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Michael Jordan - "The Best There Ever Was, The Best There Ever Will Be"

Former University of North Carolina men's basketball coach Dean Smith issued the following statement today after Michael Jordan announced his retirement from professional basketball:

"Obviously, it was a privilege to be his college basketball coach and continue our friendship these many years. It is remarkable how he managed to improve as a basketball player each and every year, with the possible exception of the layoff when he played baseball.

"The University of North Carolina benefited in so many ways as a result of Michael's matriculation and subsequent graduation, despite leaving for the NBA after his junior season. That certainly turned out to be a great decision. The University benefited not only from his $1 million gift to the School of Social Work, but every time in Chicago when the public address announcer introduced him so energetically from 'North Carolina.'

"Even though he was the unanimous National Player of the Year in 1984, no one could have imagined at the time he was in Chapel Hill the impact he would have on basketball, on sports in general and, really, the entire world. Yet he handled the attention as well as anyone could and genuinely remains surprised at all the attention he receives. I think that is a great trait among many he possesses.

"As a basketball player Michael has had athletic ability, technical skills, the intelligence, dedication, effort and competitiveness. No player has ever had the entire package at his level.

"If he attempts to be a Senior golfer at 50, do not be surprised if he is successful, despite his height, which is a problem. He improved as a baseball player until the strike ended that opportunity.

"Finally, I think Michael has a made an excellent decision for him and his family. I, like many others, will certainly miss seeing him compete."

The real wonder of Michael Jordan was this: He always kept score.

Not just in his head, not just on a basketball court, and not just some nights, but every minute of every day.

The first week Jordan played for the Bulls, official scorer Bob Rosenberg looked up to find him studying the scorebook every time he reported to the table to re-enter the game. It didn't take long to figure out why. By knowing everybody's point and rebound totals, Jordan knew how the newspaper stories the next day would begin. Then he took the floor and made sure they always began the same way: "Michael Jordan ..."

Fourteen years later, the playing and promoting had not dulled his competitive edge. Even in the last days of what Bulls coach-turned-medicine-man Phil Jackson called "The Last Dance," Jordan could turn the walk from the hotel lobby to a waiting bus into an event. What people who saw him sweep by in an elegant suit didn't know was that Jordan practiced for even those few seconds, trying on his clothes the night before.

It was that obsession, his father once said, that made his son special even as a child. From the moment he started playing games, Michael had to win, and just as important, there had to be something riding on the outcome.

One unseasonably cool spring afternoon five years ago, James Jordan braved a steady drizzle outside the Chicago Bulls practice gym and told those stories to explain how deep his son's competitive streak ran.

A few nights earlier, Jordan, his father and some friends had made a whirlwind tour of the casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and now the Bulls trailed the New York Knicks two games to one in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals. A year earlier, Jordan's checks had turned up in the pockets of a cocaine trafficker and assorted con men and he admitted running up huge gambling debts playing poker and golf.

"He doesn't have a gambling problem," James Jordan said. "He wouldn't be doing that if he couldn't afford it. He isn't that stupid.

"What he does have is a competition problem. He was born with that. And if he didn't have a competition problem," his father paused, fixing the handful of questioners, "you guys wouldn't be writing about him. The person he tries to outdo most of the time is himself."

In Game 4 the next night, Michael replied in his own way. He torched the Knicks for 54 points and the Bulls won easily, getting back on track toward their third NBA championship.

He is restless in a way the rest of us are not.

Jordan has traveled everywhere and anywhere for a competitive fix, a modern-day Ulysses roaming the world in sneakers and baggy shorts, Atlas holding up a globe with seams stretched across it.

His journey started in his own front yard, against an older brother on a makeshift court of caked dirt. It detoured through the University of North Carolina, where he won a national championship ... through Barcelona, Spain, where he won a second Olympic gold medal ... through minor-league ballparks in the South, where he ran from the ghost of a murdered father ... and through corporate boardrooms, where he helped sell more of everything - hot dogs and hamburgers, Wheaties, sunglasses, calling cards, underwear and the Internet.

It ended last June in Salt Lake City, where the drama of Jordan's sixth NBA championship came down to one last heart-stopping jump shot swishing through the net and sucking every last bit of air out of the state of Utah.

Afterward, as everyone else struggled to catch their breath, he said: "Hopefully, I've put enough memories out there for everybody to at least have some thoughts about what Michael Jordan did."

He was never bigger, never better, even at 35, nor was there a more perfect time for him to take his leave. His statue already stands guard outside the United Center, where thousands come to have their picture taken each year - in the shadow of the $175 Million House That Jordan Built.

The first time he walked away from basketball, in the fall of 1993, Jordan said the thrill of playing was not so much gone as sated. Besides, living like Elvis had him positively spooked.

"The one thing that's weird about Michael," good friend Charles Barkley said at the time, "is that whenever we're together, we're in a hotel room, because he doesn't ever go out."

