Last week you sounded more definite than you ever have about your intention to retire after this season. "This is it," you told reporters in Salt Lake City. "I'm done." But when it comesto your career moves, we can't resist offering unsolicited advice, so please indulge us one more time. In the words of a company you're somewhat familiar with: Just Don't Do It.
Don't retire yet. Not when your status as the league's top player remains undisputed. Not when you're still the best show in sports. You turn 35 on Feb. 17, yet everyone else in the league--especially the whippersnappers barely more than half your age--are humbled by your performance night in and night out, including the 23-point, MVP-winning extravaganza you put on Sunday at the All-Star Game in Madison Square Garden. But you shouldn't continue playing just because you realize that whenever you do leave, the public's interest in the NBA will decline, NBC's and Turner Sports' ratings will drop, stock in
Nike and McDonald's and all the other corporations you're affiliated with will plummet, the country will spiral downward into an economic recession and an emotional malaise, and, in all likelihood, the republic will crumble.
Don't worry about any of that, Michael, because this isn't about
us, it's about you. Most athletes retire for one of two reasons:
They no longer measure up to their accepted level of
performance, or their competitive fire has diminished. In your
case neither is true. You are having one of the greatest NBA
seasons a player your age has ever had, leading the league in
scoring with a 28.9 average at the All-Star break (chart).
Furthermore, as Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson or New
York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy or anyone else who has paid the
price for arousing your ire in the last few years can attest,
your passion on the court hasn't waned.
You don't want to retire, and you don't have to retire. You're
willing to retire. Five years ago, when you abruptly left the
Bulls after they had won their third straight championship, you
seemed burned out--tired of the intense media scrutiny of your
private life and the relentless grind of the regular season.
Strangely, you appeared much more ready for retirement at 30
than you do now. After what turned out to be a 17-month
sabbatical, when you chased your dream of playing major league
baseball, you came back to the Bulls in March 1995 reenergized,
and even now a regular-season game in Sacramento seems to excite
you as much as the first game of the Finals. In fact you are the
only Chicago player who hasn't missed a game since that day you
returned to the club. That doesn't fit the profile of someone
ready for the rocking chair.
But you're willing to leave now because the Bulls as you have
known them are about to be dismantled, and you see no point in
continuing to play. You are right to be troubled by the lack of
regard Chicago vice president of basketball operations Jerry
Krause and team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf have shown for the two
people most responsible for helping you bring five championships
to Chicago in the last seven years: Phil Jackson and Scottie
Pippen. Because Krause has shut the door on any possibility of
Jackson's returning to the Bulls next season and you don't want
to play for any other coach at this stage of your career, you
view retirement as the only option.
Don't let the two Jerrys drive you out of the game prematurely.
They don't realize that as caretakers of a dynasty, it is their
obligation to sustain it as long as possible, not to hasten its
destruction. It's as if they've been entrusted with the Mona
Lisa and have decided to leave it on the front porch. Mitch and
Reggie and Kobe should be the ones to let you know when you
should retire, not the Jerrys. Let events on the court tell you
when it's time to leave, not decisions from the boardroom.
Your loyalty to Jackson is admirable, but he would understand if
you chose to keep playing after he left. "Michael's position on
this is very gratifying personally," Jackson has said, "but it's
certainly not a position I ever asked him to take." If you
turned up the pressure on the two Jerrys by saying publicly that
you would stay if, hypothetically, current Bulls assistant Jimmy
Rodgers became coach (thus ensuring that Jackson's system would
endure), Krause and Reinsdorf would no doubt give in to your
wishes rather than face a public lynching beside your statue
outside the United Center.
Our point here is, you will be able to perform at the current
level only for a short time longer--a year, maybe two--and that
time is too precious to throw away. It's sad enough when a great
player's career ends too soon because of injury, as was the case
with Larry Bird, or illness, as was Magic Johnson's situation.
To let your career end because of organizational politics would
be a horrible waste.
