Not like Mike: NBA stars who suffered ill-fated returns

JR Isaga
Not like Mike: NBA stars who suffered ill-fated returns
Several NBA stars tried their best for another shot at basketball glory, but their stories simply were not as sweet the second time around

MANILA, Philippines – Episodes 7 and 8 of The Last Dance gave a look into Michael Jordan’s stunning first retirement from the NBA in 1993 to pursue his baseball dreams and his eventual comeback to the Chicago Bulls two years later.

Donning the number 45 in his return, the NBA’s undisputed best and top-selling star suffered from a lot of rust on the hardwood due to the vastly-different training regimen he underwent to be in shape as a baseball player.

After being eliminated in the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals to former teammate Horace Grant and the Shaquille O’Neal-led Orlando Magic, an angry Jordan and the new-look Bulls took no days off in the following offseason and went right back to work.

This resulted in a record-breaking 72-win 1995-1996 regular season capped off with the Bulls’ first NBA title in 3 years, officially starting their second three-peat run.

No story in basketball history has been as uniquely successful as Jordan’s retirement, return, and eventual reestablishment of dominance in the NBA in his later years.

Not every return story has a happy ending, though, and while these other NBA stars tried their best, their stories simply were not as sweet the second time around.

Michael Jordan, Washington Wizards (2000-2003)

Oh hey, look who it is. Okay, make that the third time around in this case.

As it turns out, not even the greatest of all time could escape the clutches of time itself.

In 2001, “Air” Jordan again shocked the world as he took flight one more time on the NBA hardwood, this time to make magic as a member of the Washington Wizards following a three-year absence.

As a playing team executive, however, the rapidly-aging Jordan failed to recreate the same championship-hunting storyline he wrapped up with his second retirement in 1998 after winning title No. 6.

Yes, the living legend still averaged 21.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.5 steals in an impressive 36.1 minutes a game, but his squad finished with identical 37-45 records in the two years he donned the ill-fitting dark blue and white.


After failing to make the playoffs for the first (and second) time in his career, “His Airness” hung up the Air Jordans permanently in the summer of 2003, ending what was still the greatest career in NBA history.

Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers (1995-1996)

Speaking of the greatest careers in NBA history, only a select few can say they had one better than Magic Johnson, arguably the best and most unique point guard of all time.

With that being said, the basketball world was still robbed of 4 years of that career as the five-time NBA champion stepped away from the game following a shocking discovery that he had HIV in 1991, fresh off a loss to Jordan and the Bulls in that year’s finals.

In the 1995-1996 season, however, the 36-year-old Johnson trained hard to fight back his illness and made a triumphant return to the Lakers on January 29, 1996.


Although the team went 22-10 since the return of the 6-foot-9 facilitator-turned-bruiser, it did not translate well in the locker room and in the end cost them their shot at the championship.

Team captain Cedric Ceballos, upset that Johnson took his minutes, left the team, got suspended for two games, and was relieved of his leadership role.

“That was a mistake I made. There was no reason for that at all. It was a bad situation, and I went about it the wrong way,” he said to Sports Illustrated shortly after returning.

Johnson then publicly berated teammate Nick Van Exel after bumping a referee and subsequently getting suspended 7 games near the end of the season.

“It’s inexcusable,” Johnson told the LA Times. “You just don’t do that. Now you’re going to have to sit… the rest of the season. Just when I thought we were smart, and then wham!”

Following the incidents and a quick first-round playoff loss to the Houston Rockets, Johnson rode off in the California sunset for good on May 14, 1996.

Brandon Roy, Minnesota Timberwolves (2012-2013)

Before Damian Lillard lit up the league as the fearless leader of the Portland Trail Blazers, another guard ran Rip City up the ranks as a near-unstoppable, bona fide superstar.

That man was Brandon Roy, the sixth pick of the 2006 draft.

A former three-time All-Star, All-NBA Second Team selection, and Rookie of the Year, Roy revived a floundering franchise that went through 3 head coaches and 106 losses in the two years leading up to his arrival.


Alongside fellow All-Star and 2006 draftee LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy led the Blazers to 3 consecutive playoff appearances from 2009 to 2011.

However, Roy’s knees simply failed to match his immense heart and by the summer of 2011, he abruptly announced his retirement due to a degenerative condition which completely destroyed his knee cartilage.

But Roy simply refused to give up and quickly returned to basketball one year later, this time as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Despite winning 4 of his first 5 games, all as a starter, it was clear that he was just not the same as he only reached double-digit scoring in his first game with 10 points. He was then promptly waived after being deactivated for games 6 and 7.

Just like that, Roy retired for good without any regrets on June 25, 2013 after 5 promising, yet injury-riddled seasons.

“Any time you walk away from the game, you have what-ifs,” Roy told ESPN. “I feel like I was able to answer those questions last year by going out there and giving it a try. For me, it’s a little bit easier to walk away.”

Greg Oden, Miami Heat (2013-2014)

In the late 2000s, it seemed that the Blazers were both blessed with a good eye for talent and cursed with injury bugs for those same players.

One year after drafting Roy, Portland got lucky in the lottery and landed seven-foot center Greg Oden with the 2007 first overall pick.

However, Oden’s NBA career was doomed from the start as he missed his entire rookie season after microfracture surgery to fix his right knee.

This would turn out to be a sad recurring theme as he then suffered multiple serious injuries to his feet and knees across his five-year career in Portland despite showing flashes of brilliance befitting a first overall pick.


Before getting mercifully waived by the Blazers on March 15, 2012, Oden had missed 349 out of a possible 410 games and failed to provide much-needed help in the paint for the playoff-caliber squad.

After sitting out 3 consecutive seasons due to injuries, Oden made his return as a member of the three-peat-seeking Miami Heat on January 15, 2014 and scored 6 points in 8 minutes.

The Heat, however, eventually dropped the experiment and favored Chris Bosh as the starting center for the rest of the season.

As if fate was mocking him, Oden was denied a chance at winning his first NBA title after the San Antonio Spurs blasted the Heat in 5 games at the 2014 NBA finals.

After not getting any more playing offers in the NBA for the next two years, Oden quietly retired from professional basketball in 2016 at the prime age of 28.

Tracy McGrady, San Antonio Spurs (2013)

Although Tracy McGrady carved out a Hall of Fame career in his 17-year stint in the NBA, he nearly carried with him a dubious distinction that would have still haunted him to this day: he never moved past the first round of the playoffs.

That would have been the case for McGrady had he not latched on to the contending San Antonio Spurs before the start of the 2013 postseason.

After missing the entire 2012-2013 regular season due to a playing stint in China, McGrady returned to the NBA for one last shot at a ring but was severely limited due to the Spurs already fielding a complete rotation from top to bottom.

Plus, the seven-time All-Star was a shell of himself at this point due to multiple injuries that nagged him for the majority of his later years with the Houston Rockets.


Ultimately, McGrady, who went scoreless in 6 playoff games, picked the wrong year to return to the NBA as the Spurs were defeated by the Miami Heat in a historic seven-game finals series.

He then announced his retirement on August 26, 2013, one year before the Spurs won it all with a five-game revenge beatdown of the Heat in the 2014 finals.

All in all, these stories show that while NBA returns are good for nostalgia’s sake, they rarely do anything good for both the player and the team involved. Not even the legends of the game are spared from the harsh reality check that their time is up.

But still, as long the fire for competition burns hot, there’s no harm in saddling up for one last rodeo. –