His work is now complete. Michael Jordan posed last week in
Nikes beneath the Eiffel Tower while promoting McDonald's, and
the resulting photographs were not pictures so much as
pictographs: swooshes, golden arches, the monument and Michael,
each emblem instantly recognizable almost everywhere on earth.
In Paris, Jordan finally joined that little red man in the
don't-walk sign and the white silhouette on the men's room door
as the most famous of world —figures a genuine international icon.
As recently as a month ago this was not the case. Jordan
vacationed in the French capital in late September, walking the
streets unbothered, accompanied by only one of what is
ordinarily his trio of bodyguards. In the States it often takes
all three guys--Gus, C.T. and John Michael--to form a flying
wedge around MJ, cutting through crowds like a cowcatcher on a
locomotive. But no crowds assaulted Jordan in Paris last month.
"This was like the last area I could go unnoticed," Jordan said
of a city he has visited nearly every other summer since he
entered the NBA in 1984. "Now," he added unnecessarily, "that's
That is no longer so because Jordan returned to Paris last week,
this time with the five-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls, and
this time the City of Light left the lights on for him. The
prime minister of France, more than 27,000 other fans and some
1,000 journalists came to see him play two games, some of those
people applauding him, some asking for his autograph and some
wearing Bulls warmup tops. (And those were just the journalists.
If this season should be the end of the Bulls' belle
epoque--coach Phil Jackson says that this is his final campaign,
and Jordan says he won't play for anyone but Jackson--then what
a weird way for the end to begin: in Paris, where the Bulls
betrayed a palpable last-days-of-the-Beatles kind of vibe. They
arrived without forwards Dennis Rodman (who was in California
recovering from bronchitis and pneumonia and grumbling about his
still unsigned contract) and Scottie Pippen (who is out until at
least late December following foot surgery) to play in the
McDonald's Championship, an international tournament of six pro
league champions, contested in an arena, the Palais Omnisports
de Bercy, whose exterior is covered in growing grass. "We like
this building," explained an NBA vice president. "It's the Chia
Pet of arenas."
October 27, 1997
Be that as it may, there was only one oddity of any interest to
Europeans in Paris last week: Herr Jordan. Or Senor Jordan. Or
Monsieur Jordan. Like God, he was called by a thousand names,
though Jordan was quick to deny one journalist's suggestion that
he is God or that he's even a god. "It's certainly an
embarrassing situation for me," Jordan said when pressed on the
issue of divinity. "I play a game of basketball.... I try to
entertain for two hours and then let people go home to their
lives.... I could never consider myself a god."
No, like any other visitor to Paris, Jordan came for the museums
(expressing a specific interest in visiting "the Luge"), to
debut his new line of shoes (they're dimpled like a golf ball,
with what appears to be a gleaming gem on each sole) and to
"address the Princess Diana issue" (as he was asked to do by a
Chicago television reporter). "You have to find as much peace of
mind in front of the public as you can," Jordan said in response
to that question, and in this regard he seems to have succeeded
admirably. Jordan's car was pursued at least once by a
motorcycling photographer, he stayed but a block from the Ritz,
and the number of men guarding him at one point swelled to six.
And that was just at the official dinner, a private affair for
the McDonald's Championship teams at a belly-dancing emporium
called the Buddha Bar. "He had a lot of security," said Steve
Rich, a Floridian who plays for Argentina's Atenas de Cordoba.
"I knew I wouldn't be able to touch him, but some of our other
players didn't understand that."
Everybody wanted an autograph from l'idole, as French newspapers
called Jordan in front-page headlines. In the very last question
of the very last press conference of the week, a journalist from
Spain asked a question in Spanish, which was translated for
Jordan on a headset. "For those of you who don't understand
Spanish," Jordan announced to the assembled members of the world
media, "he asked me for an autograph for his kid. I don't have a
problem doing that"--here Jordan appeared to slump a little in
his seat--"though this isn't the proper forum."
Perhaps recognizing that there is no refuge from his fame,
Jordan appears to have made peace with the kind of scrutiny that
once drove him to retire from basketball. "It looks like a big
concert," said Henry Williams, a 27-year-old American who plays
guard for the Italian team Benetton Treviso, describing the
throngs that awaited Jordan whenever he entered or exited the
Inter-Continental Hotel last week. "And he's so used to it. He
must get that every day. But for me to see it up close, it's
nothing short of incredible. I want to play in the NBA, but I
personally wouldn't want that kind of fame. It would take away
from your ability to be a normal person."
