A few hours after I'd attended Michael Jordan's basketball retirement announcement in Deerfield, Ill., someone from the Chicago Bulls' organization nudged me and said, under his breath, "You know why Michael's quitting, don't you?"
"Uh-oh," I said.
"Gambling?" I asked.
"No, no, no," the guy said. "Autographs."
Uncertain I had heard correctly, I asked him to repeat himself.
"Autographs, man," the guy said. "Michael can't move. He can't cross the street. He can't get his fork to his mouth. He's Elvis. That's why he plays golf so much. It's the only place he can get away from everybody. If Michael has to sign one more autograph, he's going to go nuts."
I nodded. A recent book had revealed that Jordan locked himself in his hotel rooms on the road, rarely going out, watching TV and ordering room service. It reminded me of how, when Elvis Presley wanted to go out to a movie, he would rent the entire theater.
That same day, I asked Scottie Pippen of the Bulls whether this sounded reasonable to him, that Michael just plain couldn't live inside that goldfish bowl any longer.
"I would say it is a definite factor," Pippen said.
"It's that bad?" I asked.
"That bad? " Pippen said. "The man can't go to the bathroom. People pop out of the stalls."
I guess having everybody adore you can be harder than having everybody hate you.
It is so beautiful to have Michael Jordan back. Repeatedly while he was away, contemporaries of Jordan said they admired him for quitting while on top. Not me. I understood why someone would quit while on top, but that didn't mean I had to enjoy it. I missed old 23, terribly.
So many factors were cited when Jordan gave up basketball. One was the "family" matter, Michael saying he wanted to spend more time mowing the lawn. Nothing personal, but nobody really bought that. We laughed at an image of Michael trying to sneak out of his house carrying his golf clubs, only to be stopped by his wife with a rolling pin, saying, "Just where do you think you're going, mister? Go cut that grass!"
Then there was the "gambling" thing. It takes a lot of gall for people to blindly speculate that the NBA commissioner, David Stern, winked at Jordan and told him to take a year off so that any gambling allegations could be dropped. Unproven, this is the cheapest of cheap shots.
In charging people with trying to run his private life, Jordan himself was off base. The day he misses two free throws to lose Game 7 for the NBA championship will be the day evil men crawl out of the woodwork to accuse a known gambler of missing on purpose. That's what happens when people know you're out there, owing somebody hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Then came the "competition" part.
Jordan needed something to challenge him. He hated water sports and the pro bowling tour did not seem an option. He mentioned golf. Michael is one of those guys who shoots 74 once in a while and honestly believes that, with a little more practice, he could shoot 66-68-66-68 and win the Greater Greensboro Open. Uh, no.
There was talk that the murder of his father was a factor, but Jordan said no. He already had discussed quitting with his dad, who encouraged it.
Thus, finally, came baseball. People laughed. People scoffed. They said he would stick with it for two weeks, tops. They said he would shame the game. Michael proved otherwise.
Maybe he didn't make the majors, but Michael did not fail at baseball. Michael succeeded at baseball. With no formal training, Jordan played on a professional level. In a sport in which three hits out of 10 is good work, Jordan got two out of 10. This is a long, long way from disgracing oneself. Mike can be proud of what he did.
Then he chucked it all.
For one thing, the autograph demands didn't end. If anything, baseball is worse than basketball, because normally basketball players aren't asked to sign slips of paper during pregame practice. Jordan dreaded all the signing, but dreaded more the thought of kids going home and saying, "Michael stiffed me."
The strike was the last straw. Either that, or it was a convenient excuse. Jordan returned to a world he already had conquered. He wore a new number, 45, possibly so he could become the first player in history to have two of his numbers retired by the same team.
And that's assuming he doesn't quit in April and return in May.
Here's my prediction:
1. Bulls eliminate Orlando.
2. Shaquille O'Neal retires.
3. Bulls eliminate Knicks.
4. Patrick Ewing retires.
5. Bulls over Utah for NBA title.
6. Utah retires.
7. Shaq joins pro tennis tour.
8. Ewing new Met first baseman.
9. Jordan announces re-retirement.
10. Jordan un-re-retires.