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In praise of your average M.J.

By Randy Horick

JUNE 29, 1998:  God only knows if he'll be back--"God" and "he" referring to two separate entities.

Or maybe they're not.

Anyhow, you know who I mean.

Him.

His Serene Airness.

Michael.

If you've just emerged from two months inside your O.J. or Monica chat room, or if you just crept up from your basement for a break between tornado alerts, here's a flash for you: Michael Jordan may not return to the six-time-world-champion Chicago Bulls.

I know. You're thinking, "It's like the pope deciding to give up the Vatican and go back to Krakow. Or Al Gore becoming a stand-up comic."

But it could happen. Probably will happen. It's already happening.

Da Bulls are receding into history. The Zen-dude coach, Phil Jackson, has already cleaned out his office. M.J.'s Tonto, Scottie Pippen, has made it clear that he'll be back only after hell has frozen over and the cows come skating home on the ice.

For now, Michael isn't revealing his plans. But pundits, bookies, and kibitzers tend to agree: Jordan is outta here. Out of the Bulls. Probably out of basketball, and very likely packing up the clubs and headed for the fairways right this minute.

Now, suddenly, it's becoming clear why the NBA's cabal of weasely owners are conspiring to lock out the players this fall and prevent next season from happening. Without Jordan in uniform, the league will lose half of its already diminishing appeal. Latrell Sprewell will be back, the Miami Heat will again reenact scenes from A Clockwork Orange on the court, and the hopes for a second coming of M.J. will focus on 20-year-old Kobe Bryant in L.A., where he is surrounded by more flakes than the Head & Shoulders pitchpersons.

Still, it's way, way too early to speculate on M.J.'s legacy, or even to write of his possible retirement as the end of some golden Pax Jordanicus. The NBA, after all, survived the retirement of Russell and Chamberlain, the farewell of Julius Erving, and the departure-return-departure of Magic Johnson.

But maybe it's worth asking why people are equating Michael's exit with the end of basketball's Camelot, and what makes him such a transcendent figure.

OK, maybe it has a little bit to do with talent. Among basketball fans, you'll find more people who believe that the Apollo moon landings were faked and that Elvis shot JFK than will argue that someone other than Michael is the greatest player in history. Sure, Chamberlain was a more prolific scorer, Bird a better shooter, Magic a more poetic passer, Dr. J. a more astounding dunker, and Pippen an even stingier defender; but Jordan is the most complete and the most athletic. Jordan is Da Bomb.

And Michael, even more than the sport's other legendary figures, seems able to summon supernatural powers at will. Challenge him, get in his face, press him into a corner, and he suddenly accelerates to hyperdrive. At times, it seems not only plausible but barely remarkable that he could score every remaining point in a game.

His on-court prowess, however, explains only part of what has made Michael such a magnetic figure. Nor is his popularity simply imposed on a gullible public by the advertisers who have made Jordan's face the most recognizable on earth.

In part, Michael is a role model because the field is so uncrowded. We revere great athletic ability, but we no longer adore professional athletes. As a class, we regard them as overpaid, overprivileged jerks who've forgotten where they came from. Against such a backdrop, Jordan stands out as an exemplar of saintliness.

Just to satisfy ourselves that there indeed are some, let's take a moment to list Michael's imperfections:

He gambles, sneaking off to Atlantic City sometimes, like his unvirtuous-and-proud-of-it teammate, Dennis Rodman.

He's been known to talk trash on the court (though discreetly, and generally not in view of the TV cameras).

In recent years, like an old fanbelt, he's developed a bit of a whine--which, in fairness, is understandable, given that NBA refs spoil him like he was their youngest grandchild.

Oh, yeah. He's a golfaholic. And if you want to get nitpicky, he wasn't all that great at baseball. And, OK, he can be bossy and hoggy on the court sometimes. But that's pretty much it.

After talking with Michael, the great Bill Russell told Jordan's parents, "Your son is a better person than he is a basketball player."

There aren't too many NBA superstars, other than David Robinson and maybe Grant Hill, about whom that can be said.

Still, I suspect the most important, if least often articulated, reason for Jordan's unparalleled status as basketball legend lies elsewhere.

Michael, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, does not live like you or me. Even the Belle Meade beautiful people--who, until a couple of years ago, would have made Michael enter their club through the back door--don't live like he does.

After his morning workouts, Michael has his breakfasts prepared by a personal chef. His wardrobe of suits is worth more than the gross national product of some Pacific islands.

In a lean year, Michael earns upwards of $60 million.

Michael needs more personal security than living ex-presidents. By necessity, he is more inaccessible than the great Oz.

And yet, the wonder is not that Mike can summon some ability to drill game-winning shots or defeat every comer.

The wonder is that, considering the overwhelming, crushing un-normality of his life as a celebrity, Michael is as normal as he is. For all his scoring titles and championship rings and gravity-defying swoops to the basket, Michael's most impressive accomplishment may be his very ordinariness.

Fame and power and, especially, money change people--rarely for the better. Jordan, despite his global celebrity, has remained remarkably unchanged. For someone who can fly, he's incredibly down to earth.

The pressures he has faced on the court are far less powerful than those he has withstood away from it. When you see how those forces warp others we regarded as heroes, you marvel at how Michael has held his shape.

He may no longer iron his own shirts, as he did when he first came into the league, but even now he never comes across as being above such a chore. He may have lost a step over the years, but he hasn't lost his touch.

Just ask the Nashville kid whom Michael touched, during his baseball days, after security guards tackled the boy at Greer Stadium. Or ask anyone else who talks with him when the rest of the world can't hear.

Perhaps it may happen someday, but Jordan is one hero who has never burst our bubble. With him, it is yet plausible that, even if the cameras were off and the money were gone and no media were within a thousand miles, he'd still be playing, just for fun; and that you and I could talk to him, just folks; and that he'd still flash us that wide, winning smile, just like always.

The TV ads aren't just hype: Americans would like to "be like Mike." But we love him because, even after reaching the top of the world, Mike is still so like us.


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