Normal person? Jordan is now so accustomed to dutifully pleasing
a crowd--to being the only reason that a great many people have
come to the arena--that he appeared to invent a new phrase last
week to describe that period when he is reinserted into the game
in the final minutes of a blowout victory: "Encore time," he
called it, as in, "Phil was trying to give me some encore time
He is not merely bigger than the game itself; he dwarfs it.
During the first quarter of Chicago's 89-82 victory over
Paris-St. Germain on Friday night, Jordan gave NBA referee Jack
Nies a broad smile and an encouraging slap on the butt for no
apparent reason--except that Nies would undoubtedly feel
flattered by the gesture. (Jordan was assessed three fouls
Later that same night PSG forward Eric Struelens made an
exaggerated attempt to bump Jordan out of a post-up; in doing so
the 27-year-old Belgian looked genuinely ashamed to carry out
the direct order of his coach to get more physical with MJ. "I
could sense he was a little bit nervous," Jordan said afterward.
"I could see it wasn't in his nature to do that. It was kind of
a joke to me."
The next night, as the Bulls were beating the defending European
champions, Olympiakos of Greece, 104-78 to win the tournament,
Jordan so badly juked a 24-year-old guard named Milan Tomic that
the burn victim stood grinning after Jordan scored, which in
turn caused a grin to crease Jordan's face, too. The young man
had simply learned a lesson taught sooner or later to all people
who encounter Jordan in the flesh. They discover that "it's not
television," as Jordan puts it. "They can't change the channel."
And that genuinely surprises people who expect that he is in
fact a video-game image, or a logo on a sneaker, or a hologram,
or a character from a cartoon planet--all of which he is, of
course. "He's the most famous athlete of his time, and perhaps,
with Muhammad Ali, of any time," said NBA commissioner David
Stern, who noted in Paris that replacing Jordan in the league
will not be merely difficult but impossible: "Michael Jordan
came along at the same time that sports marketing developed and
that global television had extraordinary growth." Like the dozen
broad avenues that meet at the Arc de Triomphe, any number of
fortuitous thoroughfares intersected with Jordan's career,
causing the commissioner to conclude glumly, "There will never
be a growth spurt like that again."
Which is, on reflection, a very good thing. Because the kind of
idolatry that attended the Bulls in Paris surely ought not be
nurtured any further. "It becomes a labor," Jackson said of
traveling with the Bulls at this peculiar time in history. "We
appreciate the attention. It makes for sellouts and TV audiences
and big contracts, and I find the people we meet to be, for the
most part, well-meaning rather than cynical. But the constant
press of the crowd, the inability to get into and out of hotels,
all the autograph seekers and souvenir seekers, the people who
want a piece of something, anything, that might become valuable
in the future...."
These people now await the Bulls everywhere they go, precisely
because the world is wired. The beneficiaries of that technology
are now also its prisoners: Jordan scarcely left his
fourth-floor hotel suite last week except to go to the arena. He
stayed in with his wife, Juanita, and their three children:
eight-year-old Jeffrey, six-year-old Marcus and four-year-old
Jasmine. Jackson, meanwhile, has gone Luddite, spending his
off-seasons in a Montana house that has no TV.
Or so the coach said last Thursday, when he addressed reporters
at the Inter-Continental in a grand hall full of mirrors. He was
seated beneath a gold-leaf chandelier that hung from a ceiling
frescoed with naked cherubs. Red velvet drapes were drawn open
to the sun. In another time Louis XIV would have looked right at
home there. But in this age it was a basketball coach who very
much belonged in the setting and a basketball player who had
diamonds on the soles of his shoes.
"There is a cartoon of a little guy with a beard who walks
around with a sign that says, THE END IS NEAR," someone said to
Bulls guard Steve Kerr last week. "Do you feel like it is coming
to an end?"
"Sure it is," Kerr replied earnestly. "It's not too far off."
Whether the two men were referring to the end of the Bulls'
dynasty or to the apocalypse wasn't quite clear. But anyone who
spent a week with the Bulls in Paris could see this much: The
end is near. One way or another, the end is very near.