If Michael Jordan had to retire, at least he chose the best possible time, for the NBA's sake, to announce it. After all, the league was already numb from a nightmarish off-season filled with tragic deaths, serious injuries, legal setbacks and blemishes on its carefully polished image.
A chilling foreshadowing of the kind of summer it would be came during the playoffs in June, when the New Jersey Nets' star guard Drazen Petrovic was killed in an auto accident in Germany. Later in the month Miami Heat guard Brian Shaw's parents and sister died in a car crash. July brought the shocking death of Boston Celtic guard Reggie Lewis and the murder of Jordan's father, James.
As training camps opened last Friday the league had other unwelcome matters to deal with. Phoenix Sun forward Richard Dumas, who had seemingly overcome a history of drug dependency to play a significant role in his team's Western Conference championship run last season, apparently suffered a relapse in September and was suspended indefinitely, without pay, by the league. Meanwhile Dumas's teammate, forward Jerrod Mustaf, was embroiled in the investigation into the shooting death in Phoenix of a 27-year-old woman; police questioned Mustaf but said he was not a suspect.
Then there were the injuries, from the torn knee ligaments suffered in a pickup game that canceled the season of Golden State Warrior guard Sarunas Marciulionis to the frightening sight of MVP Charles Barkley of the Suns collapsing on court last Saturday night during practice. Barkley, who said his legs went numb, was diagnosed with muscle and respiratory fatigue, and the initial prescription was a reduced practice schedule.
That was a relief to a league already reeling from a futile battle it had waged against new contracts that were clearly designed to circumvent the salary cap. Several players, including Portland Trail Blazer center Chris Dudley and Chicago Bull guard-forward Toni Kukoc, signed contracts that seem to pay the players less than their market value but also contain clauses that allow those players to become free agents after just one season. Their teams then would be able to resign them without salary-cap restrictions. The league challenged the contracts before the NBA's special master and an arbitrator, and it lost in every case.
"It's been a devastating off-season," says Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams. "There have also been wonderfully positive stories, like the signing of the new television contract with NBC and TNT [four-year deals for $750 million and $350 million, respectively] and the prospect of expansion into Canada, but overall. I can't remember an off-season with as many distressing developments."
With the possible exception of the salary-cap battle, Jordan's retirement has the most far-reaching implications for the league. As recently as two years ago, the idea that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan would all be gone by the '93-94 season would have been unthinkable at NBA headquarters. But it has happened, and though the league still has plenty of talented players, it suddenly finds itself without a superstar who transcends the sport and draws a broader base of fans.
"The league might be suffering for a little hit now," says Indiana Pacer guard Reggie Miller. "The major stars are gone. Now who does the torch pass to? Who is qualified, who is a good ambassador, who is a good leader?"
The best news for the NBA is that it may not need one as much as it once did. The greatest contribution of the Jordan-Bird-Magic triumvirate was the strengthening of the league to the point that it could withstand their absence. Also, while other leagues have unashamedly tried to imitate the NBA's marketing of individual stars, the NBA has promoted not just its budding talent, like Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic and Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning of the Charlotte Hornets, but also the league as a whole.
"When Jordan came into the league, he was well known, but he wasn't a rock star," Williams says. "But the young guys coming into the NBA today, like Shaquille, are much farther along in terms of celebrity, and that's partly because the league is more advanced."
Nevertheless, the loss of Jordan affects the NBA on virtually every level:
•TELEVISION. For NBC, the only thing worse than Jordan's retirement would be if he decided to host a late-night talk show on CBS. Four of NBC's five highest-rated NBA regular-season telecasts in the '92-93 season involved the Bulls, and the championship series between Chicago and Phoenix was the highest-rated Finals ever. Over the past eight years ratings of NBA games on TBS and TNT averaged 17% higher when the Bulls played. Let's face it, all those extra people weren't tuning in to see Will Perdue.
Still, no one at either network is publicly distraught over the four-year contract extensions with the NBA signed shortly before Jordan's exit. "He's had as marked an effect on ratings as any individual in sports," says Kevin O'Malley, TNT's senior VP for sports programming. "But the NBA has consciously built itself around a star system, not a single star. Down the line, I'm not sure [Jordan's retirement] will have that substantial an effect."
But what Jordan did was attract the nonfan who tuned in just to see the world's Eighth Wonder. The only remaining players with the potential to transcend the sport that way are Barkley and O'Neal. The league couldn't have been happier to see Barkley host Saturday Night Live last month, or to see O'Neal working on a movie, Blue Chips, during the off-season. But Barkley's I'm-not-a-role-model stance isn't designed to engender affection, and O'Neal must take the Magic deep into the playoffs a time or two before he can hope to approach Jordan's stature.
•ATTENDANCE. Jordan and the Bulls were the top road draw in the NBA last season, attracting an average of 18,433 fans per game, about 600 more than O'Neal and the Magic pulled in. Both of Chicago's visits to Atlanta were sellouts, and the Hawks had only two other capacity crowds—opening night against the New York Knicks and a January game against Barkley's Suns.
•COMPETITION. With Jordan's retirement. everyone takes a step up: Phoenix and New York from serious contenders to favorites, Seattle, Cleveland, Houston and Charlotte from dark horses to serious contenders. "This could be the most competitive season in years," says Williams.
And all due in large part to one man's decision. There is no aspect of the league that Jordan's presence failed to touch, which is why, even though the NBA is in a position to flourish without him, it's hard to shake the feeling that if he doesn't return, the league will one day look back upon his retirement as the end of a golden age that may never be duplicated.