I Have Nothing Left To Prove

SCOTTIE PIPPEN, THE CHICAGO Bulls' all-star forward, heard the rumor as he reached Comiskey Park for the White Sox' opening playoff game. He rushed to a phone and located Michael Jordan at the ballpark in the private skybox where Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls and Sox owner, held court. But Pippen, who hadn't exchanged much more than "How're ya doin'" with Jordan since the basketball season ended, couldn't bring himself to pop the question. After a few awkward moments, Jordan, as he had always done, took charge. Scottie, he said, "I'm hanging it up tomorrow."

And the next morning Jordan, 30 years old and at the pinnacle of his career, did just that, telling the world that the thrill--if only for him--was gone. "I've always stressed that when I lose the sense of motivation and the sense to prove something as a basketball player, it's time to leave," he said. Jordan's retirement was a surprise, coming just months after he led the Bulls to a historic third straight championship and just two days before the team opened training camp. But Jordan had often flirted with the notion privately and publicly. And given the anguish over his father's recent murder, his decision wasn't quite shocking. "He's living the American dream," said Reinsdorf, "reaching a point in life where you don't have to do anything you don't want to do."

If there remains any doubt that basketball has become, as the National Basketball Association loves to proclaim, "America's game," Jordan's exit may have settled that question. It consigned baseball's postseason playoffs, replete with its own big-name stars like Rickey Henderson and Bo Jackson, to the nether reaches of the sports page-back with pro hockey's opening night. It also marked the end of an era during which basketball's holy trinity, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan, raised the league to its current heights. Jordan, the greatest player ever to put short pants on one leg at a time, was the last of the three to retire--the only one who called it quits willingly, in good health and without apparent regrets.

It was less than a month ago, at a Michael Jordan Foundation dinner in Chicago, that Reinsdorf got a good idea of what was coming. Jordan, who was heading for California on vacation, told his boss that nine seasons had been enough. He had all but made up his mind to quit. Reinsdorf asked Jordan to reconsider while on vacation. On Sunday, Oct. 3, the Bulls owner flew to Washington 0 meet with Jordan and his agent David Falk at Falk's Bethesda, Md., home. Jordan had arrived early casually attired in jeans and a golf shirt, and settled in the family room to watch and talk football with Falk and his other agent, Curtis Polk. After Reinsdorf arrived, they ordered out for pasta, pizza and salad.

It was only after much conversation about the White Sox and the upcoming playoffs that Falk turned off the big-screen TV and the four men turned to the question of Jordan's future. "It was Michael and Jerry eyeball to eyeball," says Polk. But Reinsdorf found himself supporting Jordan's decision. "Maybe I could have talked him out of it," he says with a shrug. "I didn't want to try." Reinsdorf did ask Jordan if there was anyone who might change his mind. "Coach Jackson," Jordan replied. "He might be able to challenge me with new goals."

Jordan met with Phil Jackson Tuesday morning, and the man who had won seven straight NBA scoring titles, three straight league MVPs and three straight championship MVPs asked his coach what challenges were left. Jackson, a bright and honest man, had no answer. "He thought for a second," said Jordan. "That's all I needed." The next morning, before his press conference, he held an emotional meeting with a number of his teammates. No one offered any counsel, only good wishes. "As long as he's happy with it, we have no right to feel any other way," said John Paxson, a teammate for eight years. Pippen couldn't hide the tears behind sunglasses. "I'd still be in his shadow if I could," he said.

"He can't be replaced," said NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre. "But the mantle has always been passed. There's some kid out there, maybe in kindergarten, who Will someday make Jordan look like [Bulls backup center] Will Perdue." Or maybe Frank. At least the league, flush with a lucrative new TV contract and blessed with a full firmament of young stars, didn't confuse disappointment with tragedy. The NBA knows the difference; two of its young stars, Reggie Lewis and Drazen Petrovic, died in the off season.

Jordan, of course, know tragedy too. His father's death was a bitter end to an already difficult year filled with emotional highs and lows. He had led America's Dream Team to Olympic gold and the Bulls to another championship. But a succession of gambling scandals, from minor to one that linked Jordan with a convicted cocaine dealer, tarnished his image and raised the question, did Americans really want their children to "be like Mike"? The pain of losing his father, who was also his closest friend, was compounded by early--and incorrect--speculation that Jordan's gambling associations might have been responsible.

Still, he insisted the murder had not spurred his decision. In fact, he said his father had advised him to retire two years ago, but "I still had a lot to prove as a player." Now there was nothing left to prove. The desire that assured he would always give "110 percent" on the court had ebbed. His father's death was a reminder of how "it could be taken away from you at any time." As a result, Jordan says he wants to spend more time with his wife, Juanita, and his three children.

Yet Jordan has always adored the spotlight. He was marketed, unlike any athlete before him, to be a public figure. And he has no intention of going private. Last year his Bulls salary was only a small fraction of his estimated $36 million in earnings. It is far easier to forsake the final three years of his basketball contract when Nike is paying Jordan $20 million annually. Recently, Jordan reupped many of his corporate deals for another decade with no requirement that he play basketball. "We'll have to find creative ways to keep him in the forefront of the consuming public," says Falk.

Jordan says it is possible that he could "unretire." "I'm not going to close that door," he said. "I don't believe in never." Jordan joked that the urge might return in five years. The NBA says he can return any time he wants. Though the league never formally interviewed Jordan, it considers the gambling matter closed. "There was no violation of NBA rules," NBA Commissioner David Stern told NEWSWEEK. But for now, Jordan is the property of memory and billboards. He was the best ever to play the game. Bird said that, and he knows.