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The best there ever was
Posted: Wednesday January 20, 1999 10:37 AM
The problem with Michael Jordan's retirement is that the main thing will get lost in all the bloviating about the NBA's current image problems. The main thing is that Jordan is simply the greatest basketball player who ever played the game of basketball. There's such a purity and a majesty to that -- to be the undisputed very best at one thing -- whatever that thing.
In how many other disciplines is there really no doubt that one person was better than all others? Some expert, I'm sure, has a Web site that doesn't even rank Shakespeare in the Top 10 of writers.
To be the best at something of all the people who have ever lived in all the world. Think about that.
That's why I am so glad to see Jordan depart the stage now -- for so divine was the way he ended up last June: a fabulous game, finishing up with a steal, a sweep down the court, and a last glorious shot to take the crown for his team.
If you are the very best, and you can exit on a note like that, then you really should pick up and go. Michael has left the building.
Of course, his influence does matter, too. In the wake of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, he took the NBA to a position no one could have conceived. Jordan was a figure cultural as well as athletic. My local newspaper, The Connecticut Post, very cleverly headlined his departure, "23 Skiddoo." All very sharp, my wife said, but really, how many people under a certain age, have a clue what that means? Well, like that, how many young people can possibly imagine that, before Jordan, black athletes rarely got endorsements. Yet it was Jordan who not only became the most famous face -- and body -- of commerce, but a person who virtually, all by himself, made a silly hieroglyphic, something called a "swoosh," as familiar a symbol as there was in the secular world.
Of course, there was a certain amount of carping. Other famous young people -- which is to say: show-biz types -- are never supposed to have to carry a social burden. But athletes must be heroes, and so many of Jordan's critics accused him of money-mongering, of hustling sneakers at the expense of brotherhood. Others, incredibly to me, found fault when he gave up basketball to try baseball. Myself, I thought that adventure was absolutely bold, even courageous, for someone so accomplished at one public thing to risk doing something new ... under pressure and under scrutiny.
No child should try to be like Mike on the court, because, without the god-given superhuman talent, it isn't worth the dream. Ah, but to stand and risk failure in another endeavor -- that is the stuff to merit emulation.
The one thing Jordan was not, was a special team player. But that's not his fault. He was simply so good, he had to diminish the team in order to reward it with victory. But that is one more reason for him to leave now. He was born on a February 12th, under the sign of Aquarius, and finished his career in his 36th year with a sixth championship. The only other basketball player whose achievements can even dare be listed in the same breath as Jordan was Bill Russell, who was, surely, the greatest team player in any sport. Russell was born on a February 17th, under the sign of Aquarius, and finished his career in his 36th year, with an l1th championship. This special symmetry makes the valedictory even a little sweeter.
These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.
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