Basketball: Jordan leaving haunting legacy with retirement

Basketball: `Superman'...`God'...the Muhammad Ali of his generation. Can the sport survive without its greatest talent?
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AT THE United Center basketball arena in Chicago, they worship Michael Jordan like a god. The stadium would not have been built without him and without his extra- ordinary, record-breaking feats with the Chicago Bulls.

Jordan was the man who, more than any other, dragged the Bulls out of obscurity and transformed them into the most electrifying team in the history of basketball.

He has become the most instantly recognisable name in American sports, the Muhammad Ali or Babe Ruth of his generation. A statue in the arena calls Jordan the best there ever was and the best there ever will be - a piece of hyperbole that few would disagree with.

But now, it seems, the Bulls - and the world - will have to learn to live without him. After months of rumours, compounded by a bitter six- month labour dispute that wiped out the first part of the new basketball season, Jordan has decided to announce his retirement.

The news was widely leaked by friends and associates who have been hoping against hope for months to persuade him to stay for another season or two, and the official confirmation is expected to come in a news conference in Chicago as early as today.

The reaction to his decision could only be described as stunned disbelief. "Say it ain't so, Mike," implored one newspaper headline. But even the most hyperbolic sportswriters - the ones who have compared Jordan to Superman and God himself - know that the writing has been on the wall for some time.

Jordan has never hidden his wish to quit while he was still on top of the game. After 16 professional seasons, he has achieved all that a sportsman could possibly hope to achieve: leading the Bulls to six National Basketball Association championships in eight seasons, including the last three in a row; being named Most Valuable Player five times; helping the United States pick up two Olympic gold medals, and - perhaps most significantly - becoming a legend in his own lifetime, a sporting phenomenon capable not only of wowing sports arenas but of driving entire economic enterprises and influencing stock prices on Wall Street, too.

Advancing age - he turns 36 next month - is probably not the only factor. The six-month NBA lock-out, that revolved around salaries for star players like him, appears to have left a bitter taste in his mouth, as it has for millions of disenchanted basketball fans. Although actively involved in negotiations for most of the dispute, he distanced himself in the closing stages.

As the stand-off was finally resolved last week, Jordan was in the Bahamas on holiday. His team-mates report that he has not been following his usual work-out routine and has spent much of his time playing golf. He is also said to have cut a tendon in a finger, which would probably disqualify him for the belated start of the season on 5 February.

The arguments over star salaries have also lit a fuse under the very bedrock of the Chicago Bulls. Since the summer, Jordan has been tussling with the Bulls' chairman, Jerry Krause, particularly after the departure of the team's coach, Phil Jackson, for an "extended sabbatical". Since only four of the Bulls' players are on contract, Jordan's departure is going to make it much harder for Krause to hold on to his other star players - the forward Scottie Pippen, whom Jordan calls his "little brother", and the rebounder Dennis Rodman.

It is just possible that Jordan is bluffing, or that he will change his mind. After all, he has quit before. In 1993, after leading the Bulls to their first three championship titles, he made the extraordinary decision to retire from basketball and try his luck at baseball.

He never made it past the minor league, and 18 months later he sent a famous telegram to the Bulls bearing just two words: "I'm back."

His first retirement appeared to be motivated, once again, by money and labour disputes. It also followed hard on the heels of the murder, still unsolved, of his father in North Carolina.

This time, though, the experts are in little doubt that Jordan means business. "When he retired the first time, I was one of the few who kept saying he eventually would return," the columnist Lacy Banks wrote in yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times. "But I can't share in that optimism this time."

If this is indeed the end, Jordan's fans will be left with a haunting memory of his final act in professional basketball: the extraordinary 18ft jump shot with which he clinched the championship for the Bulls with five seconds to go in the final game with their arch rivals, the Utah Jazz, in June.

After he completed the winning shot, Jordan's right arm remained extended in a frozen image of victory - a moment that was widely recalled yesterday. "It was a moment become sculpture," enthused Bill Plaschke in the Los Angeles Times. "It was perhaps the best last moment in the history of sports... Michael Jordan didn't retire at the top. He retired while dancing across it."

As a player, Jordan was something of a late developer. In high school in North Carolina, he hesitated for a long time between basketball and baseball - a hesitation that would affect his later career, too. Although he was twice named college player of the year, he was not initially believed to be quite the star material he turned into and was judged to be only the third best player of his year when he was drafted from college to the Bulls in 1984.

Soon, though, he was stunning the crowds with his dunk shots, his hand- switching, his extraordinary point-scoring capacity (63 points in a single, fabled game against the Boston Celtics) and his ability to deliver at the crucial moment.

As he propelled the Bulls towards the top, the team drafted Phil Jackson as coach and Pippen and Horace Grant (later replaced by Rodman) as fellow players. By 1991, the most successful line-up in NBA history was in place, and wiped out the competition year after year.

So strong was the fascination Jordan exerted that he became the darling of advertisers, sponsors and merchandisers.

Nike designed a shoe, the Air Jordan, just for him and made a fortune out of it. He endorsed hamburgers, hot dogs, soft drinks, cars, airlines and more. When he returned to professional basketball in 1995, the share price of Nike and McDonald's shot up.

In 1993 the Chicago Tribune calculated his revenue-generating abilities were worth $1bn (pounds 600m) to the city of Chicago alone. Last year, Fortune magazine estimated he had contributed $10bn dollars to the US economy as a whole.

His departure will thus be a blow of staggering proportions. He was one of the few reasons fans were still clinging on to a sport that was struggling with its finances and its self-image even before the NBA lock-out.

The Chicago Bulls may not survive his retirement, and the rest of the league is trembling too. As a Chicago fan told an overnight radio call- in, nobody is indispensable, but Michael Jordan might just be the exception to that rule.