There was a lack of leadership at the end of the century. We were all waiting to see what would happen next.
I remember where I was the day of the announcement. I was living in Brooklyn and the Yankees were in the pennant race. I was thirty-one and trying to make it as an actor or a writer, I didn’t care which.
It was October after a full moon and the air in the city had become cool. I didn’t own a television then. Usually I got the news from looking over somebody’s shoulder on the train, but that day it was impossible not to know; so I was in a bar.
My job was in Manhattan but I had a pretty kind commute – on the 7 – each morning. In the evenings I used to drink a lot, so often I took a cab home. The announcement was made during prime time.
I had been in the west village near Chelsea, so I headed East until I’d found myself in a suitably quiet place for a drink.
There were three others in the bar on my side, all men. The bartender was about my age, too. We checked each other out when I walked in but she wasn’t interested. Let me know with a glance. She was attending to us and going back to the telephone where she was involved in a casual conversation. That’s how we heard. She told us.
She was on the phone with her roommate, I discovered later, who told her to turn on the TV. The television was off when I walked in, which is why I walked all the way down the bar and sat by it. I was putting room between me and the other patrons and the bartender on her phone call. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, just wanted a drink or two before going home.
She walked down the length of the bar toward me, though my glass was still half-full. “Jordan’s on ESPN,” she said as she passed me with an air of excitement. She reached up and turned on the TV.
I moved over to get some perspective and ended up next to one of the other guys.
“Perfect timing,” he was saying to his friend, “It’s storybook.”
We were all looking at the television for a moment as we realized at our own pace it was a commercial. Then we turned away from the TV to notice each other. The guy to my left was a know-it-all. Cliff Claven-type. His Norm was an appropriately fat guy to his left, who was listening, bored.
“There’s not gonna be any basketball this year – the league’s locked out,” says Cliffy, “It’ll be the first strike in NBA history. And look at this – Jordan’s going to retire before it gets ugly.” He looks at the both of us, including me in their space. “Storybook, man! The guy’s all class. His entire career. C-L-A-S-S, class.”
It seemed about right. We had all been waiting for the announcement, fans and not fans. We had been well-prepared by the rumours and gossip for the last few months. The other guy, Norm, wasn’t so sure about all the “class,” but he had his “favorite Jordan moment.”
“My company’s had floor-side Knicks seats for years,” he began, “I had finished doing the numbers for the annual report a few years ago and so they let me have the tickets, as a kind of a bonus, you know.”
The ad was for Nike – a long narrative about a couple of guys buying sneakers with all these idiotic effects meant to be impressive. They were playing one-on-one at what was meant to be an inner city court, but that looked more like a Hollywood lot – an appearance by Tiger Woods – hits a three-pointer with a golf club or something – stupid.
“Jordan was off in the first half, shot maybe four-for-15 from the field … just didn’t have his rhythm,” continued Norm, “But during the warm-ups before the second half – the Bulls were down at our end so I could see him up close – he seemed so casual. He was joking around and chewing his gum. He stopped during the shoot-around to sign some kid’s little plastic basketball at courtside.”
Norm turned to face us – making a little circle. He glanced over his shoulder at the TV to make sure it was still a commercial, before continuing. “Knicks were up five at the break and the second half started with Jordan bringing the ball down.”
“Here we go,” chimed in Cliffy, “never let Jordan bring the ball down up five at the beginning of the second half,” he said, as if that made any kind of sense. The Nike ad was followed by an ad for the new BMW convertible. It was being featured in a movie. Hot Babe racing at speeds meant to appear saucy, around curves on the Pacific Coast Highway – but it was stagey and excessive – a patina of production slathered across it.
“And it wasn’t that the rest of the game was so impressive – ‘cause he went 12 for 18 in the second half and ended up with 42 points, 8 boards and four steals on the night-”
“Wooooah!” chimed in Cliffy, “See? See?”
Norm continued: “But it wasn’t that. It was that first bucket after the second half started.” Norm looked at us both significantly. “He went coast-to-coast, juked twice and burned Starks and Oakley on the way to the rack for the slam. It was like he was waiting to turn it on and once it was on there wasn’t anybody to stop it.” We were all silent for a minute wishing we had that … when ESPN came back on.
“If the Yanks lose tomorrow, Joe Torre will have a decision on his hands – El Duque or Andy Pettite – but as Andy Schapp reports, the decision may have already been made.”
“Yanks better win the fuckin’ series,” I said. It was the first time I’d spoken to them and they noticed. I have a sort of a Mike Tyson voice problem. It’s sort of squeaky. I’m real aware of it now. I mean, at the time I hadn’t fully developed my speaking skills to use it to my advantage so there was always a minute or two when it freaked people out – a grown man. It’s really why I became a writer as opposed to going into say, radio … or television.
Cliff blew right by it. “Fuck yeah, the fucking Yanks better win the fucking series. Better win the world series, too. I mean, what the fuck? After the season they had? If they don’t win, heads will definitely roll.”
We talked about the Yanks for a minute as the time passed. I know, I know, it has to seem stupid now, but I mean, we had no idea what he was going to say. We were all just figuring he’d retire, we’d bullshit a bit and that’d be that … on to baseball. We were strangers in a shitty little bar in the East Village.