Going out wasn't high on Jordan's list. He said he wanted to see his kids more. What he really wanted, though, was time to grieve, time off from basketball, time away from the spotlight.

But the NBA had no provisions for sabbaticals, and the media didn't issue waivers. So Jordan took the easy way out. The man who could fly was grounding himself. He was 30 years old, in the prime of a brilliant career.

"I don't think I'll ever have a normal life. But if I can lessen it even a little bit," Jordan said, "it will be better."

It was - for a little while.

In September, 1994, he played in teammate Scottie Pippen's charity basketball game; only, Jordan said, to pay his respects to Chicago Stadium before the 65-year-old building fell to the wrecking ball. He wound up scoring 52 points. And Gen-X kids like Anfernee Hardaway and Isaiah Rider, who knew him only by reputation, were stunned to find out Jordan was even better in person.

When the game ended, he walked to the center jump circle, knelt and kissed the hardwood bull in the middle goodbye, then left. But something inside him stirred.

A few months later, after playing as much golf as he wanted and then playing as much baseball as pride would allow, after one entire basketball season passed and a second was nearly complete, the competition problem his father talked about surfaced.

The announcement of his return was faxed from his agent's office to newspapers and television outlets across the United States. Like any man who would alter the course of sports history, he had no time for small talk.

"I'm back," was all he said.

There was no way to say who was happiest - NBA commissioner David Stern or Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf or Jordan's agent, David Falk.

Then again, it could have been any or all of the CEOs at Nike, NBC, Coke, General Mills, Wilson, McDonald's, Sara Lee, Upper Deck, WorldCom, Oakley and Rayovac.

The truth is that all of them, Jordan included, had reason to celebrate. And with each passing day, there was reason to celebrate more. Last year, between his salary and endorsements, between selling to the suits and hanging on as a hero with the Hip Hop Nation, Jordan earned more than $80 million.

Impressive as that sounds, he's made 100 times that amount for other people.

In June, Fortune magazine totaled what it called "The Jordan Effect." It put his impact on the economy, since joining the NBA in 1984, at $10 billion. If that number seemed high, consider that even a bad movie like "Space Jam" - in which Jordan played himself saving the earth from evil cartoon characters - grossed $230 million worldwide. Just because he was in it.

- Jordan sold an extra $165 million in tickets for the NBA by himself. His televised games delivered an extra $366 million in revenues to league coffers. Sales of licensed merchandise was $44 million annually when he arrived; today, that figure is $3.1 billion.

- Nike has sold $2.6 billion in Jordan-related products. As the embodiment of the image the company seeks to promote, his worth might be twice actual sales. There is little reason to doubt the figure since his sneakers, priced at $150 a pair, routinely sell out in 48 hours.

"He was like the rising tide," Stephen Greyser, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, told the magazine, "raising all boats."

But Jordan didn't just raise Reinsdorf's boat, he turned it into a yacht.

When Michael first set foot inside Chicago Stadium, the Bulls averaged 6,365 fans per game. Attendance increased 90 percent in his first season. By the third, they sold out nightly. At last count, the string had reached 542 consecutive nights, despite Jordan's retirement and even after moving into the bigger United Center in 1993.

Jordan always worried about going out on top, like Jim Brown and Sandy Koufax. In his most private moments, he told friends watching Willie Mays stagger under fly balls long after his skills were gone made him sadder than just about anything.

Early in his career, Jordan's repertoire consisted mostly of dunks, finger rolls, half-gaining, full-twisting layups and the like, shots so short and so spectacular he could see his reflection clearly in the glass each time he climbed into the sky.

Nothing better defined the acrobat he had once been than the chest-heaving, earth-leaving, through-the-air-weaving slam he threw down in front of the home fans to win the 1987 NBA Slam Dunk competition. But that silhouette defined him less and less in recent seasons. More and more, Jordan became a jump shooter, trying to minimize the wear and tear on his body.

What made him dangerous was that on any given night, he could take back as many of those seasons as he needed.

He did it in Game 5 last year, the first time the Bulls beat Utah in the NBA Finals, fighting the flu, dizziness and dehydration. He did it against Utah again this year, this time in clinching Game 6. What made it all the more compelling was that this one came on the heels of a long and wearying playoff series against the Indiana Pacers and old nemesis Larry Bird, a stretch of games during which Jordan had never looked more mortal.

Talk about coming full circle: At the end of his second season in Chicago, Jordan scored 63 points against the Boston Celtics in a playoff game and Bird, who was The Man at that moment, said watching the kid play was like watching "God in short pants."

A dozen years later, Bird was coaching the Pacers and he had a courtside seat facing Jordan. He watched Jordan cost the Bulls one game with a slip at a crucial moment and another by dribbling the ball off his foot at the end. Afterward, he listened to Jordan complain about the referees and essentially called him a whiner.

