They wasted no time re-retiring Michael Jordan's hallowed No. 23. Just minutes after Jordan made official what had been known for days, suspected for weeks and dreaded for months, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf gave a signal and the throng assembled in Chicago's United Center looked to the rafters. As the banner with Jordan's number on it was unveiled, a large black cloth that covered it dropped away. It floated through the air, like Michael through the lane, until it landed, a shroud for one of the luxury boxes in the House That Jordan Built.
That black cloth seemed a most appropriate symbol, both of the moment and of the mood that now greets the return of NBA basketball. Even before the league's disquieting labor war and Jordan's departure, fans had begun grumbling about everything from stratospheric ticket prices to tedious, low-scoring games to a new breed of me-first, me-only stars. Had Jordan not capped his career with the most extraordinary of his last-second heroics, last season's most enduring image would be Latrell Sprewell's choke hold on his coach. No. 23 himself admitted no gloom and doom at his retirement, insisting gracefully that "the game is a lot bigger than Michael Jordan." But Peter Roby, vice president of marketing for Reebok, takes a different view. "You don't ever want to say 'never'," he says, "but I don't think the NBA will ever again attain the glory it did with Michael." About the only silver lining is that the league has taken its biggest hits all at once. "We start over again from scratch," says veteran power forward Derrick Coleman. Of course, none of today's players really knows what scratch means.
Commissioner David Stern does, having arrived at the NBA as league counsel back in the '70s when the championship series wasn't even televised live, let alone in prime time. The bicoastal rivalry of two court geniuses, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, saved the league in the '80s -- and then they retired. "People were voicing the very same concerns about the NBA after Larry and Magic," says Stern. "They didn't quite appreciate what Michael Jordan's impact would be." Thanks to Jordan's magic, the game's growth not only continued but accelerated through the '90s into a global marketing phenomenon. Because of that growth spurt, the recent lockout battle was over $2 billion a year in revenues, hardly scratch money. And it's why NBC and Turner Sports thought enough of the league's prospects last year to pony up $2.65 billion for the next four years of NBA games, knowing it was likely that Jordan wouldn't play in a single one of them.Continue reading