At a time the NBA is reeling from a long and bitter labor dispute, he was the one guy who could make things right.
All Michael Jordan had to do was play with the Chicago Bulls at that heightened level that only he could reach, walk away with another championship, and the ills of the lockout could have been forgotten.
That will not happen. For at noon today, Jordan is expected to step into the United Center in Chicago, where his number 23 jersey already hangs from the rafters, and announce, for the second time in his career, that he is retiring from basketball.
No one has led the NBA in scoring more seasons than Jordan (10). No one has averaged more points per game (31.5). He's been the league's Most Valuable Player five times, an All-Star MVP three times and a first-team All-Defensive player nine times.
"A lot of guys call him 'Jesus with tennis shoes,' and that's the only way I can sum it up," Washington Wizards guard Mitch Richmond said yesterday. "I don't think there will be another Michael. He'll be missed big."
Jordan, who turns 36 next month, always spoke about leaving the game on his own terms. He said he wanted to walk away at the top of his game. One look at his last NBA game shows he did just that: In Game 6 of last year's NBA Finals, Jordan stripped the ball from the Utah Jazz's Karl Malone and hit the game-winning shot with 5.2 seconds left, capping a 45-point outing that gave the Bulls their sixth NBA championship in eight years.
"If and when that time comes when I have to walk away, I hope no one will look at me and think any less," Jordan said after that game. "I have another life I have to get to at some point in time. Hopefully, everyone will understand."
'Nothing left to prove'
And as word spread of his expected departure, the understanding was evident.
"It just came to a point where he has nothing left to prove, and he's a guy that likes challenges," said Wizards free-agent point guard Rod Strickland. "I think everybody knows he's the best. He's the best I've ever seen. He means so much to this league."
Asked his favorite memory of Jordan, Strickland responded with a laugh.
"Just losing," he said. "Too many losses, that's all I'll remember."
That Jordan was a winner was a credit to his work ethic and strong desire to succeed. Whether it was during a game of cards or at a practice or during a game, Jordan played with an intensity that was unmatched.
Which is why when Jordan signed for $33 million, there was hardly a stir around the league. To the NBA, to the owners of the Bulls, to his peers, to the fans, Jordan was worth every cent.
Jordan didn't come into the league a winner, suffering through three straight losing seasons with the Bulls. He was known then for his high-flying dunks, but basically he tried to do too much by himself during his early years.
The transformation began during the 1987-1988 season, when Jordan -- becoming more of an all-around player -- helped lead the Bulls to 50 wins. Three years later, at the conclusion of the 1990-1991 season, Jordan was celebrating his first of six NBA titles.
He had won three straight titles when, just before the 1993-1994 season, he retired. At that time, he said he had accomplished everything he wanted in basketball and desired to spend more time with his family.
The next spring, Jordan was playing baseball in the Chicago White Sox farm system. In spring 1995, during baseball's strike, Jordan decided to return to the NBA.
And, though he scored 55 points against the New York Knicks during that comeback, Jordan wasn't the same player. His game lacked the beauty and the seeming effortlessness. Wearing number 45, he seemed slow and methodical.
But Jordan was completely back the next season, leading the Bulls to the 1995-1996 NBA title. Jordan has won a championship in each of the complete seasons he has played in the 1990s.
With the game's marquee player stepping down, the league will suffer. It was Jordan and the Bulls who got the highest television ratings. Jordan and the Bulls who could attract more than 60,000 people -- many sitting in obstructed-view seats -- to the Georgia Dome for a game against the Atlanta Hawks. Jordan and the Bulls who were right for the league at a time when escalating salaries and problem players pointed to a lot that was wrong.
It's Jordan who will get 24 straight hours on ESPNEWS starting today, followed by 56 straight hours on the Classic Sports Network starting Friday.
Will the league recover? Of course. Other talented players will step forward, and maybe one might even play with the class of a Jordan.
But will there be another Jordan?
"The NBA will go on, and hopefully a lot of guys will step up and fill his shoes," Strickland said. "But there won't be another Jordan."
Pub Date: 1/13/99