If Michael Jordan had to retire, at least he chose the best possible time, for the NBA's sake, to announce it. After all, the league was already numb from a nightmarish off-season filled with tragic deaths, serious injuries, legal setbacks and blemishes on its carefully polished image.
A chilling foreshadowing of the kind of summer it would be came during the playoffs in June, when the New Jersey Nets' star guard Drazen Petrovic was killed in an auto accident in Germany. Later in the month Miami Heat guard Brian Shaw's parents and sister died in a car crash. July brought the shocking death of Boston Celtic guard Reggie Lewis and the murder of Jordan's father, James.
As training camps opened last Friday the league had other unwelcome matters to deal with. Phoenix Sun forward Richard Dumas, who had seemingly overcome a history of drug dependency to play a significant role in his team's Western Conference championship run last season, apparently suffered a relapse in September and was suspended indefinitely, without pay, by the league. Meanwhile Dumas's teammate, forward Jerrod Mustaf, was embroiled in the investigation into the shooting death in Phoenix of a 27-year-old woman; police questioned Mustaf but said he was not a suspect.
Then there were the injuries, from the torn knee ligaments suffered in a pickup game that canceled the season of Golden State Warrior guard Sarunas Marciulionis to the frightening sight of MVP Charles Barkley of the Suns collapsing on court last Saturday night during practice. Barkley, who said his legs went numb, was diagnosed with muscle and respiratory fatigue, and the initial prescription was a reduced practice schedule.
That was a relief to a league already reeling from a futile battle it had waged against new contracts that were clearly designed to circumvent the salary cap. Several players, including Portland Trail Blazer center Chris Dudley and Chicago Bull guard- forward Toni Kukoc, signed contracts that seem to pay the players less than their market value but also contain clauses that allow those players to become free agents after just one season. Their teams then would be able to resign them without salary-cap restrictions. The league challenged the contracts before the NBA's special master and an arbitrator, and it lost in every case.
"It's been a devastating off-season," says Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams. "There have also been wonderfully positive stories, like the signing of the new television contract with NBC and TNT [four-year deals for $750 million and $350 million, respectively] and the prospect of expansion into Canada, but overall. I can't remember an off-season with as many distressing developments."
With the possible exception of the salary-cap battle, Jordan's retirement has the most far-reaching implications for the league. As recently as two years ago, the idea that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan would all be gone by the '93-94 season would have been unthinkable at NBA headquarters. But it has happened, and though the league still has plenty of talented players, it suddenly finds itself without a superstar who transcends the sport and draws a broader base of fans.
"The league might be suffering for a little hit now," says Indiana Pacer guard Reggie Miller. "The major stars are gone. Now who does the torch pass to? Who is qualified, who is a good ambassador, who is a good leader?"
The best news for the NBA is that it may not need one as much as it once did. The greatest contribution of the Jordan-Bird-Magic triumvirate was the strengthening of the league to the point that it could withstand their absence. Also, while other leagues have unashamedly tried to imitate the NBA's marketing of individual stars, the NBA has promoted not just its budding talent, like Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic and Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning of the Charlotte Hornets, but also the league as a whole.
"When Jordan came into the league, he was well known, but he wasn't a rock star," Williams says. "But the young guys coming into the NBA today, like Shaquille, are much farther along in terms of celebrity, and that's partly because the league is more advanced."