Profile: Heroes fall harder: Michael Jordan - He was an advertiser's dream, as spotless off the court as he was matchless on it. Phil Reeves on a shooting star's descent

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The Independent Online
Six foot six. Baggy shorts. Bald as a billiard ball. Lethal at all times from all distances. Some of you may not have guessed by now, but millions of young people need no further clues. They'll tell you to forget Stanley Matthews, Diego Maradona and Muhammad Ali. Michael Jordan is the greatest.

The 30-year-old basketball player, nicknamed Air Jordan because of his gravity-defying leaps, is already the world's highest-paid athlete and is fast becoming the best known. Playboy magazine, borrowing from the late John Lennon, declared last year that he was 'more popular than Jesus'. Autograph hunters have rioted at the sight of him. In China, a survey by a footwear company found he was the second best known personality after Deng Xiao ping. He is a planetary celebrity and an advertiser's dream. In Britain, where American basketball can be seen only on satellite television, Jordan was the first choice of Brighton students when asked by Gallup which of 16 celebrities had most influenced their values.

This week he hopes to lead his team, the Chicago Bulls, to their third consecutive victory in the National Basketball Association finals, the American equivalent of winning the Ashes or the FA Cup Final. Even the uninitiated could not fail to see his extraordinary skills. A weave, a wriggle, the acceleration of a leopard, a leap that lasts an eternity and - slam. Scoring comes so naturally that his fans almost gasp in disbelief when he misses.

For years, America's sports reporters were hardly able to write about Michael Jordan without going weak at the nib. He was hailed as a genius, and a rare example of a sports celebrity who was also clean-living, wholesome and gentlemanly. In a world where sporting heroes often tumble from their pedestals, Jordan was a near-perfect professional, as impressive off the court as on it. Larry Bird, another basketball giant, described him as 'God disguised as Michael Jordan'.

As his fame grew, Michael Jordan, mindful of his commercial sponsors, buffed his public image with the loving care of a new Porsche owner on a Sunday morning. He is never seen drinking alcohol in public; there are no paternity suits and no entourage of women. All in all, he makes a first-class icon.

Or at least, he did. In the last few months, Air Jordan has been experiencing turbulence. Little smudges have appeared on his previously unblemished livery, and there have been mutterings among the mortals.

Jordan has long been known to love wagering on trick shots during practice sessions, or on games of gin rummy during flights on the team plane. His hotel room has often been the gathering point for all-night poker sessions. He began this season with a reprimand from the National Basketball Association for placing bets on golf games. And last year he was called to testify in a court case after a dollars 57,000 ( pounds 38,000) cheque from his account was found in the possession of an alleged drug dealer and money launderer. He first said it was a personal loan, then admitted it was payment for poker losses.

His supporters have till now found gambling a perfectly reasonable way for a multi-millionaire to let off steam.

However, two weeks ago, the mood changed. A book alleged that the basketball star refused to pay a gambling debt run up on the golf course in 1991. This was no flutter. The author, a Californian businessman called Richard Esquinas, claimed Jordan owed him dollars 1.2m. The issue took on a new dimension: it is one thing to gamble, and quite another for a world-class sportsman with a reputation for gentlemanly conduct to refuse to honour an enormous debt.

Jordan admits gambling with Mr Esquinas but says that his figures are 'preposterous'. Mr Esquinas says the debt was later knocked down to dollars 900,000, before they agreed to settle for a third of that sum. He also claims Jordan still owes him dollars 100,000. 'Having to pay me meant that he would have to admit defeat, which is difficult for him,' Mr Esquinas said.

MICHAEL Jeffery Jordan comes from Wilmington, a rural town in North Carolina. He is the second of five children, whose parents fought their way out of the sharecropping farm to a life of relative comfort. His father was a plant supervisor for General Electric, while his mother worked as an executive in a bank. Jordan was far more interested in sport than in studying, despite being academically bright.

