Basketball: Transfixed by the alchemist

The most casual viewer was a convert. They didn't watch the basketball. They watched Jordan; Gerard Wright reflects on the exit of an icon who transcended sport
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The Independent Online
THE NEWS broke in Chicago at 10.05pm, local time, on Monday night. Twenty-three hours later, the first 15 minutes of local television stations' bulletins were taken up with a single story: the retirement of Michael Jordan. Then they went to sport.

Which is how it was with the wondrous career of Michael Jordan, since he transcended sport in much the same way that Nike, his symbolic partner all these years, transcended the production and marketing of athletic shoes: wordless symbols of success. Basketball footwear went from canvas sneakers to patent-leather fashion items in Michael Jordan's time, in the same way that the NBA went from third-class sporting en- tity to showbiz phenomenon during the course of his 15-year career.

An expert in genetics could give you the approximate odds of the arrival of an individual blessed with the combination of size, fast-twitch muscles, peripheral vision, hand-eye co-ordination, durability, ambition, ego, nerve, personality and thickness of skin who could possibly replicate the qualities that Michael Jordan brought to basketball. Those odds would be long, and in the end, irrelevant, because there will never be another like him.

There will never be an athlete who so captivates for so long. The most casual viewer was a convert. They didn't watch the Bulls or basketball. They watched Jordan.

Mark McGwire did it during the last year in baseball with his 70 home runs, and restored attention and lustre to the strike-diminished "national pastime". But what does he do next year? And the year after that? McGwire's skill at hitting a ball was exceptional, but in the end it was one-dimensional. It was his pursuit of the home-run record that caught the public's attention, as much as those shots out of the yard that peppered grandstands and rooftops across the country. Numbers will never be as enthralling to watch as people.

There will never be an athlete whose career trajectory so completely pulls an entire professional sport in his slipstream, or so changes the perception of the best in any sport. Once they were simply heroes. Now they are marketing devices, with the discovery of the alchemy that Jordan could perform. His presence and his endorsement could turn base objects - soft drinks, fast foods, underwear - into precious metal.

The jingles supporting those endorsements were as simple as nursery rhymes and as effective as brainwashing. Across America, kids of every shade sang, to themselves out loud, "I want to be like Mike."

A black man, welcome in every home. There was only one other athlete, also African-American, who managed to transcend his sport and become a worldwide identity in the way that Jordan did.

Muhammad Ali. As much of his time, the tumultuous and rebellious Sixties, as Jordan was of his, the money and information-obsessed mid-Eighties to late Nineties. Ali wore his fame regally and easily - Jordan never gave autographs at Lenin's tomb, as Ali did during a "goodwill tour" of what was then the Soviet Union in 1978. Fame surrounded Ali but never suffocated him. Jordan was a virtual recluse in his home or hotel suites during the season; a distant fixture on any golf course through the summer.

But Ali left his sport as the merest candle, compared to the blinding spotlight he had once been. His last fight, in October 1980, against Larry Holmes, was called by his corner after 10 one-sided rounds.

Jordan could not have left his sport on a higher note, or at a loftier peak of his powers: his team trailing the Utah Jazz by a point in game six of the NBA finals, the ball in the hands of the opposing team's best and certainly strongest player, Karl Malone, under the Utah basket with 18 seconds to play...

And then... figuratively and literally, Jordan seizes the moment... wrenching the ball from Malone's grasp... driving along the sideline... braking and turning to midcourt... dismissing the Jazz's Byron Russell with a borderline foul... ending the game, the play-offs and the last great dynasty in America and perhaps world sport with his right arm extended and bent at the wrist, a frozen follow-through to the jump shot that had won the game. It was like the flourish on a signature. Any attempt to repeat it, even by Jordan himself, would have been a forgery.

And that will be true of his team as well. As it stands, the Bulls have but four players under contract. They need eight more to form an NBA- sanctioned quorum. They are now history, in every sense of that expression. Just as there will never be another Jordan, neither is there likely to be a team that will so dominate its competition as the Bulls did in the Nineties. They won six NBA titles in eight years: three in a row, then a two-year hiatus while Jordan attempted baseball, then another three.

The business and legislative landscape is changing too fast in professional sports in every country where they are taken seriously to believe that any one entity could take charge as the Bulls did. In October, last year, the New York Yankees won their second World Series in three years and managed to keep that young, near-perfect team intact. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anaheim Angels, owned by Rupert Murdoch and the Disney corporation, opened their wallets. The result, if not a shift in the balance of power, was a return of that balance to the centre. It's anyone's game, if you can afford to play. Or pay.

And that is Jordan's legacy too. In his time he generated so much money, on and off the court, that he made sport too good an investment for the very richest and the very biggest to ignore.