Manners maketh sportsmen

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An unavoidable and irritating truth about many sporting heroes today is that they fail to appreciate fully the extent of their good fortune. They are so naturally conceited as to become unconsciously ungrateful.

Even when the applause is long, loud and practically continuous they are never at a loss for something to complain about. From experience, the degree of disgruntlement is usually in direct ratio to renumeration.

On the evidence following his return to basketball with the Chicago Bulls last week, Michael Jordan is a notable exception. Jordan is being paid $4m (£2.6m) for what remains of this season, another $4m next season, and will pick up at least $10m annually in endorsements, but it appears that he is not without a sense of obligation. Jordan said he was resuming his career not only because it would make him happy, but because he did not like the way some young NBA stars had treated the game of basketball since his departure. Their arrogance and crudeness had upset him.

"We make a lot of money and we don't need to encourage the idea of being dumb athletes," Jordan said. "Let's act like sensible people. There are millions out there who look up to us. We're given the status of doctors and lawyers [financially] so let's act professional. You don't take the game for granted and treat it like dirt."

If that philosophy sets Jordan apart from any number of sporting contemporaries so does the extent of his fame. He transcends basketball in the way that Muhammad Ali transcended boxing. People without any technical understanding are immediately aware of his brilliance.

There is television footage of Jordan that almost defies description. It suggests that gravity does not apply to him. Consequently, at 6ft 6in and 212lb Jordan is known as "His Airness". At the zenith of his career, Jordan's athleticism was remarkable.

Cynics may suppose that Jordan was tempted back to the sport he abandoned in October 1993 by the recent projection of $100m basketball salaries but his love of the game is unquestionably genuine. "I tried to stay away as much as I could," he said. "The more active I was in other sports, it really kept my mind away from the game. When I was in baseball I was at a far distance. I think at the time I walked away I probably needed to, mentally more so than anything, but I truly missed the game."

The response to Jordan's comeback emphasised that the feeling was mutual. He made the front pages. The United States was transfixed. Hordes of reporters converged on Indianapolis as they will on Saturday for Mike Tyson's release from prison. Touts asked $680 for $42 tickets. The Bulls lost 106- 93 in overtime to the Indiana Pacers but by unanimous assent the result was incidental. Wearing the smile that has helped to put up record figures in endorsements, Jordan, who has the highest scoring average in NBA history at 32.7 a game (he scored 19 against Indiana), said: "I played badly. But it wasn't the first bad game I've ever played."

Nobody referred to a gambling habit that is said to have cost Jordan hundreds of thousands of dollars in casinos and on the golf course, or the criticism he brought on himself in 1993 by showing up in Atlantic City during a play-off series in New York. It was history.

To my mind, the importance of Jordan's comeback lay with the manifesto he put forward. For example, he spoke obliquely about members of "Dream Team II" who behaved badly during the world tournament in Canada last summer. He also condemned players who brought about the dismissal of coaches through lack of personal responsibility.

There is something in all this for performers in other sports to consider. How often do they ask questions of themselves instead of whining about a lack of direction? Do they listen intently enough to the precepts of tutors? Above all do they understand that the gift does not come with special entitlement?

Loutish behaviour is a curse of modern sport. It tells of arrogance, ingratitude and rewards out of all proportion to ability.

Basketball is not a game to my tastes, but its greatest star speaks with uncommon good sense.