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At the relatively tender age of 28, he stands Alone on the mountaintop, unquestionably the most famous athlete on the planet and one of its most famous citizens of any kind. We've heard it so often that it's now a cliché, though nonetheless accurate: He transcends sports. He keeps a championship ring on his dresser at home and will be making room for another if his team (18-3 at week's end) plays the next six months of the season the way it has played the first two. A two-time MVP, he was probably the best player in the world even before Magic Johnson's retirement, but now the subject isn't even worth debating.
He will earn about $25 million in 1992, only $3.8 million of it from his day job—the rest, an astonishing $21.2 million, from a flood of endorsements. His name and his face are on sneakers, sandwiches, soft drinks and cereal boxes, to mention just a few items. He has a lovely and loving wife, two adorable sons and a relationship with his parents that is so good, the sappiest sitcom wouldn't touch it. He is bothered somewhat by tendinitis and a bone spur in his left knee but is otherwise in outstanding health. He has trouble off the tee from time to time, but his handicap is still in single figures and any number of professional tutors are at his beck and call.
And, so, despite a few esthetic drawbacks—near baldness, skinny legs, overly long basketball trunks and the continuing tendency to stick out his tongue—we honor Michael Jeffrey Jordan as our Sportsman of the Year for 1991.
It is a virtual certainty that since the award originated in 1954, no athlete has been as popular on a worldwide scale as Jordan is now and, for that matter, has been for the last several years. He has surpassed every standard by which we gauge the fame of an athlete and, with few exceptions, has handled the adulation with a preternatural grace and ease that have cut across lines of race, age and gender.
"He has a level of popularity and a value as a commercial spokesman that is almost beyond comprehension," says Nova Lanktree, director of the Burns Sports Service in Chicago, an organization that has been lining up athletes for commercials and tracking their popularity for more than two decades. "It is a singular phenomenon. It never happened before and may not ever happen again."
Although it is the singularity of Jordan that is so often celebrated—no one dunks, smiles or sells sneakers the way he does—it is no coincidence that he is being honored by SI only after his team, the Chicago Bulls, won a championship. Jordan's seven-year NBA career has been, curiously, both a rocket to stardom and a struggle for vindication. To many NBA observers, the Bulls had to win it all before Jordan could conclusively prove that he was more than a high-flying sideshow or a long, loud ring of the cash register. They did. And so he did.
Superstars should be judged, first and foremost, for their consistency, their ability to produce over the long haul, as Jordan most assuredly has (he has averaged between 22.7 and 37.1 points in each of his eight seasons). But the most unforgettable of the breed also offer a collection of moments, rare and incandescent, and Jordan has given us a wide assortment of those: writhing and twisting his way through the Celtics to score 49 and 63 points at Boston Garden in the 1986 playoffs; exploding for 40 points to win the MVP award at his "home" All-Star game at Chicago Stadium in '88; dribbling the length of the floor, pulling up and hitting a 14-foot jump shot to send Game 3 of last year's Finals, which the Bulls went on to win, into overtime.
Is Jordan the greatest ever? A definitive answer is impossible, of course, as it has been whenever the question has been applied to Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird or Magic. But a case can certainly be made. Of that distinguished quartet, only Chamberlain could begin to match Jordan's pure athleticism, but put that aside for a moment and consider his basketball skills and the way he plays the game:
Jordan is now a better shooter than Bird, not from long range, certainly, but from 20 feet in. "I don't do much shooting in the summer anymore, so I don't completely understand it myself," says Jordan. "But it's a fact. Everything about it—my mechanics, when to take the shot, the release—feels better and smoother."
He is not a better passer than the Magic of the 1980s, but were the Bulls, like the Lakers, a fast-break team and were Jordan, like Magic, a point guard, he very well might be. And in half-court situations, when called upon to give up the ball under pressure and find the open man at the last conceivable second, he is without peer.