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'The Desire Isn't There'

Michael Jordan told the press he has nothing left to prove, but that may be only one reason for his abrupt retirement

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 18, 1993 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.

Michael Jordan handled his retirement press conference in Chicago on Oct. 6 with grace, humor and even a bit of competitive pique, all typical of the man whose talent and charisma have dominated the sports landscape for the past decade. But did he also handle it with complete candor?

There is no reason to believe that Jordan was not serious when he said he had decided that he will not play in the NBA. But that doesn't mean he won't change his mind someday. That doesn't mean the competitive fires won't once again start raging, perhaps luring him back to the arena in which, over nine seasons, he established himself as the best basketball player of all time. That doesn't mean after, say, 300 days, golf won't start to get old. And it doesn't mean he won't play in Europe for a team that he might also own.

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Similarly, there is no reason to believe that Jordan wasn't telling the truth when he said, "I just feel that I don't have anything else to prove," or when he said, "The desire just isn't there." But that doesn't mean those feelings were the only reasons he hung it up in the prime of a brilliant career. Is he a classic victim of burnout, brought on in part by his battles with the media over his privacy, not to mention his grief over the murder of his father two months ago? Was he also bothered by the specter of continued questions about his high-stakes gambling?

One thing is certain: Jordan's announcement was a stunner, and not just in the City of Slumped Shoulders. "A sporting bomb from the U.S.," a TV network in Greece proclaimed, and that it was. Yes, Jordan had issued broad hints over the past few years that his retirement was nigh, even saying on more than one occasion that his Air Jordans would never grace the playing surface at Chicago's new $175 million United Center, which will be the Bulls' home arena beginning with the 1994-95 season. But no one was fully prepared to grasp the thought that the 30-year-old Jordan would not rise to the challenge of winning a fourth straight NBA championship or add to his seven consecutive scoring titles (a record he shares with Wilt Chamberlain). Jordan had been out of contact with Bull officials over the summer, but that was not unusual—he always went his own way until the last moment, then came to training camp and picked up right where he had left off, which meant whipping everyone's tail in camp, in the exhibition season, in the regular season and, finally, in the postseason.

Jordan left the door open to return, but only a crack; his attorney, David Falk, said Jordan's hedging at the press conference on calling his retirement permanent was done at Falk's request. Jordan claims he will stay busy playing golf, spending time with his family, playing golf, getting more involved with the various corporations he represents and playing golf.

It is true, though, that Jordan and Nike chairman Phil Knight have been talking about the possibility of jointly buying a team in Europe, on which the best player would be a certain globally recognized superstar wearing number 23. The exposure in Europe could only help Nike, whose stock has fallen from $90.25 last Nov. 24 to $45 last week. As for Jordan, there are some great courses over there.

However, logic suggests that European basketball would not be intense enough to sate Jordan's maniacal competitiveness. Neither will increasing his involvement with companies like Quaker Oats and Wilson, the sort of work that Jordan, in contrast to Magic Johnson, has never cared for. As for his remark that he might sit around watching the grass grow and even cut it from time to time, well, that matches no known portrait of Michael Jeffrey Jordan, he of the boundless energy and endless thirst for victory, who could play 36 holes, sleep three hours, then go out and score 50 on anyone.

But it is undeniable that Jordan needed to get away. The Bulls' third straight championship proved, beyond a doubt, his preeminence as an NBA player. Even Magic, with a better "supporting cast" (to use a favorite Jordan phrase), never won three in a row. Nor did Larry Bird, who played with two teammates—Robert Parish and Kevin McHale—who are locks for the Hall of Fame. What was left to prove? Jordan's greatest achievement was that, game after game, season after season, he was actually better than his hype. Shaquille O'Neal is about to find out how hard it is to pull that off.

And then there was the fishbowl existence that Jordan endured off the court. His multitude of public relations entanglements—criticism from the black community for his refusal to be outspoken on political and social issues; reports in author Sam Smith's best-selling 1991 book, The Jordan Rules, that he was aloof and highly critical of his teammates; the gambling allegations—had worn him down. Though he made a point of telling the media that "you did not drive me out of the game," it was clear that, in fact, the Fourth Estate had played a part in his departure. Jordan's media-bashing at the press conference was heavy-handed at times and, to those reporters who had known him a long time, somewhat sad.

Michael Jordan retirement from Chicago Bulls 1993

While it is true that Jordan took some uncalled-for shots over the last few seasons, he seems to have forgotten that most reporters had been eminently fair with him and that some had all but groveled in his presence. The media became to Jordan, as they do to many lesser athletes, a nebulous "you guys," a phrase he used 21 times at his farewell press conference. As Jordan's anger and resentment grew at the erosion of his public image over the last few years, he pulled away from the media and, gradually, closed his circle around him. Jordan never became completely paranoid, but he did seem to think that someone was chasing him.

And he was partly right. The press, the adoring fans who wouldn't leave him alone, the constant pressure to live up to the persona who jived with Spike and rode a magic carpet with Bugs—all of it made Jordan a prisoner of his fame, a burden he had begun to talk about. His peers had also begun talking about it, particularly good buddy Charles Barkley, who admitted that he found the Elvis aspect of Jordan's existence spooky. "The one thing that's weird about Michael is that whenever we're together, we're in a hotel room," said Barkley last week, "because he doesn't ever go out."

