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Original Issue

And the Brand Played On

Time has not dulled Michael Jordan's million-kilowatt presence. He smiles and the whole world smiles with him, including Ed Bradley and Oprah Winfrey, both of whom had to towel off after recent Jordan charm baths. There was Jordan on Bradley's 60 Minutes talking about gambling and his golf handicap, and there he was gifting the Big O with a runway show of the new Brand Jordan women's apparel line.

As with most celebs, of course, the 42-year-old Jordan has a motive for materializing on TV. MJ has come off the links to flack his new book, Driven from Within, which, even by the hagiographic standards of the athlete bio, plays well above the rim. "There have been a handful of people in a century who have done what Michael did to the status quo," writes agent David Falk, who, to illustrate that point, gathers up the Beatles, Elvis Presley and the four-minute mile to join Michael in a metaphorical corral. Writes Tinker Hatfield, who designed the majority of the Air Jordan shoes as well as the visually arresting Driven, "You kind of wonder at times if he doesn't have a little more perception than most of us."

Actually, I kind of wonder if the book is about a Homo sapiens. Two years after his third and (I think we can now say) final retirement as an active player, the man is gone, and in his place is Brand Jordan. Driven, in fact, is less a history of a human being than a breathless biography of a sneaker. The book was even released, as the publicity copy says, "in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Air Jordan." Hatfield again: "He realized the shoe was him."

And who is that? Nine years ago, when Jordan refused to endorse an African-American named Harvey Gantt over a bigoted dinosaur named Jesse Helms in a U.S. Senate race in North Carolina, Jordan said, famously, "Republicans buy sneakers, too." If it was bad for business, it was bad for Jordan, and that is still his credo. To some that statement has always defined Jordan. But it never diminished his appeal. No human has embraced more causes than Jesse Jackson, but on more than one occasion I watched Jackson standing by Jordan in the Chicago Bulls' locker room, like an eager kid waiting to get a card signed, content just to breathe in the rarefied air around Air. As Charles Barkley told Oprah, "Michael has what I call It."

But flaming neutrality, like flaming controversy, comes at a price, and we're not talking about the $175 tag on Air Jordan XX. To engage in a little armchair existentialism, Michael was being while many of his contemporaries were becoming. Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Kevin McHale and Joe Dumars, to name a few, were acquiring the tools that would help them become NBA general managers. Magic Johnson was confabbing with titans of industry and, though he never succeeded in branding himself, runs his own successful business empire. Barkley was auditioning to become the clown prince of an absurdist comedy, and that's largely what he does for a living.

But ever since his peculiar player-executive role ended when he was fired by the Washington Wizards in 2003--and, to an extent, ever since he became the ultimate crossover corporate star two decades ago--Michael has simply expanded his Michaelness. Look good, smile, say the right things, ooze charm instead of perspiration, never stir the water, expand the business empire, lower the handicap.

It shouldn't be this way. Jordan can never be Ali, galvanizing the masses with his words and actions (there's a candidate for understatement of the year), but he has more to offer than fragrances, stylish sweatsuits and no-comments. People close to him insist that he wants back into the NBA as an owner. Others theorize that his admission on 60 Minutes that he was sometimes "stupid" in his gambling was his way of getting in front of the issue and addressing it now on his own terms instead of having to wrestle with it down the road if and when he makes a move for a franchise.

I don't know whether the latter is true, nor do I know the answer to the question that never stops swirling around Jordan: Was Jordan's first retirement, just before the 1993-94 season, the result of a conspiracy between him and the NBA to cover up a severe gambling problem? But I do know that I'd like to see Jordan back, trash-talking from the front office, making deals, seeing if he is better at this executive thing than he was the first time around. I'd like to see flesh-and-blood instead of a brand.

Remember the old Nike advertising campaign featuring Jordan with Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon? It's gotta be the shoes. Eventually, it's gotta be about more than that.

• Steve Rushin is on vacation; he will return next week.

Jordan can never be Ali, galvanizing the masses with his words and actions, but he has more to offer than fragrances, sweatsuits and no-comments.