Several years ago, as Michael Jordan was zipping through a suburban Chicago parking lot in his white Porsche, two speeding cars suddenly appeared in his rearview mirror. Jordan braked, and the cars screeched to a halt, one on each side of him. A young kid jumped from one car holding a sweat suit he had designed for Jordan, while an older fellow leaped from the other, imploring Jordan to listen to his rap tape "about the greatest basketball player on earth." Jordan politely indulged them both for a few moments, then shook his head. As he drove away, he turned to his passenger and said, "That kind of stuff happens all the time."
For roughly five years, beginning in his rookie season of 1985 with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jeffrey Jordan was America's superstar teddy bear, the approachable one, the demigod of the masses. He crossed all lines—gender, race, age—as smoothly as he crossed over his dribble. He had no hidden agenda, no dark side, and so his appeal was uncomplicated and thoroughly wonderful. He played, he dunked, he stuck out his tongue, he smiled. We swooned.
Corporations slavered in his size-13 footsteps. Before Jordan's arrival on the scene, Converse had told its superstar stable—Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird among them—that the public wasn't interested in buying sneakers bearing the name of only a single player. Nike, by contrast, hitched its star to Jordan's popularity and leaped to the top of the athletic sportswear heap. His endorsement deals were voluminous and lucrative, and the reach of his global marketing was unprecedented for an athlete. In the early '90s, Jordan's annual income was estimated at $30 million, with only one tenth of that emanating from his basketball paycheck.
A few early detractors whispered that he was being overhyped. Jordan heard them. So the "overrated rookie" went out and scored 63 and 49 points in two memorable playoff games against the Celtics in Boston Garden. The guy who "couldn't play defense" turned himself into a tenacious stopper who six times made the NBA's All-Defensive Team. The player who "didn't make his teammates better" led the Bulls to three straight NBA titles.
But, inevitably perhaps, a storm front moved in and hung over Jordan's sun-drenched success story. The self-assuredness that compelled him to call for the ball in virtually every crucial situation? It also compelled him to denigrate his teammates, as chronicled in the 1991 best-selling book The Jordan Rules. The competitiveness that burned within him and propelled him to the top? It was also manifested in a gambling habit that, according to some, ran into the millions of dollars. The childlike quality that endeared him to everyone? Prominent African-Americans said that Jordan turned his back on black issues. The Midas touch that reached from America's boardrooms into America's ghetto? Kids killed one another for a pair of his extravagantly priced brand-name sneakers. The negativity gnawed at Jordan. "Maybe we shouldn't have worked so hard to present a positive image," he ruminated one day during the 1991-92 season, several months after he had led the Bulls to their first championship. "But our thinking was always that people want to see a positive role model, someone who gets along with everyone. I guess people just got tired of seeing me succeed."
On Aug. 3, 1993, James Jordan, Michael's beloved father, who had held his son like a baby when the superstar broke down after the Bulls won their first title and had been at Michael's side through most of his successes, was found dead in a South Carolina creek. Media types speculated on a connection between the reported gambling debts of the son and the death of the father, conjecture that has never found substantiation. It further soured Jordan on the media and caused him to reassess the price of fame. Two months later, in a shocking announcement, Jordan retired from basketball and began satisfying a lifelong dream of playing professional baseball.
At this writing, Jordan, 31, is wrapping up a season as the most famous .200-hitting outfielder in history. Some say he is marking time until he returns to the NBA; Jordan says he is through. But the fact remains that no one in history has played the game of basketball as spectacularly well as Michael Jordan. Game after game, year after year, the man was better than his hype. And that is his most enduring accomplishment.
DAVID STRICK/ONYX, 1991