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Michael Jordan: End of an era

Last Updated: Thursday, 17 April, 2003, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK

He's retired twice before, but this time it seems he really means it. For this week Michael Jordan has bid a proper farewell to the game that made him the richest, most famous sportsman in the world. Basketball's greatest talent is bowing out.

Many top sportsmen can flex their muscles, hone their skills and become practised technicians in their game. Michael Jordan belongs to a more exclusive group of athletes who take physical endeavour to a completely different level.

Equipped with an unjust physique, competitive spirit and awesome confidence, this light-footed superstar turns basketball into ballet and realises the sporting dreams of the rest of us.

A standing ovation for his last game
Jordan has hung up his NBA boots for the final time, but he leaves a sporting legacy many believe will remain permanently unmatched. Voted Rookie of the Year back in 1985, he has been made the seasonal Most Valued Player five times in all.

A two-times Olympic gold medallist, he led his beloved Chicago Bulls to victory at the NBA championships six times in six seasons, and still holds by far the highest play-off scoring average of 33.4 points.

In one glorious Bulls encounter with the Boston Celtics, he set an NBA record by scoring 63 points, prompting basketball veteran Larry Bird to claim, "That was God disguised as Michael Jordan."

After his second retirement from the game (the first involved a short-lived attempt at professional baseball), Jordan moved into management with the Washington Wizards.

Unable to stay on the coach's bench, he played for two more seasons, despite his 40-year-old body often breaking down under the onslaught of being thrown around the court with all of its owner's legendary enthusiasm.

Although his swansong proved lacklustre in comparison with the rest of Jordan's career, his presence in Washington has drawn sell-out crowds, basketball fans keenly aware that they are watching the curtain fall on a sporting icon.

Nike's Mike

As in basketball, timing is everything, and the peak of Jordan's prowess coincided with an unprecedented media interest in the sport. The American magazine Fortune estimated back in 1998 that Jordan's TV-friendly dominance of the game had helped propel it as far afield as China, and generate more than $10bn in revenue for basketball.

For more than any sportsman in history, this has created the commercial forum for Jordan to translate his on-court skills into hard personal cash.

Endorsements have made Jordan the richest sportsman in the world
His name appears everywhere in US consumer heaven, from underwear to sports drinks, magazines to steakhouses. When Nike created a customised set of trainers, the Air Jordans of which there are a staggering 18 incarnations, they made $130m in their first year of sales.

Even Jordan's professional peers in the basketball arena wear his shoes, perhaps hoping for a talismanic effect that will similarly take them from one end of the court to the other, without apparently touching the floor in between.

They, no doubt, wish for their own slice of "hang time", the technical term for the improbably long period that Jordan enjoys in the air. They unashamedly want to "be like Mike", the slogan for his signature ad campaign.

Staying with the Wizards

Being like Mike means being named in the lyrics of rap songs, appearing in a Michael Jackson video, and even co-starring in the box-office hit, Space Jam, with another light-footed superhero, Bugs Bunny.

It means receiving a Pentagon flag from Donald Rumsfeld at the final match of the basketball season, having nearly two million mentions on the internet and a 17-feet high statue outside the arena in Chicago where his legend was created.

Jordan's slam dunks helped create a sporting legend
With a fortune estimated at $400m, Jordan can well afford to retire properly now, and spend his time playing golf, another sport he cannot resist.

But he seems unable to cut his ties with the game that made him and has made his intentions clear of staying with the Wizards to supervise their improvement. He says: "The legacy of this team in the future will be my legacy."

That may be true for Jordan but, for the millions of fans he brought to basketball, it is the man himself who provides the golden memories.

Some of these will surely endure. Johnny Bach, an assistant to the Bulls when Jordan was playing for them, still remembers the final moments of a clincher, when the star stepped to the foul line and made two free throws.

Each time the ball went straight through the basket. And each time Michael Jordan had his eyes closed. Of such stuff are legends made.

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