From an early age he wanted to be a professional sportsman. The idea of being a baseball pro appealed to him - and remains an ambition which he occasionally fancifully resurrects. In the end, he opted for basketball, having developed his skills in the backyard court built by his father. He would practise for hours with his elder brother, Larry.

One unhappy incident marred his childhood and still causes him pain. When he was about eight years old, he lost a friend in a swimming accident. The drowning child grabbed Jordan and would have taken him down with him, had Jordan not struggled free at the last minute. He could do nothing to help. It has left the superstar with a lifelong phobia about water; he still cannot swim. Otherwise, the path to fame was smooth, an inevitable ascension to college basketball and, in 1984, to the Chicago Bulls, then one of the National Basketball Association's less successful teams.

Basketball fans will engulf you in a cloud of breathless statistics about Michael Jordan: how he led the league scoring in 1986-87 with an average of 37.1 points a game, and how he is only the second player in NBA history to score 3,000 points in a season. There will be misty-eyed recollections of the 1986 play-offs in which he ran rings around the Boston Celtics, or the last- minute 16-footer he sank as a college freshman - his first taste of fame - to win the 1982 National Championship for the University of North Carolina.

His recent difficulties have not gone unnoticed by Jordan's money managers. He has big endorsement deals with six companies - McDonald's, Nike, Wheaties, Quaker Oats, Sara Lee and the Chicago-based '23' clothing company. 'Be Like Mike', says one of his commercials - an exhortation that no longer has quite the resonance its authors intended.

So far, his sponsors have stood by him. But even if one or two were to drop him, it wouldn't matter much. No one beyond the superstar's closest financial advisers knows precisely what he is worth but, according to Forbes magazine, he made almost dollars 36m last year, mostly off-court. He is the ultimate modern sports star - not merely a talented performer paid for turning out, but a money machine, bounding from one corporate cheque to another with the confidence of a man who knows he is generating untold millions in product sales.

But Americans expect high standards from their national heroes. They have not forgotten the fall from grace of baseball's Pete Rose, barred from the Hall of Fame after he was accused of betting on the game, or the boast by the basketball star Wilt Chamberlain that he had slept with 20,000 women. Even Jordan's former rival, the hugely respected Earvin 'Magic' Johnson, lost a little of his glory when he revealed he was HIV positive after sleeping with scores of women. Will Air Jordan also have feet of clay?

He is clearly aware of his responsibility, especially to young blacks, and has gone to some lengths to fulfil it. He makes a particular point, for instance, of inviting sick children to the Bulls' dressing room before each game (one little boy, who later died of cancer, was so thrilled to be given a pair of Jordan's shoes that he was buried in them). According to Sam Smith, author of Jordan Rules, Jordan once told a colleague: 'People look to their role- models to be almost flawless . . . It's hard to live up to something like that, really harder than basketball. It's the biggest job I have.'

But in Mr Smith's account Jordan emerges as domineering, tantrum- prone and solitary - a player whose superior skills and selfish style of play isolate him from his team-mates.

One of Jordan's closest friends, Charles Barkley, basketball's most outspoken star, urges his fans to venerate their parents, rather than a bunch of rich young sportsmen like himself. He has a point. What sense does it make for a nation's youth to model themselves on individuals who have acquired wealth and fame which only a tiny percentage of others could ever emulate?

Jordan has reportedly been mulling over the idea of quitting basketball. He has grown tired of the adulation, the constant scrutiny and the cash-hungry sharks that menace everyone with a marketable name.

'People say they wish they were Michael Jordan,' he told one reporter. 'OK, do it for a year. Do it for two years. Do it for five years. When you get past the fun bit, then go do the part where you get into cities at 3am and you have 15 people waiting for autographs when you are as tired as hell.'

If he does leave before his career's natural end it will be a dismal reflection of the unreasonable pressure America places on its superstars. For all his faults, something would be very wrong if Air Jordan stalked off in search of a private life simply because the world expected too much.

(Photograph omitted)