"One thing Michael and I had in common is that there was a time when we would rely on our physical ability, on jumping over everybody," says former 76ers star Julius Erving, who was 37 when he retired in 1987. "But as time has passed, he's done a remarkable job of adapting his game. He's developed that fadeaway jumper, which is almost unstoppable, and he's become so good at all the little things. Watch how tightly he comes off a pick, or how he sets people up on the dribble. You think of him as this high-flying guy, but what has kept him great is that he does the fundamental things so well."
You can't be an acrobat for 48 minutes a game anymore, Michael, so you've learned to pick your spots. You can still take off on some spectacular flights to the hoop, but more often you use the threat of the drive, which defenders still have to respect, in order to pull up and shoot the jumper. So why not see how many other ways you can adapt your game and still stay on top? That might be an intriguing challenge, if winning championships is no longer sufficient incentive.
The NBA needs you to play for as long as possible, not just because of what you mean to ratings and attendance, but also because the young stars poised to take over the league still cannot touch your greatness. Your performance brings out a humility in most of them that a thousand admonishments from other players of your generation, such as Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, never could. When Tracy McGrady, the 18-year-old Toronto Raptors rookie who jumped from high school to the pros last year, was asked recently to read some of the items for a David Letterman Top 10 list of NBA players' pet peeves, there was one he balked at: "Guarding Michael Jordan always leaves you smelling like his damn cologne." McGrady didn't want you to hear him say those words, not even in jest. As long as you command that kind of respect, even fear, from your peers, Michael, you should keep playing.
Besides, what else are you going to do? Where else will you satisfy your craving for competition? And don't say "golf." As your friend Bird warns, "There's only so much golf you can play." He lasted five years in retirement before returning to the NBA to coach the Indiana Pacers this season. You love the links more than he does, so perhaps you would be satisfied longer, but not forever. You're also not the type to sit in an NBC studio for hours, waiting for your 15 seconds to say something intelligent while a producer talks in your ear. "I will find other outlets," you say. "That is one thing I'm not afraid of. I welcome the challenge of trying to find other challenges." Whatever those challenges turn out to be, they're not going anywhere. They will still be there a year or two from now, or whenever you finish playing.
As you know, there are many players around the league who aren't convinced that this is your last season, no matter how often you insist that it is. "I don't have any inside information, even though we have the same agent [David Falk]," says Atlanta Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo, "but I believe he's coming back. He loves the game too much, and he would miss it too much. I would bet anyone that he will be back next year." An awful lot of players won't believe you're really going to retire until they see you sitting courtside in a suit.
We remember the ceremony at the United Center in November 1994 in which your number was retired. Afterward you tried to put to rest the suspicions that you would come out of retirement. "See that?" you said, pointing at your uniform up in the rafters. "Doesn't that convince you? That should be proof that I'm not coming back." Four months later you were back, wearing a Bulls uniform.
We know you weren't exactly thrilled with the last piece of career advice we offered you, back in March 1994, when you were trying to make it with the Chicago White Sox. As you recall—all too well—we put a picture of you, swinging and missing, on the cover with the headline BAG IT, MICHAEL! We suggested that baseball needed you about as much as it needed another Rotisserie League. Maybe it wasn't the most tactful way to get the message across, but you have to admit that things have worked out pretty well for you ever since you stopped chasing curveballs.
So remember, circumstances change—and your mind can change, too. Ask yourself if there is any possibility that you will look back years from now and wish you had continued to play until you knew you had squeezed every last drop out of your talent. So, no matter what your future holds, Michael, just make sure it doesn't hold a moment of regret.
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