That final shot seemed to hang in the air forever.
Was Michael Jordan telling us something as he watched it settle through the net, his right wrist cocked in a follow-through for several satisfying seconds?
On that night last June in Salt Lake City, he was savoring, it seemed, the final seconds of his life in the NBA.
And on Wednesday, Jordan will make it official. He plans to announce his retirement at a news conference at the United Center, a spokesperson for FAME, which represents Jordan, confirmed.
Turns out that jumper was a perfect ending -- another last-second, game-clinching shot to win a championship for the Chicago Bulls, a basket that would not only cap his remarkable, unparalleled career but also one that would symbolize and define it.
"He made his last shot to win a world championship," longtime Jordan friend and opponent Charles Barkley said last month. "What more do you need? That's every player's fantasy."
He succeeded so often because attempting that game-deciding shot, pulling out a victory when it was so in doubt, was what Jordan was all about.
"Best There Ever Was, Best There Ever Will Be," reads the inscription on Jordan's statue outside the United Center, erected there in 1994 during his first retirement.
The words were perfect, describing a superstar who defined basketball for an entire decade.
Jordan led the Bulls to six NBA titles -- three straight and three more after he returned. He won two Olympic gold medals, and his last-second jumper as a skinny freshman in 1982 gave North Carolina's Dean Smith his first NCAA title. He captured 10 scoring titles, was selected MVP of the league five times and won the same award during the finals all six times he competed.
His playoff scoring average is the highest ever, and he is in line to finish as the No. 3 scorer in NBA history.
But there was so much more that defined Jordan. P> The smile, the wagging tongue on the way to a dunk, the sweaty bald head glaring in the lights, the stylish suits, the fashionable ear wear, the victory cigars, the golf forays, the trash talk, the scowling, the unreal pictures of him hovering above the rim, suspended in air during the slam dunk contest, the incredulous glance at officials who would dare to make a call against him.
| Michael Jordan gave fans a lifetime of highlights to remember. (AP) |
The faithful son mourning his slain father, the retiree, the would-be baseball player. And then back to the ultimate performer and showman in the game he ruled like no other player.
The fans lining up for a snapshot, an autograph, a glimpse of this legend in long shorts, all but bowing down at his statue outside the United Center.
The rock star treatment on the road and at home.
Who could forget the evening in 1995 when rumors of his return were rampant through a city that worshipped him. Within minutes, two city blocks were mobbed by thousands just hoping to glimpse him as he departed a downtown Chicago hotel where he held an office.
The hype, the nights of room service when being a normal person was impossible, the endless questions about every aspect of his life, the criticism of his gambling and the accusations that his athletic apparel company was using sweatshop labor.
Movie star, subject of numerous books, the man everyone -- actors, athletes and politicians -- wanted to meet. The athlete every kid wanted to emulate. Just to "Be Like Mike," even if it was on a pretend playground.
The mind-boggling business empire he created with his name and his persona and his dazzling string of endorsements for a variety of products. His $10 billion impact, according to one financial magazine, on the economy.
He was as big as Babe Ruth, as well-known as Muhammad Ali, more popular than Arnold Palmer, as world-famous as Frank Sinatra or Elvis.
At 35 he could still play his game better than anyone. His skills were not the same as they were 10 years ago, but he compensated by using his experience to take him where his legs no longer would.
But this time, apparently, it was time.
There was nothing else left to prove.
When he retired the first time in October 1993, he thought there was little left to motivate him, his father's public murder giving him a different perspective on what was important.
He went away and he came back. Save for a brief period at the end of the 1995 season when his skills were still rusty, he was not a shadow of what he once was.
So many athletes retire and then return yearning for what they left behind. But Jordan did come back and his reputation -- excep for that one brief period -- didn't waver as he added three more championships.
"He's always said he wants to leave on top. What better way?" teammate Steve Kerr said.
"I wouldn't miss it at all, as much as you may think," Jordan said after vanquishing the Utah Jazz in the 1998 Finals, the Bulls' sixth title in their run through the 90s.
The year before, he beat the same team with a last-second pass to Kerr; this time he sliced their hearts, first with a steal and then another, in-your-face, you-can't-stop-me game-winner.
"Sure, I may have some (nostalgia) when it comes back to this time of the season, but I've got enough memories to suffice and overcome that," he said.
"I have another life. And I know I have to get to it at some point in time. Hopefully the fans and the people understand that."
After ending his first retirement, he had some incredible moments - beating Atlanta at the buzzer in his fourth game back, scoring 55 points against New York three nights later, helping the Bulls win 13 of their last 17 regular-season games and leading Chicago past Charlotte in the first round of the playoffs.
But his memories were of shooting 41 percent from the floor, of making crucial mistakes during the Bulls' six-game playoff loss to Orlando and of hearing some members of the media say he could never again be the Jordan who carried Chicago to NBA titles in 1991, 1992 and 1993.
He also was criticized for changing uniform numbers during the playoffs. And his off-season included an unsuccessful bid to decertify the players union.
But then he took a summer to rehone his game, revisit his skills. He came back stronger and more determined than ever.
Surrounded by a new cast of players, reunited with his long-time sidekick Scottie Pippen and his coach of choice, Jackson, Jordan brought the Bulls back to the top of the NBA.
Taking back the leadership role that Pippen had struggled with during his absence, Jordan had what he always needed -- another challenge. Those who thought he'd been away too long or was too old were wrong.
He would show them, and he did as the Bulls won an NBA record 72 games in the 1995-96 season.
He heard the cries of double standard by frustrated defenders and charges of preferential treatment from the officials. He was above the game -- literally and figuratively -- because he had done so much for it, made the NBA known from one side of the planet to the other.
Theater? how about donning his early footwear for a retro attack on the hated Knicks at Madison Square Garden and once again beating the whiny, arrogant team that could never contain him. He twice decimated Cleveland in the playoffs with last-second shots, so much so that the Cavs, despite many changes, have never recovered.
Jordan led the league in scoring for the 10th time last season, although his 28.7 average was his lowest since his second year in the league. His 46 percent shooting during the rgular season was his lowest for a full season, and his 78 percent from the line was a career low.
But in a close game, it was still give him the ball and watch him work.
What was it like to guard him?
"Hell," says Nick Anderson, the Orlando Magic guard, who gave Jordan problems in the 1995 playoffs as Jordan struggled to regrasp his game. "You ever been to hell before? You don't want to go."
Jordan isn't sticking around because he wants glory or needs money. He's finished, it seems, because he couldn't have picked a better time to say goodbye.
"I want to leave at the top of my game," he said last season. "That's something I've always said about when it's time for me to walk away. I know people wouldn't expect it because I'm still playing at a high level. But that's the appropriate time to leave, I think."
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