'This Is a Perfect Time for Me to Walk Away'
By Joel Achenbach
CHICAGO, Jan. 13 Everyone knew what would happen, the news had been leaked more than 36 hours earlier, it was a formality, really, a mere ritual and yet everyone was on high alert, adrenalized, eager to see the entrance of the great man into the arena. Would he come in over there? Or over there?
An organization staffer announced that he was, in fact, somewhere in the building. Would he rise from a hole in the floor? Would he be lowered from the ceiling?
Finally he appeared, up there, at the portal in Section 120, and he slowly descended toward the arena floor, accompanied by an entourage of a size usually seen around popes and kings and presidents.
"Michael resplendent in black. ... Michael's going to sit in front of the microphone. ... and the rest is history!" one TV reporter said in a live feed.
Michael Jordan, the best basketball player of all time it says so on the statue outside United Center and there's no sports fan who would argue it retired today from the Chicago Bulls at the age of 35. He said he felt great physically, but was mentally exhausted. He spoke softly, firmly, from the heart, using no notes.
"I've accomplished everything that I could as an individual," he said. "This is a perfect time for me to walk away from the game. I'm at peace with that."
So ended a thrilling career. Jordan's success, the satisfying way he handled his greatness, kept his retirement event from being depressing. He played every game of his career with a single team, turned it from a mediocrity to a dynasty, carried his sport to new heights of popularity, and then went out at the top of his game. The record will reflect that in the last seconds of his playing career he stole the ball from Karl Malone, drove down the court, and made a jump shot to win the NBA Finals.
It would be easy to say that Jordan has been a one-man industry, but he's really been more like a utility, a piece of the national infrastructure, every bit as important to daily life as the storm sewers or the power grid. This is a reminder that things that people take for granted Ma Bell, the Soviet Union, Michael Jordan on Sunday afternoons can suddenly disappear. In Chicago everyone's goal is to get through this change, and the Y2K problem, with sanity intact. In the arena today people were talking about the stock market falling because of this.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said today that the reign of Jordan coincided with political and technological changes around the world. Since Jordan came to Chicago, he said, the Communist world has disintegrated and the Internet has appeared. There is now a global economy, and the world has been wired into a single electronic environment. "The technological advances take one person, and if they're as charismatic and as skilled as Michael is, they have a celebrity on a global scale," Stern told reporters.
Jordan said the NBA will do fine without him. "I think the game itself is a lot bigger than Michael Jordan," he said. He referred to himself in the third person at least a dozen times, always when discussing the phenomenon of his career and his celebrity. When talking about playing basketball he said "I."
One reporter asked Jordan if he would disappear from sight, or perhaps spend his time trying to "solve the world's problems." Jordan seemed to find that amusing. "I don't think I can go into seclusion," he said. "I will still be doing commercials, but I can't save the world by no means."
He said he wanted to watch his kids (he has three) play basketball, and he wanted to take them to school in the morning, as he did today. He hadn't had a chance to do enough normal things like that because of his busy schedule, he said. His wife, Juanita, said, "I see Michael doing more car-pooling." Everyone laughed. Michael Jordan, regular suburban guy?
He has numerous business interests and endorsement deals, including Nike, McDonald's, Gatorade, MCI, Ballpark hot dogs and his own line of cologne and men's toiletries. He said he didn't want to coach, at least not now. Columnist Bob Greene suggested on television that Jordan would make a great James Bond for Hollywood. He's already costarred with Bugs Bunny in the hit movie "Space Jam." The way he handled the news conference, his unflappable nature and goodwill, is reminiscent of a skilled politician. He left open only the barest possibility of returning to basketball. He said he is 99.9 percent sure that this is the end.
A few jaded scribes can easily imagine a return. He is famously competitive and may find car-pooling and golf and trips to Vegas do not satisfy his urges. So many people and institutions depend on Jordan Fortune magazine calculated that he had a $10 billion impact on the economy during his career that there could be some clamoring for yet another run on the court.
