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And we chase him to this day, drawn, in large part, by our memories of his brilliance on the court. The debate about history's greatest player will rage forever, from bar stools to blog posts, but Jordan has as much claim to the title as anyone. It's not just that he bracketed six NBA championships around the two-year baseball interlude, or that he won and was the MVP of every Finals he appeared in, or that he led the league in scoring 10 times, or that his career average of 30.1 points is the highest of all time. It's also that the case can be made that no one has ever been better at his or her profession than Jordan was at his. He is one of those rare artists who become the gold standard, not just in his specialty but in general. How many times have we heard someone's mastery summed up by describing him as "the Michael Jordan" of his field? It is a shorthand understood immediately: the undisputed best.
In fact, his excellence spoiled us. Jordan provided the heroic, straight-from-a-Hollywood-script ending so often that we have expected it of every star since. The buzzer-beater that eliminated the Cavaliers in the 1989 playoffs is forever clear in our minds, and for many of us, a star isn't truly a star until he has produced similar moments, until he has done an indelible Jordan imitation. The reason LeBron James was dogged by criticism that he wasn't a great closer? Jordan. The reason that teams clear out for their best player to go one-on-one with the game on the line, playing "hero ball"? Jordan.
In some ways players are still trying to be like Mike, even 10 years after his last game. It was Jordan who made the jump from simply being paid for endorsements to developing his own brand, and he's the reason that so many stars are bent on becoming business moguls.
"The thing about Michael that you all need to understand," his good friend Charles Barkley said of him years ago, "is that he doesn't worry about what you all think of him." Barkley was referring to the media, and by extension, the public, and he was right, in a sense. As a pitchman who still makes millions per year in endorsements, Jordan realizes that being positively thought of is good for business. But again he benefits from his silence. Jordan has been the subject of his share of salacious rumors, from a supposed dalliance with a porn star years ago to the unsubstantiated theory that the real reason he played baseball for two years was that he had been suspended by the NBA for his gambling, but rarely does he bother to issue denials. He simply ignores such stories, and they usually gain no traction. Just last week there were reports that former NBA player Jalen Rose, now an ESPN commentator, told Indiana students at a party that Jordan was actually hung over, not ill, in Game 5 against the Jazz in the 1997 Finals. The assertion seems far-fetched—that would have been some hangover—but don't hold your breath waiting for a reply from His Airness.
The approach has served Jordan well all these years. According to Marketing Evaluations Inc., he is recognized by 89% of fans and has a positive Q score (meaning respondents identify him as a favorite) of 43%. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is tops among active athletes, with 88% recognition and a positive Q score of 32%.
There was a time when Jordan was the coolest guy in any room, the black James Bond. He turned the shaved head into a game-changer for prematurely balding men. Baggy shorts with black socks, once the province of dorky retirees, became stylish once he started rocking them. Sometimes it seemed that he would purposely wear something outlandish off the court just to test his power to turn something that would look ridiculous on anyone else into a fashion trend. But how long can Jordan's level of public admiration last? As his playing career fades further into the background, can the post-50 Jordan maintain his cool pose?
There are already signs of a shift in the way he is regarded, thanks mainly to his stumbles as a basketball executive. No one aspires to be the Michael Jordan of team owners, because he has proved to be all too fallible there. As talent evaluator and deal-maker, his batting average is no better than it was as a baseball player. As president of the Wizards he took Kwame Brown with the first pick of the 2001 draft, leaving Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol to go with the next two. With Charlotte, Jordan traded Chandler to Dallas, where he was the defensive backbone of a title team, in return for three minor players and cash. His tenure as an executive, consequently, has been marked by more losing than Jordan has ever known—the Bobcats' .106 winning percentage (7--59) last season was the worst in NBA history. It is the first time we have seen him fail, really fail (baseball doesn't count because no one expected him to forge a career as a big leaguer), and he has been the target of the kind of criticism he never knew as a player.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander scorched Jordan last April for attending a Blackhawks game while his Bobcats were losing 101--73 to Washington. It was a bad look—Jordan as a dilettante boss, more interested in a fun night out than in supporting and evaluating the team he was supposed to be running. "We know Jordan is a hedonist," Telander wrote. "He golfs, he skis, goes to resorts, smokes cigars and looks beautiful. But he seems to stand for nothing. No charities, no statements about world issues, no cares beyond himself, no strength of character, no using the astounding public platform he has. Is his image bulletproof? Is the public so shallow that it will gawk at His Airness forever, even as his feet of clay turn to mud?"
It wasn't the first time Jordan had been ripped for being a mere fun-seeker without a social conscience; his greatness as a player always seemed to push those criticisms into the background. But now that he can't dazzle anyone on the court anymore, Jordan no longer gets quite the free pass that he once did.
In November he was playing the tony La Gorce Country Club in Miami Beach while wearing a pair of stylish cargo shorts, a violation of the club rules that require Bermuda shorts. Course officials offered him a chance to change, which Jordan declined. He was allowed to finish, but the club reportedly decided he won't be allowed to return. A spokesperson for Jordan confirmed the incident to the New York Post, saying, "We were not aware that he is not allowed to return to La Gorce. I guess it's their loss, as MJ is a great golfer and a great guest."