Wouldn’t it be great to never have to work again? For some players, that day came too early in their NBA careers. Between injuries, unexpected health risks, or the flat-out grind to their mental health, some of the biggest NBA stars pulled the plug on their NBA career earlier than they would have hoped.
For some players, they were able to make a comeback. May it be one season, two, or even five, these players were able to make a return. It begs the question of how much more they would have accomplished had they never left the game?
Before Retiring: 32.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 5.5 APG
After Returning: 29.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 4.1 APG
Retired after the 92-93 season (age 30); came back during 94-95 season (age 32)
Jordan had his reasons for leaving the game of basketball. For starters, Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to his first three-peat. It was a grueling stretch of conditioning and training, but it was something Jordan felt was necessary after years of losing to the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons.
The biggest reason for his absence was the murder of his father in 1993. It led to Jordan leaving the game to pursue a career in baseball. The Houston Rockets won the championship in 1994 and 1995, the year he came back. Had Jordan stayed, could the Bulls have won eight straight championships?
Before Retiring: 19.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 12.5 APG
After Returning: 14.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 6.9 APG
Retired after 90-91 season (age 31); came back during 95-96 season (age 36)
Johnson didn’t have a choice to stay. After his diagnosis of HIV, Johnson needed to receive medical treatment which would have hampered his overall production in the league. At the time, Johnson was the maestro of the “Showtime Lakers: and had the team in the NBA Finals conversation.
Johnson captured five NBA championships and three NBA Finals with the Lakers in the 1980s. That was all before he turned 30 years old. When Johnson left, the rise of Michael Jordan was in full effect. Had Johnson never left, the Lakers might have contended with the Bulls in 1992 and 1993, potentially stopping the famous three-peat. Either way, you have to respect Johnson for making a comeback despite the circumstances.
Michael Jordan (Again)
Before Retiring: 28.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.5 APG
After Returning: 21.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.4 APG
Retired after 97-98 season (age 35); came back before 01-02 season (age 38)
Jordan retired a second time and returned a second time in his NBA career. Jordan retired from basketball after leading the Bulls to their second three-peat and his sixth NBA Finals MVP. Jordan’s last championship in 1998 was chronicled as the “Last Dance” because the front office was set on blowing up the roster.
With his coach Phil Jackson out of the fold, Jordan felt it was time to leave. Eventually, Jordan returned and played a few seasons with the Washington Wizards, where he continued to play at an All-Star level. Had the Bulls kept the team together in 1999, 2000, and 2001, maybe another championship would have been won.
Before Retiring: 12.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.7 APG
After Returning: 5.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 4.6 APG
Retired after 10-11 season (age 26); came back before 12-13 season (age 28)
The Portland Trail Blazers thought they had found their version of a superstar once Roy made his first All-Star Game in 2008, just two years after being drafted No. 6 overall in the draft. Roy ended up being an All-Star three consecutive seasons, but due to multiple serious knee injuries, Roy was forced to retire in 2011.
Roy made a comeback in 2012-2013 for one season with the Timberwolves. It was nothing close to his All-Star years. Even though Roy’s professional career didn’t last as long as he hoped, he did have success after playing basketball. Roy coached Nathan High School to a 29-0 record in 2017 and won the Naismith High School Coach of the Year Award.
Before Retiring: 13.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 6.8 APG
After Returning: 0.7 PPG, 0.7 RPG, 1.4 APG
Retired after 62-63 season (age 34); came back before 69-70 season (age 41)
Cousy was starting point guard for the Boston Celtics teams that won six NBA championships from 1957-1963. The 1957 Most Valuable Player was an eight-time All-Star and two-time assists leader in the NBA from 1953-1960. At the age of 34, Cousy held his retirement ceremony in a packed Boston Garden. At the time, Cousy claimed he grew bored of basketball.
After leaving the NBA, Cousy accepted a position as the men’s basketball coach for Boston College University. He coached the team for six years, leading the team to an NCAA Elite 8 appearance and a runner-up finish in the NIT. After coaching, he made a seven-game comeback bid with the Cincinnati Royals. Given that Bill Russell was just 27 years old when Cousy retired, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Cousy could have wound up with 10 rings had he stayed.
