THE FIGHT BEGINS AS SPOTLIGHT DIMS

“This is not fun for me,” Michael Jordan told reporters.

He was not being arrested. He was not being publicly humiliated. He was not being forced to fox-trot on “Dancing With the Stars.”

He had been selected for the Basketball Hall of Fame. The pantheon of his sport.

And he was unhappy.

His reason: “Your basketball career is completely over. That’s the way I look at it. I was hoping this day was coming in 20 more years, or that I’d actually go in when I’m dead and done. …

“Now, when you get into the Hall of Fame, what else is there to do?”

If that sounds ungrateful, I suggest it is not. It is, in fact, sadder than that. It is something many pro athletes endure: the agonizing changeover from god to mortal man.

It is not a pleasant trip. A recent Sports Illustrated story revealed that by the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are suffering financial duress, and within five years of retirement, 60% of former NBA players are broke. Divorce rates among pro athletes are as high as 80% – and much of that happens after the shoes are hung up and the real world calls.

What is the real world?

The one you and I live in every day. Life as the center of attention

But for superstar athletes, it’s a strange place. No one to carry your bags for you. No one to hand you a plane ticket. No coterie of women waiting when you arrive in a new town. No trainer for your medical needs. No manager to book your reservations. And worst of all – no practice, game or road trip to run off to when family pressures arise.

Instead, you are home. And home. And still home. And you wife is there. And still there. And the kids are there. And still there. And the glory is fading. And fading. And going to someone else.

Is it any wonder Jordan cracked to the media, “I always want to have you thinking that I can always go back and play the game of basketball. … Am I? No. But I’d like for you to think that way.”

This guessing game Jordan, now 46, likes to hold over the press is really just ego. The belief that he is so important, reporters will spend hours speculating over whether he will or won’t come back. For years, that’s the way it was. And Jordan liked it. In a way, it meant he could never die.

But those years end. Guys like Jordan keeping searching for the old notes to play and find them plunking or silenced. In time, nobody cares. Nobody’s listening. Hanging onto the glory days

This is why I have never envied athletes. I’ve worked amongst them. Chronicled their lives. But I never minded stepping aside when it was time for them to be mobbed by a crowd, fussed over by a politician or canoodled by an adoring female fan. I have seen the other side of that: the aging, creaky-kneed athlete who shows up at an event and finds himself standing awkwardly alone, or making over-energized small talk with someone he used to ignore.

All glory fades. The smart athletes see this coming, and know to make other plans. Joe Dumars, who found a second act as the Pistons’ president of basketball operations, swears he never touched a basketball after he retired, not once, not even alone in a gym. His rationale was clear: Why watch your skills fade? Why hold onto what once was, when you know it is sand between your fingers?

The ones who find other pleasures in life are the one who most appreciate their sports careers. The ones who don’t keep tugging on their memories, like a kid trying to make a kite fly with no wind.

So Jordan – maybe the greatest to ever play his game – in the end, is just an anachronism. He, too, got divorced, expensively, after retiring. He now sees a young woman more likely to be dating a current player. And his reluctance to embrace something as venerable as a Hall of Fame induction shows you just how desperately he clings to the self-image of active superstar, not retired legend.

Next time you say pro athletes have it made, remember the life that comes after you have it made. And ask yourself this: Would you rather spend your last 40 years on Earth looking ahead or looking behind?

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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