Basketball: When fame transcends sport and will matches skill: Ken Jones salutes the man who was probably the best player in the history of his sport

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THERE is an elite corps of sporting figures whose prowess is so instantly visible, so vividly defined that even people who deem an interest in games to be evidence of arrested development cannot fail to identify their stature.

At first sight of Lester Piggott in a driving finish you would know instantly that nobody better has climbed aboard a thoroughbred; it was never necessary to point out Pele as the supreme footballer or Muhammad Ali as the most amazing boxer ever; with his daring and a swing of beauty, the young Severiano Ballesteros immediately communicated genius.

If Michael Jordan, who announced his retirement at 30 years old yesterday, is not the best basketball player of all time he is as close to it as we are ever likely to see.

As my understanding of that game is confined to experiences gained when in the service of Queen and Country, turning out for a team comprised mostly of diminutive Scots and known throughout our league as the 'poison dwarfs', it would be foolish to attempt comparisons.

I don't know whether Jordan was a superior force to Kareem Abdul- Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, more naturally gifted than 'Magic' Johnson or more effective than Larry Bird. I do know that he is to Chicago what Joe Di Maggio was to New York, Vince Lombardi to Green Bay, Joe Montana to San Francisco.

If I hadn't been aware of that I would have known it right away a few months ago when watching Jordan inspire the Chicago Bulls to their third championship, almost single-handedly putting paid to Phoenix in the penultimate game of the National Basketball Association finals.

Not being fully conversant with the game's modern terminology, I can't put a name to some of the manoeuvres Jordan had perfected but even to the unpractised eye he was a wonder, performing astonishing feats of athleticism. Jordan appeared to hang in the air. Given sight of him, Isaac Newton would not have been so sure about the apple. The Wright brothers would have given up.

Perhaps, at the zenith of a remarkable career, one that established him as best-paid games player in history with an annual income estimated in excess of dollars 30m, Jordan recognised his peculiar relationship with the community and his alienation from it. In his mind it was a function of many things. 'OK, do it for one year. Do it for two years. Do it for three years. Then when the fun has gone out of it do it when you arrive at 3am and there are 15 people waiting for autographs,' he said.

That sense of declining obligation became more serious with the publication of a book in which his gambling habits were detailed by an erstwhile friend and golfing partner. On the golf course, the author claimed, Jordan would stake himself to win thousands. He was reported to have struck one bet of dollars 500,000 ( pounds 330,000). And lost. He dropped plenty in casinos, once in Atlantic City on the eve of a game at Madison Square Garden.

Fearful of the implications, the NBA was not best pleased. An investigation was underway when the finals began.

Jordan's response was to play out of his skin. With a supporting cast that could be described on the night as ranging from inadequate to invisible, he blocked shots, grabbed rebounds, endured fouls, shot breathtaking baskets, made assists.

Not long afterwards, Jordan was informed that his father had been found dead in suspicious circumstances. The police in North Carolina launched a murder investigation and pulled in four suspects. It was one heck of a price to pay for fame.

There was a time when people saw a serious flaw in Jordan. They saw him as a huge talent but wondered about his heart. He could play practically everybody off the court but he didn't have a championship to his name. Then he had three.

A Chicago team-mate, John Paxson, said of him: 'Night after night, year after year, Michael just carries this team.'

Jack McCallum of Sports Ilustrated, the most reliable of witnesses, considers Jordan to be the best ever. 'He leaves them all behind. There is a huge gap in sheer ability between him and his contemporaries.'

I wouldn't know. Only that he is up there with those whose fame transcends sport. He is to basketball what Jack Nicklaus is to golf, what Sir Donald Bradman is to cricket. What Juan Manuel Fangio is to grand prix racing. And that is a measure of true fame.


I've always been in awe of his talent on the court and I'm even more in awe of him as a man off the court. Earvin 'Magic' Johnson.

Be Like Mike. Advertising slogan.

More popular than Jesus. Playboy.

The greatest athlete to play a team sport. Jerry Reinsdorf, the Chicago Bulls owner.

A charisma that transcends his sport. Donald Dell, of ProServ, Jordan's management company.

The one player I'll accept losing to if I have to lose. Charles Barkley, Phoenix Suns.

God disguised as Michael Jordan. Larry Bird, ex-Boston Celtics.

Nureyev against a bunch of Hulk Hogans. Bob Cousy, ex-Celtics.

His upper body appears to hover around the rim of the basket like a human helicopter. Phil Elderkin, Christian Science Monitor.

The main thing to remember about Michael is that God made only one. Johnny Bach, Chicago Bulls assistant.

He's living the American Dream. The American Dream is to reach a point in your life where you don't have to do anything that you don't want to do and can do everything that you do want to do. We respect his decision. Jerry Reinsdorf.

He represents basketball. He represents the United States. He represents sports. He's like a breath of fresh air and someone just closed the window. Dan Peterson, ex-coach.

(Photograph omitted)