There were clues that Jordan would quit like the fact that he said months ago he would probably retire, and then ripped out the gym in his house, and then wandered off to the Bahamas to play golf, and hardly picked up a basketball for so much as a shoot-around, and then somehow severed a tendon in his finger trying to cut a cigar, which will require surgery. The Michael Jordan who is serious about basketball would not have botched a cigar cutting. But the actuality of his departure still seems to have caused a state of shock in Chicago. His retirement was carried live by 11 TV channels locally. There were at least 24 television crews on the floor of United Center and 36 more in the stands. On local stations the news is pretty much all-Jordan, all the time. (Impeachment trial? What? Where?)
His team marked the moment by unveiling a banner in the rafters with Jordan's number, 23. The date on the banner said, unfortunately, 1984-1993, as does the statue outside. Things are confusing because Jordan had retired once already, spending time in a vain quest to become a baseball player as he dealt with the grief of his father's murder. The banner had been ceremoniously displayed in the rafters during the interregnum, then got stuffed in a box in a storeroom after Jordan returned to the court. A staffer dug around and found the banner recently when the Bulls realized that Jordan might not be coming back. "We hung it up yesterday and the wrinkles are coming out of it," Bulls Vice President Steve Schanwald said.
The retirement comes with a bundle of allegedly important issues. Did Jordan retire because the Bulls management didn't rehire Phil Jackson? Because he feared embarrassing himself like Willie Mays if he kept playing past his prime? Will his celebrity endorsement deals suffer? None of these questions is as urgent as the one articulated on a talk show by sportswriter Frank Deford: "What are we going to do without him?"
Sports fans are desperately scanning the NBA rosters for someone who might possibly, someday, somehow, improbably, fill Jordan's role. Grant Hill? Anfernee Hardaway? Kobe Bryant? Jordan mentioned them all, and they're all sensational, but not like Jordan. Players like these only highlight how different Jordan was. He could not resist pointing out that the main rivals of his generation Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone will never know the satisfaction of becoming champions while he still played the game. He'll remind them of that at social events, he said. It would not be Jordan's style to require that others do the heavy work of citing his many accomplishments.
Jordan hit a last-minute shot to win the national championship for North Carolina in 1982, beating Georgetown, and by the time he reached the pros in 1984 he clearly was the most exciting player in the game. He did not seem bound by the normal laws of physics. After one jaw-dropping game in 1986 the great Larry Bird said, "I think he's God disguised as Michael Jordan."
Yet back then, the Bulls were losers. Jordan said today that he had plenty of physical skill when he entered professional basketball, but that people said he didn't make the other players around him better. He said that was partially true. So he worked harder. He made the Bulls better. By the end he'd won six championships.
Jordan scored in double figures in 840 consecutive games, which meant he essentially never had a bad game. He was dependably spectacular, year after year, ever more so when the pressure mounted 25 times he hit game-winning shots. Millions of people could build a social schedule around Jordan's appearances on television. He was the rare cultural unifier in an age of niche interests and social fragmentation. Rich, poor, black, white, male, female, young or old-everyone watched the Jordan show.
"My responsibility has been to play the game of basketball and relieve some of the pressure of everyday life for people who work nine to five," he said today.
Even the other players seemed to be watching sometimes. He'd mesmerize them. The referees were awed, too, and toward the end of his career they would call a foul if anyone so much as breathed on him. He no longer possessed the same gift of antigravity. Instead he invented new shots, including a deadly turnaround fade-away jumper. He showed that someone with enormous God-given talent can nonetheless work hard, improve, get smarter, and ultimately become a self-made man.
In a written statement today, Jordan summarized his career:
"Ever since I was a small boy, I dreamed of playing basketball at the highest level of competition. I dreamed of playing in college and winning a national championship. I dreamed of playing in the Olympics and winning a gold medal. I dreamed of playing in the National Basketball Association and winning a world championship.
"Thanks to my teammates and my coaches, and the support of many other people, these dreams have come true."
During the news conference, he said he learned from the people who came before him, the immortals like Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving. Then he evolved into the player he was meant to be. Others will come after him, he said, and they will be great in their own unique way.
But he said, "There's never going to be another Michael Jordan."
He didn't mean it boastfully. He was speaking as a trained observer of the game.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company