By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 23, 1999
Michael Jordan was an amalgam of emotions -- ecstasy, pain, grief, fulfillment.
It was Father's Day, June 16, 1996, and Jordan had led the Chicago Bulls to the fourth of their six NBA championships -- the start of their second three-peat -- with an 87-75 victory against the Seattle SuperSonics.
It was the Bulls' first championship season after Jordan's fling with baseball's minor-league Birmingham Barons.
Jordan won this NBA championship for his father, whom he no longer had. James Jordan had been murdered three years earlier, a tragedy Jordan said played a part in his decision to quit basketball.
When the game ended, the 33-year-old superstar lay on the court, holding a ball tightly to his body, the emotion of the moment seeming to overwhelm him while his teammates bounced around in celebration.
The cheering, the noise, the lights were still in full force when Jordan departed for the locker room. There, he again sagged to the floor, again clutching a ball to his chest, and again burst into tears.
"I know he's watching," Jordan said. "This one is for my dad. I'm very happy for him."
Jordan scored a team-high 22 points, but still was off his game, passing up many open shots and missing more than usual. But he was the NBA's scoring champion and Most Valuable Player during the season and the NBA Finals.
"I'm just happy for the city of Chicago," he said. "I'm sorry I was gone for 18 months, but I'm happy I'm back to bring a championship to Chicago."
Chicago would get two more in the next two seasons, but this one was almost certainly the most special for Jordan, who allowed his curtain of decorum to open, if only for a few minutes.
In 1997 he left another of his imprints on the NBA Finals, scoring 38 points, including the winning three-pointer, against Utah in Game 5 on June 11 despite being sick with the stomach flu. He scored 39 points in the clincher two nights later.
And when Jordan left the sport for good one year later, he did it with a signature pose that could well have been his trademark if he hadn't had one -- his flying Air Jordan logo. The shot and pose in Game 6 of the Finals on June 14, 1998, at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City were merely the exclamation point to the final minute of his final game, Chicago's 87-86 championship victory against the Jazz.
Jordan began his departure by sinking two free throws with 59.2 seconds left, tying the score at 83. John Stockton hit a three-pointer for Utah. Jordan retaliated with a driving layup to pull Chicago within a point with 37 seconds left.
Then he took the game by the throat.
Jordan stripped the ball from Karl Malone with 19 seconds to play, headed downcourt, drew Jazz forward Bryon Russell toward him, then hit the brakes. Russell stumbled a bit, and Jordan launched a shot from a little to the left of the top of the key. He seemed to hang in the air for almost as long as the ball did, then came to earth with his right arm upraised, his right hand pointing toward the basket as though guiding the ball with his personal radar. It went through the net with 5.2 seconds left, the final basket in his 45-point night.
After Chicago's first three championships, Jordan abruptly called it quits. For two seasons the Bulls were pretty close to average. They failed to make the Finals either time. In March 1995, five games after Jordan unretired, he scored 55 points against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden.
The Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs by Orlando that year. They wouldn't be eliminated again until Jordan left for good.
By the middle of the 1997-98 season, Jordan was broadly hinting at retirement. On Jan. 13, 1999, one month shy of his 36th birthday, with the NBA in the throes of a lockout, Jordan made it official.
"I know from a career standpoint I've accomplished everything I could as an individual," he told a news conference to rival any by a sitting president.
Jordan's departure signaled a dissolution of the Bulls, and the team he made the best in the league became one of its worst.
"He's given us a new definition of beauty," said author/historian David Halberstam, who wrote Playing For Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made. "We used to think we should look like Robert Redford or Gary Cooper, and now there's this shaved-headed black man with a dazzling smile. He's a reflection of the changes we've seen in society over the last generation. You might not say he caused the change, but he helped accelerate it. He was a result of those changes and a force for those changes. Here he is, the son of a tobacco sharecropper, who grew up to be a new world prince."
This was the same Michael Jordan who, as a high school sophomore, was cut from the varsity basketball team.
Jordan began constructing the legend as a freshman at North Carolina, sinking the game-winning shot against Georgetown in the closing seconds of the 1982 NCAA championship game. Two years later he was College Player of the Year and a gold medal-winning Olympian. He matched the latter feat with the original Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics.
Sam Bowie became a trivia answer when Portland, drafting No. 2 in 1984, picked him rather than Jordan (Houston took Akeem Olajuwon No. 1).
In the fall of 1985, Air Jordan basketball shoes were introduced. It wasn't long before Jordan's artistry and marketability made him a global figure. The morning after one of the Bulls' championships, children ran through the streets of Jerusalem shouting "Jordan! Jordan!" startling residents and tourists who thought another Middle East crisis was at hand.
"He became the closest thing to a universal role model for children that this society had," Georgetown coach John Thompson said upon Jordan's retirement. "Maybe that's what is most special about him."