One man's disappearance has taken most of the limelight in this extraordinary affair. Literally so in the 44-storey headquarters of an insurance company on South Wabash Avenue, where lights have been left on at night in an arrangement that spells "THX MJ" in giant letters down one wall and "23" down another. This is corporate America's grateful farewell to a man whose skills and leadership of the Bulls brought championships to Chicago, dreams to the hearts of children from Manchester to Manila, and a warm glow to the balance sheets of a number of multinational companies. But Michael Jordan has retired before. This time the rest of the team has gone with him.
The recent collective bargaining agreement between owners and players which ended the six-month shutdown of that unique combination of sport and showbiz known as the National Basketball Association prefaced anything but an immediate return to business as usual at the United Center, the Bulls' home stadium. Jordan's decision to turn down almost pounds 25m for one last season was swiftly followed by the announcement of the retirement of Dennis Rodman, the outrageous rebound king, and of the departure of another three senior players: Scottie Pippen, Luc Longley and Steve Kerr. The coach, Phil Jackson, also confirmed that he would be taking a year off, and might resume his career elsewhere. Of the household names, only Toni Kukoc, the 6ft 11in Croatian forward, remains.
The fans in this sports-mad town are bemused and disappointed. "It's shaken the city up," said Jeff Wallenfeldt, a publisher's editor. "The Bulls success over the years had locked the city in to an expectation of an annual ritual, if not a championship." And each capture of the NBA's O'Brien Trophy was greeted with a mass expression of joy. "The next day, people would just pour into the city from the suburbs," Wallenfeld continued, "hundreds of thousands of them heading for Grant Park, wearing Bulls shirts and carrying pennants. The atmosphere was like a championship game itself." Others are rueful but realistic, in the way of Chicagoans. "All good things come to an end," John Castelli, who drives a limousine, said. "And we got six world championships out of this team."
How do we measure the true dimension of this phenomenon? Let's imagine that when Eric Cantona called it a day after winning a second Double with Manchester United, he took Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Peter Schmeichel with him. Oh, and Alex Ferguson. Actually, it's worse than that, since an NBA team only has five players on court at any one time, and the big five have gone. And, well, United aren't the Bulls.
The collective identity of this team reached out far beyond their own universe. These were the men who completed the transformation of basketball into a global marketing phenomenon, a process begun at the end of the 1970s by the appearance of such talents as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Before them, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam writes in Playing For Keeps, his new book about Jordan, basketball was "considered to be badly tainted... it was seen as far too black, and the majority of its players, it was somehow believed, were on drugs and willing to play hard only in the last two minutes of each game." After Jordan, the NBA's logo was up there with McDonald's and Coca-Cola.
Chicago is currently staring at the retreating backs of players who, under Jackson's wise stewardship, won six titles in eight years (missing out only in the two years when Jordan took leave of absence to try his hand at pro baseball), who set an NBA record of 72 victories in a single regular season in 1996, and who sold enough merchandise to put half the world's youth in shiny red singlets, most of them with the number 23 on front and back.
And now they're gone. All gone. Leaving the Bulls with only three players under contract. Leaving their owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, and his widely abused general manager, Jerry Krause, furiously negotiating with prospective arrivals from clubs across the nation. Leaving the sponsors and merchandisers scratching their hands. Leaving the fans - or however many of them turn up at the 19,000-seater United Center when the abbreviated season begins in two weeks' time - to peruse their programmes trying to sort out the identities of a bunch of understudies and newcomers.
Some of those unfamiliar silhouettes were visible this week at the Berto Center, the Bulls' training facility, an unsignposted and outwardly unremarkable building set amidst a park of corporate headquarters in Deerfield, a rural enclave in Chicago's opulent northern suburbs. This is close by the place where Jordan and Pippen made their homes, in a planned village called Bannockburn, amid the variegated architecture preferred by commodity dealers and corporate lawyers, from Hollywood Tudor to blank-faced concrete bunkers, surrounded by groves of ash, fir and silver birch. Their mansions lie off Half Day Road, so called because it once took half a day to get there from Chicago by horse and cart ("Takes a million dollars now," my cab-driver muttered).
Locked out for half a year, the younger players had been allowed back into the Berto Center to go through individual exercise and practice routines, but were having to wait for the NBA and the players' union to sort out the last details of their deal and before getting clearance to return to full, supervised training. And, incidentally, learning the names of their new team-mates. For the first time since Jordan's arrival from the University of North Carolina in 1985, the parking lot behind the building contained not one superstar's supercar.
Jordan's departure was not the reason for the simultaneous exits of Rodman, Pippen, Longley and Kerr. Although his colleagues respected his unique ability and the finishing touch he brought to the team, he was not as popular in the locker room as that. The reasons were mostly to do with the complex salary rules under which the NBA clubs operate, and with the desire of Chicago's management to look ahead and build a new generation of Bulls for the post-Jordan era.
