Yet as he is not a true original, neither will there be any legacy. Indeed, apart from Andre Agassi's "Image is everything," Jordan's "Be like Mike" must be the greatest commercial curse.
It isn't just that no one can possibly be like Mike, but rather that in the impossible attempts to imitate him, the sport has been diminished. Bird and Magic Johnson not only saved the NBA, but also gave us a better game, one that was focused upon the ideal of team. Give Jordan fair credit. He was too good for that—"God disguised as Michael Jordan," as Bird famously called him—but the faux Jordans who have come after him have only proved that imitation is the sincerest form of vulgarity.
If lesser lights find it hard to knock off his game, trying to copy Mr. Jordan's demeanor is an even more imposing task. In a world where celebrity wannabes feel they have a right to be whiny and boorish, Jordan has been remarkably dignified. His vaunted competitive spirit—all that tedious he'd-try-and-beat-his-own-grandmother crap—is absent off his fields of play. His extreme penchant for gambling only makes him more human to most people. This is, after all, a man who has somehow made a handsome asset of baldness, the first athlete since Dorothy Hamill to affect hairstyle fashion.
Likewise, we appreciated his relative failure at baseball. Really, to have pulled that off would have been a bit much. After all, a great part of Jordan's popularity is that he seems, away from basketball, remarkably well-adjusted. Consider: the stable, middle-class family upbringing, the early disappointment—not making the high school team, an episode that has, by now, been raised to Jordanian scripture—then the overcoming of this rejection, learning to play at the foot of the wise and sainted Dean Smith, finding success, leading his team, winning a number of "rings" (what we used to call championships), becoming a doting father, being blessed with convenient tee times, etc., etc., etc.
We admire, too, that the good son's evident devotion to his father and his anguish at that terrible death are matched by the privacy that Jordan, the husband, carves out for his young family. Do you have any idea what his wife's name is? What she looks like? How many children they have? How many times must Barbara Walters have tried to get into his living room? To be sure, Jordan is no paragon—enough already with the golf!—but we can imagine the enormous demands that are put upon him and we marvel at the way he lives such a life, most graciously. In a time when we're crying out for heroes, it is sufficient that we understand that Jordan is man enough.
It is, though, time for him to leave the stage. Yes. Bill Bradley wrote that the athlete had an obligation to live out the full arc of a career, and probably this should be true for most athletes, even the best ones. But Jordan is a special case, the athlete for our time, and to see him tarnished at all, even occasionally to see age overtake him, is only to be so cruelly reminded how temporal and fragile we all are, how elusive and brief is perfection. For all his majesty, for that perfectly celestial final minute against the Jazz on Sunday, still, we also saw the first leaf of autumn in these playoffs. No more, thank you.
It's like that old question, What do we look like in heaven? Do we look all wizened, the way we do when we died at 80, or do we get to choose to be at our youthful best? Because, if there is a heaven on earth, it certainly includes a vision of Jordan at the height of his powers, effortlessly kicking everyone's ass. It serves no purpose for society to have to remember his struggling to force up another ragged fallaway that...falls away.
Besides, what actor had a better exit than the one Michael Jordan wrote for himself in Salt Lake City?
What has been so amazing is that Jordan has achieved a certain mythology without benefit of our fevered imaginations. Everything he's done is on tape, and has been viewed and reviewed from every angle. None of it has been dreamed or exaggerated. Let the movies depend on special effects, let the politicians rely on spin. Michael Jordan is neomillennial, our first literal legend. And so much of it has been so beautiful. That above all. He made sport into art in a way that we really haven't seen, haven't admired, quite so, since the Greeks chose athletes, foremost, to decorate their amphoras.
In the end, whenever the end, it wasn't so much the basketball. It was the beauty. It truly was a thing of beauty.