You expected someone to flick the lights in Chicago's I United Center on and off a few times, as if to tell the reporters and well-wishers and hangers-on what they already knew, that the party was over. A sadness filled the building as Michael Jordan finally announced his retirement last week, not for him but for the fans and for the league he was leaving. When he made it official, there on the floor where he had built so much of his legend, it felt as if something even more monumental than Jordan's career had come to a close.
It's not often that we know when we're witnessing the end of an era; it's usually only in retrospect that we realize the significance of such a moment. But as the black shroud fluttered down from the rafters of the arena on Jan. 13, revealing Jordan's once again retired number, it was obvious that the two best decades of the NBA's life were over. The banner that hangs in the United Center reads, MICHAEL JORDAN, 23, 1984-93. (The years of his second coming, 1995-98, will have to be stitched in later.) Next to it there should be another one: NBA, GOLDEN AGE, 1979-99.
The pessimists are right about at least this much: The league will in all likelihood never enjoy an extended stretch as successful, both financially and artistically, as the one just concluded. When Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the NBA in 1979, they joined Julius Erving in refurbishing the NBA's image. Jordan's arrival five years later was the final catalyst for an unprecedented rise in the league's popularity. That one of the most compelling individual and team rivalries any sport has ever produced, between Bird and his Boston Celtics and Johnson and his Los Angeles Lakers, was accompanied by Dr. J's artistry, then enhanced and finally outstripped by Jordan's exploits was one of those happy accidents of history that can't be planned. Nor can it realistically be hoped to be repeated. "Jordan was the last of the gunslingers of the '80s," says former Detroit Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas. "There was Bird, Magic, me and Michael. Now the league really starts anew."
But if this is the end of the NBA as we knew it, that isn't necessarily all bad. The league has gotten sloppy in recent years, which can indirectly be attributed to the 35-year-old Jordan, who was such a magnificent crutch that the NBA let too many of its muscles atrophy. His departure will force the league to come to terms with its shortcomings, all of which are solvable. It may never reach the heights attained during the Golden Age, but there's no reason the league has to plummet precipitously, either.
Fan apathy, engendered by the six-month lockout that concluded seven days before Jordan's announcement, must be overcome, as well as the absence of a supreme player or team to galvanize the public's interest. There are also more fundamental concerns that have to do with the style of the NBA game and the people who play it; both have become increasingly easy to dislike.
Jordan's presence for another year would have softened these blows, particularly the lockout-related backlash, but the NBA would have had to cope with them eventually. It may be healthier in the long run to absorb one big hit from Jordan's retirement and the fans' anger than to take two smaller shots, with the second one coming while the league was still recovering from the first. "Whenever he was going to leave, there was going to be a huge void," says Pistons guard Joe Dumars, one of Jordan's noblest adversaries. "Maybe it's better to deal with all of this at the same time—just get it all over at once and move on."
From the NBA's standpoint Jordan's departure could never have come at a good time. His exit means an instant drop in TV ratings, the sales of Bulls merchandise and global marketability. But there certainly could have been worse junctures than the one he chose. Imagine the position the NBA would have been in if Jordan had retired a year ago, as he contemplated doing, with a labor dispute on the horizon instead of in the rearview mirror. Or think about what would have happened if he'd retired before the league had closed its $2.6 billion television deal with NBC and Turner Sports in November 1997, a pact that extends through the 2001-02 season. Now the league at least tackles the difficulties of the post-Jordan era in a period of labor peace and financial prosperity.
"This league is loaded," insists NBA commissioner David Stern. "We've had tremendous players retire, and the NBA takes a hit. But fortunes change, for teams as well as leagues. I'm very optimistic, and in July, when you tally up how we did this season, I think you'll find we've done better than the doomsayers predicted."
If so, the NBA will have done it without a transcendent star or a clearly dominant team for the first time since 1979-80 (save for Jordan's first retirement, from October 1993 to March 1995, during which it was widely believed that he would return). The race for the title is wide-open, which may be exciting to the hard-core fan, but for a league that's trying to keep its hold on the casual follower enticed by the glamour of Jordan and the Bulls, it isn't good news. The NBA has many outstanding teams and players, but none of them are in the must-see category, at least not yet.
Like nature, however, the NBA abhors a vacuum. A team will earn the tide that Chicago has taken six of the last eight years. A player will win the scoring tide that Jordan has claimed 10 times. Competition tends to create heroes as a matter of course. As Atlanta Hawks guard Steve Smith says, "Someone will hit the big shot. Watch."