Of Fame, Fortune and Farewell

October 09, 1993

One of the earliest television interviews we can recall with Michael Jordan was just after he started making a name for himself in pro basketball. The narrator was gushing over the fact this newly minted millionaire still ironed his own clothes. With the cameras running, Mr. Jordan even exhibited his technique with the old steam press.

Ah, for the days of the ironing story, he must be thinking now.

This week's carpet-bomb coverage of his premature retirement served to confirm why Mr. Jordan feels a need to take time off at age 30. Every news outlet in the land accorded the retirement treatment normally reserved for presidential inaugurals and royal weddings. Some observers may have scoffed that it was much ado, but there's no denying Mr. Jordan is among the most famous people in the world. There's something about his style, his smile, his ability to sell a product in the electronic bazaar that long ago made him more than another superstar athlete. He is a cultural phenomenon, more akin to a Madonna or a Michael Jackson than to his peers who play ball.

But legends aren't merely born, they're built, and Mr. Jordan had an unshakable knack for staying in the public eye. He snubbed then-President Bush by missing a Rose Garden ceremony for his team, and created news. He threatened not to accept his Olympic gold medal if forced to wear a warm-up suit from a company whose products he didn't endorse, and created news. He lost thousands gambling, and created news. Even the random murder of his father last summer in a roadside robbery made him a center of attention.

Aside from the apparent inner peace of his decision to retire, the other emotion most visible at his press conference was his dripping disdain for the media that craved these plot twists. Indeed, the stripping of one's privacy must get unbearable, however lucrative it may be. Witness the stories last summer of how the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. roomed in separate hotels from his team to throw autograph-seekers off his scent.

There are ways to make fortunes without fame -- but not in the entertainment world. It's hard to feel much sympathy for Michael Jordan or media malcontents like Eddie Murray when he played for the Orioles: If these athletes played minus all this attention they couldn't demand all this lucre.

Possibly Andy Warhol, the late artist, misspoke when he said everyone will get 15 minutes of fame. Maybe he meant that's all anyone could suffer.

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