When should professional athletes retire?

Retirement seems a timely and pressing concern for me now because reporters keep asking me about it, and I am getting very annoyed at having to answer the question at every stop on the tour.

I am 35 (36 in July) in a nonteam sport dominated by young men. As of Feb. 5, I was ranked No. 10 by the ATP computer, seven years older than the next oldest top-tenner. So much for me.

Some people thought Joe Namath may have played one season too many. The specter of Broadway Joe watching from the sidelines in the Los Angeles Coliseum didn't exactly fit his image. Or did you think Willie Mays played two summers too many? How about Earl Monroe, who today could still beat anyone one-on-one -- for half a game?

Consider Pete Rose. We have tremendous admiration for his skills and his dedication. But he is 37 now, and what will we think of "Charlie Hustle" when he's 40 and batting 230 but still pulling down $850,000 a year?

George Blanda's case is the perfect example of the ambiguity surrounding retirement. He played a team sport rather than an individual sport. He was also a specialist -- first a quarterback, then a kicker. In his early 40s, Blanda made valuable contributions to the Oakland Raiders as a kicker after having been a quarterback in his younger days. His foot put points on the board. And as long as it did, his age was inconsequential.

But when he missed a couple of 25-yarders, the San Francisco Examiner sportswriters started saying "too old to be consistent." No athlete likes to read that, even though it may be justified. As long as Blanda kicked the ball over the crossbar and between the uprights consistently, who cared about his age?

Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, like me, is involved in an individual sport. I wish Ali would quit for two reasons. Primarily because I believe him to be the best heavyweight ever to enter the ring and I want to see him go out on top. He's 37 now and, although he is undoubtedly past his prime, he is the heavyweight champion. I don't want him to lose the title in the ring.

It also matters a great deal to me to see him retire No. 1 because he is black and he is more to us Afro-Americans than just a heavyweight champion.

The example he could set would surely be emulated by other athletes, black and white, who too often want to hang on way past closing time. We are dealing with images now, aren't we?And sentiment. And flashbacks -- like Brooks Robinson diving to his right at third base to stop a certain double in a World Series game.

Embarrassment surfaces when the image the athlete has of himself doesn't quite measure up to the image his fans have.

What is your image of Billie Jean King? The most competitive, most successful woman tennis player of all time, right? Well, suppose tennis player of all time, right? Well, suppose I told you she planned to make another comeback after her foot surgery. Some would say, "Terrific, she can still beat most of those women pros anyway." But others would say, "For heavens sake, Billie Jean, you can't be No. 1 again. Hang it up."

There's the rub. Your image of Billie Jean is that of the five-time Wimbledon winner. Her image of herself now is that of a player trying to make it back to the top five, which in her case is possible.

Most images of athletes conjured by sports fans are surrealistic and superlative. They always remember and imagine the best they ever saw. Obviously, Jackie Smith will be remembered for dropping that touchdown passs in Super Bowl 13, but examples like that are exceptions. Our pursuit of excellence compels us to remember greatness, the extraordinary, the superhuman, the superstar.

If any athlete ever obtains such status then his image is set forever. Thereafter, any lesser efforts by him are skeptically accepted. Especially if he plays a team sport, in which he has become to his followers a savior, "the franchise."

Fan pressure on the athlete varies from individual to team sports. The American sports public seemingly has two sets of retirement standards: One for the superstar and one for the journeyman pro.

Ali, O. J., Jabbar, Willie Mays, Billie Jean, Dr. J. -- all having attained superstardom -- are to be judged more stringently. These figures make our spines tingle, our mouths water. They affect our slumbering primeval instincts.

Nowhere else in society will you see an otherwise sane, sober soul jump up and down with glee because David Thompson slamdunked from the top of the key. The message is clear. When David can no longer do it, then get somebody else who can, for we'll soon want to jump up and down again.

But the 90 percent who never make allstardom, but make a living as pro athletes, are judged less harshly. They can hang around for awhile, for even in their prime they might have raised an eyebrow or two, although they didn't make us jump up and down.

So sadly enough, too many athletes wait too long before being forced to retire, some because they're too old and some because someone better came along. Why do we wait too long? We wait because we love the applause, the money and few of us can replace pro sport with something else just as challenging.

The biggest reason however, is that retirement is a little like dying. We have defined our masculinity in terms of our athletic prowess, and retirement can only mean we are thereafter lesser men.

Bill Russell, Bill Bradley, Jackie Stewart, John Havlicek -- they all heeded the words of Herman Hesse in his poem "Stages":

As every flower fades and as all youth

Departs, so life at every stage, Departs, so life at every stage, So every virtue, so our grasp of truth, Blooms in its day and may not last forever.

Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor, Be ready bravely and without remorse To find new light that old ties cannot give. In all beginning dwells a magic force For guarding us and helping us to live... We must prepare for parting and leave-taking

Or else remain the slaves of permanence.

Will I go when my number is called? No doubt about it. Because I dislike losing most of the time more than I like winning some of the time.