Shadows may not cure Jordan of what ailed him in spotlight

MIKE LITTWIN

October 08, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Michael Jordan is running away. He may not even know what from. Not that there aren't some obvious possibilities.

He's running because his father was killed and he can't find a way to grieve.

He's running because, like Garbo, he just wants to be left alone.

He's running because he has everything and he can't figure out why it feels like he has nothing.

At a press conference, which got more coverage than the Russian coup, Jordan offered a dozen reasons why he was quitting the game he had personally redefined. All of them rang true. And none of them rang true.

It wasn't one thing, he seemed to be saying. It was everything.

Those who were there described Jordan as being at peace with his decision and with himself. To me, he looked less peaceful than unburdened.

This is a lesson that could be titled: Be careful what you wish for. Michael Jordan wishes to be famous. He becomes so celebrated that the fame threatens to consume him. So, he runs away. My guess is he wants to run to the place where he no longer has to be like Mike.

You watched Jordan in his long good-bye -- all the major networks but one showed it live, and even Tom Brokaw was there to carry the anchorman's stamp of Big Story -- and you couldn't help but feel sorry for him. That's an amazing thing. How do you feel sorry for someone who has everything?

Jordan doesn't always make it easy to like him, either. He has exploited his celebrity as few others, and sometimes with a consuming arrogance.

During the last Olympics, you may recall, he threatened to boycott the medal ceremony because the U.S. team uniform was made by a company other than Nike, for whom Jordan works. The corporation was more important than country.

Also, Jordan became involved with unsavory characters. He passed up a chance to meet the president for a day of golf. He would be described as a compulsive gambler. And yet, none of it touched him. Or at least it didn't touch his Q ratings, which is what matters to the money boys on Madison Avenue.

Jordan was Jordan -- above all that. But even His Highness, the man who played in the stratosphere, was not above everything.

He hated the loss of privacy and considered himself a prisoner to his celebrity, even though it's fair to say he had helped construct the walls.

Often he would wonder aloud what it must be like to be on the other end of the equation as the person who sat in the stands and found a hero playing out his dreams before him.

When Jordan retired, he took the requisite shots at the press: not for making him too famous, but for showing too little sympathy for the "normal guy." Jordan would like to think of himself as normal.

From all accounts, where Jordan was grounded was in his relationship with his father, who was killed not quite two months ago. He was gunned down on the road like an animal in a murder so awful that it shocked a nation in which such atrocities are commonplace.

Privilege, as the son must have noted, did not protect the father. Nothing protected him. He was there. He was gone.

And, for Jordan, as for anyone, it's a loss that cannot be easily put aside. Athletes are famously single-minded, but no one is that single-minded. Jordan has to have been changed, and probably in ways he doesn't understand.

All he knew, or all he could tell us, was that he no longer felt the competitive fires burning within him.

Unless he truly is different from the rest of us, though, what must be missing inside is the place his father used to be.

Jordan said he had nothing special planned for his retirement. You don't need plans when you have $50 million. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family. As a bonus, he gets to spend more time with himself.

Maybe he'll come back. Maybe he'll find that where he's most at peace is on a basketball court. Maybe he'll find he can't live without the rush of the game.

In fact, that's the way to bet.

But perhaps he'll be like Sandy Koufax, who walked away from baseball with his injured elbow and never came back. Koufax moved to the most remote parts of America he could find and rarely surfaces even today.

If Jordan does come back, though, that won't mean what we saw was a fraud. It will mean that a further price of fame is that you play out even your most private emotional crises in full public view.

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