Wednesday, January 13, 1999

Right time for Jordan's final fadeaway




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[jordan]
He was, Larry Bird said, "God disguised as Michael Jordan."
(Michael E. Keating photos)

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        Michael Jordan must have agonized over this. He must have changed his mind a thousand times. At some point, and maybe more than once, he must have weighed the pros and cons of calling it quits and seen the scales as perfectly balanced.

He must have had more difficulty with these deliberations than with any other obstacle he has faced in basketball. Because a man of genius does not abandon the thing he does best without excruciating doubt and terrible torment. The athlete of our age does not retire on a whim, not even when he's retiring for the second time.

        But much as we might want to prolong the party and delay the inevitable, Jordan's soul-searching has evidently reached a regrettable end. A noon press conference is scheduled today in Chicago, where the National Basketball Association's pre-eminent player is expected to confirm the harrowing news he has had it with hoops.

JORDAN BY THE NUMBERS
[jordan]
13: Seasons
6: NBA titles
5: NBA MVP awards
6: NBA Finals MVP awards
10: season scoring titles
29,277: career points
31.5: ppg career scoring avg.
33.4: playoff game scoring avg.
930: regular season games
179: playoff games
11: times named to all-NBA team
10: times named to all NBA defensive team
$33 million: final annual salary
$50 million: annual total in endorsements
$500 million: annual sales from Air Jordan shoes and apparel
5.4 percent: the amount Nike stock fell on news of Jordan's retirement
        After 10 NBA scoring titles and six championships, Jordan remains the best player on the planet and an international icon, but he may finally be approaching the point of diminishing returns. Great as he still is, he is no longer quite the player he once was, the man Larry Bird once described as, "God disguised as Michael Jordan." MJ has lost a step to the years and also, perhaps, some sense of purpose.

        If he chose to play another season - or 10 - Michael Jordan could never improve on the exit scene he choreographed last spring in Salt Lake City. When your final shot wins the final game of the championship series, why muck things up with encores?

        To come back now, for an abbreviated NBA season and a shot at a tainted title, would require Jordan to put his soon-to-be 36-year-old body through a rigorous grind. It would also require him to rescind a vow to play for no other Bulls coach but Phil Jackson. This would have been a lot to ask.

        Yet part of him had to be intrigued by the challenge ‹ by another chance to confound his opponents with the endless adaptability of an aging warrior. Jordan has no fear of failure (witness his misguided foray into baseball), and no obvious obsession with his legacy. While he owns a healthy ego, it is pale and puny beside his competitive streak.

        Kevin Loughery, Jordan's first coach with the Chicago Bulls, would sometimes hold scrimmage games in which the first team to 10 points would win. If the score became lopsided, Loughery would typically switch Jordan to the team that was trailing.

        “He'd get mad at me,” Loughery said, “and he'd go out and win the game from behind.”

        Attractive as it is to go out on top, the heat of the battle has its own allure, and no one has thrived there like Michael Jordan.

        Once cut from his high school basketball team, MJ's career has been as much a triumph of will as of talent, a testament to sustained effort as well as unmatched elegance. He never squandered his enormous gifts, instead heeding the Gospel of St. Luke: “For unto whomsoever much is giv en, of him shall be much required.”

        Perhaps the performance that best defines Jordan was in Game Five of the 1997 NBA Finals. Depleted by food poisoning, struggling even to stand, Jordan played 45 minutes and scored 38 points, sinking the decisive shot, leaving all concerned in awe.

        “Among the superheroes of all time,” Dennis Rodman said of Jordan's efforts that evening. “Superman, Batman, Green Hornet, things like that. He pulled out his magic wand and came out and did a great job.”

        He came into pro basketball as a prodigious leaper, a guy known for his defiance of gravity rather than a well-rounded game. But each summer he would dedicate himself to some shortcoming, and return the next season with some wondrous new wrinkle.

        “As time has passed, he's done a remarkable job of adapting his game,” Julius Erving told Sports Illustrated last year. “He's developed that fadeaway jumper, which is almost unstoppable, and he's become so good at all the little things.

        “Watch how tightly he comes off a pick, or how he sets people up on the dribble. You think of him as this high-flying guy, but what has kept him great is that he does the fundamental things so well.”

        As he has matured, Jordan has been compelled to rely more heavily on his fundamentals and less on his ability to fly. It has made him a more resourceful player and, in some ways, a more interesting one.

        Last season, in a game with the Los Angeles Lakers, Jordan observed a spectacular dunk by Kobe Bryant and inquired of teammate Scottie Pippen: “Did we jump that high when we were 19?”

        An athlete's career is short. His aging is inexorable. Michael Jordan thinks his time has come. Our consolation is that he has been known to change his mind.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com

Updated Jordan coverage from Associated Press
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE