Ultimately, he just wants to be Mike

JOHN EISENBERG

October 06, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

CHICAGO -- He was on the field at Comiskey Park shortly before sunset to throw out the first pitch of the American League playoffs. Smiling. Throwing a strike to Ron Karkovice. Looking good. Who better than Michael Jordan to bless a big sporting event in this town?

The news, the stunning news, started filtering through the press box some three hours later, as the Blue Jays were pounding the White Sox and the stadium was beginning to empty. A story on the wire. Jordan to retire tomorrow.

In the press box, you could see the word passing from seat to seat. See the shoulders of reporters go slack at the news, their mouths open in shock. Whaaaaat? Jordan to retire? Come on. Are they celebrating April Fools' Day in October this year?

How could this possibly be true? The greatest athlete of our time, retiring at age 30? At the peak of his powers? Years before you would expect him to retire?

For a few minutes, as the seventh inning dragged on, the thing was still cloudy. Who was breaking the story? Were they right? Who was confirming it for them? Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Bulls and White Sox, was not commenting. Was there a chance it was wrong?

There was. And then, that fast, there wasn't. The Chicago papers confirmed it for CBS; they weren't going to get this one wrong. A news conference was scheduled for the morning. Suddenly, there was no more doubt. The news was true. Michael Jordan had scored his last point. Air Jordan was coming down. Unbelievable.

"I saw him in here just a little while ago," said a kid working the food stand in the back of the press box. "He looked fine to me."

Evidently, he isn't.

We won't know until he tells us, but he is apparently depressed about the murder of his father and tired of life in the fishbowl and just no longer able to scare up the strength and passion and sheer guts needed to keep being Michael Jordan.

And it's funny, but as stunning and unfathomable as the news was, it started making sense almost as soon as it went public. Jordan retiring? Why not? He has more money than he will ever need, no matter how much he gambles away on the golf course. He has won three straight NBA titles, a feat he'll never match. The most famous athlete in the country, and maybe the world, he can't get any bigger or better. What's left for him to do?

"It's true; the thrill is gone," Jordan was quoted as saying last night by Irv Kupcinet, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist who said he was with Jordan in Reinsdorf's private box at Comiskey Park when the story broke on television during the baseball game.

Kupcinet recounted the story later on a local late news show.

"We were all there and heard the news," Kupcinet said, "and Michael smiled and put his arm around Jerry. I asked him if this was true, and he said it was. 'The thrill is just gone,' he said."

No doubt, what's gone more than anything is the thrill of being Michael, the center of attention. Any athlete trades a measure of his privacy for a fantastic salary, and Jordan certainly has a giant stack of money in the bank, but his life had become an open, ugly book. There were rumors about his gambling problems. The horrible and totally unfair early rumors that his father's murder was somehow related to Michael. How could it be fun to be Michael anymore?

If he retires, he doesn't have to be perfect by someone else's measure. If he retires, no one can tell him what he can and can't do on his days off or on the golf course. The league can't investigate him. He can be a grown-up. And maybe that's what he wants to be.

In any event, he's finished. And that's the sad part in all this, the sad part for all of us. Jordan was a singular athlete, the first and last of a kind, like Muhammad Ali or Babe Ruth, and we were lucky enough to get to watch him in his prime, and now that's done. No more high-flying dunks. No more mind-bending moves invented in midair. Who won't miss them?

Michael Jordan playing basketball was a portrait of joy, of self-expression, of sweat as art. His brilliance was different every time you saw him. If he wasn't shooting well, he was playing defense and passing. If he was on target, he could score 60 points and leave an arena utterly breathless.

It is not an understatement to say that his magic captivated the entire world. Anyone who watched the Barcelona Olympics understands that.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the NBA with their brilliance and selflessness, but Jordan surpassed them. He was the star of stars. Thirty years from now, it will be a badge of honor to say

that you saw him play.

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