The One and Only

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JOEL STEIN and NISID HAJARIWe should be sick of Michael Jordan. We should send him--his Italian suits, extended tongue, faint mustache and gold hoop earring--straight back to the '80s where he belongs. This is a guy who has had his own shoe since 1985. Are we still watching Miami Vice and moonwalking and wearing skinny ties? Come on, people. Move on.But we can't. Even as players return to training camp this week to prepare for the strike-shortened season, even after the flood of praise and highlight footage and handicapping unleashed by Jordan's announcement, last Wednesday, that he was retiring from the game of basketball, the world's most recognizable pate lingers on our radar screens. Forget about Jordan's once-dominant Chicago Bulls: with only four players (and only one starter) signed to contracts and the team's linchpin, pouty forward Scottie Pippen, on chilly terms with management, the squad faces a fate far worse than being mocked as the Jordanaires. Ignore even the league itself, which hoped desperately that Jordan's skills and impeccable bonhomie would revive its tarnished image. (An Internet poll taken soon after his announcement found that nearly 6 out of 10 respondents thought an NBA without Jordan wasn't worth watching.) By grounding himself, His Airness has altered the future of sports history: no matter who wins the championship this year, they will always wonder if they could have wrested the ring from Mike himself. This is the mark of a superstar--that even his absence casts a long shadow.We should have been prepared. For a man whose legend has always drawn equally upon what he did (dropping an inflated ball through a hoop) and how he did it (with a grace that would shame the Bolshoi), Jordan's last moments on the court should have been obvious. To sink a layup with 40 seconds left, then race downcourt and steal the ball, then drain a jumper to give his team a one-point victory--in the final game of the sixth championship won by the Bulls last June--was too perfect a note not to end on. The signs merely piled up during the off-season: the only coach he said he would play for, Phil Jackson, resigned; he hit the golf links more often than the weight room; according to some reports, he even transformed his in-house gym into a cigar den. (At some point he also severed a tendon in one of his fingers trying to cut a cigar, a mishap doctors say would have kept him from playing for two months.) Word of Jordan's decision leaked days before his Wednesday press conference in Chicago. When he finally made his announcement, his rationale seemed both obvious and eminently reasonable: he was tired; he had lost the mental challenges [needed] ... to proceed as a basketball player; he wanted to watch his kids grow up. Only the selfish or the churlish could quibble with such reasons, right?But at the same time, who would quibble with ours? Animating the displeasure and disappointment and even despair of fans is the knowledge that we will, as they say, never see his like again. Most of us would agree with the inscription at the base of the towering Jordan statue that looms before the United Center in Chicago--The best there ever was. The best there ever will be. No one else ever led the league in scoring 10 times or averaged as many as 31.5 points a game over a career. Of the greats, only Boston Celtics star Bill Russell won more championships than Jordan's six; only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won more league MVP awards than Jordan's five. Only Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain scored more points than Jordan's 29,277. The proof lies less in the hyperbole of sportswriters than in the awe of his peers. Says Russell: I cannot imagine anyone playing any better.PAGE 1  |    |    |    |  
 
