Michael Jordan will suit up for his 10th NBA All-Star Game today and celebrate his 34th birthday next week, and, seeing as he already has retired once, it is fair to wonder how much longer he will play before he retires again.
That the league will miss him is obvious; it suffered from a severe lack of star power in the 17 months when he was out playing baseball.
But it is possible the league will miss Jordan far more than it realizes when he is gone, for the simple reason that he cares with all his heart about winning championships.
You can't say that with any certainty about the next generation of superstars sprouting up behind Jordan.
Do they care most of all about winning championships? Will they die a little every time they fail?
Or will they find enough satisfaction in the profound wealth and celebrity common to today's young players?
These are questions that you won't hear asked on today's All-Star telecast, but they're questions the NBA should consider.
If winning championships isn't deemed critically important by the players in any league, that league has a serious, fundamental problem.
And considering that today's top NBA players reap so many rewards and benefits without winning championships, the guess here is that the NBA has a serious problem.
The hype machine that has driven the league's astounding rise in popularity has transformed the players from athletes into sporting rock stars complete with legends, fawning fans, entourages and multimedia careers.
And the problem is, they don't need to win a championship to chart a course into those waters.
Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill are making movies, CDs, commercials and countless millions on and off the court, but none has an NBA championship ring.
Having achieved incredible wealth and pop celebrity without a ring, will they hunger to win one as fiercely as, say, Wilt Chamberlain did when the Celtics denied him a title for all those years?
"The really great players will always care about winning above all else," said Jack Ramsay, the retired Hall of Fame coach who still has a hand in the game as a TV analyst. "Everyone should take a page from Michael [Jordan]. He's making more off the game than anyone, and no one plays harder or more in a team concept."
No one can argue that Jordan sets a peerless example; he makes millions, movies and commercials, yet never stops blowing away the league.
Never stops burning to win another championship.
"Larry Bird was like that, and Magic Johnson was like that," Ramsay said. "You can trace it all the way back to Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Jordan is part of the line."
Jordan might be the fiercest of competitors even among that rare group; his drive to win and disprove doubters has broken the will of the rest of the league since his return from baseball.
But what happens when Jordan is gone and the league is left in the hands of a generation of players who have achieved so much fame and fortune without winning?
What happens if Jordan is the last in the line of superstars who put winning on a pedestal above all else?
"It's always a potential problem," Ramsay said. "I like to think someone will step up. Grant Hill, for instance, is a great player who gives a full effort every night and certainly has great desire."
All the top players are superb athletes who never could have gotten so far without being supremely motivated. But the life that awaits them as a high-profile NBA star is unlike anything they HTC experienced on the way up. The money is staggeringly high, the opportunities numbingly diverse.
O'Neal signed a $120 million contract last year and has flourishing careers making commercials, rap music and movies; his off-season move from the Magic to the Lakers was predicated at least somewhat on the idea of raising his profile in Hollywood.
Hardaway, who signed a $68.5 million contract in 1994, has become less famous for his basketball than for his miniature alter ego, Little Penny, the centerpiece in a line of commercials so popular they were used on that hallowed day of the ad world, Super Bowl Sunday.
Juwan Howard and Chris Webber? The Bullets are into them for more than $150 million -- even though neither has ever won an NBA playoff game.
Bob Cousy didn't know from this, sports fans.
If he never wins a championship ring, will O'Neal suffer as Chamberlain did all those years? Will he die a little every time he doesn't? Or does he have so many other interests, so much money and so many successes in other fields that winning just won't matter that much?
Will the same hold true for Webber, Howard, Hardaway and the rest?
These are questions the NBA desperately needs to consider, questions that illustrate a real and serious threat to the league's popularity down the line.
Hype has made the NBA the popular venture that it is today, but what happens if the hype becomes bigger than the game itself?
What happens if the hype and the money become so big that Jordan is the last great player with his priorities in order?
What happens then?
Pub Date: 2/09/97