Jordan, Bulls Fare Well
By Michael Wilbon
SALT LAKE CITY, June 14 His team behind and facing the prospect of a deciding Game 7 on the road, Michael Jordan played the last 37 seconds of this NBA Finals game with the same brilliance and precision that have marked his entire career and delivered another championship, one that may be his last.
With 37.1 seconds left in Game 6 at the raucous Delta Center, Jordan made a driving basket that cut a three-point Utah lead to 86-85. At the other end of the court, he slapped the ball out of Jazz forward Karl Malone's hands and picked it up.
And with 5.2 seconds left, after shaking his defender to the ground, Jordan hit the game-winning shot from 18 feet.
And just like that, instead of having to play Game 7 at the most daunting arena in the National Basketball Association, Jordan dominated the closing moments to give his team a sixth NBA championship, scoring 45 points in Chicago's 87-86 victory. If that jump shot is to be the final shot of Jordan's incomparable career, it was the perfect coda.
"It's bittersweet in the sense that it was the toughest route, toughest challenge in the six championships that we've won," Jordan said after a champagne-and-cigars celebration with his teammates.
He said what happens over the summer will determine his basketball future. Throughout the season, team management talked openly of breaking up the team bringing in younger players and a new coach even if it won the championship.
"Hopefully I've put enough memories out there for everybody to at least have some thoughts about what Michael Jordan did in his 14 years," Jordan said tonight. "I have another life and I know I have to get to it at some point in time. And hopefully the fans and the people understand that."
Jordan has stated that this Bulls team "deserves the right" to play together until somebody takes the championship away on the court. In recent weeks, his hopes for a future for his team began to wane as Coach Phil Jackson and all-star forward Scottie Pippen expressed their desire to get away from "The Jerrys," as Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and General Manager Jerry Krause are derisively known to fans of the team.
"I'm afraid the bridges are burned beyond repair," Jordan said in a recent interview, adding, "I don't think I can keep this thing together by myself."
If Jackson the only coach Jordan wants and Pippen the only other player to participate in all six of the Bulls' championships leave, Jordan may choose not to return to a rebuilding team. "It's not the time in my life to start over," he said one recent morning before practice.
If tonight's victory was indeed the Bulls' "Last Dance," as Jackson and Pippen have called it, it will close the curtain on the most dominant team in sports in the past 30 years, and perhaps the most brilliant athletic career in the second half of the 20th century.
Jordan would retire as one of the most adored and decorated players in the history of sports. In addition to his six NBA championships, Jordan was voted the NBA's most valuable player five times, was named to the league's all-defensive first team a record nine times, led the NBA in scoring 10 times and was a key member of two Olympic gold medal-winning teams. The second of those, commonly known as "The Dream Team," dominated the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and catapulted Jordan past Larry Bird and even Magic Johnson to a level of sports celebrity known perhaps only by Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali before him. He is the biggest cross-cultural, multimedia star in the world.
Jordan's salary for this season $33 million was more than the $28 million "salary cap" for each NBA team. While players who make a fraction of that are considered overpaid by an increasingly resentful sports public, Jordan is seen as relatively underpaid because of the hundreds of millions he generates not only for the Bulls, but for the 28 other NBA teams, the league and its broadcast partners, NBC and Turner Sports.
As perhaps the most recognized man on the planet the silhouette of his shaved head on the box of his signature cologne is said to be more widely recognized than a picture of President Clinton Jordan is reported to have earned in excess of $40 million off the court last year.
His Nike "Air Jordan" basketball shoes now in their 13th year of production sell out within 48 hours of delivery to sports stores. He has sold more than $150 million of his cologne worldwide. A movie, "Space Jam," in which he starred, grossed $230 million and stayed on Billboard's top-selling video list for 29 weeks. At latest count, 70 books have been written about him. His sports videos have generated an estimated $80 million in revenue. Fortune magazine reported in its June 22 cover story that Jordan's endorsement deal with Oakley, the sunglasses manufacturer, makes him the company's fifth-largest shareholder and gives him a seat on the board, and his image has appeared on Wheaties boxes more times than anyone else's.
The Bulls were worth $20 million when he arrived and are worth closer to $200 million today. Forbes magazine says "The Jordan Effect" is $10 billion. And none of those figures takes into account what he's done for the city of Chicago, although the Chicago Tribune estimates he's meant $1 trillion to the city's economy.
Because of this impact, and because he is a fit 35 years old and has played in 332 consecutive games, many simply don't want to accept that he won't be playing next year. The chief topic of conversation in Chicago in recent weeks was whether Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls could dance this "Last Dance" in celebration.
Given that the Jazz had home-court advantage and its players were better rested than the Bulls coming into the NBA Finals, the Bulls were relative underdogs only 10 days ago. But as was the case in 1991 against the Los Angeles Lakers, in 1992 against the Portland Trail Blazers, in 1993 against the Phoenix Suns, 1996 against the Seattle SuperSonics and 1997 against Utah, Jordan's Bulls, featuring Pippen and including Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr and the bizarre Dennis Rodman, were overwhelming in their talent and intellect.
While the most basic tenet of basketball, from the playground to the pros, is that winners keep playing, this may not be the case with the Bulls, even though they would come back in November favored to win it all again.
Jordan has retired once before, in October 1993, a few months after his father, James, was murdered, to pursue a career in baseball. He played for Reinsdorf's Chicago White Sox franchise, but never was able to escape the minor leagues or the public limelight.
"People say, 'I'd like to be you for one day,'‚" Jordan has said. "I tell them, 'No, you'd have to try being me for a year and then see.'‚"
Asked whether he has followed the daily reports on Jordan and the Bulls, NBA Commissioner David Stern said this week, "We all have to turn the sports pages every day to find out what's going on . . . whether the Chicago Bulls or a small town group of people in the Windy City can find happiness after the 1997-98 season. Tune in. 'As the World Turns,' Bulls style. Will he or won't he? Will they or won't they? Tune in tomorrow."
Stern recently told the story of meeting a woman in China who, upon learning he was with the league, said to him, "I am a great fan of the Red Ox."
It was seven years ago, 1991, just after Jordan and the Bulls had won their first championship. "The impact of the Bulls around the world is extraordinary," Stern said. "And the impact of Michael Jordan on the Bulls is extraordinary. . . . We will have been much the richer for the fact that the best player on the planet spent a number of years in our league."
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