Hold tears and hope Jordan holds on to perfect retirement

END OF AN AIR-A

October 07, 1993|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Staff Writer

DEERFIELD, ILLINOIS — DEERFIELD, Ill. -- No one cried on the day Michael Jordan retired.

Not his wife. Not his coach. Not his teammates. Not his agent.

Not the owner of the Chicago Bulls. Not the commissioner of the NBA.

They all came together yesterday at the Bulls' practice facility, a LTC whole passel of people for whom this news was particularly bad, yet there wasn't an ounce of sentiment in the air.

Not a wet eye anywhere. Not even a marginally damp eye.

How could anyone cry when they were witnessing the perfect retirement?

"Michael," said NBA commissioner David Stern, "looks unbelievably happy to me today."

The day of the best retirement you'll ever see. Logical. Even brilliant. Utterly grounded in reality.

Perfect.

"I didn't even begin to try to talk him out of it," said Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. "How could I when I could see the happiness on his face?"

Whether it will last is, of course, debatable. Jordan was already speculating on his return -- "I could come back five years down the road" -- even as he was announcing his departure, which means no wager is a wise one.

In any case, here's hoping he sticks with it. Here's hoping that, having demonstrated a rare understanding of the inevitable course of events, he doesn't succumb to the loss of attention. Because, as much as he will be missed, he has truly done it right.

Other stars have walked away with their health and wealth intact, as Jordan is, but few, almost none, have done it without compromising their standards. Think of Kareem at the end of his playing days, or Mays, or even Joe Montana, injured every other week. They all diminish with time, compromising their achievements with their desperation for more.

"I think we see so few athletes retire when they're on top because, for whatever reason, so few are really secure in what they have accomplished," said John Paxson, Jordan's Bulls teammate for eight years. "Here is an exception."

Let's hope so. Jordan, if he walks away and stays away, avoids that devaluing of his peerless talent and accomplishments. We get to remember him only as the three-peater. We get to avoid trudging with him through the relentless, grim diminishing that was going to come with age, the gradual grounding of his fanciful flights through the air. His return to earth.

Maybe he could have gone for the four-peat or an eighth scoring title, but how much farther was he going to bend the rules of probability? The jock world turns fast, people. The future belongs to Larry Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber. Jordan had nothing left to accomplish except conquering the new generation, and, sorry, that wasn't going to happen. Life was only going to get harder.

The price of that life was rising, too, rising beyond reasonableness. Jordan's private life was no longer very private. Vague characters were writing "shock" books about him. What he did on his days off was everyone's business. When his father was murdered last summer and the early, groundless speculation was that it was somehow related to Michael, well, wouldn't you think it was out of hand? He had had enough. Good for him.

He took his shots at the media yesterday, and the word is that it came across on television as particularly bitter, but in person, on a cool morning in the suburbs, that wasn't the way it felt. He offered a few jibes at reporters, but who doesn't these days? He smiled a lot more. He was graceful. He didn't seem bitter at all, not much anyway. Much more so than bitter, he seemed, simply, thrilled.

"Any regrets?" someone asked him.

"None," he replied without hesitating. "Not one."

And then: "I waited until right before training camp to see if the zest [for playing] came back, and it didn't. Not at all. The truth is that I can't wait to do other things. Be a human being. I'm going to watch the grass grow, and I'm going to have to cut it."

We've heard all this before, of course, heard it from people who rediscovered that zest and made a mockery of their comebacks. Maybe Jordan will just be the next in line. He's only 30, after all. Kareem played an entire decade longer.

There have never been circumstances quite like this, though. No star before him has been bigger, more public, more completely trapped in the fishbowl.

Jordan was the Ali of his time, the world's most famous athlete. And there was nothing left for him to do. The upside in his future far outweighed the down. What better time to retire?

"With total peace of mind," said his attorney, David Falk. "He has thought about this for a long time, and he is utterly convinced that this is the right thing. He is a happy, happy man today. Everyone should understand that completely."

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