When an icon retires

January 14, 1999

The New York Times said in an editorial yesterday:

FOR selfish reasons, we wish that Michael Jordan had stayed on. His absence denies us the pleasure of watching one of the world's great athletes and surely the most accomplished basketball player ever. His presence might have redeemed this sadly truncated season and restored some of the affection we had for the game. It will not be easy to replace a global icon.

But it is hard to fault his decision to retire or its timing. He is 35 years old. He does not, by his own admission, have the physical and mental edge that he has always required of himself. Our one hope is that this time he does not un-retire, as he did in 1995 after flirting with professional baseball. He should honor the tradition of Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown and others who retired at the pinnacle, leaving us with our memories of unambiguous greatness.

The numbers tell only part of the story, but a few bear repeating. Mr. Jordan led the league in scoring 10 times, the most ever. His 31.5 points a game is the highest regular-season average in the history of the NBA. He led the Bulls to six titles.

His athleticism -- the soaring leaps, darting fakes, flawless ball handling -- was almost poetic. But what made him special was his demanding code of personal excellence. He worked as hard in practice as he did in games.

There were many important games where his singular determination seemed to will the Bulls to victory, but the memory that will endure is of a flu-ridden Jordan driving the lane against Utah in the 1997 championships, then leaning on his teammates for support so he could play some more.

Near the end of his autobiography, "For the Love of the Game: My Story," he says that "the evolutionary process never ends. Somebody is going to improve on my game." Perhaps so, but it is likely to be a long wait.

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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