LeBron James leads list of older players who remained great

Nov 11, 2023, 07:48 AM ET

LeBron James is in his 21st season, but he’s still capable of being the best player on the court.

On Friday night, James put on a basketball masterclass, scoring 32 points with 11 rebounds and six assists in a win over the Phoenix Suns. The 38-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star looked shaken up in the first quarter, limping along the baseline after a foul. But then he turned it on, pushing the Lakers to the comeback victory.

James’ dominance at his age is something to behold, but it’s not completely unprecedented. Here’s a short list of other athletes who defied Father Time.

NFLTom Brady

Perhaps the most salient recent example of an athlete who kept going long after most others would retire, Brady won four of his seven rings after turning 37. In his second-to-last season at 44 years old, he led the league in yards (5,316) and touchdowns (43). From his age-40 season to the end of his career, Brady threw for 193 touchdowns with a 65.6 completion percentage and won an MVP award.

Tom Brady won most of his championships after the age of 37. Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning

Manning missed the entirety of the 2011 season after having neck surgery, and the Indianapolis Colts moved on from him after that year. After signing with the Denver Broncos in his age-36 season, he then demonstrated that the Colts might have been a bit premature in their decision.

Over the final four seasons of his Hall of Fame career, Manning threw for 17,112 yards, 140 touchdowns and 53 interceptions. While injuries and inconsistency marred his final season, Manning would put it all together one more time in the playoffs to lead Denver to victory in Super Bowl 50.

NBAKareem Abdul-Jabbar

The Lakers Hall of Famer was still putting up significant numbers late into his career, averaging 23.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in his age-38 season. He’d win three of his six rings after the age of 37, and would garner an NBA Finals MVP award in the 1984-85 contest.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook was unstoppable right up until his retirement. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWNBASue Bird

Though she recently retired, Bird was a force even at the end of her long and storied career. She made the All-Star game in four of her final five seasons and led the Seattle Storm to WNBA titles in 2018 and 2020. Bird averaged 7.1 assists per game in her age-37 season, the highest single-season mark of her career.

Sue Bird was a force on the court even in the later part of her career. Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Taurasi has been a standout for the Phoenix Mercury for a full 19 seasons, and she hasn’t slowed down much at all in her later years. She made All-Star games in her age-36 and age-39 seasons, and averaged 16 points per game, 4.6 assists per game and 3.6 rebounds per game in her age-41 season.

MLBBarry Bonds

In many ways, the San Francisco Giants slugger broke baseball. We all know that he hit 73 home runs in his age-36 season, setting off a streak of four straight MVP awards, but it was his age-39 season in 2004 which really beggared belief.

Bonds had an on-base percentage of .609 that year, a full 140 points higher than the next-highest player (Todd Helton). Part of the reason for that was how terrified teams were to face him — out of his 232(!) walks, 120(!!) of them were intentional. Even in his final season, at age 42, Bonds was sixth in the league in OPS with a 1.045 mark.

Barry Bonds turned the game of baseball on its head in the last few seasons of his career. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesWillie Stargell

Pops was the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and nowhere was this more apparent than in his late 30’s. After an off-year in 1976 where his OPS fell to .797, Stargell roared back, posting three straight seasons with an OPS over .900.

In 1979, Stargell hit 32 home runs and won the National League MVP award, but he saved his best for the postseason. Stargell hit .415 in the 1979 NLCS and World Series combined, with five home runs, six doubles and 13 RBI as he led the Pirates to an epic seven-game win over the Baltimore Orioles. He’d win both NLCS and World Series MVP honors.

Hank Aaron

Hammerin’ Hank might have been the most consistent player in baseball history, hitting about 40 home runs a year for almost all of his 23 seasons with the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers. His age-37 season might have been his greatest at the plate, however, with a career-high 47 home runs and 1.079 OPS. He followed that up with 40 home runs and a 1.045 OPS at age 39. Aaron would break Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record just a few games into the following season.

David Ortiz

Ortiz’s OPS declined from 1.066 in his age-31 season to .794 in his age-33 season, the kind of trend that signifies a swift retirement for hulking sluggers. He rebounded nicely, however, and his final seasons were some of the best of his career.

Always a star in the World Series, Ortiz might have outdone himself in 2013, when he was 37 years old. He hit .688 with a 1.948 OPS on his way to winning World Series MVP. Even in his final season at age 40, Ortiz was still a force, leading the league in OPS (1.021), doubles (48) and RBI (127).

Nolan Ryan

Nolan Ryan and striking people out: name a better duo. That maxim remained true even in his 40’s– Ryan led the league in strikeouts every year from his age-40 to age-43 seasons. The Ryan Express would keep chugging along until he was 46 years old.

Roger Clemens

Clemens put on a power-pitching clinic as he entered his 40s. Clemens became the oldest-ever Cy Young winner in 2004, capturing the award a few months after he turned 42 by posting a 18-4 record with a 2.98 ERA. He might have been even better the next season, dropping his ERA to 1.97 and only giving up 6.4 hits per nine innings.

Randy Johnson

At an age when most pitchers are slowing down, Randy Johnson was just getting started. Over four seasons from age 35 to 38, he put up the following line: 81-27, a 2.48 ERA, 12.4 SO/9 and only 0.9 HR/9. Not surprisingly, he won the Cy Young award four straight times during that stretch. He’d add on a World Series title and MVP during his age-37 season in 2001.

Though he’d never reach those heights again, his numbers from 39 to his retirement in his age-45 season (79-60, 3.91 ERA, 9 SO/9) are nothing to sneeze at.

Satchel Paige

Though we now know that Satchel Paige was 45 years old in 1952, folks at the time weren’t quite sure of his exact birth date. Regardless, he was a force for the St. Louis Browns that season, throwing a league-leading 35 complete games, going 12-10 with a 3.07 ERA, and becoming the first Black pitcher to make an AL All-Star team.

Incredibly, Paige would return for a one-game stint for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965, when he was 58 years old. He’d pitch three innings, striking out one and giving up a single hit, before walking off to a standing ovation.

NHLWayne Gretzky

It’s famously said that, if Gretzky had never scored a goal in the NHL, he’d still be No. 1 all-time in points based on assists alone. Even in the last few years of his career, The Great One could still find the open man. He led the league in assists in his age-36 and age-37 seasons, and was sixth in the league in his final year at 38.

Wayne Gretzky didn’t stop being “The Great One” in the twilight of his career. John Giamundo/Getty Images

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