IT’S EASY TO CALL JORDAN THE BEST — AND HE WAS

This is how we evaluate star careers in America: little heads. You know them. You see them. They appear on the TV screen to size up the person in question, little heads inside graphic boxes, on news programs, on interview shows, some holding a microphone, some squinting in the sun, some laughing or nodding, some just smiling and saying, “He was the best.”

There were so many little heads on the TV screens Tuesday, little heads from Chicago, LA, New York, North Carolina, little heads who grew up with him, little heads who played with him, coached him, taught him, little heads from everywhere, some reminiscing, some still in disbelief, as word spread that this was it, the moment had come, Michael Jordan, with an announcement today, will say good-bye to basketball for good.

It had been suspected, rumored, even stated by Charles Barkley a few weeks ago
(not that anyone really believes Charles Barkley) but now it was legit. Jordan was out. So pundits, writers, analysts, radio hosts, players, coaches, colleagues, businessmen, all the little heads that pop up to put moments in their proper historical perspective, searched fruitlessly for the one perfect word to sum up the career of a man who has six NBA championships, five MVP awards, movies, commercials, charities, clothing lines, colognes, and a global marketing karma that could sell sand to a lifeguard.

And after a while, it seemed like the little heads were only trying to top themselves.

“He was the best of his generation . . .”

“He was the best to ever play . . .”

“He’s the best that will ever be . . .”

Wow. Someone dropping in from another planet might think our king was leaving the throne. Then again, in a world where media rule, the most famous face on the planet may indeed be the most powerful. And it’s hard to argue that there is anyone more famous than Michael Jordan.

Just as it is hard to argue that he was the best at what he did. He was. No contest. He wasn’t the most dominant — Wilt Chamberlain, when he averaged 50 points a game, probably took that title — but in his prime Jordan was as hard to stop as anyone. He took his sport to its highest level ever — he is, in effect, state of the art — and once he started winning, no one ever really got in the way.

So in the search for the perfect words, you could use “the most acrobatic”
(sorry, Dr. J), “the most well-rounded” (best offensive and defensive player),
“the most competitive” (ask his opponents), “the most dependable” (ask his coaches) or “the most likely to deliver in a clutch moment” (need we remind anyone that the final shot of his career will be a head-fake, lose-the-defender, rise-like-a-phoenix jumper with five seconds left to win his sixth NBA championship?).

But typical of the 35-year-old Jordan — who is so big, he was the lead on every national newscast Tuesday and he still hadn’t said a thing himself about leaving — the only word that is worthy of his legend is his own last name: Jordan.

Jordan, Jordan, Jordan.

It has become, in the parlance of American fame, a verb, noun and adjective.

Time for prayer

Think about it. As a noun, Michael Jordan is a level of achievement, the best and the brightest. “He’s the Michael Jordan of his business . . .” they’ll say. Or, “Well, he’s no Michael Jordan . . .”

Or the verb, to “Jordan” somebody, which means you not only dominate them, you leave no room for them to come back, as Jordan has now done to Karl Malone, John Stockton, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Reggie Miller and all the other players who never beat him in a championship series and now never will.

And, of course, there is the adjective, to do something that is “Jordanesque,” which means creative, fluid, original, dominant and, most of all, impressive. Oh, yes. Michael Jordan left an impression. From the wiry kid who sank the winning jump shot for North Carolina in the 1982 NCAA championship game to the well-muscled, bald miracle worker who once hit so many impossible shots in a playoff game he turned and shrugged at the camera as if to say, “Hey, even I don’t know how I got this good” — from one end of the floor to the other, Jordan leaves the basketball world the way a dinosaur leaves muddy ground: with a giant footprint.

“The thing about him is, every other player does one or two things well, but he did everything well,” said Joe Dumars of the Pistons, one of the few active NBA players who can brag that his team once sent Jordan home in the playoffs.
“Other guys, you figure out their strength and you try to force him to do something else. But this guy, you force him to do something else, he still does that better than everyone.

“The only way to really defend him is to say, ‘OK, I’m going to play him really hard and hope he’s having an off night.’ “

In other words, prayer is the best weapon.

At times it was the only one you had.

Man for the moment

Now, I do not buy the notion that one player makes or breaks a sport. One player can push it to a new height. Consider what Pele did for soccer, what Joe Namath did for football, what Muhammad Ali did for boxing or what Carl Lewis did for track and field. Jordan did that for basketball. He fathered a generation of attitude and altitude, and he forever changed the dunk shot. It is fitting that his personal logo on clothing products is a silhouette stretched in a scissors leap, the ball in mid-slam. Up, up and away.

Still, it is easier to lift a sport, because the populace is eager to be dazzled. Forgetting a sport takes longer — especially one as entrenched as basketball. The NBA will not shrivel and die with Jordan’s departure.

But it will take a blow. Already reeling from a labor stoppage and now down to a rushed 50-game season, the NBA knows that with Jordan leaving, its 1999 product just went from Broadway to summer stock. And wherever Jordan played, the place sold out, so you can wave good-bye to those ticket receipts. It tells you something that the league did not release its 1999 schedule until Jordan decided what he was doing. “They can release it now,” Dumars joked.

Suffice it to say the Chicago Bulls will not have many prime-time games.

But eventually, someone else will come along — or rather someone else will be made. The shoe companies, the soft drinks, the fast-food products and the NBA itself cannot resist the urge to find a successor. But that is all it will be. A successor, not a replacement.

Sports stars like Jordan are not only about victory, they are about time and place. This was Jordan’s time and place. He had to walk before he ran — remember all the games in the ’80s when he scored 50 points and his team lost? And he had to conquer his demons (see: Detroit Pistons) to finally hug the trophy. He wasn’t always loved — ask people in Detroit and Utah — but even those who didn’t love him begrudgingly admired him.

Bob Greene, the syndicated columnist who wrote a book with Jordan, compared him to Elvis Presley, and like Elvis in 1968, Jordan had a comeback, a return from his first retirement — when he went to play baseball — back to the lofty heights of the championship.

But unlike Elvis, Jordan never collapsed under his own weight. He leaves the game not only with a jewel-studded slate but, given the nature of celebrity today, a remarkably clean one. Only a minor gambling controversy stained an otherwise impeccable public performance record.

Next for Jordan? Who knows? He hasn’t even officially made an announcement. But everyone else has, all the writers, talkers, friends, coaches, colleagues, rivals, all the little heads on the TV screen.

And of course, none of us do him justice. Because Michael Jordan, love him or hate him, was never about words. I always found it ironic that Jordan played with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. That’s the way most of us watched him.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

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