A lot, actually most, athletes don’t choose to retire so much as they have the decision forced upon them. No one can play sports at a high level for their entire life and at some point, they have to end their careers. Very few get to end their careers on a high note.
These superstars, however, did just that. Some of them put the perfect finishing touch on a legendary career. Others turned back the clock and played just as they did in their prime. And the most fortunate of all ended their tenures with a championship.
Reggie Miller – 2005
For nearly 18 years, Reggie Miller terrorized NBA defenses (specifically the Knicks) with his dead-eye shooting. His last game came in a 2005 playoff game against the Detroit Pistons. The shooting guard hit four 3-pointers on his way to 27 points in a loss.
Since his career has ended, Miller has received his fair share of accolades. He was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2012 and is still regularly seen by fans of the game as a broadcaster for TNT.
Jerome Bettis- 2006
After starting his career with the Los Angeles Rams before becoming an integral superstar for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bettis’ final game was a special one as he played in Superbowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks. He tallied 43 yards on 14 carries in a 21-10 victory.
His career and the Superbowl win has made Bettis a legend in the Pennsylvania city. The running back has made regular appearances on NBC and made the Hall of Fame in 2015.
Wilt Chamberlain – 1973
By the end of his 15-year career, Wilt Chamberlain had redefined the sport of basketball. A rebounding and scoring machine, Wilt the Stilt was the first NBA player to average over 50 ppg during a season.
So it was no surprise to see Chamberlain notch a double double in his last NBA game Playing against the Knicks in the playoffs, Wilt scored 23 points and notched 21 rebounds. The legend passed away in 1999 at the age of 63.
Mike Mussina – 2008
Over the course of his 18-year career, Mike Mussina was an absolute workhorse for the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees. Despite his incredible success, the right-hander had never won 20 games as a starter.
That is, until his final season in 2008. Moose’s final season was a remarkable one and he was able to notch win number 20 in his final start. Mussina was then named to the MLB Hall of Fame in January of 2019.
Pele – 1977
Soccer legend Pele had spent the majority of his career playing for Santos in his native Brazil. He also made 92 total appearances for the Brazilian national team and captured three World Cups on the world stage.
At the tail end of his career, Pele joined the New York Cosmos. The Brazilian star helped to popularize the sport of soccer in the United States. In his final game, a friendly match against his old club Santos, Pele scored on a free kick from 30 yards away.
Peyton Manning – 2013
The majority of Peyton Manning’s long career was spent with the Indianapolis Colts and he won his first Superbowl in 2007. Following a devastating neck injury, the Colts replaced Manning with a younger superstar in Andrew Luck.
Manning moved over to the Denver Broncos and had a magical season in 2013, winning the league’s MVP Award. By the end of the 2015 season, the quarterback was running on fumes but he used his guts and intelligence to lead Denver to Superbowl 50. In his final performance, Manning became a two-time world champion as the Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers.
Lisa Leslie – 2009
Lisa Leslie, who became the first woman to ever dunk in a WNBA game was well-known to even the most casual of fans. The center was one of the most sought-after prospects ever and she spent her entire career with the Los Angeles Sparks.
The three-time league MVP was also a two-time champion as the Sparks won the league in 2001 and 2002. Leslie spent her final season in 2009 chasing one more title. While the Sparks lost her final game in the Western Conference playoffs, she notched 22 points and 9 rebounds.
Ray Lewis – 2013
The Baltimore Ravens of the 1990s and 2000s featured some incredible defenses and Ray Lewis was the heart and soul of all of them. The inside linebacker won his first title with Baltimore in 2001.
In his final year, which came in 2013, Lewis again led the Ravens to the Super Bowl. The team captain was an important figure in the game, making 7 tackles in the win over the 49ers. Lewis entered the Hall of Fame in 2018.
Mia Hamm – 2004
The United States Women’s soccer team has been dominant for decades and that all began while Mia Hamm was playing for the team. The legendary forward played in her first World Cup in 1991 and appeared in her last one in 2003.
Hamm’s last competitive game was during the 2014 Olympic Games where the U.S. defeated Brazil. Her actual final game was a friendly match against Mexico. The superstar player notched two assists in the 5-0 win.