By now of course the video has been shown umpteen times. The stage set in Chicago and the introduction and all of it has been ingrained in our heads for as long as the little bitmaps will last in our memories. But let’s just review what he said, how he said it. I mean if we’re going to talk about a Legend, it’s good to be precise.
“Good evening, everyone. I’d like to make this as brief as possible, but there are many people to thank. I have played my entire career here in Chicago and I have always felt the deepest love for this city and the fans. It is without a doubt in my mind that these are the greatest fans in the world.”
He always had that sweet disarming way of saying something just a little – off – that still sounded so right and perfect coming out of his mouth. The man had skills.
“I have faced a lot of questions this past summer about my plans for the future and I have entertained all kinds of opportunities and thoughts on the matter of retirement. Frankly, I don’t want to give up basketball. I love this game.”
And that look, that smile, directly into the camera for the fans at home, for the commissioner of Basketball. It was perfect. He knew all along what he was doing. There was never a feeling of doubt that he was in control, only of wonderment that he was alive. It was like that on the court and afterward. He was a great leader.
“That is why I have to ask for your support at this critical and important time in my career. I need each and every one of my fans, everywhere in the world to know that I have enjoyed every minute of my career in the NBA. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And now I need something back from you. I need your continued support.”
It was at this point that we, I, anyway, began to wonder if he didn’t have a surprise in mind. I had thought it before of course, he was famous for them. But that night, I mean, he looked to the right and left, and then for a second it seemed like maybe he was changing his mind right there. Before letting us all in on the biggest move of his career, it still seemed like he had something else in store.
I remember the announcement and the introduction perfectly.
“I am retiring from the National Basketball Association. [smile. flash, flash, flash, flash,flash, flash]
I would like to thank everyone, but of course that’s impossible. Let me just re-iterate my thanks to the wonderful people here in Chicago and to my fans around the world.” He said things twice his entire career to emphasize his point in a different manner to get it across to as many channels of media on the spectrum as possible and was misunderstood by many as, “just being a jock,” – like Coltrane, Jordan was ahead of his time with the media.
“Again, I hope you will continue to support my efforts as I move on, away from the NBA and into public life in other ways.”
This was the stumper of course. He had every free male in the nation caught on by then that it wasn’t your average resignation. Cliff said, “What the fuck is he talking about? Not baseball again, jeez, the guy was a sub-200 hitter on a farm club for God’s Sakes.” Fickle, that Cliffy.
Then, the introduction:
“I would like to introduce now, my first partner in my new life after the NBA.”
When he walked out I swear you could have knocked me off my bar stool. I was totally confused. I had no explanation for what he was doing there. I quickly tried to add up scenarios that would bring the two of them together, but never in my wildest dreams could I have figured what would happen next.
“Ladies and Gentlemen … a boxer, a pugilist of world-reknown,” he said ‘pugilist’ carefully and playfully, like he had looked it up for the event, toyed with it for a while and then decided to keep it for the fun of it, and he gave us a smile when he continued, “the world’s greatest fighter in my book, and I challenge anyone to deny it: Ladies and Gentlemen, President Nelson Mandela of the Republic of South Africa.”
The flashbulbs made it impossible to see for a moment. Everyone was standing. Jordan must have made arrangements for the cameramen to be positioned, though, because the television audience had a clear view throughout the proceedings.
Then, he appeared. Mandela. It was such an incredible feeling to be watching it “live.” Mandela walked with such cool grace – slowly and stately past the podium to his seat beside Jordan.
Michael had effectively taken the spotlight off himself at the peak of his most significant hour. The entire experience was like watching a game. He was masterful, in control. And nobody was stopping him.
“Mr. Mandela and I would like to announce that effective immediately, I will be player-coach of the South African National Basketball team to participate in the year 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. I hereby invite my friends, colleagues and players from all over the world to tryout for the team that we will field in summer of 2000.
“I would also like to announce the creation of a new line of shoes, clothing and athletic wear designed for the new South African team by my own designers and to be manufactured by textile workers throughout Africa. All proceeds from the sales of these products – that’s 100% of the proceeds – will go, in two equal parts, first to the United Nations and second to a non-profit organization begun by President Mandela and myself toward the creation of a free, peaceful, healthy and well-developed Pan-Africa in the next millennium.”
I was numb. My ears. My ears were filled with a dull sensation that removed me from my surroundings. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t possibly sit. I stood. I hugged Cliff. I slapped Norm on the back. I pulled the bartender over the rail and kissed her full on the lips … and she hit me.
[I can’t even remember when Jordan retired now. He quit, came back, jammed again, quit, came back… managed the Wizards for a time, always plays great golf – a giant. I wrote this piece in 1998 after a conversation with a friend about why U.S. American sports stars don’t take more active political stances anymore (cf. Tommie Smith or Arthur Ashe or many others). It seems relevant today, but nostalgic, and weirdly attached to an era when television affiliates in every city in the USA was running simultaneous and continuous reruns of “Cheers!”- sometimes twice a day – rather than fill the spectrum with any diversity.]