Imagine that you are a lover of the theater in London in the early 17th century, and you have just learned that Will Shakespeare has hung up his quill. You know instantly what that means. It doesn't mean that drama will die. It doesn't mean that there won't be good new plays by Ben Jonson and John Webster. It doesn't mean that the march of Western civilization will come to a screeching halt. But it does mean this: Going to the Globe will never be quite as exciting or quite as interesting again.
If this seems an excruciatingly hyperbolic analogy to Michael Jordan's retirement on Jan. 13, well, this is the time for excruciatingly hyperbolic analogies. Shakespeare's nonpareil brilliance and versatility have resonated for more than 400 years--you can even see a young, love-struck Will being portrayed at your local multiplex right now!--and it's easy to imagine Jordan's legacy enduring for generations as well.
Think what a player would have to do to be regarded as Jordan's equal. He would have to construct dramatic bookends on his basketball life by sinking championship-winning shots at the beginning of his college career (as North Carolina's Jordan did as a freshman in 1982) and at the end of his pro career (as the Chicago Bulls' Jordan did to beat the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the NBA Finals last spring). He would have to leave the game, only to make a triumphant return a year-and-a-half later, as Jordan did when he became baseball's most famous banjo hitter in '94 and basketball's best player once again in '95. He would have to win a championship trifecta with one style of play (take-it-to-the-hoop acrobatics) and then three more titles with a different style (controlled fadeaway jump shooting)--the basketball equivalent of writing a comedy as good as Twelfth Night and a tragedy as good as Hamlet. He would have to possess the crossover appeal to sell sneakers to youngsters in the ghetto and cologne to oldsters in the boardroom. He would have to put his imprint not only on the game but also on the culture, as Jordan did with his shaved pate and his close, personal relationships with figures as diverse as Spike Lee and Bugs Bunny. He would have to become a worldwide icon, more well-known in places than even the game he played. And he would have to accomplish all that, as veteran NBA writer Terry Pluto of the Akron Beacon Journal observed last week, without acting like a jerk.
I witnessed from courtside several Jordan moments that have been replayed endlessly over the last week: the jaw-dropping, switch-it-from-the-right-to-the-left layup against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 Finals; the I-don't-understand-it-myself shrug that he gave after burying the Portland Trail Blazers with six three-pointers in the first half of Game 1 of the '92 Finals; the no-no-no finger wag he flashed after dunking over the Atlanta Hawks' Dikembe Mutombo in a second-round playoff game in '97. My favorite Jordan sequence, though, is unquestionably the double-pump, buzzer-beating jumper he made to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the '89 playoffs because it encapsulated the manic, childlike passion with which he played the game. It began with Jordan darting through almost the entire Cavaliers team, as if he were a thief fleeing from the Keystone Kops, to receive an inbounds pass that everyone in Richfield Coliseum knew was coming to him. There followed the dash-to-daylight dribble, the swish from 18 feet and then the triumphant, fist-waving leap. You can't beat me, he seemed to be saying. I won't let you beat me!
There were other times early in his career, though, when Jordan wasn't the tongue-wagging king of the world. He has been so good for so long that it's easy to forget the struggles he went through in the 1980s. They had nothing to do with establishing his undisputed preeminence on the basketball court. That was a fait accompli as early as 1986, when he laid 49 and 63 points on the Celtics and Larry Bird during consecutive playoff games at Boston Garden, an accomplishment akin to out-praying the Pope at a Vatican Mass.
But the young Jordan, Nike's and Madison Avenue's darling from the get-go, was eyed with suspicion in other quarters. Isiah Thomas led a freeze-out of Jordan during the 1985 All-Star Game because he and some other veterans thought Jordan was getting too big for his britches. When the Bulls failed to finish over .500 in Jordan's first three seasons and didn't reach the second round of the playoffs until his fourth, there was a widely held belief among players and reporters that a Jordan-led team would never win it all. He shot too much. He didn't get his teammates involved. He didn't make everyone around him better, the quality so often ascribed to his hallowed title-winning contemporaries, Bird and Magic Johnson. Jordan's celebrity was nettlesome, too. (I was a passenger in Jordan's car one day in '88 when he was cut off on both sides by motorists who wanted to talk to him.) The other young and talented Bulls, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, both of whom came to Chicago in '87, resented him even as they were awed by his talent.
