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.
All through the recent player lockout, speculators debated whether Jordan might return for another season, and many insisted he could not say no to the $22 million (U.S.) salary for the 52-game 1999 campaign. Wishful thinking. Since turning professional in 1984, Jordan had led the once-hapless Bulls to six championships in eight seasons, boosted the NBA's playoff TV ratings by more than 30 per cent during those Bull runs, and sent sponsors' sales soaring on the back of Air Jordan. Shoe giant Nike saw its stock price fall by more than five per cent in one day just on the rumour of Jordan's retirement, and opposing teams such as the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors can no longer expect sellouts and doubled attendance when the Bulls come to town. No wonder optimists clung to Jordan's claim last week that he was only 99.9 per cent sure this was the end - after all, he had "retired" in 1993 and pursued a baseball career, yet came back.
But this time it is different. Jordan is departing at the top of his trade, when he is still, unquestionably, the dominant player in the game. Last year, he was the league's top scorer for the 10th time, was named to his 12th straight all-star team and won his sixth playoff MVP award. And his parting was, in a way, a gift to his fans. No one wanted to see a Jordan who could not fly, who could not make the off-balance jumper to win the game. "I've accomplished everything I could as an individual right now," he said. "I don't have the mental challenges I've had in the past to proceed."
That said, he had little to come back to. His longtime coach, Phil Jackson, quit the Bulls after last spring's playoffs, and there seemed little chance Chicago could maintain its winning ways even if Jordan returned (last week, the team had only one starter from the championship team under contract for the coming season). And even if he had not retired, Jordan would have been sidelined for two months of an already shortened season by surgery to repair a tendon on his shooting hand. None of those considerations made any difference, he says. "I chose to walk away knowing I can still play the game," Jordan said. "And that's exactly how I've always wanted my career to end."
His Airness is not without flaws. In the 1992 book The Jordan Rules, author Sam Smith wrote that Jordan could be cruel and overbearing in his dealings with teammates who, in his estimation, failed to measure up. Then there were revelations about his gambling - one former associate claimed Jordan lost hundreds of thousands of dollars betting on the golf course. And some Chicagoans criticized his lack of support for local causes in poor neighbourhoods despite the fact that he earned an estimated $80 million in each of the past two seasons in salary and off-court endorsements.
But fans forgave his foibles, which is why, though gone from the hardwood, Jordan will remain a high-flying pitchman. According to a study conducted by Fortune magazine last year, Jordan's career generated $10 billion worth of ticket sales, TV revenues, movie earnings (he starred in the 1996 hit Space Jam) and sales of various licensed products. Nike executives now hope he will spend more time promoting the Jordan brand of athletic shoes and apparel, which already has annual sales of more than $400 million. At the farewell news conference, where he was joined by his wife of 10 years, Juanita, he insisted he will devote most of his free time to his three children, Jeffrey, 9, Marcus, 7, and Jasmine, 5. Not this week, though: an avid golfer, he is entered in the pro-am portion of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Palm Springs, Calif.
There was plenty of pressure to play one more season - from the league, other players and his agent. His on-court exploits would be the perfect antidote to the poisonous atmosphere surrounding the league after the labour dispute that made both players and owners look greedy and petulant. He ultimately said no, although his high-profile send-off - it was front-page news from London and Milan to Tokyo and Beijing - prompted media outlets to recount his brilliance and replay the old highlights. And those magical clips, more than any ad campaign, demonstrate the joy of the game.
Maclean's January 25, 1999