There was something to that, to be sure. For a dozen seasons at least, the refs had treated Jordan like a Picasso - look but don't touch. Yet, the deeper he went into the playoffs last season, the more it became apparent that Jordan's aura, if not gone, certainly was fading.

For one thing, he needed his teammates more. A younger, more principled Jordan never would have put up with Dennis Rodman and the circus swirling around him. A tired, much older Jordan was grateful for every rebound and every distraction Rodman brought to the mix; it meant less work for him.

And so, watching him struggle, Bird probably assumed what had happened to him was happening to Michael: His age and the grind were wearing him out. What that explanation failed to take into account was that the depth of Jordan's desire hadn't changed since he was a kid, that the outcome still mattered.

Some people need money to provide a spark. Some need the motivation of a championship stage. What separates Jordan, now as then, is that he never needed a reason to play.

In a meaningless game last spring, Jordan dropped 41 points on the Minnesota Timberwolves in a 107-93 win. Most people assumed with Shaquille O'Neal scoring 50 the night before and beginning to make a run at the regular-season scoring title, Jordan was simply trying to hold his place. That was only the half of it.

The first time the Bulls had played Minnesota at home, on New Year's Eve, a crank called the arena and claimed Deloris Jordan, his mother, had been rushed to a hospital back home in North Carolina. Someone relayed the message to the Bulls' locker room at halftime without checking its veracity. Michael, unable to reach his mother and still clearly shaken, went out and missed his first five shots of the third period and five of his next nine. The Bulls coughed up a 9-point lead and lost.

After the game, Jordan learned the story was a hoax. He was mad about the call, but even madder at the Timberwolves for passing on the message without checking it out. He waited four months to even the score.

He did.

He always does.

Michael Jordan headed to midcourt at the United Center, the building where he won championships, stirred fans and created unforgettable memories.

His shaven head gleamed, his trademark smile flashed. Cameras, even more than usual, recorded his every move. Every eye was upon him.

This time he wasn't on his way to the other end for a soaring dunk - even though the orange baskets looked inviting as they hung from the standards - or a last-second jumper to bring the Chicago Bulls another victory, another title.

He was on his way to a new life: retirement No. 2.

His wife joined him on the stage Wednesday, as did Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and NBA commissioner David Stern. This was Jordan's day to reflect, to watch a spotlight shine on his retired No. 23, seconds after it was displayed for the second time in a little more than four years.

The banner, sandwiched between Jerry Sloan's No. 4 and Bob Love's No. 10, will have to be updated as will the bronze statue outside the United Center showing Jordan rising above a helpless defender. The years on both - 1984-93.

Dressed impeccably as always, a bandage on his injured finger from a cigar cutting accident, a large ring dangling from his left ear, the world's greatest basketball player said he was at peace with retirement this time.

"He earned a retirement," said longtime Bulls assistant Tex Winter, who joined the Bulls in Jordan's second season.

"I've been with Michael as a coach longer than anyone he's had, including Dean Smith. I don't know what influence I had, certainly not as much as Dean had apparently. But there have been so many good memories."

Former and current teammates were on hand, as were about 500 media members. Many sat on the floor on a court blocked off by a red curtain bearing a red Bulls insignia.

"Fifty years from now, as time goes on, his legend will grow because of the way he did it," said John Paxson, known for his game-winning 3-pointer against Phoenix that brought the Bulls their third title in 1993, just months before Jordan's first retirement.

"Michael came to work every day and did his job better than everybody else," Paxson added. "But he never settled for just being the best."

Toni Kukoc, emotionally upset when Jordan retired the first time because he didn't think he'd have a chance to play with him, was there Wednesday. So were Randy Brown, Bill Wennington, Keith Booth and former North Carolina roommate Buzz Peterson.

Other former teammates like Steve Kerr and Luc Longley stayed behind at the Berto Center to work out, saying they would prefer to speak or talk to Jordan privately.

"A bittersweet day. He opened a lot of doors for a lot of people," said Brown, one of just four Bulls under contract.

"He is the game," Wennington said. "It will be tough for basketball to replace Michael Jordan."

Phil Jackson, the Zen-espousing ex-Hippie who won Jordan over as his coach and converted him to the share-the-ball principles of the triangle offense, didn't make it.

Jackson, who quit the Bulls himself last summer after championship No. 6, was traveling, said his agent Todd Musburger. But Jackson did issue a statement.

"For our own selfish reasons we never wanted to see Michael Jordan retire," Jackson said.

"He represented our personal flight of fantasy about what great things an individual can do and he made it look so easy."

Jordan's usual entrance into the United Center was from an underground parking garage where he could get out of his vehicle of choice and take a short walk to the locker room without much hassle.

On Wednesday, he entered through a mid-level concourse opening, an entourage surrounding him.

Tired, wanting to spend more time with his family, Jordan said it was time to go out when he was still able to play the game at its highest level.

"I think mentally it's been over for a while, but physically I think he could go right here and do something," said Peterson, one of his closest friends.

"He's Michael."



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