Worse for the Bulls, Pippen and Grant sometimes tried to emulate Jordan's frenetic style and failed miserably, causing the team to be inconsistent. I remember interviewing Jordan in the trainer's room before a game in the late 1980s. At the same time he was answering my questions and getting his knees iced, he was perusing a golf magazine, listening to jazz on his Walkman, entertaining Jesse Jackson and doling out tickets to the high-haired rapper from Kid 'n Play. Then he went out and scored 41. "See, Scottie and Horace think they can prepare that way, too," said Doug Collins, who coached the Bulls from 1986-87 through '88-89, "but no matter how busy Michael is doing other things, he's always ready to play when the game starts. It's just that nobody else can prepare like that."
Jordan didn't help relations with his teammates, either. He didn't hang out with them much, preferring the company of a collection of close buddies, Wilmington, N.C., homeboys Adolph Shiver and Fred Whitfield, and Howard White, Jordan's personal Nike representative. (White is no longer with Nike, but Whitfield, a lawyer, is an executive with the company.) I spent a couple of afternoons with them, and it always struck me how down-to-earth the group seemed, considering it included perhaps the world's most famous athlete. Michael and his pals spent a lot of time in the rec room of Jordan's suburban Chicago house, trying to beat each other's brains in at table tennis, video games, bid whist and personal insults. Jordan rarely lost at anything.
On one occasion, in March 1989, Jordan disappeared from the room for a while, then returned with his girlfriend, Juanita Vanoy (now his wife), and their four-month-old boy. "This is Jeffrey Michael," he said with a proud smile. I was flabbergasted that I had missed the Page One, stop-the-presses-fact that Michael Jordan was a father, and I told him so. Always conscious of his image, Jordan wanted to release the news in his own, carefully controlled way, whatever and whenever that might be. I told him that I couldn't hide the fact that he had a son. After I mentioned it in a story, Jordan was steamed at me for a while, but he eventually let it pass. (What he never got over, though, was the cover billing of a story about his new baseball career in this magazine on March 14, 1994--BAG IT, MICHAEL! That dismissal of his dream to play in the major leagues so offended Jordan that for the last five years he has barely spoken to SI.)
There were those who felt--still feel--that Jordan played up to reporters, used them for patsies, used them to help construct an image that had nothing to do with reality. There's some truth to that, if only because almost everyone puts on a little different face in front of reporters, Jordan's buddy Charles Barkley being one of the exceptions. (Probably what Jordan hid the most was the hypercompetitiveness that occasionally turned him into a very nasty person, particularly to his teammates.) But Jordan is by nature outgoing. He's a good interview simply because he enjoys conversation.
Still, in 1991, a few days after Chicago had won its first title, Jordan plopped wearily into a chair across from me at a suburban Chicago eatery. He had been on SI's cover for three straight weeks, and this interview was to be the basis of the story for cover number 4. Our talk began with Jordan saying, "I know I'm tired of looking at you, and you must be tired of looking at me."
Well, I never got tired of watching him play, and I know no one else who did. Remember, too, that we were observing the most written about, the most watched athlete of all time. More than his uncanny knack for finding the basket from impossible angles, more than his buzzer-beating heroics, Jordan's greatest accomplishment was that he was always better than his hype. Yes, the NBA will survive without him, just as the theater survived without the Bard. The sad thing is that while Shakespeare's masterpieces will be brought to life on the stage for centuries to come, Michael's masterpieces, though available on video, can never be recreated.