The Best Ever

MICHAEL JORDAN dominated not just basketball but American athletics for a decade; it is quite an understatement to say his desire to retire at age 30 comes as a surprise. Did Picasso quit painting? Has Pavarotti quit singing? Did Astaire quit dancing?

Is this even a final retirement?

Mr. Jordan - Michael - had his roughest season ever last year. He led the Chicago Bulls to a third straight NBA championship. But there were the stories about gambling. The press rode him about his glamorous habits. He was questioned as a team player - unfairly, as statistics show. There was the constant pressure to out-Michael Michael every night in every town. Finally this summer, his father, his closest friend, was shot and killed in an apparent robbery. Jordan was embittered by press questions linking the slaying to his gambling debts.

We hope he comes back.

In case he does not, a few comments: Michael was the best. No single player has combined such skills and talent to completely redefine how his sport is played. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson deserve a place next to Michael as geniuses on the court, and more so as winners. But Jordan's leaping ability and big-cat acrobatics solidified ``the air game'' in the NBA. Basketball is no longer played on the floor, but somewhere between the foul line and the hoop - four feet off the ground. No one did it just like Mike.

Jordan's biographer says Michael was not in the business of basketball but in the business of making people happy. He loved doing the impossible, making it look easy, and leaving the crowd inspired at the end of the game.

Now what will he do to inspire? Retiring leaves him no longer the focus of the daily sports page. The days may get long. But if Jordan can now bring the full force of his potential as an ambassador for good causes, he can continue to inspire. It would be sad to see him get lost in the Las Vegas celebrity game. He is needed in gun-control and civil rights efforts.

Of course in Boston we have a different explanation. Jordan isn't leaving. This is all a plan by Celtics wizard Red Auerbach to begin bringing one more title to the Green.

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