Lennox Lewis – 2003
Most boxers don’t get to decide when they want to retire. The decision usually comes when they realize they can’t compete at a high level anymore and they start to lose matches. Lennox Lewis was able to retire on his own terms.
Lewis was still the WBC and IBO champion in 2003 when he faced off against Vitali Klitschko. While the match was spirited and could have gone either way, Lewis retired as a champion by defeating the Ukrainian in six rounds.
Joe DiMaggio – 1951
Joe DiMaggio did an awful lot of winning during his playing career. The Yankee Clipper won a total of nine World Series Championships while in New York. His last championship came in the final game he ever played.
The Yankees took on the New York Giants in the 1951 World Series. In game six of that series, DiMaggio was on base three times as he notched a hit and two walks. The outfielder ended his career as a champion.
Bill Russell – 1969
Bill Russell impacted the NBA game in a way no one ever had before him. The uber-athletic center was known for his dominant defensive play. He also chipped in quite a bit on the offensive end, averaging 15.1 points per game.
The center did a ton of winning in his career, winning a total of 11 titles. The final title for Russell was won in two ways as both a coach and as a player. He coached the team to the 1969 title and also chipped in 6 points.
Ray Bourque – 2001
Ray Bourque spent the majority of his career as a Boston Bruin. The defensemen made an astonishing 19 All-Star games and was also awarded the Norris Trophy a total of five times.
He could never quite win the big one while playing for Boston. Late in his career, he was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche. In 2001, during his 21st season, Bourque finally made the Stanley Cup finals. The Avalanche took home the cup with the defensemen on ice for 29:35 against the Devils.
Rocky Marciano – 1955
Very few boxers retire as champions. It is even rarer to find a fighter who went their whole career without losing a bout. Rocky Marciano, however, was one of those guys.
The Brockton Blockbuster finished his professional career with a record of 49-0 with a total of 43 knockouts. His final fight came against Archie Moore at a sold-out Yankee Stadium. While Moore was able to knock him down early in the fight, Marciano eventually took over and won his last fight in the ninth round.
Mariano Rivera – 2013
For the most part, the last innings Mariano Rivera pitched each year occurred in playoff games as his Yankee teams were often dominant. That wasn’t the case in 2013 when the Yankees missed the postseason.
The last innings thrown by Rivera came against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in a 2013 game. The stud right-hander faced four batters and retired all four in a Yankee loss. Rivera was taken off the mound for the last time by teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte.
Landon Donovan – 2016
Landon Donovan stands as one of the most important players in U.S. Men’s soccer history. Not only did he help to popularize the sport through his play internationally, he was also a major star in America’s MLS.
And Donovan’s last game came as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy, in the MLS finals against the New England Revolution. While Donovan did not score in the game he served as the captain for the champions. It was the winger’s sixth title.
David Robinson – 2003
David Robinson was the first pick of the 1987 NBA draft but he didn’t make his debut until 1989 because of a military service commitment. When he joined the Spurs, though, he quickly made up for lost time with a Hall of Fame career.
In 1997, the Spurs landed Tim Duncan and Robinson gained the perfect running mate for the twilight of his career as the Spurs won titles in 1999 and 2003. Game six of the 2003 Finals was Robinson’s last and he notched 13 points and 17 rebounds.
Ted Williams – 1960
Ted Williams was the author of one of the greatest career stories in Major League Baseball history. The final game of his career also featured a fairy-tale moment for the Red Sox slugger.
Williams went 1-3 in his final game against the Baltimore Orioles. The one hit, a home run, came in the last at bat the Splendid Splinter ever took. The knock was number 521 in his career and Williams retired behind Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx on the all-time home run list.
Kobe Bryant – 2016
When Kobe Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1996, he became only the sixth player in NBA history to make the jump from High School to the pros. After being traded to the Lakers, the shooting guard began a legendary career.
A winner of five NBA Championships over his career, Kobe always seemed to have something special up his sleeve. This was especially true in his final game against the Jazz. While he was not very efficient over his 50 shots, Bryant did notch 60 points in his last performance.