' I'm gone'

Lacking challenges, Jordan closes curtain on unparalleled career `Secure with my decision'

January 14, 1999|By JERRY BEMBRY | JERRY BEMBRY,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- In 13 illustrious seasons, he carried the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles. He also served as an ambassador to the NBA, and in the process became a global hero.

Yesterday, Michael Jordan said he had had enough.

On center court at the United Center, with the floor that hasn't been played on since June laid down and the baskets rolled out, Jordan officially announced his retirement from basketball.

"Mentally, I'm exhausted. I don't feel I have a challenge," said Jordan, who was joined on the podium by his wife, Juanita. "Physically, I feel great."

One month from his 36th birthday, Jordan looks as if he could still walk onto the court and play at a high level, just as he did a season ago, when he averaged a league-best 28.7 points while pulling off a rare trifecta: winning the regular-season, All-Star Game and NBA Finals Most Valuable Player awards.

That Jordan can still dominate the game is what led Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf to describe the retirement as "the toughest day in the history of the Chicago Bulls." In fact, Jordan's departure likely will lead to the demise of a team that has dominated the league this decade.

"Standing here in the United Center where Michael Jordan has given us so many wonderful moments, performances and championships, it's hard to imagine games being played here without him," Reinsdorf said. "Michael is simply the best player who ever put on a basketball uniform. He has defined the Bulls, the city and the NBA for more than a decade. He will always represent a standard of excellence."

While Reinsdorf was mourning Jordan's departure, commissioner David Stern instead saw the day as a celebration of a highly skilled athlete leaving at the top of his game.

"This is not a sad day," Stern said. "This is a great day, because the greatest basketball player in the history of the game is getting the opportunity to retire with the grace that described his play."

Word of Jordan's retirement began to surface late Monday, but the makings of this decision developed at the end of last season's championship run.

After a grueling seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, Jordan and the Bulls were extended by the Utah Jazz to six games in the NBA Finals before Jordan's game-winning shot with five seconds left gave the team its sixth title of the 1990s.

"I told [Reinsdorf] at that time, mentally, I was a little exhausted and I didn't know if I would play [this season]," Jordan said yesterday. "Jerry wanted me to take time, as I did in '93, to make sure it was the right decision."

The motivations in 1993 were different. An urge to play professional baseball, as well as the murder of his father, helped push Jordan away from the game and the spotlight.

This time, Jordan said he felt that there was simply no more he could conquer.

"This time, I'm at peace with a lot of those things," Jordan said. "I know, from a career standpoint, I've accomplished everything I could. Right now, I don't have the mental challenge I've had in the past. This is a perfect time for me to leave."

Jordan said the decision to retire had nothing to do with the injury to his right index finger while in the Bahamas last week. Jordan tore a tendon while using a cigar cutter and will require surgery in the next few weeks. Had he played, he probably would have missed training camp and the first part of the delayed season.

Jordan was asked whether he would have played had the Bulls retained the services of former coach Phil Jackson. Last season, Jordan said Jackson, who resigned after the season, was the only coach he would play for.

"That's a big if," Jordan said. "Even with Phil as coach, I had a tough time [last season] mentally trying to find challenges. I don't know if he could have presented a challenge with me this season.

"At the beginning of last season, I wanted to play a couple of years. At the end of the season, I was mentally drained and tired. So I can't say he [Jackson] would have restored that."

So Jordan stepped aside much in the same manner he did on Oct. 6, 1993 -- with no tears and no real outward display of emotion. For one of the sport's greatest players, it was the perfect retirement. Again.

And though there will be no farewell tour, praise was heaped on this basketball treasure.

"We wish Michael Jordan well," President Clinton said yesterday. "We admire him, we like him very much and we thank him for years of excellence."

Said Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who had a shouting match with Jordan during the recent labor negotiations: "Michael Jordan's contribution to the NBA and the game of basketball is immeasurable. He demonstrated the skill, heart and determination of a true champion, and he embodied the meaning of the word competitor.

"Not many people changed American culture, but Michael Jordan has done that. The game will indeed miss him."

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