Pippen, Longley and Kerr were out of contract and had become free agents. But the NBA's curious rules on maximum salaries mean that a club can re- sign their own players for a higher salary than another club could offer, and then, in this case, trade them to those other clubs, where they are then paid the salary agreed with the original club. Obviously, this benefits the players, and might be seen as a reward for their loyal service. "One of the things we felt was that the players had given a lot to the city," Jerry Krause said this week. "We felt we had some situations where we could help them."
But such apparent generosity also works greatly to the Bulls' advantage. By replacing their departing stars with a bunch of decent players - such as forwards Martin Muursepp from Phoenix and Roy Rogers from Houston, and a man sarcastically described by the Chicago Tribune as "the immortal Bubba Wells" - whose contracts end at the close of the forthcoming season, the club will be giving itself greater room for financial manoeuvre in preparation for the first season of the new millennium, when they will have approximately $25m in the war-chest with which to attract free agents for the new coach, Tim Floyd from Iowa State, to mould into title contenders.
Many fans blame Krause for starting the fall of the dominoes by alienating the much admired Phil Jackson, whose book, Sacred Hoops, a philosophical disquisition on teamwork, became a national bestseller. Krause's own philosophy is more Runyon than Black Elk. "When we're winning in the play-offs," he has said, "it's amazing how good-looking I get. People come up and compliment me on my diet. But if we lose, I'm a little fat slob again."
Even Krause has his defenders. "What happened is not Jerry Krause's fault," said John Castelli, the limo driver, who can remember a time before there were Bulls at all, when Chicago's basketball team was the Zephyrs, who played through the 1940s and 1950s before going under. "It's always the same with general managers. When they win, he's a hero. When they lose, the guy's a goat.
"Chicago was lucky to get Michael in the first place. When he arrived, he made it clear that he wasn't just in it to do tricks but to win championships. And Krause went out and bought the players to help him do it."
The Jordan-led Bulls eventually outgrew the Old Barn, their original arena, which was flattened to create a parking lot for its successor. At the huge grey Universal Center, located a couple of hundred yards from condemned tenements that have become warrens of crack houses, the minimum ticket price is around pounds 40. But not all Chicago residents take an unalloyed pride in their team's achievements. For Marty Preibe, a 35- year-old hotel bell captain, the Reinsdorf-Krause-Jordan Bulls symbolised the commercial corruption of what was once a game played for the pleasure of working people and their children.
"I used to live and breathe basketball," he told me. "When I was a kid, and we lived halfway between here and Detroit, my dad used to take me to see the Pistons. He'd put a $20 bill in his pocket and out of that he'd pay for parking, tickets, and food for both of us. We had such fun. The crowd at Cobo Hall really knew basketball. They could appreciate a good defence, when someone was working hard for rebounds. It wasn't just about who scored the most points.
"Then when I went to college in Seattle I'd go see the Sonics. I'd buy a $5 ticket for a nosebleed seat and if there were free places at courtside nobody minded if you walked right down and sat there. But then the salaries started going crazy, and the players started having their pictures taken in front of corporate logos, and the best seats got taken by the corporations, and I haven't been to a game in five years. It's not a game for working people any more.
"What happened was that the players became businessmen. They may have a union, but they're such hypocrites. They were talking about solidarity during the lockout. But, you know, Nike laid off 63,000 workers in Maine, all union people, and took their jobs to Korea, and then to Indonesia, where they don't have unions, and the players didn't say a thing."
In fact the "workers" were generally felt to have come off much worse than the bosses in a dispute which was principally concerned with the division of the NBA's $2bn annual revenues. The owners managed to win agreement on a mechanism that will rein back the runaway salary increases of recent years, although it would be hard to describe as a defeat any settlement which gives a rookie player, fresh out of college, a statutory minimum annual income of pounds 180,000.
So as the NBA winds up the hype for an abbreviated 50-game season scheduled to begin on 5 February, the 35-year-old Jordan, still pulling down around $80m a year from corporate endorsements, is off to a life of golf (he was clowning with Charles Barkley at the Bob Hope Classic this week), gambling, and a seven-a-day cigar habit.
Rodman, aged 37, said on Tuesday that he wants to pursue his Hollywood career and give more time to his marriage to Baywatch star Carmen Electra, but on Thursday he was making tentative noises about playing again, although probably not in Chicago. Pippen, 33, will pick up an estimated $80m over five years for joining Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston, turning the Rockets into serious contenders for the championship; Longley's five- year deal with Phoenix is worth $30m and Kerr, the three-point specialist, will make $11m for a similar spell at San Antonio.
Farewell, then, to an Air-a, as the display window of a State Street department store put it this week, in bold lettering above a display of Jordan memorabilia. Chicago knows it will not see his like again. But this is a tough and businesslike town, not given to despair. "What happens next?" John Castelli mused. "That's the thing about sports. You never know."