Washington, 14 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Rumors of his impending resignation swept the country Tuesday; speculation that he would finally quit was front-page news Wednesday in the nation's most prestigious papers -- including the New York Times and the Washington Post; and the press conference where he finally announced that he was really going to leave was broadcast live on several American television networks.
It's not the President of the United States that we're talking about, but someone who is probably at least as well known in North America -- and anyplace else in the world where the sport of basketball is played -- the athlete Michael Jordan.
A sports reporter in the Houston Chronicle newspaper wrote that Jordan could not be in a public place for longer than 30 minutes before being overrun and overwhelmed by his fans.
In the world of sport, Michael Jordan is to basketball what the Brazilian legend Pele' was to international football or Romania's Nadia Comanici was to Olympic gymnastics. He reached a level of excellence in his chosen sport that had not been seen before and that many say will never be seen again.
At a press conference Wednesday that was so crowded it had to be held in the auditorium where he played, Jordan officially announced his retirement -- he said forever -- from the sport.
Said Jordan: "I am here to announce my retirement from the game of basketball. It won't be another announcement to baseball or anything of that nature. I think everyone has their own reasons. There's been a lot of speculation in terms of why..."
So many experts -- active and former coaches and players -- sports writers and ordinary fans consider Jordan to be the greatest basketball player ever. Outside the auditorium where his team -- the Chicago Bulls -- plays, is a statue of Jordan in an action pose. It bears the inscription: "The Best There Ever Was. The Best There Ever Will Be."
Basketball was invented in 1891 by an American sports coach named James Naismith. It is usually played indoors, on a court, by two teams of five players each. The object is to send a ball through a hoop suspended 3.05 meters above the floor. A goal may be worth one, two or three points. The team with the most points at the end of 48 minutes wins the game.
The sport had always been reasonably popular as an amateur event, especially during winter months. A professional league was formed in the U.S. in 1947, but it wasn't until the early 1980s that professional basketball began to enjoy the same degree of popularity as American-style football or the game of baseball.
Jordan came into the pro league in 1985 and was an immediate sensation. He was named the best first-year player for that season. He is credited with making Chicago, which had been one of the worst teams in the U.S. National Basketball Association (which now includes teams in Canada), into one of the greatest basketball teams of all time.
A number of Chicago residents noted that their city had once been known mainly as the home of the 1920s gangster Al Capone. Today, they say proudly, it is the city of Michael Jordan.
Jordan played a total of 13 seasons and in that time, Chicago won six league championships. He was chosen Most Valuable Player five times and won the scoring title ten times, even though at 1.98 meters tall he was one of the "smaller" players. It was Jordan's ability to leap into the air over and around his opponents, especially at critical times in a game, that brought Jordan his fame. He gained world renown as leader of the U.S. basketball team at the Olympic Games in the summer of 1992, when professionals were allowed to play for the first time.
Jordan quit basketball once before. He left the game in 1993 to make a brief and unsuccessful effort to play at the professional level in the game of baseball. It was clear, however, that Jordan's athletic gifts were of little use in the game that involves hitting a ball with a bat, and Jordan returned to Chicago in 1995. Basketball, and Chicago, were glad to have him back. During that period, Jordan's father was murdered in a robbery and he himself was criticized by many sports writers for wagering large sums of money while playing the game of golf.
In addition to his athletic ability, Jordan has proven himself to be one of the best celebrity spokesmen in the world of television advertising. The Bulls paid Jordan an estimated $33 million last year to play basketball. It is estimated that he earned at least $42 million more just by endorsing products -- everything from batteries to men's underwear.
Fortune Magazine once estimated that Jordan's ability to help a company sell its product added ten-thousand million dollars to the world economy. The Associated Press reported that the price of stock in the Nike athletic shoe company dropped two dollars just on the rumor that it would lose Jordan as a spokesman.
There had been speculation for months that Jordan would retire this year, especially since his coach had already left Chicago. It was said that Jordan was tired of the rigors of the pro game. The regular season of 82 games begins in October. The runup to the championship series can extend a good team's season until June.
Jordan's retirement announcement was held up, however, because of a strike against the league by its players that was only settled last week. The season will be shortened to 50 games and will not start until next month.
At his press conference, Jordan reminded reporters that the sport would go on, and he also paid tribute to stars who had come before him. He said:
"I think the game itself is a lot bigger than Michael Jordan. I've been given an opportunity by people before me, to name a few, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Dr. J., Elgin Baylor, Jerry West. These guys have played the game way before Michael Jordan was born and Michael Jordan came on the heels of all that activity..."
Jordan also did not announce any specific plans, except to say that he wanted to spend more time with his wife and three children. He said: "The game will continue on. Once again, I've had a great time and I can't say enough for the people who've supported me and my life will take a change. And a lot of people say 'well, Michael Jodran doesn't have any challenges away from the game of basketball.' Well, I dispute that. You know, being a parent is very challenging, if you have kids you know that, and I welcome that challenge. I look forward to it."