Ranking Kobe’s final game among best exits in sports history

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant pounds his chest after the last NBA basketball game of his career against the Utah Jazz, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Los Angeles.

There has never been a more spectacular end to an NBA career.

Kobe Bryant, suiting up for the final time as a Los Angeles Laker, capped a 20-year Hall of Fame career by exploding for 60 points Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz to the delight of an adoring celebrity-filled crowd at the Staples Center.

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 champion Rocky Marciano’s right fist made challenger Archie Moore’s hair stand on end-like this-more than once during their title bout at Yankee Stadium in New York City, Sept. 21, 1955. Marciano retained his crown when he dropped Moore by a knockout in the ninth round of their scheduled 15-round bout. Note how Moore’s gloves are well away from punch in this action.

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

England's Dr. Roger Bannister, left, puts arm around the shoulders of Australia's John Landy after the mile run in British Empire games at Vancouver, B.C. on August 9, 1954. Bannister won race in 3:58.8 while Landy finished second with a 3:59.6 clocking.

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

FILE - In this May 18, 1971, file photo, Montreal Canadiens' captain Jean Beliveau, left, is presented the Stanley Cup by NHL Commissioner Clarence Campbell after Montreal beat Chicago in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.

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

Andre Agassis (L) congratulates Pete Sampras after Sampras defeated Agassi at the finals of the US Open on Sept. 8, 2002. Sampras, the No. 17 seed, beat No. 6 Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 for first U.S. Open title since 1996 and his first tournament title of any kind since Wimbledon 2000, a span of 33 events.

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

Herb Elliott of Australia finishes the 1500 meters final at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome in a world record time of 3 minutes 35.6 seconds.

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.

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