Finally, factor into all of that the shooting death of his father, James Jordan, whose body was found in a South Carolina creek on Aug. 3. (Two 18-year-old North Carolina men, Larry Martin Demery and Daniel Andre Green, have been charged with first-degree murder.) [Editor's Note: Green was convicted of first-degree murder on Feb. 29, 1996; Demery pled guilty to the charges and agreed to testify against Green. Green was sentenced to life in prison, Demery was sentenced to 40 years in prison as part of a plea deal.] Jordan was extremely close to his father, who had served at times as his unofficial spokesman, and friends say Jordan was not only despondent over the death but also angry at press reports intimating that it may have had something to do with his gambling. As for the tragedy's impact on Jordan's departure, Michael himself said, "I would've made the same decision with my father around." But it was probably the final push he needed.

The great unknown, though, is the extent to which Jordan's gambling was a factor in his exit. He must have known that "you guys" in the media would not stop looking into his private affairs as long as he was an active NBA player. Unhappy over publication last June of Michael & Me, a book in which erstwhile golfing partner Richard Esquinas revealed that Jordan had run up large gambling debts to him, Jordan might also have feared that others would come forward with tales, true or not, of similar losses.

There was also speculation that Jordan was apprehensive about the NBA's investigation into his gambling practices and retired so that the league would cease and desist with the questions. Jordan did not deal with the subject of gambling at his press conference and did not return phone calls afterward (he has agreed to be interviewed—and undoubtedly subjected to relentless grilling—by Oprah Winfrey on Oct. 26 for a show that will air three days later), but both Falk and NBA commissioner David Stern dismissed suggestions that there was a link between Jordan's gambling and his retirement, Stern angrily calling the very idea "scurrilous and disgusting." Stern and Jordan had been scheduled to meet before the season opener to discuss Jordan's gambling, but Stern denied that the timing of Jordan's announcement had anything to do with the pressure of that meeting.

But the NBA's latest investigation, which Stern last Friday declared closed, seemed to be as cursory as one the league conducted into Jordan's gambling practices last year. Stern clearly is uncomfortable about looking into a player's private life, particularly a player who has brought fame and fortune to the NBA. The commissioner is certain, he told SI last Friday, that Jordan has never had a gambling addiction and that he has never bet on NBA games, an offense that could have led to suspension or banishment. Neither was Jordan's gambling sufficient, in Stern's mind, to bring disrepute to the league, another basis for suspension.

But how can Stern be sure, especially after the two gambling-related Jordan bombshells that have already rocked the league? The first came in late 1991, when a $57,000 check from Jordan was discovered by the IRS in the bank account of convicted cocaine trafficker James (Slim) Bouler; then $108,000 in checks from Jordan were found in the briefcase of slain bail bondsman Eddie Dow.

Michael Jordan retirement from Chicago Bulls 1993

Jordan initially told reporters that the money in Bouler's account was a loan to Bouler but later admitted under oath that the money had been used to repay gambling debts. The NBA appointed Frederick Lacey, a former federal judge and U.S. attorney, to look into the matter, but no punitive action was taken. In Hang Time, a book written by Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene and authorized by Jordan, Jordan said he told Lacey that there were no more checks, no more big-money gambling debts and no more potentially embarrassing situations.

What Jordan neglected to tell Lacey was that he had incurred heavy gambling debts to Esquinas, who said he was hounding Jordan for payment. Esquinas said in Michael & Me that Jordan had lost $1.25 million in golf bets with him, and while Jordan publicly disputed that figure, he did admit losing considerable sums to Esquinas. He had clearly been caught in another lie.

Stern said on Friday that Jordan's lying to Lacey would not have constituted a punishable offense, even if he had continued to play in the league. "As far as the NBA is concerned, Michael Jordan did nothing wrong, and I resent any implications to the contrary," said the commissioner. Stern said that he and Jordan will soon meet (at the superstar's insistence, according to both Stern and Falk) to "close the loop." Whatever that means—and it is strange that Stern is talking to Jordan only after he pronounced the league "investigation" closed—a league source says Stern will ask why Jordan didn't come clean with Lacey. The meeting, according to Stern, will be "a private matter." And, so, Jordan hopes, will be his life now that he won't have a 23 on his jersey for eight months a year.

But can Jordan stay away? He will almost certainly not return this season. Once the NBA receives the official letter from the Bulls declaring that Jordan has retired—a formality that often takes months—he could return only with unanimous approval of the Board of Governors, which comprises one representative from each franchise. It would be hard to imagine that championship wannabes like the New York Knicks or the Cleveland Cavaliers would be eager to green-light the return of their tongue-wagging, one-man stumbling block.

But nothing says Jordan couldn't come back in 1994-95—when he would no longer need such approval—or the year after that, or the year after that. Deep in Jordan's subconscious, the thought that he could reinvent himself and lead the Bulls back to the promised land (they won't get there this season) must have crossed his mind...or soon will.

Some of the Bulls are privately hopeful that he will return. In the meeting he had with his coaches and teammates just before the press conference, Jordan was much more optimistic about coming back than he was publicly. One of the things that coach Phil Jackson told Jordan was that he was a genius, like Picasso or Shakespeare, and that by retiring, he was depriving others of seeing, and being inspired by, his gift. That moved Jordan though not enough to change his mind.

Perhaps only time will do that.