Wanting to leave too soon rather than too late is the right
instinct, but now is not the time to worry about that. Even
though a startling number of great NBA players, especially
guards, suffered a rapid decline in performance after age 35
(chart)--if their careers even lasted that long--you appear to
be an exception to that rule. You are a young 35, maybe partly
because your sabbatical has left you with less mileage on your
odometer than other players have run up at your age. True, the
years have taken away some of the spring in your legs, and you
like to play the role of the old man every once in a while (for
instance, the time after watching the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe
Bryant dunk in a game earlier this year when you turned to
Pippen and asked, "Did we jump that high when we were 19?"). But
one of the measures of your greatness is the way you have
compensated for a slight but unmistakable loss of athleticism.
"One thing Michael and I had in common is that there was a time
when we would rely on our physical ability, on jumping over
everybody," says former 76ers star Julius Erving, who was 37
when he retired in 1987. "But as time has passed, he's done a
remarkable job of adapting his game. He's developed that
fadeaway jumper, which is almost unstoppable, and he's become so
good at all the little things. Watch how tightly he comes off a
pick, or how he sets people up on the dribble. You think of him
as this high-flying guy, but what has kept him great is that he
does the fundamental things so well."
You can't be an acrobat for 48 minutes a game anymore, Michael,
so you've learned to pick your spots. You can still take off on
some spectacular flights to the hoop, but more often you use the
threat of the drive, which defenders still have to respect, in
order to pull up and shoot the jumper. So why not see how many
other ways you can adapt your game and still stay on top? That
might be an intriguing challenge, if winning championships is no
longer sufficient incentive.
The NBA needs you to play for as long as possible, not just
because of what you mean to ratings and attendance, but also
because the young stars poised to take over the league still
cannot touch your greatness. Your performance brings out a
humility in most of them that a thousand admonishments from
other players of your generation, such as Charles Barkley and
Karl Malone, never could. When Tracy McGrady, the 18-year-old
Toronto Raptors rookie who jumped from high school to the pros
last year, was asked recently to read some of the items for a
David Letterman Top 10 list of NBA players' pet peeves, there
was one he balked at: "Guarding Michael Jordan always leaves you
smelling like his damn cologne." McGrady didn't want you to hear
him say those words, not even in jest. As long as you command
that kind of respect, even fear, from your peers, Michael, you
should keep playing.
Besides, what else are you going to do? Where else will you
satisfy your craving for competition? And don't say "golf." As
your friend Bird warns, "There's only so much golf you can
play." He lasted five years in retirement before returning to
the NBA to coach the Indiana Pacers this season. You love the
links more than he does, so perhaps you would be satisfied
longer, but not forever. You're also not the type to sit in an
NBC studio for hours, waiting for your 15 seconds to say
something intelligent while a producer talks in your ear. "I
will find other outlets," you say. "That is one thing I'm not
afraid of. I welcome the challenge of trying to find other
challenges." Whatever those challenges turn out to be, they're
not going anywhere. They will still be there a year or two from
now, or whenever you finish playing.
As you know, there are many players around the league who aren't
convinced that this is your last season, no matter how often you
insist that it is. "I don't have any inside information, even
though we have the same agent [David Falk]," says Atlanta Hawks
center Dikembe Mutombo, "but I believe he's coming back. He
loves the game too much, and he would miss it too much. I would
bet anyone that he will be back next year." An awful lot of
players won't believe you're really going to retire until they
see you sitting courtside in a suit.
We remember the ceremony at the United Center in November 1994
in which your number was retired. Afterward you tried to put to
rest the suspicions that you would come out of retirement. "See
that?" you said, pointing at your uniform up in the rafters.
"Doesn't that convince you? That should be proof that I'm not
coming back." Four months later you were back, wearing a Bulls
We know you weren't exactly thrilled with the last piece of
career advice we offered you, back in March 1994, when you were
trying to make it with the Chicago White Sox. As you recall--all
too well--we put a picture of you, swinging and missing, on the
cover with the headline BAG IT, MICHAEL! We suggested that
baseball needed you about as much as it needed another
Rotisserie League. Maybe it wasn't the most tactful way to get
the message across, but you have to admit that things have
worked out pretty well for you ever since you stopped chasing
So remember, circumstances change--and your mind can change,
too. Ask yourself if there is any possibility that you will look
back years from now and wish you had continued to play until you
knew you had squeezed every last drop out of your talent. So, no
matter what your future holds, Michael, just make sure it
doesn't hold a moment of regret.