It is perhaps that failure of imagination that we fear most. Despite the cliches, no one seriously believed Jordan was superhuman. (Remember his thankfully brief baseball career?) In fact, part of his charm has always been the veneer of ordinariness--the wife, the kids, the sports-utility vehicle without a jacked-up suspension and flashing lights. What fans around the world--and let no one forget that it was Jordan alone who brought the narrowly American game to every corner of the globe--took from his aerial acrobatics were consistent, even predictable flashes of brilliance, moments in which perfection was revealed to be attainable (at least on, or some inches above, a basketball court). Other athletes have one memorable catch, or run, or swing of the bat. Jordan has a library of them (the shot that won legendary college coach Dean Smith his first championship at North Carolina, the shot that shattered the Cleveland Cavaliers, the shot that...). No one wants to think the shelves are as full as they'll ever be.That, however, is what we're left with--the kind of product Jordan virtually invented, a mental highlights video. (His 1989 Come Fly With Me remains the best-selling sports video of all-time.) The legacy is not inappropriate. As nearly every commentator points out, Jordan, worth half a billion dollars by some estimates, has grown over the course of his career into a one-man conglomerate, churning out videos, cologne, underwear. No face sells better: last summer Fortune magazine estimated that he has contributed, conservatively, $10 billion to the U.S. economy in his 13 seasons, largely through endorsements. In part he has succeeded as an arch-capitalist because he neither looks nor acts like one; his early commercials required only highlight-reel footage or a flash of his trademark grin to succeed, and he has managed his varied interests far more discreetly than the typical hotshot rookie out to design his own garish sneaker. To ask whether he is the most recognizable sports figure on the planet (the second-most famous American, after Thomas Edison, in China) because of his play or his ads is to bring up chickens and eggs.Yet what has truly made Jordan a perfect pitchman for absolutely anything (Nike, Gatorade, McDonald's, Oakley, Rayovac, WorldCom ... ) is that he has won. While his elegance was once that of Baryshnikov, age and triple-teaming defenses brought him to earth. So, like Sinatra after he lost his crooning voice, Jordan, with delimited skills, developed an even better game. Through practice, his fadeaway jumper, passing and defense became twice as good as when he started in the league. In 1998, during the last seconds of a playoff series against the Pacers, coach Larry Bird told his team to swarm Jordan and see if he was great enough to pass. He was--and Bird should have known it, because it had been true for some time.  |  2  |    |    |  
 
Over the years, through maturity and coach Jackson's required Zen meditation sessions, Jordan bottled his frenzy, turned it into intensity and shared it with his teammates. Ex-Bull B.J. Armstrong, whom Jordan never fully embraced, said Jordan showed him how to win. He has passion. And you have to have that same passion, that same will, to beat him, he says. He prepares himself in a way that no one will understand because I don't think too many people are willing to pay that price.It's that will to power that has kept us on his side all these years. His stumbling, brilliant performance, cramped by stomach flu, in the 1997 playoffs overwhelmed the opposition by sheer force of spirit. During the 1998 Finals his halftime speech to his team in Game 3 against Utah was, Let's bury these guys and make them think about it. They routed the Jazz by 42 points. Without the benefit of a rival (imagine Ali without Frazier, Navratilova without Evert) and without innovating the game (Dr. J had already defined the dunk), Jordan became the greatest player of all time through intensity and hypercompetitiveness. Nets center Jayson Williams says that when he faced Jordan, his plan was never to look in his eyes.Other than winning with supreme self-assuredness, Jordan is loved because his image is, above all else, personality-less. There are many kinder ways to put this--he's a gentleman; he's classy; he has old-world values; he's modest; he has a blue-collar work ethic; he's quintessentially American--but the truth is, he's bland. Think about all the interviews you've seen and the stories you've read. (And like it or not, you have. He has been mentioned in, on average, 100 newspaper articles a day.) Can you describe his personality? His politics? His sense of humor? His likes or dislikes? Bitter sitcom writers, accustomed to having edgy material rejected, use this analogy: Bugs Bunny is funnier, smarter and more interesting than Mickey Mouse, who has no known personality except for being vaguely likable and harmless. Mickey is worth a trillion dollars. Be like Mickey.  |    |  3  |    |  
 
