Wednesday, April 16, 2003

This Time Jordan Really is Finished

Michael Jordan spent Wednesday afternoon playing 18 at Pine Valley, so by the time the fourth quarter rolled around he was pretty tired and content to watch his career wind down from the Wizards' bench. Tight and tired from a long NBA season and a round at one of the toughest golf courses in America, Jordan stretched out like an old man sitting on rocking chair on the front porch watching the world go by.

Nevertheless, no one in Philadelphia cared about his contentment. They wanted to say goodbye.

But gods don't answer letters... or do they?

"I said, 'Michael, I played here, I've at least got to be able to come back to this city. You have to go in,'" Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "He was so stiff and I said, 'Go in for a minute or whatever, let it get the ovation, whatever.'"

Jordan took his victory lap, got fouled and made his last two foul shots as flashbulbs lit up the First Union Center. Then, he exited the NBA forever.

And it is forever.

"Yeah, I just kind of got that feeling. Now I guess it hits me that I am not going to be in a uniform anymore, and that's not a terrible feeling," His Airness said. "It's not terrible. It's something that I have come to grips with and it's time. It's time. I have seen a lot of people say, 'My first time.' My second time.' This is the final retirement. You don't have to worry about me putting on another uniform, and I feel it. I feel it. I welcome the time away from the game."

The itch, as he once said, has been scratched.

And why not? The greatest player who ever lived deserves to stage as many comebacks as he likes. If he wants to play for the Lakers two years from now when he's 42, good for him. If he is going to keep playing, we're going to keep watching.

But this is it. After Wednesday night's regular-season finale in the First Union Center this fact was obvious. No, his skills haven't eroded that much — he's still the best player on his team and is typically one of the best players on the floor night-in and night-out. His jumper is still smooth and his release is lightning quick. He still has the imagination to make passes that most players can't see and make the moves to penetrate to the hoop.

Nor did he say he was "99.9 percent sure" this retirement was certain. He didn't have to. His body language told the story.

No, he doesn't looked like a tired old man, he just looks tired, period. Kind of like a guy who works 12 hours a day, six days a week with no support or feedback from his boss. He knows if he wants something done, he's going to have to do it himself without much help from anyone else. That will make anyone tired, even if he is Superman.

A surgically repaired knee, coupled with a long NBA season and teammates who don't play like they care will wear on the best of them. After all, it's not like he's passing it to Scottie Pippen, John Paxson or even Steve Kerr anymore. He has to go to war with Kwane Brown who played Wednesday night's game on autopilot, and Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes who are only concerned about Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes. Who needs that?

Yeah, it's easy to see why now is the time to get out. It's much different than it was when he won all those championships in Chicago.

"Everybody understood that winning attitude, everybody understood the dedication that it took to give up parts of yourself. I am trying to get these kids to understand that now, where you have to give up some of that selfishness, so that everybody else can showcase and bond and everybody shines. That's tough for some people," Jordan said. "I was taught that in North Carolina, obviously. Once I got into the pros and everything was thrown at me so fast, it was tough for me to become unselfish in some respects and let Scottie Pippen and Bill Cartwright and some of these guys step to the forefront and gain some of that notoriety."

But the biggest reason why this is it is because he's flat-out tired. Physically tired. Bone-weary tired. He has nothing more to give and nothing more to take. He has the championships, the MVPs and gold medals. The only thing left was a love for the game. That is the reason why he came back and it is the reason he stayed as long as he did with the Wizards.

"There's nothing else [he would] rather do. I think that really sums him up more than anything else," Collins said. "We can take out all the adjectives and everything but I think you can make it very simple: [He] loves to play the game and [would] love to play it everyday if he could."

Now when he plays it will be against his sons, whom he says are basketball fanatics. He'll spend more time playing golf at places like Pine Valley and hanging out with his friends Tiger and Charles and enjoying a good cigar. He won't have a plane to catch so he'll be able to take his time at home and be a father and husband. And oh yeah, there's a basketball team to run if he wants.

However, he'll never get over his first love. The one with a passion so hot that people couldn't take their eyes off him. Jordan has probably been on TV more than any president going back to Ronald Reagan. His posters and jump-man silhouette are in more homes than General Electric. People want to be close to him just because he loved something a whole lot.

"I never knew where my ending was going to be, but I once said that I won't be playing at the age of 40. Well, here I am, playing at the age of 40," he said. "It's like trying to determine how long you are going to love a person. Love is a very delicate thing; once you love it, you never lose the love for the game, you never know when you can walk away from it. And I tried a couple of times, obviously, for different reasons. But I've come to grips now, that as much as I love the game, there are other components that need my love, my attention, and I can easily walk away."

But before he sails off into the sunset, and we get to watch him dash up and down the court one last time, we think about what he meant to us. Not just the fans that buy the sneakers, the shirts and the very expensive tickets, but the regular people who are thrilled just to be in the same building as him and stare at his chiseled physique and scream when he walks by. How can we, the mortals, articulate that?

Those of us who remember him as a college freshman sinking that shot against Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA Finals or the guy who took off from the foul line and actually flew in the air, when we were just school kids, thought he was Superman. Later, when we had grown up a bit and saw him score 36 in the NBA Finals stricken with the flu and then hold that follow through after sinking the game-winning shot to win another title the last time he retired, we knew he was otherworldly.

We just don't know how to tell him thanks.

"I remember my dad talking about Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, and I remember how in love with Jackie Robinson I became growing up in Brooklyn," Sixers coach Larry Brown said. "I even walked like him, and then my son got to see Michael and spend time with him, and he's going to be able to say the same thing I said about Jackie.

"Hopefully, our league will do what they did with Gretzky and Jackie Robinson and every time you walk into an arena, you will see No. 23 and everybody will realize what an impact he had on our sport."

Said Allen Iverson: "He was a guy that gave me the vision, made me want to play basketball. If I never saw Michael Jordan play a basketball game, then [I] might not ever be in the NBA. He's meant everything to me and he has meant everything to all the rest of the guys in the league and he's meant a lot to you all as well."

So how would Jordan like to be remembered?

"Just as a guy who loved the game," he said. "You can see the past, determination, and just the way that I played the game. I never, never took the game for granted. I was very true to the game and the game was very true to me. It was just that simple."

Maybe two words are the best way for him to be remembered:

The Greatest.

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