Basketball: Global fame leaves beret-wearing Jordan unable to lose himself in France

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There was a time when basketball superstar Michael Jordan would visit Paris for the fun of it and sit in pavement cafes unrecognised. No more.

John Lichfield reports from the French capital.

Michael Jordan would like to announce that he is not God.

The best known sportsman in the world is in Paris, making his first competitive visit to Europe in five years. He turned up for the introductory press conference yesterday, wearing a Chicago Bulls track suit and a large, black French beret. "When you're in France, do as the French do," he explained, just about keeping a straight face. "This is kind of my French look.''

Except, of course, that hardly anyone in France - certainly no one under 30 - wears a beret any more. They wear base-ball hats; and Michael Jordan basketball trainers; and, in many cases, Michael Jordan T-shirts.

Jordan, 34, has been to Paris before, lots of times. He visited twice to play basketball, as a young man, before he was the best-loved and best- paid sportsman in the global village. Until a few years ago, he explained, he used to come back "every other year" because it was one of the few places he could disappear. "I could just sit down outside some restaurant and not be bothered. Basketball has grown so big, it is hard for me to go anywhere now.''

In the pouring rain outside the Bercy stadium yesterday, a large group of French youngsters pleaded with the security man to let them in, to have one peep at their idol in training. Since this was France, the answer was, rather rudely, no.

Later, Jordan was asked what it was like to be mistaken for God. "I'm not a god. I consider myself as an entertainer. I play basketball and take joy in what I do. For a couple of hours I can carry people away from whatever else is going on in their lives. That is all. I entertain. I certainly don't consider myself as a god.''

Jordan is, however, one of those rare sportsmen whose fame transcends their sport. The global success of basketball can partly be explained by the urbanisation of the world: basketball, an intense, claustrophobic sport, is an urban game par excellence. But the global success is also partly down to the charisma and skill of Michael Jordan.

He is in Paris with the Chicago Bulls - five times National Basketball Association champions in the last seven years - to play in the McDonald's championship against Greek, Spanish, Italian and French clubs. The Bulls' first game is tomorrow night. Before leaving the US, Jordan had been quoted as saying that this would be a chance for Chicago to turn on the style, away from the competitive pressures of the NBA. His comments irritated some of the European players. They said that, on the contrary, this was the real "world championship" not the purely American challenge of the NBA.

Jordan was smoothly diplomatic on this point yesterday. He said that, judging by the European players coming to perform in the US, the European game had made "enormous progress". Offensively, he said, European players no longer had much too learn from the US; defensively they still had some way to go. As for the "world championship", he said the Bulls could beat any opposition, European or American, "if we play the game the way we know how". He did not see the absence of the other great Bulls' stars - Scottie Pippen (foot injury) and Denis Rodman (bronchitis) - as a serious problem.

Jordan was asked about rumours that he intended to retire (for the second time) at the end of the forthcoming NBA season. It was up to the Chicago Bulls, he said. If they felt the time had come to rebuild the team with younger players and a new coach, then "it will be time for me to move on''.

A new coach would want to introduce "new approaches and new rhythms. I've been through that before and I don't want to go through that again''.

Jordan has brought his family with him and intends to do some sightseeing, even if his pavement cafe days are over. He hoped, he said at one point, to "take in the Louge''. He presumably meant to say the Louvre. Unless...

Michael Jordan has already tried golf and baseball, with mixed success. Is he planning to move on to winter sports? That really would be a story.

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