'Air Icon'

October 07, 1993

Baltimore's loss of the Colts in the middle of a winter's night notwithstanding, this is a heck of a sports town. Anybody who's been to the spectacle that is Camden Yards can attest to that. We coalesce as a region around our sports stars, we idolize them and we've seen several great ones retire. We shed a tear when Brooks called it quits in an Orioles uniform. We showered applause on Jim Palmer when he hung up his cleats. And some day, banner headlines and a sense of loss will greet the retirement of Cal Jr., after, we hope, he's eclipsed the "ironman" mark for 13 seasons of consecutive games played.

But as great and well-known as those home-grown stars, it's hard to place those events, past and future, with what transpired yesterday in Chicago.

Michael Jordan retired. And, unlike most other pro athletes, he did so at the height of his game.

To say he is -- was? -- possibly the greatest basketball player of all time is still to sell short what Mr. Jordan represents.

He stopped being just a basketball player not long after he entered the National Basketball Association from the University of North Carolina in 1984. His gravity-defying leaps toward the basket necessitated the invention of phrases such as "hang time." His mesmerizing play, along with that of Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird, helped to resurrect the popularity of professional basketball in the United States. His associations with Nike shoes spawned not just his own line of footwear, but catalyzed the whole athletic shoe industry and perhaps even the whole concept of sports marketing.

Some people won't see this all as a positive, and maybe it all isn't. It wasn't Michael Jordan's fault, for instance, that he couldn't help but be linked to episodes of kids killing other kids to get a pair of "Air Jordans" -- the same type of misguided youths with a gun who killed the player's father last summer to steal his car.

Michael Jordan represents not just a team, city or sport, but an era. He is a cultural touchstone, in the way that Babe Ruth represents the Roaring Twenties, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson the Depression, wartime and post-war period and Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali the rebellious 1960s.

Michael Jordan is the commercial '90s. Unfortunately, unless he changes his mind and plays again in the NBA (or in Europe, as some of his oblique references at his retirement press conference seemed to suggest), we'll have to plod through the remainder of this decade without him.

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