Jordan chills, but fire burns


The last time Michael Jordan considered retirement, it was from baseball, not basketball. There was a lockout in professional baseball in 1994 and he was then a minor-league fly-chaser. Would he return to basketball and the Bulls because he had become disgruntled with the labor impasse?

T-shirts were being sold in Chicago that read, "City Sweats Michael Chills." Chicago is no longer sweating -- it's freezing, below zero on the thermometer, snowdrifts up to the first floor and long underwear selling like hot cakes. But Michael is still chilling.

This time, a lockout by the NBA owners kept Michael on the links from L.A. to the Bahamas, and away from the courts. Away also, it has been said, from his workout routine, a routine that made him a supremely well-conditioned athlete.

Apparently he hasn't spent much time in Chicago, and maybe the weather as much as anything else has influenced his decision. He could envision himself as frozen as the bronze statue of him in mid-dunk outside the United Center.

It remains difficult in this corner to believe that Jordan is in fact calling it a career. It's true that it would be a fantasy ending if he packed it in after hitting the winning jump shot from the key in the final seconds that sealed the Bulls' sixth championship, in Utah last June. If he is gone for good, then basketball fans will have forever frozen in memory that last, luscious moment of the most spectacular player ever to climb into a pair of sneakers.

But the feeling here has been that Jordan's competitiveness, his retention of a high level of skill -- high level being a virtual understatement because at the age of 35 (36 next month) he is still the best player on the planet -- and a certain sense of responsibility to the league and his fellow players would occasion his return for one more season, and an abbreviated one at that.

Something else. His great love for the game. Remember when he was only in his second year in the NBA and broke an ankle, he came back to play in schoolyards much to the dismay of Bulls management because he missed the game so much. But he had written into his contract a "love of the game" clause.

It is remembered that when he retired from basketball to play baseball in 1993 that he drove by playgrounds and watched longingly from his car window.

And every time one felt that Jordan couldn't go on -- he had a terrible groin pull, he had a severely sprained ankle, he had, as was seen in the Utah series, a 102-degree fever and was near exhaustion -- he did, and succeeded beyond belief. Every time someone told Michael he couldn't, or he shouldn't. His response was: "Oh, yeah. Just you wait and see."

I remember the Bulls' doctor for much of Jordan's career, John Hefferon, saying that Jordan had a body and a will that were capable of things that amazed him.

And I loved an answer to a question I posed to Ed Pinckney, when he was a forward with the Celtics: "Is Jordan the best leaper in the league?" Pinckney replied: "There are others in the league who can jump higher. I think Michael is the best floater in the league." Imagine, the best floater. Like a genie on a carpet.

A personal note, from my mother, regarding Jordan. My mother is 82 years old and lives in Chicago. She became a basketball fan only during the Jordan years. Sometimes I'd sit and watch a Bulls game with her. The Bulls might be down in the first half. "I get nervous" she'd say. "Michael always comes through in the second half." Just as she had always told me to wear galoshes because it might rain, she was right, again. Jordan came through.

He would be giving up some $25 million in salary this season. But he has never seemed to play solely for money. Perhaps he felt it was just too much of an effort, with an aging Bulls team, to try for a seventh championship.

So if this is Michael Jeffrey Jordan's swan song, well, all one can say is, some swan, some song.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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