Michael Jordan's final act

Michael Jordan is leaving at the top. That's why we need him to stay.


Dan Brekke
January 15, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

So Long, MJ. Goodbye to the Greatest Ever. The Perfect Departure. Never Mind Who's Next -- He's Irreplaceable. Tough Luck for the NBA.

Thirty-six hours of instant analysis/eulogy/postmortem/ deification. Enough. Listening to the awed tones of Frank Deford and a thousand and one other commentators, reading the front-page requiems and career wraps, looking at the highlight clips -- they all end with the perfectly scripted exit: the championship-grabbing steal and jumper against Karl Malone and the Jazz last June -- finally made me see it.

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This is all wrong.

It's not time for Michael Jordan to leave. Forget the National Basketball Association for a minute. I'm not ready. The world's not ready. I reject his resignation.

I say this not as someone who has followed every step of Jordan's career -- though I've gotten in the way of enough media over the last 15 seasons that we could talk about everything from Michael's late-blooming high school career to his late nights in Atlantic City. Nor do I weigh in as someone who has haunted pro locker rooms and can tell you what Michael's sneakers smell like -- though we know, don't we, that he's got more of them than anyone and they've got a sweeter odor than yours or mine.

No, I say this first as a California guy who still thinks he's a Chicago guy, the rail-hanging teen heckler who went out to the Stadium to watch the Sloan-Van Lier-Walker-Love-Boerwinkle Bulls of the early 1970s, a team of fierce overachievers whose style of play was as elegant as a Hells Angels stomping. And second, I guess, as a member of an even larger group -- that big slice of humanity that doesn't often get to enjoy the illusion that we engineer our own graceful exits.

The only time I ever saw Jordan play in person -- October 1985, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, against the Golden State Warriors -- I watched from the last row. He made a great drive in the first quarter -- don't remember whether he scored -- got fouled, made his free throws, then went to the bench. I spent the second, third and fourth quarter bellowing for him to get back in there. It didn't look like anything was wrong with him from where I was sitting, and it seemed weird that he was just off by himself, ignored by teammates and coaches. That's not what I had shelled out six or nine bucks for. Was he hurt? I didn't buy it. "Michael! Put your shoe back on!" I screamed.

Anyway, he had broken his foot, and he missed the Bulls' next 60-some games. He came back in the playoffs. The team didn't want him to risk reinjury by going back on the floor for a series that was a foregone conclusion against the Larry Bird-at-the-top-of-his-game Celtics. Jordan didn't know what "foregone conclusion" meant. He blew through the Boston defense for a 63-point game and single-handedly forced the series to its three-game limit.

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The image of Michael sitting on the bench is a precious one -- the only time in his entire career when something other than himself (and we won't go into the baseball thing) stopped him cold. And it happened at a moment when no one could say what direction this guy was going to go. Without knowing it, I think the people who saw Jordan fall to earth that night witnessed the baptism of a modern Achilles, albeit one not often given to sulking, one mostly unstingy with supplicants, one blessed always with a good agent. But nevertheless, an apparent demigod, one who, once he understood the dimension of his powers and was joined by a cohort of worthy mortals, seemed always to perform miraculously in the desperate rush of big-game battle.

That's just what that last highlight sequence shows. With only seconds left in a contest that, if lost, could break his team's soul, Jordan confronts Malone -- he'll do as Hector in this capsule "Iliad" -- and stabs the ball from his hands. With this prize in his hands on the other end of the court, he gives a defender a combined fake/shove -- the Greeks didn't fight fair, either -- and drains a jumper. That's the game, the series, the championship. And, Michael says now, his career.

But wait. Let's interrupt for a minute this really upbeat memorial service -- sorry, celebration of his career -- that the cosmos is staging to mark the occasion. Not to question Jordan's reasons for wanting to quit. Anyone whose life is lived so long in the high-intensity radiation of celebrity deserves a break. He certainly doesn't owe the league or his franchise or even the fans anything. And his hoops mentor and kindred spirit, Phil Jackson, quit the Bulls' coaching job.

But look beyond. Look at the moment and the man.

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What I see is a game-sequence blur. Jordan bringing the ball upcourt for
a three, Jordan falling back as he releases his jumper, Jordan switching
hands in the middle of a high-altitude drive, Jordan's joy and sweat and
exhaustion and pain and triumph. What I see as the montage fades is that
his game, his genius, has not yet run its course, and I can just feel how
much fun it would be to see him on the court just one more time. Michael!
Put your shoe back on!

But there's more to this than nostalgia and the mind's-eye highlight reel.

Michael's exempting himself from decline. This goes beyond taking a pass
on the spectacle of a great athletic talent going into eclipse. We get to
see that every season in every game. Mickey Mantle gimping around the
bases. Dan Marino, who suddenly looks better as a glove model than throwing
a football. Gordie Howe trying to play hockey -- ice hockey -- into his 60s
or 70s or whatever it is, a truly unnatural act. Jordan's short-circuiting
that, and that's OK. There is such a thing as staying too long.

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This is a case, though, of leaving too early. Michael's trying to do
what most of us, untouched by a divine talent, could never contemplate:
He's trying to quit with his illusion of immortality intact.

Yes, the just-please-help-them-win-God part of me that has long imagined
the black day someone would grind down Jordan and the Bulls is relieved.
Thank goodness it wasn't Karl Malone. But an even bigger part of me is
disappointed. That feared defeat, that unwanted ending, that sad last act,
is a vital part of the plot. It's also parallel to the narrative line we
all live through our whole lives. We get to the end of things -- a job, a
romance, the lives of the people we love -- and we stick around for whatever
is next.

But that next story doesn't begin until you have an ending, a
denouement, for the first. I don't like that Michael is lopping off his
tale's conclusion. I don't like that he's messing with the story arc. It's
a little like having Shakespeare decide Romeo and Juliet don't really have
to die. Or even more like the Bard deciding that, with no way to top his
work in "Hamlet," he was going to call it quits as a playwright and
toss quoits instead.

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What would be wrong, really, with a script that ended like this? Jordan,
head down, crying, walking off the victors' court having lost for the first
and only time in the finals. The crowd, which wanted nothing so badly as to
see him lose, is on its feet. Everyone there knows they'll never see
another one like him, a man who has grown somehow in being dethroned, in
giving up his demigod status. Then everyone -- the fans, the league, the
media folks -- can celebrate the greatness, mark its passing, and begin the
next story.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a freelance writer in Berkeley, Calif., and a contributing editor for Wired magazine.

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