There'll never be anyone quite like Mike
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum covered the NBA for nearly a decade. CNN/SI spoke with him to get his thoughts on Michael Jordan's place in history.
CNN/SI: There may not be one specific moment, but at what time did Michael Jordan surpass Wilt Chamberlain, Dr. J, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as the greatest player of all time?
McCallum: I think there were maybe two moments. The first time I remember was when I covered the Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. You had this collection of stars together; it was one of the most-watched sports teams of all time, if not the most-watched sports team. And what people who watched practice and what coach Chuck Daly would tell you was that it wasn't only that Jordan was better than anyone else on the team, it was that he was twice as good as anyone else on the team. And that was an astounding statement that everybody really stood by. That's how much better this guy was than anybody else. I think the second time was probably when he came back. He was away for a season and a half, he comes back, makes a dramatic return in New York, the Bulls don't quite win it this year ... and then goes about his business the next three years, winning championships in a totally different way than he did before. This is a guy who first won championships based on his athletic ability, then he comes back and does it in a whole different way by becoming the smartest player in the league, perhaps the best jump shooter in the league. I think the fact that he did it two different ways and had the chance to come back in a way that no other athlete has done, to me stamps him as the greatest of all time.
CNN/SI: Is Jordan's return to the NBA after his first break from the game the greatest athletic achievement you've ever personally witnessed?
McCallum: Well, I wasn't around to watch Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927. But I think if you took an achievement that was both singular and had a lasting effect, it would be. I mean, Michael kept getting better. Every athlete wants to go out on top - but I truly don't know how many go out on top. Michael Jordan more clearly than anyone else I can remember goes out as the best basketball player of all time. Moreover, he was the best basketball player last season. He would come into this season as the best basketball player. I don't know how many athletes frankly are ever able to do that.
CNN/SI: Jordan appealed to kids but his charisma and smile touched grandparents as well. Do we put too much on the fact that Jordan transcended the game?
McCallum: I don't think so. I think he truly was the first-ever crossover hero. I think the guy you would compare him to in terms of his kind of cosmic significance, I guess, if that's not too much, is Muhammad Ali. And Muhammad Ali was just too threatening to a lot of people. He changed his name; he associated with Muslims, which at the time was offensive to a lot of white America; he objected to the war; he said things out of line; there was a shred of violence in him, a little bit of danger in him. Michael Jordan didn't possess any of those characteristics. And I think the flip side of Michael being this genuine crossover hero was the fact that, to a certain extent, he did polish up his image, that he thought of his place in history, that he thought of his place in the marketplace perhaps more than any other athlete. And I think he really began the era of the true crossover athletic hero. It remains to be seen if there's anyone else that can fit into those shoes.
CNN/SI: Given his national celebrity, and the fact that he crafted his public image, should he have done more, say, outside the sport, off the court?
McCallum: I really don't know. He would have to answer to that. I never held it against him and I knew Michael pretty well during the years - I covered him when he was not winning, I covered him after he was a champion. I think it was just not in him to be a person, to be a leader, of a race situation, to take perhaps the stances that many black people wished he would have. What I wish Michael would have done more was take a stance on some of the issues that happened with Nike, maybe some of the employment issues in Indonesia or the crimes associated with purchasing his $125 sneakers. If I could be so bold as to suggest what's in someone else's power, I think it was within Michael's power to do something about that. The fact that he didn't want to become a leader in the race relations, I think is his business. But I would have liked to have seen him, frankly, step up more on the Nike issues.
CNN/SI: Where does Jordan rank in order of importance to the history of the sport?
McCallum: At a time, about five years before Michael came into the league, in 1979, the NBA was about to go under. There were six or seven teams that were bankrupt, they were talking about consolidating a couple of teams, and I think you could make the argument that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird together -- now granted, they had each other to piggyback on, they did not have to do it singularly -- but I think you could argue that their importance to the game was perhaps more than Michael's because I think they saved the league. This was a league that was showing its finals on tape delay still in 1981. And I think what Magic and Larry did at that time was propel the league, set the stage for Michael Jordan. Obviously he picked up the ball in 1984 and did things with it that no one else could have dreamed of, frankly except for Nike. You have to give them credit for capitalizing on him right away. But I think from the standpoint of timing, you could argue that Magic and Larry were a little more important than Michael Jordan.
CNN/SI: Some people say this could be good for the league, that it won't be able to hang its hoop on one guy. So what's next for the NBA?
McCallum: The NBA obviously has a little work to do. I think the real question is going to come when the television contract expires in 2002. The league has a revenue stream coming in; you're not going to see David Stern out on street corners in October because Michael Jordan retired. This is a league with a $2 billion television contract. However, the question remains whether the product is as viable without Michael Jordan. And if they negotiate a television contract much like baseball, which had to take a real hit on its TV contract in the early '90s because the sport was such a disaster, that I think is going to be the real question for the NBA three or four years down the road. Immediately, I think they're going to have to make it more of a league where fans care about the teams more than they do individuals because I think this idea of marketing individuals and stars more than teams had a lot to do with Michael. I think he pulled along this whole galaxy of stars. I just don't think it's going to be as attractive now and the question is whether there can be competition within divisions -- or even outside of divisions as the Lakers and the Celtics once had. That's going to once again galvanize the audience. I think that's what it's going to have to hitch its wagon to.
CNN/SI: Would Jordan's return this season have been more of a Band-Aid for the league when in fact what it really needs is more of a tourniquet?
McCallum: The fact that Michael stayed in as long as he did -- I don't know how much David Falk, his agent, had to do with this -- but obviously the union's bargaining position in the contract negotiations was a lot stronger with the possibility that Michael was going to come back. So now you take that into account and the fact that I think everyone would say the owners came out with a stronger position, even with the possibility that Michael was going to come back. So I think the league is not going to exactly roll over and play dead because Michael's not going to be there. My guess is Michael knew three or four months ago that he was going to retire. The fact that he did it now just means that he was waiting for this lockout to be settled and he was going to retire all along. I think we should all look for that little coy moment in his press conference Wednesday when somebody raises their hand and says, "Well, are you done for sure?" And Michael once again leaves the door open to come back sometime in the new millennium. That's what I'm going to be looking for in the press conference.