' I'm gone'; Lacking challenges, Jordan closes curtain on unparalleled career 'Secure with my decision'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- In 13 illustrious seasons, he carried the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles. He also served as an ambassador to the NBA, and in the process became a global hero.

Yesterday, Michael Jordan said he had had enough.

On center court at the United Center, with the floor that hasn't been played on since June laid down and the baskets rolled out, Jordan officially announced his retirement from basketball.

"Mentally, I'm exhausted. I don't feel I have a challenge," said Jordan, who was joined on the podium by his wife, Juanita. "Physically, I feel great."

One month from his 36th birthday, Jordan looks as if he could still walk onto the court and play at a high level, just as he did a season ago, when he averaged a league-best 28.7 points while pulling off a rare trifecta: winning the regular-season, All-Star Game and NBA Finals Most Valuable Player awards.

That Jordan can still dominate the game is what led Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf to describe the retirement as "the toughest day in the history of the Chicago Bulls." In fact, Jordan's departure likely will lead to the demise of a team that has dominated the league this decade.

"Standing here in the United Center where Michael Jordan has given us so many wonderful moments, performances and championships, it's hard to imagine games being played here without him," Reinsdorf said. "Michael is simply the best player who ever put on a basketball uniform. He has defined the Bulls, the city and the NBA for more than a decade. He will always represent a standard of excellence."

While Reinsdorf was mourning Jordan's departure, commissioner David Stern instead saw the day as a celebration of a highly skilled athlete leaving at the top of his game.

"This is not a sad day," Stern said. "This is a great day, because the greatest basketball player in the history of the game is getting the opportunity to retire with the grace that described his play."

Word of Jordan's retirement began to surface late Monday, but the makings of this decision developed at the end of last season's championship run.

After a grueling seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, Jordan and the Bulls were extended by the Utah Jazz to six games in the NBA Finals before Jordan's game-winning shot with five seconds left gave the team its sixth title of the 1990s.

"I told [Reinsdorf] at that time, mentally, I was a little exhausted and I didn't know if I would play [this season]," Jordan said yesterday. "Jerry wanted me to take time, as I did in '93, to make sure it was the right decision."

The motivations in 1993 were different. An urge to play professional baseball, as well as the murder of his father, helped push Jordan away from the game and the spotlight.

This time, Jordan said he felt that there was simply no more he could conquer.

"This time, I'm at peace with a lot of those things," Jordan said. "I know, from a career standpoint, I've accomplished everything I could. Right now, I don't have the mental challenge I've had in the past. This is a perfect time for me to leave."

Jordan said the decision to retire had nothing to do with the injury to his right index finger while in the Bahamas last week. Jordan tore a tendon while using a cigar cutter and will require surgery in the next few weeks. Had he played, he probably would have missed training camp and the first part of the delayed season.

Jordan was asked whether he would have played had the Bulls retained the services of former coach Phil Jackson. Last season, Jordan said Jackson, who resigned after the season, was the only coach he would play for.

"That's a big if," Jordan said. "Even with Phil as coach, I had a tough time [last season] mentally trying to find challenges. I don't know if he could have presented a challenge with me this season.

"At the beginning of last season, I wanted to play a couple of years. At the end of the season, I was mentally drained and tired. So I can't say he [Jackson] would have restored that."

So Jordan stepped aside much in the same manner he did on Oct. 6, 1993 -- with no tears and no real outward display of emotion. For one of the sport's greatest players, it was the perfect retirement. Again.

And though there will be no farewell tour, praise was heaped on this basketball treasure.

"We wish Michael Jordan well," President Clinton said yesterday. "We admire him, we like him very much and we thank him for years of excellence."

Said Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who had a shouting match with Jordan during the recent labor negotiations: "Michael Jordan's contribution to the NBA and the game of basketball is immeasurable. He demonstrated the skill, heart and determination of a true champion, and he embodied the meaning of the word competitor.

"Not many people changed American culture, but Michael Jordan has done that. The game will indeed miss him."

What's next for Jordan? A hope that life can somehow get back to normal, a far-fetched hope considering he's one of the most recognizable and charismatic figures on the planet.

"There's a lot of different components in terms of what's next," Jordan said. "I enjoy taking my kids to school, I enjoy picking my kids up from school and watching my kids play.

"Those things seem so simple in so many people's lives, but I could never enjoy them because of my schedule over the last 14 years," he said. "For the most part, I'm going to enjoy life."

During the announcement yesterday, Jordan was presented with his sixth -- and presumably last -- NBA championship ring. And for the second time, his retired No. 23 uniform number was unveiled in the rafters of the arena.

Jordan was asked whether one day he might change his mind as he did in 1995, when he returned with two simple words: "I'm back."

"I never say never, but it's 99.9 percent," Jordan said. "I'm very secure with my decision. It's not really 100 percent, but it's close. I say 99.9, and you take it for what it's worth."

Jordan's gems

Some of Michael Jordan's most memorable big-game performances:

The skinny freshman's 1982 corner jumper that beat Georgetown in the NCAA championship and gave North Carolina's Dean Smith his first national title.

The still NBA playoff-record 63-point performance against Larry Bird and the Celtics in 1986 after missing all but 18 games of the regular season with a foot injury. "God came to the game tonight and played under the name of Michael Jordan," Bird said. The Bulls lost the game 135-131.

The Shot. With the Bulls down one point in the deciding fifth game, he went high over Cleveland's Craig Ehlo to hit a jumper that clinched the opening-round series against the Cavaliers in 1989.

The highlight-film drive against the Lakers in the 1991 Finals, changing hands in mid-air for an acrobatic, left-handed bank shot on the other side of the basket.

The shrug after raining down three-pointers against Portland in the opener of the 1992 Finals as the Bulls went on to win their second title. He hit a playoff-record six threes in a half against the Blazers.

The Shot II over Gerald Wilkins, beating Cleveland again in the Eastern Conference semifinals, 1993.

The winning jumper over Atlanta's Steve Smith in just his fourth game out of retirement in 1995.

The game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell in the opener of the 1997 NBA Finals against Utah.

His game-winning three-pointer and 38-point effort -- 15 in the final period -- against the Jazz in Game 5 in 1997 when he was so sick and dehydrated he was doubled over at times as he walked off the floor.

His steal and game-winning jumper to beat the Jazz in the closing seconds of Game 6, giving the Bulls their sixth title of the decade last June.

-- Associated Press

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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