Allan Houston. Charles Oakley. Penny Hardaway. Reggie Miller. These and other former All-Stars are either making a comeback or are thinking about making a comeback. Even Greg "Dancing Queen" Ostertag is contemplating a return to the NBA, and he wasn't any good to begin with.

Nostalgia is fun. It's why we hang on to old toys and watch ESPN Classic. Spiderman #300 is a collector's item, but that's not why I keep it sealed in a plastic bag and stored inside a moisture-protected box. I do all that so I can see Spiderman punch Green Goblin* in the face any time I want. Reliving our happiest memories is one of the highlights of human existence, so it's totally natural to get excited when a living legend crawls out of the mothballs. Although he retired in 1973, Wilt Chamberlain made an annual "I just might come back someday" announcement up through the late 80s...and people would wet themselves every single time. Seriously, stock prices for adult diapers would skyrocket whenever Wilt did a television interview.

We all want to see the great ones play again, but once the initial nostalgic blitz fades, we're left with one incontrovertible fact: Comebacks never end well. Not for George Mikan (who averaged 10 PPG and lasted half a season), or Bob Cousy (who scored 0.7 PPG and lasted only seven games), or Dave Cowens (who averaged 8 PPG in 40 games), or even Michael Jordan** (who compiled a 74-90 record and zero playoff appearances in two seasons with the Wizards).

I guess Magic Johnson did "okay" in '96 -- 14 PPG, 7 APG, 6 RPG, 32 games, and a first round playoff exit -- but he came back fat and sassy; his once-slender body was covered in 40 pounds of excess blubber, he feuded with his younger teammates, and he even got suspended for chest-bumping an official. Watching the greatest point guard of all time play power forward and waddle up and down the court -- leading my college roommate to quip "Hey, the Lakers are running the FAT BREAK!!" -- ruined about 50 percent of my childhood memories. (The other half were ruined when I accidentally walked in on my grandparents playing "Queen of Pain." Don't ask).

Which brings me to my next point. I don't know what's more depressing: Watching formerly great players come back and fail, or watching them transmogrify into disgusting fatties. What exactly happens when NBA players retire? Do they invest their entire pension on Twinkies and Moon Pies? According to sports-nutrition and weight-loss experts, the answer is obvious: Active athletes need more calories than they get, while retired athletes gobble up more calories than they need. Ex-pros transform into lumbering ham monsters the same way the rest of us do: Too much food, not enough exercise.

Magic and Charles Barkley are prime examples of this. If you ever watch the TNT Pregame Show and Halftime Report, you'll notice those guys are always on opposite ends of the broadcasting table. That's to keep the studio from tipping over. Even Michael Jordan's getting into the fat act; last season he was spotted in a skybox at a nationally televised Bulls game sporting a tragic yellow turtleneck and a jiggly paunch. And let's not forget Larry Legend. This picture was taken at a Celtics/Pacers game last November.

Bird Fat
Why, Larry? Oh god, why?

Brett over at The Association thought it was a fat guy in a Larry Bird costume. I can only wish that was true. It's all there: The turtleneck (which people apparently think is some sort of "fat camouflage"), the double-chin, the 12-pack abs. Holy god, his head is so bulbous his hair doesn't even fit on it anymore. I didn't know that was even possible. WTF??

There's a simple answer. Larry's a junk food junkie. This is obvious from the products he endorses. Take this old commercial for Lay's brand Potato Chips. The premise is that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar bets Larry that he can't eat only one lard-soaked grease chip. And of course he can't. This commercial also introduces us to the nameless horror of Larry Bird's bald head.

There are others, but my personal favorite is a McDonald's clip for the "Big 33" burger. The commercial opens with Bird citing his height and what we must assume was his playing weight, and explaining that he's a "big guy" and an "awful big eater." Next, Larry confides that he loves "hambuggers," which is why he typically eats six regular burgers and/or three Quarter Pounders in a single sitting. He then introduces us to his personalized burger: A Quarter Pounder with Cheese that's wrapped in bacon and soaked in barbeque sauce. Finally, we're treated to a montage of Larry stuffing his face full of Big 33 burgers, followed by glowing praise delivered in his trademark Midwestern drawl: "Purty tastee."

The burger, or bugger, actually doesn't look half bad. I'm sure that it is, as Bird helpfully pointed out, pretty tasty. But that doesn't mean you have to eat a plateful of them. I don't know. The greats ones are always described as having a burning hunger for winning. Maybe it's just a burning hunger, period. I can only hope that Larry, Magic, and the others hook up with the NutriSystem Diet. Hey, it worked for Dan Marino.

* Spiderman actually punched Venom in the face in issue 300. I just wanted to say Green Goblin.

** Let's get something straight: I don't count Jordan's first comeback as a true "comeback." Mike took a year off in his prime and came back in his prime. That's not a comeback, it's a vacation.

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Anonymous Jaz said...
It's not a big deal. You get a little older, you get a little softer, you say, "why should I deny myself a little enjoyment now? I don't _have_ to be in game shape anymore."

Even Dominique Wilkins looks fat. Dennis Johnson looked fat. I think it's just that these guys were in such great shape, that some of them look fat when they're now living like normal schlubs. Barkley, though, really is fat.

Blogger ali said...
Kareem Abdul Jabbar didn't get fat. Neither did Hakeem. May be they should think about a comeback.

Anonymous Josh said...
How could you forget the classic, where Bird and Jordan damn near FIGHT for a fucking Big Mac and Large Fries?

And for the record, Bob Cousy was the coach of that squad he "came back" for, The Royals. He came back because the squad got hurt, and was basically only there to insure that the team had enough guys to make the game.

Blogger Trev said...
I just finished reading "Unfinished Business" about the 1990-91 Celtics and it mentions Bird's love of wedding cakes. Why wedding cakes over normal cakes? Well in Bird’s words "Who's going to fuck up a wedding cake." Maybe that's the problem. Bird's been eating giant 3 tier wedding cakes the last 17 years like they are snack foods!

Blogger Basketbawful said...
jaz -- What's wrong with it? Nothing from a human perspective. But their gravy addiction is destroying my joy in legends past. It must stop.

ali -- Kareem and Hakeem probably stayed thin thanks to their religious discipline. But they should never, ever come back. Did you see that post-retirement one-on-one match between Kareem and Dr. J? Painful.

josh -- Hm. I seem to remember reading Cooz say he wanted to scratch an itch when he came back. I'll have to look into this...

trev -- You know, I read that book too and was THIS CLOSE to bringing up Bird's wedding cake story. That a great book. Probably my favorite basketball book of all time.

Anonymous rodentface said...
I take exception to your description of Mr. Bird's '12-pack abs'.

A more accurate description would be that he has an impressive ab. Singular. As in any former definition of 2-pack, 4-pack, or 6-pack has all melded together into one blob of an ab.

This is something with which my family is terribly familiar. My brother has an impressive ab. My uncle has an impressive ab. I'm working on an impressive ab. But my father's? None is larger than his.

Anonymous 80's NBA said...
RE: "Unfinished Business"...

That's hilarious about the wedding cakes. I remember reading that book when it first came out and that's one of the things that stuck out for me.

What a bizarre visualization: a 6'9" dude going to the bakery every couple of weeks to buy wedding cakes.

Blogger Daris said...
Classic you guys. One of the funniest articles I've read blogging in 3 months.

Anonymous KHayes666 said...
I remember reading a Herald article after that game (Larry Bird's 50th birthday")where it said Bird had a "beefy face and a healthy paunch".

That don't look healthy to me lol