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  •   For NBA, Jordan Was The Ticket

    By Ken Denlinger
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 14, 1998; Page D9

    The fascination with Michael Jordan for at least the last half dozen years has been how he kept leaping so high and floating for so long while also carrying a fair portion of the NBA. Those with the longest memories about the league appreciate him the most.

    "He was the greatest player who ever played the game," said former Boston Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach, one of the few men in the NBA who has more NBA championship rings than Jordan (9 to 6). "He also was the greatest draw ever in the game."

    The numbers that made Jordan unique as a player are obvious: 5 most valuable player awards, 31.5 career scoring average, 10 scoring titles while also being the best defensive player in the league most of those years. How that influenced the league's astonishing growth is harder to judge.

    "His contributions are immeasurable," NBA Commissioner David Stern said at the Chicago news conference in which Jordan announced his retirement. Later on ESPN, Stern alluded to all the most valuable player awards Jordan collected and referred to himself as "Michael's trophy valet."

    Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird also hoisted the NBA on their shoulders at various times. But Jordan lately has been the major reason for a growth stat longtime NBA official Terry Lyons mentioned yesterday: In the early 1980s, only about 50 people worked in the entire NBA office. This year, 107 people will concentrate on nothing more than the league's international involvement.

    "The meaningful thing to find out would be the last time an NBA team did not sell a game out that had Michael Jordan in it," said Milwaukee Bucks director of sales Jim Grayson. He guessed it was in 1989 or 1990, the season before the Bulls won their first championship.

    Every NBA team has packages in which fans must buy tickets to several unattractive games in order to attend the ones involving must-see players and teams. So Jordan also sold a lot of tickets in, say, Minnesota the last few years for Timberwolves' games against the Los Angles Clippers and Denver Nuggets. No one objected too strongly.

    "He was a thrill for you to cover, for me to sell and for all of us to watch," Grayson said. "His games were like a concert, with a buzz you did not experience in the normal sports setting."

    The television rating for last season's Chicago Bulls-Utah Jazz NBA Finals was 18.7. The non-Jordan finals in 1994 (Houston over New York) and '95 (Houston over Orlando) drew ratings of 12.4 and 13.9, respectively.

    "There definitely will be a ratings decline from all of this," Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports who now runs a consulting firm, told the Associated Press. "But the NBA will survive his retirement."

    Auerbach said Jordan's popularity was so immense because he also worked so hard at creating goodwill.

    "He didn't win as many championships as Russell," Auerbach said. "Russell won 11 in 13 years, eight of them in a row. But no one went super-duper crazy when he retired. That's because he didn't have Michael's business sense. He wouldn't sign autographs, wasn't patient with people."

    Stern said the league would survive Jordan as it did the retirements of all the other stars.

    "We'll push a little harder on the team concept," he said. "Great teams and great stars will emerge. This is a league that was discounted 20 years ago as being too black and whose stars were too over-paid. Now we're dealing from a different plateau.

    "When Magic and Larry retired, people said the league was over. Michael and others proved that was wrong."

    Added Auerbach: "Not even Michael is bigger than the game. There are too many great athletes, too many great stars sitting in the wings."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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