Friday, January 15, 1999

Star's farewell was refresher on real life

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        One last time, Michael Jordan faked us out of our sneakers with a surprise move.

        As he announced his retirement from basketball on Wednesday, he told us to get a life.

        I wonder how many people heard him. How many will heed him?

        Michael Jordan urged us to get a life the same way he played the game, with grace, style and class.

        He delivered the message at the start of his farewell press conference.

        “Today,” he said “is not just a day for Michael Jordan.”

        Then he paid tribute to a Chicago cop who was gunned down Saturday afternoon. The policeman's sad funeral was taking place during the basketball star's happy send-off.

        Michael Jordan didn't mention the cop's name or the circumstances surrounding his death. I will. Officer John C. Knight was shot three times, twice in the head, as a routine traffic stop ended in tragedy. He left behind a wife and three little kids, ages 5, 6 and 7.

        To Michael Jordan, the officer's senseless death “puts a lot of things in perspective in terms of what life is really about.”

        I couldn't think of a better day for a gentle reminder of “what life is really about.” This was the day when news of a basketball player's retirement and a home-run ball hit by Mark McGwire being auctioned off for $3 million received equal weight with reports about the impeachment of a president. Since the world seemed out of whack, someone needed to make a clutch play to put things into their proper perspective.

        The job fell to Michael Jordan. “My responsibility,” he said, “has been to play the game of basketball and relieve some of the pressure of everyday life for people who work 9 to 5.”

        He did not say he was God or deserved to be front-page news because he had a better year than the president. He was fully aware he played a game, a kid's game, for a living. Although he has been amply rewarded for playing this game, so much so he could buy a league of small countries, he understood how he earned his keep. He entertained working stiffs.

        And his skills as an entertainer made him an icon in our society.

        We pay an increasingly high price for this entertainment, in dollars and cents as well as sacrificing huge chunks of our lives and our identities.

        As a society that defines itself by the entertainment it craves, we are willing to pay any price to feed that craving. It eats up $800 million for the Washington Redskins, $404 million for the Bengals' stadium complex, $105 million for Kevin Brown's contract to pitch big-league ball. And, now, $3 million for a slightly used baseball.

Real life
        Social critics have long been fascinated by Americans' fixation with being entertained rather than experiencing real life.

        Neil Postman's respected 1985 work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and Neal Gabler's new book, Life the Movie, make the same case: Life imitates art. Fact takes its cues from fiction. The fast-paced buzz of electronic media has replaced contemplative pursuits such as reading and thinking. The world of entertainment rules the real world.

        Bill Clinton's bombing of Iraq followed Wag the Dog, the movie where a president tries to save his place in history and his rear end by waging a war made in Hollywood.

        At election time, we tune out the candidates and tune in the late-night talk shows for political information. During the last presidential campaign, pollsters found 40 percent of people under 30 picked up their election news from those political pundits, Jay Leno and David Letterman.

        We need a refresher course in what life is about. Real life is what you can feel. It is not electronic images dancing on a screen or sound waves pouring from speakers.

        What matters are simple things. A smile. Doing a good deed. Being with the ones you love. Coming home safe.

        Be like Mike. Follow his lead one more time. Take note of what life is really about.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.