Maybe Michael Jordan knew it would be his last shot. With his Chicago Bulls trailing by one point in the dying seconds of Game 6 in last June's NBA championship series, His Airness shook off a Utah Jazz defender with a couple of quick fakes, pulled up 17 feet from the basket and launched a high, arcing jumper. The shot, to no one's surprise, hit nothing but net--Jordan is as famous for buzzer-beating heroics as he is for his soaring dunks. But instead of pumping his fist in celebration and leaping into the air, as he had on other series-winning occasions, Jordan held his position, his shooting hand suspended at the point of his follow-through. Then, showing no emotion, he turned and jogged back into the Bulls' defensive zone. Was the high hand a signal? At his retirement news conference last week in Chicago, Jordan said no. 'It turned out to look like I was posing for all the photographers,' he explained, smiling his enigmatic smile. 'But that was not the case.'
What a loss to the NBA. The league rebuilt itself from near-bankruptcy in the early 1980s by marketing its top players--including Larry Bird and Magic Johnson--and with each generational change, attendance and TV revenues climbed higher. But now the NBA may have to adjust its player-driven marketing scheme. Jordan wasn't just the best player of his time; he was the best of all time. And any successors, at least for a while, will seem wanting. Jordan could do it all. His dunks were acrobatic, his passes had eyes, he could make moves that left the best defenders flat-footed and he could score from just about anywhere on the court. There is a reason his company logo is a silhouette of his spread-eagled form suspended in midair, ready to slam the ball into the net. Midair was his office--it was as if his shoes were filled with helium.
Not content with just offensive glory, Jordan became the best defender, too. Fittingly, he made a crucial steal under his own basket, denying Jazz star Karl Malone, just before sinking the winning shot last June. And opponents say his greatest weapon was a strength of mind that enabled him to remained focused under the pressure of the big game. 'He has no discernible weakness,' marvelled hall-of-famer Bob Cousy. 'He's the best, without question.' Just as important in the image-driven NBA was that His Airness looked great. He was handsome, graceful, and he had that great smile.