When Michael Jordan hit that final jump shot against Utah in June, many of the people closest to him, like Roy Williams, believed that it was the final act of a brilliant career. The assumption was that the curtain had at last come down on his remarkable tour with the Chicago Bulls, despite the fact that in some ways he was playing as well as ever, and despite the fact that his taste for the game had not declined at all. He remained as hungry as ever. Still, Phil Jackson was gone, and could barely wait to clean out his desk at the Berto Center. Jordan had sworn that he would not play for a different coach, although there was some evidence that he might overcome that particular vow; even more important, it was unlikely that Scottie Pippen, the most critical of the dominoes now, was going to return. Furious at the Bulls organization, apparently burning with a desire to go elsewhere, Pippen appeared almost certain to depart, thus leaving Jordan unusually vulnerable to the assaults of would-be contenders. The 1997-1998 season had been hard enough and there was ample evidence that the Bulls as a team were wearing down. But a full season without Pippen as his alter ego, even with the ability of the Bulls to add other free agents, might expose Jordan as an aging star able to do only so much on the court.
But the lockout changed all equations. Suddenly not only was all player movement limited, but players could not even talk to management. No one, as December 1998 started, knew when the season might start, or whether there would even be a season. Pippen remained frozen in place, seething with rage at the injustice of a world that, when it was finally his chance to have a big payday, had placed yet another obstacle in his way. The possibility of a short season, however, might, some people close to Jordan believed, affect Michael's attitude and might make him more inclined to come back. Perhaps, this thinking went, Michael and a patched-together team might be able to make the playoffs, where, by the power of his will, he would be able to dominate once again.
If the answer by December was not yet in whether or not he would play again, there was plenty of evidence upon which to make an estimation of what his special role had been in American sports. He was not in any classic sense history's man, not one of those men like Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, or Arthur Ashe whose own complicated lives and painful struggles against long-established prejudices and racial barriers revealed a great deal not merely about sports but about the history of race in America. He was not the first as Robinson, Ashe, and Johnson were, for example, nor did he end up by making a broader and on occasion more torturous political challenge to the white establishment as Robeson and Ali did. The timing of his entrance upon the American educational, athletic, and commercial scene was impeccable and precious little had been denied him because of his race. To the degree that his career reflected anything larger than sports in historical racial terms, it was the willingness of corporate America, however reluctantly, to understand that a stunningly gifted and attractive black athlete could be a compelling salesman of a vast variety of rather mundane products. Not that Jordan had not faced prejudice in this area at first. When he had first started out as a pitchman and David Falk had pushed him at a number of large American corporations, a representative of one multinational had suggested Jordan might be perfect to push Beanie Weanies, a sausage and beans product popular with poor blacks in the South, an offer in commercial terms not unlike the Harlem Globetrotters trying to sign him when he left Carolina after being college player of the year. Falk and Jordan had politely declined, and in that first year, to everyone's amazement, the Air Jordan line had broken all existing records for an endorsed product. With that the gap was breached, and he had transcended racial barriers in the world of advertising. In time he became a record holder in this area as well, for it was almost certain that no American salesman of any color had ever entered more homes, here or abroad, or successfully sold more products; in the summer of 1998, Fortune magazine undertook a detailed study of Jordan as a figure of modern capitalism, and estimated that he had helped generate $10 billion in revenues for the game, its broadcasters, and for his varying corporate partners.
Excerpted from Playing for Keeps by David Halberstam. Copyright© 1999 by The Amateurs Limited; Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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