NBA Air Apparent? His Nikes won't be easy to fill Shaq, Mourning, Barkley are among candidates, but NBA void is immense


Michael Jordan and Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller had not always been the best of friends, as evidenced by their on-court scuffle late last season.

But there was never any doubting of Jordan's ability and tremendous following in the league, which left Miller wondering just what direction the NBA is headed with yesterday's announcement of his rival's retirement.

"It's a big loss, not only for myself, but for the NBA," Miller told The Indianapolis Star. "The NBA might be suffering for a little bit now. The major stars are gone."

With Jordan's retirement yesterday, the NBA has lost its three biggest stars in the past two years. Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird possessed the intensity and crowd-pleasing style capable of selling out arenas, both home and on the road. The three were greatly responsible for hanging 11 championship banners for their respective teams over the past 14 years.

Now to whom does the torch pass?

Is it a Patrick Ewing or a Charles Barkley, established veterans and two of Jordan's close friends? Or maybe a Shaquille O'Neal, Larry Johnson or Alonzo Mourning, three of the league's top rising stars?

Those questions will begin to be answered on Nov. 5, when the NBA season starts. And those stepping up to make the attempt will find those shoes extremely hard to fill -- maybe impossible.

"Larry Bird and Magic deserve a lot of credit for helping the league, but Michael Jordan deserves just as much, if not more," said Washington Bullets coach Wes Unseld. "Magic got the job done. Michael was not only a superstar, he was exciting."

In a sense, Jordan, Johnson and Bird were the NBA during the past decade and a half. And trying to find a player capable of matching their accomplishments will be extremely difficult.

"We're still planning on opening the season on Nov. 5," said NBA commissioner David Stern, when asked about the state of the league yesterday. "And it's going to be a great season."

Jordan agreed.

"The league is strong, and David Stern has done a good enough job with the game where it can survive," he said at his news conference. "The game is still as entertaining as it was. It'll always be just as exciting."

Exciting, yes. But will it be as popular? With 10 of the 45 games on TNT this season featuring the Chicago Bulls, and with NBC showcasing the three-time defending champions on seven of its 17 weekend day telecasts, Jordan was a big selling point of the league. Surely the networks weren't looking to showcase Will Perdue or Scott Williams when they made the schedule.

And anywhere you look on the newsstands Jordan's image is on the cover of an NBA preseason publication.

In terms of league-wide recognition, O'Neal probably comes closest, having signed endorsement deals worth $30 million. Although physically intimidating at 7 feet 1 and 303 pounds, O'Neal is poised in his dealings with the media and has a quick smile and likeable personality that kids adore.

But on the court, O'Neal, who's about to enter his second season, is not as polished. Although his combination of strength and agility leads many to consider him the dominant center of the future, O'Neal has yet to demonstrate the ability that Jordan possessed of taking over a game at any time.

Johnson, who Tuesday signed a 12-year, $84 million contract with Charlotte, has become popular by donning a dress while playing "Grandmama" in his sneaker commercials, and Mourning showed that talent-wise he may be a better all-around player than O'Neal. But does either have Jordan's charisma?

"A lot of these young guns are ready to step in if Michael was ready to play or not -- guys like Shaq, Shawn Kemp [Seattle] and Alonzo," Unseld said. "If they have that same effect, I don't know. When you think about the effect Michael had, it'll be extremely hard to match it or top it."

One thing that's clear with Jordan's retirement is that the Chicago Bulls are no longer the clear-cut favorite to win their fourth straight NBA title.

Just as swiftly as word spread that Jordan was retiring, the odds of the New York Knicks and the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the Eastern Conference title improved dramatically. The Bulls, who were 2-1 picks to win their fourth straight title, dropped to as much as 25-1 underdogs.

"I don't think they have a chance to win it without him in the lineup," Jimmy Vaccaro, sports book director at The Mirage hotel-casino in Las Vegas, told the Associated Press yesterday. "That's the significance I put on Michael."

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