago Blackhawks. Beliveau led all playoff scorers with 16 assists, including one on the tying goal of Game 6 as Montreal rallied for a 4–3 victory to force the decisive Game 7. He finished his career with 10 Stanley Cups.
Pete Sampras, tennis, 2002
Showing there was still brilliance in his game, Sampras closed his Grand Slam career with a victory at the 2002 U.S. Open, his final appearance in an ATP tournament. Seeded only 17th, Sampras survived a third-round five-set match against Britain’s Greg Rusedski but lost only two sets the rest of the way. He defeated longtime rival Andre Agassi 6–3, 6–4, 5–7, 6–4 in the final. It was Sampras’s 14th Grand Slam championship, a mark topped only by Roger Federer.
Herb Elliott, track, 1960
As with Man o’ War and Secretariat, Elliott’s career on the track was short and brilliant. Between 1958 and ‘60 there wasn’t a better middle-distance runner than the lanky Australian. In 1958 Elliott shattered the world record in the 1,500 meters (3 minutes 36 seconds) and one mile (3:54.5) by more than two seconds. At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Elliott destroyed the competition in the 1,500 by more than 20 meters, breaking his own world record by nearly a half-second in 3:35.6. The record stood for seven years, and his time would have won seven of the next nine Olympic 1,500s.
That same September, Elliott ran four sub-four-minute miles throughout Europe to bring his three-year total of sub-4s to 17. Elliott was only 22 and had never lost a 1,500 or mile race — but he had had enough. He never competed in another national or international competition, limiting himself to low-key club races after he enrolled at Cambridge University in England. He eventually became chairman of one of the world’s largest iron ore mining companies.