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.Continue reading
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