You expected someone to flick the lights in Chicago's United
Center on and off a few times, as if to tell the reporters and
well-wishers and hangers-on what they already knew, that the
party was over. A sadness filled the building as Michael Jordan
finally announced his retirement last week, not for him but for
the fans and for the league he was leaving. When he made it
official, there on the floor where he had built so much of his
legend, it felt as if something even more monumental than
Jordan's career had come to a close.
It's not often that we know when we're witnessing the end of an
era; it's usually only in retrospect that we realize the
significance of such a moment. But as the black shroud fluttered
down from the rafters of the arena on Jan. 13, revealing Jordan's
once again retired number, it was obvious that the two best
decades of the NBA's life were over. The banner that hangs in the
United Center reads, MICHAEL JORDAN, 23, 1984-93. (The years of
his second coming, 1995-98, will have to be stitched in later.)
Next to it there should be another one: NBA, GOLDEN AGE, 1979-99.
The pessimists are right about at least this much: The league
will in all likelihood never enjoy an extended stretch as
successful, both financially and artistically, as the one just
concluded. When Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the NBA in
1979, they joined Julius Erving in refurbishing the NBA's image.
Jordan's arrival five years later was the final catalyst for an
unprecedented rise in the league's popularity. That one of the
most compelling individual and team rivalries any sport has ever
produced, between Bird and his Boston Celtics and Johnson and his
Los Angeles Lakers, was accompanied by Dr. J's artistry, then
enhanced and finally outstripped by Jordan's exploits was one of
those happy accidents of history that can't be planned. Nor can
it realistically be hoped to be repeated. "Jordan was the last of
the gunslingers of the '80s," says former Detroit Pistons point
guard Isiah Thomas. "There was Bird, Magic, me and Michael. Now
the league really starts anew."
But if this is the end of the NBA as we knew it, that isn't
necessarily all bad. The league has gotten sloppy in recent
years, which can indirectly be attributed to the 35-year-old
Jordan, who was such a magnificent crutch that the NBA let too
many of its muscles atrophy. His departure will force the league
to come to terms with its shortcomings, all of which are
solvable. It may never reach the heights attained during the
Golden Age, but there's no reason the league has to plummet
Fan apathy, engendered by the six-month lockout that concluded
seven days before Jordan's announcement, must be overcome, as
well as the absence of a supreme player or team to galvanize the
public's interest. There are also more fundamental concerns that
have to do with the style of the NBA game and the people who play
it; both have become increasingly easy to dislike.
Jordan's presence for another year would have softened these
blows, particularly the lockout-related backlash, but the NBA
would have had to cope with them eventually. It may be healthier
in the long run to absorb one big hit from Jordan's retirement
and the fans' anger than to take two smaller shots, with the
second one coming while the league was still recovering from the
first. "Whenever he was going to leave, there was going to be a
huge void," says Pistons guard Joe Dumars, one of Jordan's
noblest adversaries. "Maybe it's better to deal with all of this
at the same time--just get it all over at once and move on."
From the NBA's standpoint Jordan's departure could never have
come at a good time. His exit means an instant drop in TV
ratings, the sales of Bulls merchandise and global marketability.
But there certainly could have been worse junctures than the one
he chose. Imagine the position the NBA would have been in if
Jordan had retired a year ago, as he contemplated doing, with a
labor dispute on the horizon instead of in the rearview mirror.
Or think about what would have happened if he'd retired before
the league had closed its $2.6 billion television deal with NBC
and Turner Sports in November 1997, a pact that extends through
the 2001-02 season. Now the league at least tackles the
difficulties of the post-Jordan era in a period of labor peace
and financial prosperity.
"This league is loaded," insists NBA commissioner David Stern.
"We've had tremendous players retire, and the NBA takes a hit.
But fortunes change, for teams as well as leagues. I'm very
optimistic, and in July, when you tally up how we did this
season, I think you'll find we've done better than the doomsayers
If so, the NBA will have done it without a transcendent star or a
clearly dominant team for the first time since 1979-80 (save for
Jordan's first retirement, from October 1993 to March 1995,
during which it was widely believed that he would return). The
race for the title is wide-open, which may be exciting to the
hard-core fan, but for a league that's trying to keep its hold on
the casual follower enticed by the glamour of Jordan and the
Bulls, it isn't good news. The NBA has many outstanding teams and
players, but none of them are in the must-see category, at least
Like nature, however, the NBA abhors a vacuum. A team will earn
the title that Chicago has taken six of the last eight years. A
player will win the scoring title that Jordan has claimed 10
times. Competition tends to create heroes as a matter of course.
