Retirement Sends Shock Around a Small Planet
By Peter Finn
WARSAW, Jan. 13 Like Muhammed Ali before him, Michael Jordan's greatness made the world that much smaller.
From Warsaw to Mexico City, "Michael" pronounced with a hundred different inflections was icon and inspiration, athleticism and Americana. His face, whether fierce or smiling, was as familiar as any local hero. The 23 on his jersey was as universal as 007. And comical imitations of his moves-scissor-kicking, tongue-out, hyper-ventilating drives to the net-can be seen any weekend afternoon almost anywhere on the planet where basketball is played.
"Young people from all over the world wanted to be like Michael," wrote Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's leading daily newspaper, which featured Jordan on its front page and devoted its entire back page to news of his retirement. Basketball, riding Jordan's global telegenic appeal, threatened "even the position of soccer" as the world's preeminent sport, the newspaper said.
There was no doubting that the world felt an era of unmatched greatness was passing. "Jordan Retires! Shock Felt Around the World," read the headline in Japan's Nikkan Sports newspaper.
Jordan's announcement made news in the Middle East, where basketball's following is small, and in China, where Jordan is a popular icon known as "Qiaodan." "Flying Man Jordan is Coming Back to Earth," the Beijing Morning Post said in a front-page story.
"The question must be asked, Will we ever see his like again?" columnist Simon Barnes wrote in The Times of London. "The chances are pretty remote."
"America would willingly take Clinton's retirement in exchange for Jordan's," said the Italian daily, La Repubblica. "Not only was Jordan the best basketball player ever. He was basketball."
Bucking a European trend, today's biggest sports story in Britain was the news that a top competitor in the world lawn bowling championships had rolled bright yellow balls, eschewing the traditional black or brown. British newspapers generally cover American sports about as carefully as American papers cover cricket, but Jordan's retirement was an exception that could not be ignored.
"The shattering retirement announcement will even drive Bill Clinton's sex scandals off America's front pages," said The Sun, a British tabloid. "If you thought boxer Mike Tyson, football legend Pele or racing driver Ayrton Senna were the most recognized names in the world-forget it."
Basketball is a minor sport in Japan, but Jordan had an enormous impact in fashion boutiques and places where youth trends are born. His number 23 jersey, and even a few of his short-lived number 45, are standard wear among Japanese youths. Chicago Bulls caps and sweat shirts are common among young adults.
The Japanese are also willing to pay extraordinary amounts of money to be like Mike. Sneakers promoted by Jordan are collected and traded like baseball cards, with older models even beaten-up used ones selling for several times their regular retail value.
A couple of years ago, before Japan's recession brought prices down, it was common to see Air Jordan sneakers selling for $1,000 or more in the stalls lining famous Takeshita Dori in Tokyo's Harajuku neighborhood, the epicenter of all youth trends in Japan. Many still sell for $500 or more, and prices are expected to rise again on news of Jordan's retirement.
Most of the shoes on sale are size 12 or bigger, making them far too big for almost any Japanese to wear. But shopkeepers said people bought them for their investment value, and some people actually displayed them in their living rooms like valuable antiques.
In Mexico, Jordan's retirement received funereal coverage in the sports pages of the capital's dailies. His charisma and marketing skills have helped make basketball the second-most popular sport there after soccer, and Mexico City often is mentioned as a possible candidate for an NBA expansion team.
In the last six years, the country has built about 20,000 new basketball courts, and NBA teams have played pre-season games to near sellout crowds in Mexico City since 1992-except for last fall, when the scheduled game was canceled because of the NBA labor dispute.
Jordan's retirement "is by far a much bigger story than [the dispute]," said Jose Antonio Cortez, a sports editor at the daily Reforma, which devoted three-quarters of its sports page and a full inside page to Jordan, along with 12 photographs and a recap of his career. "It is very sad for all of us. For many people it's a real shock, the end of an era."
Indeed, a recurring theme in the mournful profiles around the world today was how Jordan's personal qualities matched his physical gifts. "It sounds strange, but the world's wealthiest athlete, with an estimated fortune of $300 million, is a most loyal character," wrote the German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "He stands by [former Bulls head coach Phil] Jackson, because he is the one who made him a superstar. . . . He still does commercials for the Chevrolet-salesmen of Chicago, because they were the first to offer him an advertisement contract. Jordan, who had to reach the age of 16 to save enough money for his first bicycle, has not forgotten these things."
One journalist, Marcin Gadzinski of the Polish daily Zycie, recalled asking Jordan for an autograph at the United Center in Chicago. "No way," said Jordan, according to Gadzinski. But then Jordan stopped and gave an autograph to a child in a wheelchair, hugged the child and later sent an aide back with an autographed ball. The spurned Gadzinski was suddenly charmed. "I never admired him more than at that moment," he wrote today.
Roberto Duranti, 37, remembered when Jordan stopped for cornetti-Italian croissants-at his bar when the player was in Rome to promote the film "Space Jam." "He was tall, elegant, distinct and very discreet," Duranti said. "And he was bigger than everybody else."
As the Spanish newspaper, La Razon, put it: "For many, he is the greatest. His mere presence guaranteed entertainment just as great actors take over the screen with a gesture or a look."
But it seems no American moment can pass unmolested by French cattiness. "The status of American blacks doesn't bother him," opined the daily Le Monde. "Simply, M.J. is a professional basketball player with an acute sense of business and an oversized ego."
Correspondents T.éR. Reid in London, Anne Swardson in Paris, John Ward Anderson in Mexico City, Kevin Sullivan in Tokyo, and special correspondents Sarah Delaney in Rome and Petra B. Krischok in Berlin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company