A man who transcended his sport
SALT LAKE CITY — Millions of fans dreamed right up until the last minute, but their fantasy announcement - "In a surprise turnabout, Michael Jordan says he will remain in the NBA" - never came. It was about as likely as Saddam Hussein opening a charm school or Microsoft's Bill Gates asserting in court that he is a monopolistic bully. Instead, temporarily wresting the headlines from Iraq, impeachment, and silicon capitalism, basketball's leading man said (for a second time) that it was time to hang up his Nikes. As news of his decision spread from Chicago Heights to the Czech Republic, the far-flung interest is a testament to the fact that Jordan has become a protean figure who has risen above the singular achievements of his game. More than just a sporting icon, he is nearly a nation-state in terms of wealth. And more than that, he has conducted his public life in a way that may justify the adulation of the masses - including children and young people of all races and climes. "Michael Jordan has already found his way into the history books as a model of personality, values, and ability that transcend race, national boundaries, and the decade of his basketball dominance," says Benjamin Rader, a historian at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Building on his legendary sports prowess (six championships and 10 scoring titles), Jordan has harnessed a mix of class, charm, and competitiveness that blends both modesty and old-world work ethics, say Mr. Rader and others. He has used it to build a multimillion-dollar empire reaching into film, fashion, and even cuisine. "We could go 100 years and not see someone so dominate a sport like Michael Jordan," says James Dworkin, associate dean of Krannet Graduate School of Management at Purdue University and an expert on NBA management. New possibilities Still in his 30s, with worldwide name recognition exceeding that of top politicians, Jordan stands at the threshold of a broader career that could stretch from politics to Hollywood to UN peace ambassador - la Muhammad Ali. "Fifty years from now, he will loom over the history of basketball like Babe Ruth over baseball," says Rader. "But because of the force of his personality and charisma, he will also leave his mark as a key figure in the globalization of American youth culture." Those sound like heady words, but around the world, Jordan's sporting peers well understand his place in the sports pantheon. "I don't even belong on the same planet as Michael Jordan, he is not even a human being," said soccer star Zinedine Zidane, after being named the world's greatest sportsman by a French newspaper recently. Hero of the World Cup - the most watched sports event on earth - he added, "Frankly, it makes me laugh that I [won this] ahead of Michael Jordan. He is so exceptional. There is no comparison to be made." For a quickness that enabled him to blow past the quickest defenders, a jumping ability that allowed him to soar over taller players, and an unstoppable drive that enabled him to score almost at will, Jordan's talents are praised even by the rivals and teammates whose game he helped elevate. How much will his retirement hurt basketball? Now that he has announced his career is finished, the NBA and its fans are calculating the losses. The No. 1 loss is to Chicago, which has watched Jordan bring it six world championships. The franchise must rebuild after the loss of Jordan, several free agents, and Coach Phil Jackson, whose departure is believed to have played a key role in Jordan's decision. The No. 2 loss is to the NBA itself, which narrowly averted a shutdown for its entire season and is now faced with drawing fans in a shortened 50-game season without its biggest attraction. Now, sell-out crowds are no longer a sure thing in Chicago, and the Bulls' games on the road won't bring the throngs that paid top-dollar for a historic opportunity to see the sport's greatest ever play live. The No. 3 loss is to fans everywhere. In an ESPN poll taken Tuesday, two-thirds of the respondents said that no one will be able to fill Jordan's shoes. That includes such highly paid superstars as Los Angeles Laker center Shaquille O'Neal, whose Bunyanesque proportions (7 ft., 1 in. tall, 305 lbs.) have not packed the L.A. Forum as owners hoped, and forward Kobe Bryant, who some say has the raw talent to be a Jordan, but not the focus or concentration. "Young players coming up in the NBA today lack the capacity to commit themselves to excellence the way Jordan did," says Joseph Ellis, a sports historian at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. "Bryant is a perfect example. He has unbelievable talent but not a clue on how to use it to win." The desire to win That winning, competitive focus is what will be the most lasting legacy of Jordan within the NBA, according to John Wooden, one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history. "Michael surely had as great a physical capability as anyone who ever played," says Mr. Wooden, who coached the University of California at Los Angeles to 10 NCAA championships. "But it was his intensity and indomitable spirit that enabled him to become the most dominant force in basketball." Wooden says Jordan's prowess was rare in that it extended to playing defense. As Jordan matured, he became one of the best team players in the NBA during an era dominated by individual showmanship. Those qualities gave the Chicago Bulls their championship winning edge, he says. "Jordan's two years off to play baseball may have been the best thing that ever happened to him," says Wooden, speaking of a two-year absence by Jordan in 1994 and 1995 to try professional baseball. "He learned a kind of humility that has served him well. I had been reluctant to call anyone the greatest player ever before that, but since his return I think he is absolutely the greatest to ever play." Will his absence be the ruination of the NBA? "I don't think so," says Wooden, noting similar doomsday predictions after the heyday of names like Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, and Oscar Robertson. "The league will miss him but it will surely recover and survive," he adds.