He was never the game's greatest ballhandler or shooter, yet he harvested wins and trophies like no one before him.
Others contributed more to the establishment of the sport and its league, but none became so pervasive a pop-culture icon. And although Michael Jordan's face is one of the most recognized in the world, that may be due more to who he was and what he sold than how he played.
With Jordan's exit from basketball yesterday, fans and historians are left to assess one of the most remarkable and complex athletic careers in history -- and ponder the game's future without him.
Among the questions: Where does Jordan rank in the pantheon of great athletes, among people named Ruth, Ali and Pele? And, more immediately, can his size 13 Nikes ever be filled? Must they be?
Jordan was a one-man economy, luring new fans to an old sport and selling season tickets and "Air Jordan" shoes as readily as he collected scoring titles. Broadcasts of Chicago Bulls games set ratings records and, on average, captured a third or more viewers than other NBA games. When the Bulls went on the road, opponents sold 25 percent more tickets.
His vacancy is likely to slow the NBA's jet-propelled ascent, especially when combined with the ill will left in the wake of the labor dispute settled last week. But if history is a guide, the league will adapt and prosper still.
As for Jordan, sports historians say that years from now he will be viewed as a cross-cultural phenomenon, a one-man popularizer of his sport, and basketball's best all-round player.
However, he couldn't fly. Not really.
Neither will Jordan be credited with the impact of a Babe Ruth, either in sports or society. The Yankees slugger not only resuscitated baseball after its most devastating scandals, but became the first true celebrity athlete.
"Jordan's contribution, his unique status, is not so much that he made the sport popular. It already was popular. He took it to a new level," said Leonard Koppett, author of "Twenty-four Seconds to Shoot," about the early NBA, and "Koppett's Concise History of Major League Baseball.
Bird and Johnson, joining the NBA in 1979, formed a bi-coastal rivalry that rebuilt the NBA's tattered image after drug scandals in the 1970s. By Jordan's rookie season, 1984-85, the sport was back on its feet.
Few athletes have truly catapulted their sports to success. Two collegiate stars brought credibility to fledgling leagues by turning pro: Illinois' Harold "Red" Grange, who joined the NFL in 1925, and DePaul's Mikan, who signed with an early basketball league in 1947.
Joe Namath's signing with the American Football League so rattled the rival NFL that peace talks commenced shortly thereafter. Other greats have taken a sport higher by broadening its appeal: Jack Dempsey in boxing, Arnold Palmer in golf, Jackie Robinson in baseball and Pele in soccer.
"Jordan was the undisputed best basketball player in the world. That's a remarkable feat. He did not really change the way the game is played, though," said David S. Neft, co-author of a long-standing series of sports encyclopedias dedicated to baseball, football and basketball.
"He has been, in a sense, more influential off the court, on the marketing side. There has not been an athlete who has caught the public's and market's imagination like him since Ruth," said Neft.
Jordan pitched everything from hamburgers to long-distance telephone service, earning fees that have been estimated at $40 million a year. He almost single-handedly pushed Nike to the pinnacle of athletic apparel-makers, and became one of the most sought-after endorsers in history.
In so doing he also broke down barriers of race, demonstrating conclusively to Madison Avenue that whites would buy consumer products promoted by a black.
But he was criticized for remaining silent on social issues, including racism, in order to preserve his commercial appeal.
Fortune magazine estimated last year that Jordan had over the course of his career generated $10 billion in revenues for himself and others through his commercials, movies, cologne, game broadcasts, NBA-related merchandise and books.
The NBA can take solace in one lesson of history: although great athletes can raise up their sports, retirements almost never inflict permanent damage.
The closest one gets to a sport genuinely damaged by a retirement is boxing after Muhammad Ali laid down his gloves. But boxing had been on the decline when Ali came along and gave it a last gasp of popularity.
"It was like giving adrenalin to a dying patient," said Charles Korr, a history professor at the University of Missouri and an expert in the social history of sports.
When Ruth retired in 1935, baseball attendance was already showing the strains of the Depression. It didn't fully recover until after World War II, but when it did Ruth still received the credit.
It is the nature of superstars that they draw fans to a sport, not just to themselves, said Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
"I think that is their strength. They took them to a level that the leagues maintained," he said.
Basketball can only hope this holds true with Jordan, too. There are reasons for worry. Ratings of NBA broadcasts slipped 6 percent to 7 percent during Jordan's short-lived retirement in 1993 and part of the 1994-95 season.
A Massachusetts-based consulting firm, Cambridge Economics Inc., tried to quantify the "Jordan effect" in a study of the 1991-1992 season. The firm estimated that Jordan added about 10 percent, or $53 million, to the revenues of all teams in the NBA, through higher ticket sales, television rights fees and merchandise sales.
"I would say they've [NBA] got some work to do," said Cambridge president Gregory K. Leonard. "It's not like I think the NBA is going to go out of business. But they've done so well and I don't think that's going to be true anymore."
But other leagues have adapted to similar losses. The NBA can shift the focus to fresher faces, and to teams that find themselves newly competitive.
"To my knowledge, no sport has ever suffered from the retirement of a star, because the games go on," said Koppett, the basketball historian. "It's not the nature of sports to be that dependent on one star."
The highlight reel
Selected highlights from Michael Jordan's career:
Awards Five-time regular season Most Valuable Player, 1987-88, 1990-91, 1991-92, 1995-96, 1997-98.
Won three consecutive NBA Finals MVPs, twice, 1991-93 and 1996-98.
Second player to win seven straight scoring titles, 1986-87 to 1992-93 (Wilt Chamberlain, 1960-66). Also won scoring titles in 1995-96, 1996-97 and 1997-98.
All-NBA first team seven straight years, 1987-93. Also 1996-1998.
All-Defense first team six straight years, 1988-93. Also 1996-1998.
NBA Defensive Player of the Year, 1988.
NBA Rookie of the Year, 1984-85.
NBA Slam Dunk Champion, 1987, 1988.
NBA All-Star Game MVP, 1988, 1996, 1998.
Sporting News College Player of the Year, 1983, 1984.
Sporting News All-America first team, 1983, 1984.
Led Bulls to three straight NBA championships, twice, 1990-91 to 1992-93 and 1995-96 to 1997-98.
Member of United States gold medal-winning Olympic teams in 1984, 1992.
Member of North Carolina national championship team, 1982.
Bulls' No. 1 draft pick in 1984, third player selected overall behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie.
Pub Date: 1/14/99