Editor's note: In honor of Michael Jordan being named to the Forbes' billionaire list this week, SI.com is re-publishing Jack McCallum's 1991 Sportsman of the Year essay on Jordan, titled: "Alone On The Mountaintop." This story originally appeared in the Dec. 23, 1991 issue.
At the relatively tender age of 28, he stands alone on the mountaintop, unquestionably the most famous athlete on the planet and one of its most famous citizens of any kind. We've heard it so often that it's now a cliché, though an accurate one: He transcends sports. He keeps a championship ring on his dresser at home and will be making room for another if his team (18-3 at week's end) plays the next six months of the season the way it has played the first two. A two-time MVP, he was probably the best player in the world even before Magic Johnson's retirement last month, but now the subject isn't even worth debating.
He will earn about $25 million in 1992, only $3.8 million of it from his day job--the rest, an astonishing $21.2 million, from a flood of endorsements. His name and his face are on sneakers, sandwiches, soft drinks and cereal boxes, to mention just a few items. He has a lovely and loving wife, two adorable sons and a relationship with his parents that is so good, the sappiest sitcom wouldn't touch it. He is bothered somewhat by tendinitis and a bone spur in his left knee but is otherwise in outstanding health. He has trouble off the tee from time to time, but his handicap is still in single figures, and any number of professional tutors are at his beck and call.
And, so, despite a few aesthetic drawbacks--near baldness, skinny legs, overly long basketball trunks and the continuing tendency to stick out his tongue--we honor Michael Jeffrey Jordan as our Sportsman of the Year for 1991.
It is a virtual certainty that since the award originated in 1954, no athlete has been as popular on a worldwide scale as Jordan is now and, for that matter, has been for the last several years. He has surpassed every standard by which we gauge an athlete's fame and, with few exceptions, he has handled the adulation with a preternatural grace and ease that have cut
across lines of race, age and gender.
SI's 100 Best Michael Jordan Photos
Michael Jordan leaps from the free-throw line for a perfect-score dunk in the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. A prolific dunker throughout his career due to his tremendous leaping ability, Jordan won back-to-back dunk contests in 1987 and '88.
Michael Jordan pulls down a rebound in an ACC game against Virginia in January 1982. He scored 13.5 points per game that season as a freshman.
Michael Jordan goes for a layup against Patrick Ewing during the 1982 NCAA National Championship between North Carolina and Georgetown.
Michael Jordan hits the game-winning jumper to beat Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA Championship game. Jordan, ACC Freshman of the Year, propelled North Carolina to a national title by nailing a jumper with 17 seconds remaining, putting the Tar Heels up for good 63-62. Jordan had 16 points in the game.
Michael Jordan plays aggressive defense against Duke's Tommy Amaker in a 1984 ACC Tournament semifinal. North Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1 in the nation, but Indiana upset the Tar Heels in the Sweet 16.
Michael Jordan poses for a 1983 portrait at center court of the Carmichael Arena, the home to North Carolina men's basketball during Jordan's tenure. Playing under legendary coach Dean Smith, Jordan won a national championship in 1982 and the Naismith and Wooden awards for college player of the year in 1984.
Michael Jordan rubs the head of Sam Perkins for a portrait in November 1983. The Tar Heels went undefeated in the ACC during the regular season but lost in the ACC Tournament and was upset in the Sweet 16 by Indiana.
Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins sit on the couch in coach Dean Smith's office at North Carolina in November 1983. Smith won the first national championship of his Hall of Fame coaching career with Jordan and Perkins in 1982.
Michael Jordan plays Ms. Pac Man at North Carolina in November 1983. Already a first-team All-America from his sophomore season, Jordan topped that by winning the 1984 John Wooden Award as a junior before declaring for the NBA Draft.
Michael Jordan dances to Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" in his dorm room in November 1983. North Carolina entered the 1983-84 season ranked No. 1 in the nation, earning Jordan his first SI cover appearance and photo shoot.
Michael Jordan stands with North Carolina teammate Sam Perkins in November 1983. The Tar Heels' star duo combined for 37.2 points per game in the 1983-84 season.
To tune up for his first Olympics, Michael Jordan competes for Team USA against a team of NBA All-Stars in 1984. Although the games against the NBA players were incredibly physical and left the Olympians bruised and battered, the move paid off when the Americans went 8-0 at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics en route to a gold medal.
Michael Jordan shoots a jumper for Team USA at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Playing for a still all-amateur team, Jordan led all the squad with 17.1 points per game as the U.S. took gold with an 8-0 record.
Michael Jordans smiles alongside Julius Erving during warmups before the Chicago Bulls game against the Philadelphia 76ers in November 1984.
Michael Jordan drives a bumper car against Bulls teammates Rod Higgins and Orlando Woolridge at an amusement park in Phoenix in November 1984.
Rookie sensation Michael Jordan opts for some slightly smaller links in a round of miniature golf with the Bulls in Phoenix in 1984.
Michael Jordan walks on the court with his tongue out in November 1984, his rookie season. Jordan picked up the habit from his father, who would stick his tongue out when he was absorbed in his work.