Before Retiring: 9.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.0 APG
After Returning: 7.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 0.3 APG
Retired after 09-10 season (age 35); came back before 12-13 season (age 38)
Wallace was a four-time All-Star and a member of the 2004 championship Detroit Pistons. Known for his tough play and tough talk, Wallace was a very frequent technical four recipient, he enjoyed success with the Trail Blazers and Celtics in his career too.
After the Celtics failed to take down the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals, Wallace elected to retire. After a two-year break, Wallace played 21 games with the New York Knicks before leaving for good. Wallace could have provided the Celtics with depth given the big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen were together. Maybe, the Celtics could have taken down LeBron in his first year with the Heat and made the NBA Finals again.
Before Retiring: 18.1 PPG, 14.3 RPG, 2.4 APG
After Returning: 10.5 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.4 APG
Retired after 53-54 season (age 29); came back during 55-56 season (age 31)
When you think about what Mikan accomplished before the age of 30, it’s impressive. He was a five-time NBA champion, two-time NPL champion, won an NPL MVP, and is basketball-relevant in Minneapolis. Most players enter their prime when Mikan left, but Mikan’s body had taken too much of a beating.
Mikan played just seven seasons for his career. After his sixth season and another championship, Mikan elected to leave because of family. It was later found that Mikan had 10 broken bones and 16 stitches in his career. At the time, Mikan was forced to play through those injuries. He tried to make a comeback one year later, but the time away affected his overall play.
Before Retiring: 14.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 3.1 APG
After Returning: 8.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.1 APG
Retired after 79-80 season (age 31); came back before 82-83 season (age 34)
Cowens was the starting center for the Celtics in the 1970s and won two NBA championships with the teams. The 1973 MVP was also an eight-time All-Star, All-Star Game MVP, and Rookie of the Year. In 1978-1979, Cowens served as a player-coach after Satch Sanders was fired for a 2-12 start. The team finished 29-53 that year.
In his final season with the Celtics, Cowens led the team to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling to the 76ers. Cowens ultimately retired as a player as Boston drafted Kevin McHale and traded for Robert Parish. For his reasoning, Cowens cited that he sprained his ankle at least 30 times over his career, as well as broken both legs and fractured one foot. Cowens felt a desire to play again in 1982-1983, where he played one more season. Had Cowens never retired, he would have won a ring with the Celtics in 1981.
Before Retiring: 12.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 3.0 APG
After Returning: 4.7 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.4 APG
Retired after 88-89 season (age 31); came back before 90-91 season (age 33)
Moncrief was a five-time All-Star for the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1980s. The team had the third-best winning percentage during that decade, only to trail the Lakers and Celtics. Moncrief was known for his defense, winning two Defensive Player of the Year awards, but was also a stellar shooting guard. Moncrief averaged over 20 points per game in four seasons. He holds the record for career free throws made and attempts.
Moncrief sat out one season and then returned for one year with the Atlanta Hawks. Moncrief played 72 games, made three starts, and played all five games of the opening round of the playoffs. Moncrief scored 23 points in 22 minutes in Game 4, but the Hawks eventually lost the series. Moncrief retired for good this time and eventually had his jersey retired by the Bucks.
Before Retiring: 13.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 4.1 APG
After Returning: 10.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.4 APG
Retired after 81-82 season (age 26); came back before 83-84 season (age 28) and then played until 1991 (age 35)
Reid played 13 seasons in the NBA as a member of the Rockets, Hornets, Trail Blazers, and 76ers. He had his best overall season in 1980-1981, where he was the second-leading scorer for the Rockets, who made the NBA Finals before losing to the Celtics. After the Rockets traded reigning MVP, Moses Malone, to the 76ers, Reid retired from basketball and moved to Miami.
After a year away, Reid returned to Houston when the team drafted Ralph Sampson with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 NBA Draft. Reid’s greatest moment in his career came in Game 5 of the 1986 Western Conference Finals to tie the game with a second left, rallying the Rockets to a win to make the NBA Finals.
Credit for the idea: NBA Debates 1