IF ONLY because George Bush was in the White House and war was looming in Iraq and 10,000 Maniacs were on the public address, one could have been forgiven, while watching Michael Jordan play basketball in Chicago last Friday night, for thinking it was still 1991. But Time is famously impatient—it flies, it marches on, it waits for no man—and now, at last, it stands next to Jordan, cruelty tapping its wristwatch.
"I hate that good things come to an end," MJ, who will retire for good after this season, was saying on Friday morning. "I wish, in all honesty, they didn't have to. But they do." In eight hours he would be introduced, for the final time, to a sellout crowd in Chicago. "I'll try," he said sincerely, "not to cry."
For 12 seasons his only introduction at Chicago Bulls home games was, "From North Carolina...." The rest was always inaudible beneath a crashing wave of roars. "Frankly," says the man who made those introductions, former Bulls public-address announcer Ray Clay, "I could have said, 'From North Carolina...Mickey Mouse!' Nobody would have known the difference."
Jordan, who will turn 40 on Feb. 17, is still, astonishingly, the biggest draw in basketball: His team, the Washington Wizards, is first in the NBA in home attendance and second in road attendance, and not because of Kwame Brown and Jahidi White, whose names sound like colors in a J.Crew catalog.
Likewise, the absurd variety of his fans is, as ever, unmatched in sports. On Friday 17-year-old Steve Gomez of Tempe, Ariz., stood outside the United Center, in 10º cold, snapping pictures of the Jordan statue, having flown in the previous night with his mother, Barbara, expressly for the game. "He only wears Michael Jordan clothes," Barbara said of her son, who was shod in Air Jordans, swaddled in Wizards sweats and wearing a Wizards jacket, with a North Carolina watch cap tugged low on his forehead. "My friends think I'm a nut," said Steve. "But I'm just a Jordan fan."
Billy Leung of Hong Kong and Ryoko Omachi of Taiwan were also photographing the statue, from 16 separate angles, as if it were a runway model. Jordan fans? "Bigtime!" said Leung, 30, giving me a thumbs-up. It wasn't the day's only one-word devotional from a foreign-born fan. My Sikh cabdriver, when I'd told him "United Center," had shouted through his pane of bulletproof Lucite, "Emjay!"
What must it be like for Jordan to know that Time is trying to take all of this? "It's not death," Jordan said on Friday morning. "It's just the end of basketball, not the end of living. I'll still be here." Then he said of the game that awaited him, "I don't want this to feel like a funeral."
But for many in Chicago, it was. Sure, the Bulls' starting lineup is still introduced, in pitch darkness, with that Alan Parsons Project instrumental, Sirius. (Back in the day a Toronto Blue Jays official called the Bulls asking for the song's title, because Roger Clemens wanted to start his games the same way Jordan did.) But now the lineup is bereft of greatness. The United Center's patron is bankrupt. And though the fans still come—the Bulls average 18,834 in their 21,711-seat arena—they cannot be expected to show up much longer. As Charles Oakley, Jordan's once and current teammate, said of hungry Chicago fans, "Sooner or later the slop runs out, and that pig gonna run away and die."
Friday morning after practice Jordan watched his two sons, Jeffrey, 14, and Marcus, 12, shoot around on the Bulls' home court, imitating their father's moves—ball stiff-armed away from defender, step back, fallaway, swish. It was like a lost Gatorade commercial: Old Mike on the bench, Really Young Mikes on the court, and the only Mike missing was Mike in His Prime.
That night Jordan was introduced by a stranger. After 12 years as the Bulls' P.A. announcer, Ray Clay was fired at the end of last season, he says, for confessing to a reporter that his blasé introduction of Jordan—in MJ's first game in Chicago as a Wizard in January 2002—was at the insistence of Bulls management, which told him to announce Jordan as he would any other opponent, an order that puzzled Clay and most everyone else.