Capt. Mike leaves NBA on autopilot

JOHN EISENBERG

October 08, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

CHICAGO -- On the day Michael Jordan retired, the losers were quickly and coldly quantified. Nike stock, already plummeting, dropped more than two points before rallying late. The odds on the Bulls' winning their fourth straight title dropped from 2-1 to 10-1 in Vegas.

"Is the NBA going to suffer?" someone asked commissioner David Stern at the news conference, prepared, as were many, to annex the entire league to the list of losers.

"You can't replace Babe Ruth," Stern said, smiling, "but . . . "

. . . but . . .

"We're still planning to open the season as scheduled," he said.

Meaning he believed the NBA would be fine, just fine, thank you. And he was right.

The bold, booming NBA is a large component of Jordan's legacy, as well as those of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the other two recently retired heroes. The once-tattered league they're leaving behind is now far bigger than its biggest stars.

Sure, the Bulls' inevitable decline won't help TV ratings. Every box office in the league will miss a star as immensely popular as Jordan, truly a trump card in the game that is the fight for the sporting dollar. But there are just too many coming stars, too many hot franchises, too many shoe-commercial-driven cults of personality, too many marketing sharpies on board, for the NBA to take much of a hit, if any.

The NBA isn't just popular of and by itself, remember. The growth of the basketball culture, and its establishment in the mainstream, is one of the social phenomenons of the last decade. The hoops culture has become a worldwide rage while baseball dies in American inner cities. If basketball hasn't already supplanted soccer as the world's most popular sport, it's gaining ground fast. Jordan and the NBA helped drive this

monster, but it's on automatic pilot now.

Maybe the league needed Bird and Magic to make the Finals a decade ago, but that was when the NBA was still coming out of its darkest period, when no one cared. The opposite is true now. The TV ratings for the Bulls-Suns championship series -- almost as high as the baseball playoffs, unthinkable a decade ago -- were evidence of the NBA's mainstream acceptance.

Was it just the presence of Jordan? Don't be ridiculous. The ratings for the Dream Team's Olympic games were similarly high, even though Jordan barely played and the score of every game was 126-48. The game, and all the stars, not just one, are the thing now.

And in any case, Jordan's popularity and skill weren't going any higher. Jordan knew it; it was one reason he retired. Give any athlete three years at the top today, and it's time to find new blood. With or without Jordan, the Hornets and Magic and Suns and Spurs were getting ready to take over. Another evolutionary spin was coming.

"The league will belong to Shaquille O'Neal now, and Larry Johnson and David Robinson and Tim Hardaway and Shawn Kemp and others," Stern said. "There is always someone ready."

The Bulls don't want to hear that, of course; no one wants to know, or admit, that after years at the top they're suddenly looking down a steep hill. Jordan tried to put a positive spin on it -- "My teammates are ready to go without me" -- but no realist was buying. The Bulls were never anything other than a .500 team without Jordan.

"Frankly," guard John Paxson said, "I don't know if this is something the franchise can recover from."

Coach Phil Jackson didn't hang around to talk after Jordan's announcement, and it was no wonder: He was probably buried in film, having to work for a living now. But the biggest loser will be Scottie Pippen, who will be asked to step up and replace Jordan, an impossibility. The fans are accustomed to winning, and it's going to be ugly, and Scottie will be front and center.

The wild card is the arrival of Toni Kukoc, who, if he turns out to be the next Magic, as GM Jerry Krause envisions, could make things a whole lot better. But as Kukoc wandered around in a sullen daze after the announcement, so thin and wan and lost, it was hard to envision him as an answer to any question. At the very least, it's going to take him a few years to learn his way around the NBA lane.

No, the Bulls finally will watch the Finals next spring, watch the Suns and Knicks, if the Knicks can get by the Hornets and the Suns by the Spurs. And you watch what happens. The playoffs will still be the talk of your office. The ratings will be high. The games will be terrific. Someone will mention that it's not the same without Michael Jordan, and everyone will agree. But then they'll say, "Did you see Shaq and Alonzo . . . ."

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