As Atlanta Hawks guard Steve Smith says, "Someone will hit the
big shot. Watch."
Even though he decided not to stay and help the NBA redeem itself
in the eyes of its fans, Jordan did the league one last favor as
he took his leave. The news of his retirement blew the lockout
off the sports pages and, for now, out of fans' minds. For
several days Jordan was the NBA. Elegies to him filled the
newspapers. Highlights of his most riveting moments dominated TV
screens. Just as disillusioned fans were reminded of what they
will miss now that he is gone, they may also remember what drew
them to the game in the first place.
The next few weeks could help ratchet up the public's interest as
well. With the new collective-bargaining agreement due to be
signed by Wednesday, the league was to embark on a flurry of
trades and free-agent signings that are bound to pique fan
interest. The first came Monday night when it was reported that
the Bulls would re-sign free agent Scottie Pippen, to a
five-year, $67.2 million contract, and then trade him to the
Houston Rockets for forward Roy Rogers and a second-round pick.
Other deals were in the air. Where is free agent forward Tom
Gugliotta headed? What about Antonio McDyess and Latrell
Sprewell? With Jordan gone and the Bulls breaking up, the NBA
will be greatly reconfigured in the coming days. The balance of
power seemed sure to shift, perhaps more than once, in the next
few weeks. Fans might still be angry, but they can't deny that
But even if the public gives the NBA another look, without Jordan
it won't stay focused on the league for long unless there are
significant changes in the product. Jordan's Bulls were one of
the few teams that resisted the game's growing stagnation, in
which the goal of the offense seems to be to draw an illegal
defense violation and the object of the defense is to grab, push
and hold the offensive players and dare the referee to make a
call. The average night at an NBA arena can offer some
stultifying stretches, and when the fans said they didn't miss
the game during the lockout, they may well have been turned off
already by the current style of play.
Much has been made of what the players and owners need to do to
win the fans back, but the league rules committee has a role as
well. It needs to loosen the reins to promote the fast-paced,
fluid style that the NBA was once known for. Because of the lack
of training camp and the warp-speed movement of players over the
next two weeks, this shortened season is likely to be even more
stylistically flawed than others in the recent past. Although a
triumph by one of the few fast-breaking teams--like the Celtics,
the Seattle SuperSonics or the Utah Jazz--might start a trend
toward a more open game, the league may well have to halt
coaches' reliance on isolation and banging by instituting
significant changes, such as demanding tighter officiating and
widening the lane or the floor. (At present NBA officials say
they have no modifications on the drawing board.)
The players' role in helping the league redeem itself obviously
goes beyond their on-court performance. They have to rebuild
their relationship with the public, which had begun to suffer
long before the lockout went into effect. The players need to
spend time in the stands after games, signing autographs and
mingling with fans; a solid 15 minutes by the home team each
night would go a long way toward bridging the gap. Let's face it:
Any player contact that doesn't involve tossing fans through a
plate glass window would be a step in the right direction.
The NBA should also get away from marketing its celebrities so
heavily, a strategy that even league officials tacitly admit is
no longer appropriate. The NBA can't manufacture another Jordan
anymore than it could the original, but it has more than enough
young stars--Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tim
Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury among them--on which to
build its future. The best thing the NBA publicity machine can do
for those players is not to promote them as anything resembling
the next Jordan, but to protect them from such hype.
The most comforting news for all the stars who are left is that
the public isn't demanding another Jordan. Fans just want a
league with players they can root for without hesitation and a
game that has grace and fluidity. That's a desire that the NBA,
with relatively few changes, can fulfill. In fact the fastest way
to win back the fans is also the most fitting tribute that the
NBA could give its greatest player: to create a league that
Jordan would have wanted to play in.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER PASS PERFECT In executing a backdoor play in the 1997 playoffs, Jordan and the other Bulls relied on teamwork and finesse, not the sort of dump-it-down play in which many games become stultifyingly mired. [Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO NOT SO SMASHING Rugged play, like this Alonzo Mourning mugging, has had a numbing effect on fans, let alone on Terry Cummings. [Alonzo Mourning pushing head of Terry Cummings]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS FUTURE STOCK Iverson is one of the promising stars who would be better off not trying to fill Jordan's Air Jordans. [Allen Iverson in game]
The league at least tackles its difficulties in a period of
labor peace and financial prosperity.
Jordan did the league one last favor: News of his exit blew the
lockout off the sports pages.