But while it's easy for a cartoon character to be Mickey Mouse (especially when he hasn't appeared in a full-length film in decades), it's quite an accomplishment for a human being under Truman Show conditions. Jordan's public image has been emptied by immaculate design. I'm around him all the time, and what he has to put up with--media attention and people making demands of him and wanting him to be here, there and everywhere--he does a tremendous job. He's done a great thing with his image and really kept it pretty clean, says Bulls backup center Bill Wennington. And he's so cute. Jordan is a vessel into which the world can pour anything it wants. He's noble, charming, righteous and kind, not because he necessarily is but because we want him to be. And, yes, Bill, it helps that he's good looking.But he has worked so hard at his reflexive nonimage. Though thin-skinned (ask any reporter who has criticized him in print), he almost never loses his temper. He never appears so much as shirtless in the locker room and changes from shorts into a fine Italian suit for each short walk from hotel room to team bus, because those few seconds may be the only time those particular fans crowding the lobby see him, and he wants to get it right. He is so polished that his few scrapes with indiscretion--losing tens of thousands of dollars in golf and poker bets to hustlers, getting named in a paternity suit last summer, commenting that playing Reggie Miller is like chicken fighting with a woman--have bounced off him in ways Ronald Reagan only dreamed about. Apart from instinctive curiosity, few have ever questioned what chicken fighting with a woman means.We let him do this because he is so good at letting us. He is clutch, not in a pained, John Wayne sense, but joyfully, shrugging and grinning as he backpedals away from each accomplishment. He makes us believe, against our own experience, that hard work can reward--that even 0.8 sec. means there is hope. And in doing so, he has defined masculinity despite publicly admitting that his favorite performers are Toni Braxton and Anita Baker; this guy could say his favorite movie was Beaches, and he'd still be the alpha male. He has unwittingly followed the plot of a hero, suffering like Ulysses: his father, to whom he was extremely close, was murdered in a carjacking in 1993. He left the game shortly thereafter, to try his luck at baseball in the minor leagues, getting $16 in food money a day and sleeping in less-than-four-star hotels. With his daily-shaved head hiding a hairline creeping to Burt Reynolds' at low tide, he returned to dominate the league for another three years. In his fifth game back, he scorched the big-talking New York Knicks for 55 points. In his first full season, he led the Bulls (now enlivened by the antics of cross-dressing forward Dennis Rodman) to the best record in NBA history. To defeat Utah--for the second year in a row--seemed almost a cruel afterthought, and the frustrated Jazz knew it. He's not quitting, insisted bitter point guard John Stockton immediately after the loss. I'm tired of hearing all that.  |    |    |  4  |  
 
Now that he has quit, he cannot expect to lead the normal life he says he wants. Because of the ever growing hunger of the media, he has less chance than Muhammad Ali of taking his wife and three kids to the mall he keeps saying he longs to stroll. Because even in countries that don't have basketball courts (which, come to think of it, probably don't have malls), he's the man. Photographers traveling in Asia and Eastern Europe have used photos of him as currency. And in some countries, Americans are sometimes greeted by locals in the only words they know in English: Michael Jordan. It's one thing to be known by your first name if it's Elvis, but it's something entirely different to turn Michael into a signifier.We will probably keep seeing him now that he has retired, his hypercompetitiveness perhaps leading him eventually to golf on the senior PGA tour, or at least the Nike tour (he's got to have an in there). Or perhaps he will be on the cover of Fortune again, only this time as the CEO he has been molding himself into. But even though 35 sounds too young to retire, it's old for an athlete, older for a shooting guard and ancient for the top player in the game. And, perhaps, just old. John Updike, who knows Phil Jackson, had his most famous character, Rabbit Angstrom, struggle to recapture the glory of his high school basketball days. The fact that he peaked so early in his youth makes him true to life, truer than my own life is, Updike once told a reporter. We all, in a way, peak at 18. Jordan got twice as much as most of us.Here's how Jordan stacks up against some other basketball greats:Most career pointsKareem Abdul-Jabbar: 38,387Wilt Chamberlain: 31,419Michael Jordan: 29,277Number of seasons leading the league in scoringJordan: 10Chamberlain: 7Seasons scoring 2,000 or more pointsJordan: 11Karl Malone: 11Highest career per-game scoring averageJordan: 31.5Chamberlain: 30.1Highest per-game scoring average for a seasonChamberlain: 50.4, 44.8, 38.4, 37.6Jordan: 37.1Seasons named league's Most Valuable PlayerAbdul-Jabbar: 6Jordan: 5Bill Russell: 5Most career stealsJohn Stockton: 2,620Maurice Cheeks: 2,310Jordan: 2,306Reported by Julie Grace with the Chicago Bulls, John U. Bacon/Detroit and Sally B. Donnelly/Washington  |    |    |    |  5