They'll Always Like Mike

February 03, 2003

If only because George Bush was in the White House and war was
looming in Iraq and 10,000 Maniacs were on the public address,
one could have been forgiven, while watching Michael Jordan play
basketball in Chicago last Friday night, for thinking it was
still 1991. But Time is famously impatient--it flies, it marches
on, it waits for no man--and now, at last, it stands next to
Jordan, cruelly tapping its wristwatch.

"I hate that good things come to an end," MJ, who will retire for
good after this season, was saying on Friday morning. "I wish, in
all honesty, they didn't have to. But they do." In eight hours he
would be introduced, for the final time, to a sellout crowd in
Chicago. "I'll try," he said sincerely, "not to cry."

For 12 seasons his only introduction at Chicago Bulls home games
was, "From North Carolina...." The rest was always inaudible
beneath a crashing wave of roars. "Frankly," says the man who
made those introductions, former Bulls public-address announcer
Ray Clay, "I could have said, 'From North Carolina...Mickey
Mouse!' Nobody would have known the difference."

Jordan, who will turn 40 on Feb. 17, is still, astonishingly, the
biggest draw in basketball: His team, the Washington Wizards, is
first in the NBA in home attendance and second in road
attendance, and not because of Kwame Brown and Jahidi White,
whose names sound like colors in a J.Crew catalog.

Likewise, the absurd variety of his fans is, as ever, unmatched
in sports. On Friday 17year-old Steve Gomez of Tempe, Ariz.,
stood outside the United Center, in 10° cold, snapping pictures
of the Jordan statue, having flown in the previous night with his
mother, Barbara, expressly for the game. "He only wears Michael
Jordan clothes," Barbara said of her son, who was shod in Air
Jordans, swaddled in Wizards sweats and wearing a Wizards jacket,
with a North Carolina watch cap tugged low on his forehead. "My
friends think I'm a nut," said Steve. "But I'm just a Jordan
fan."

Billy Leung of Hong Kong and Ryoko Omachi of Taiwan were also
photographing the statue, from 16 separate angles, as if it were
a runway model. Jordan fans? "Bigtime!" said Leung, 30, giving me
a thumbs-up. It wasn't the day's only one-word devotional from a
foreign-born fan. My Sikh cabdriver, when I'd told him "United
Center," had shouted through his pane of bulletproof Lucite,
"Emjay!"

What must it be like for Jordan to know that Time is trying to
take all of this? "It's not death," Jordan said on Friday
morning. "It's just the end of basketball, not the end of living.
I'll still be here." Then he said of the game that awaited him,
"I don't want this to feel like a funeral."

But for many in Chicago, it was. Sure, the Bulls' starting lineup
is still introduced, in pitch darkness, with that Alan Parsons
Project instrumental, Sirius. (Back in the day a Toronto Blue
Jays official called the Bulls asking for the song's title,
because Roger Clemens wanted to start his games the same way
Jordan did.) But now the lineup is bereft of greatness. The
United Center's patron is bankrupt. And though the fans still
come--the Bulls average 18,834 in their 21,711-seat arena--they
cannot be expected to show up much longer. As Charles Oakley,
Jordan's once and current teammate, said of hungry Chicago fans,
"Sooner or later the slop runs out, and that pig gonna run away
and die."

Friday morning after practice Jordan watched his two sons,
Jeffrey, 14, and Marcus, 12, shoot around on the Bulls' home
court, imitating their father's moves--ball stiff-armed away from
defender, step back, fallaway, swish. It was like a lost Gatorade
commercial: Old Mike on the bench, Really Young Mikes on the
court, and the only Mike missing was Mike in His Prime.

That night Jordan was introduced by a stranger. After 12 years as
the Bulls' P.A. announcer, Ray Clay was fired at the end of last
season, he says, for confessing to a reporter that his blase
introduction of Jordan--in MJ's first game in Chicago as a Wizard
in January 2002--was at the insistence of Bulls management, which
told him to announce Jordan as he would any other opponent, an
order that puzzled Clay and most everyone else.

The new P.A. announcer, on Friday night, only got as far as "From
North Carolina...." The standing ovation that followed, a tsunami
of emotion, got louder with each passing minute, inducing goose
bumps on one's goose bumps. All the while--until he cut the crowd
off after three minutes and 20 seconds by thanking them over the
P.A.--Jordan turned in a circle, mouthing, over and over, "Thank
you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much." He had
at last, it appeared, become Elvis.

"I listen to a classic-rock station," Clay was saying the other
night, while driving in Chicago after dark, "and every now and
then The Alan Parsons Project will come on. And sometimes I'll
think--for a split second--that it's my cue." In that moment Clay
will have to physically restrain himself from shouting, over the
noise of traffic, "And now...the starting lineup...for your
world champion...CHICAGO BULLS!"

"I'm sorry to see it end," he said of Jordan. "But everybody gets
old." It's that notion, no doubt, that pains us most.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

"It's not death," Jordan said before his final United Center
appearance. "It's just the end of basketball."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)