It was the last thing anyone expected. For three years running, Michael Jordan had led the Chicago Bulls to the NBA title by blasting his way to the hoop with speed, grace and sheer willpower while also playing the best defense in the league. Along the way he had become an international superstar, glorified from Chicago to China for his gravity-defying sorcery and his equally magnetic prowess as a product pitchman. His numbers were awe-inspiring—seven straight NBA scoring titles, two Olympic gold medals and an estimated $20 million a year just from endorsements for Nike—but they paled beside his larger-than-life celebrity. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to Be Like Mike—except Jordan himself. "I just feel I don't have anything else to prove," Jordan, 30, said as he announced his retirement on Oct. 6, two days before the opening of the Bulls' training camp. "I achieved everything I could."
Speculation about Jordan's retirement began before he was out of camera range. Was it grief over the murder of his father, James—often said to be his best friend—four weeks after the Bulls had won the 1993 NBA finals? Was it the media's unrelenting coverage of his high-stakes gambling? Had the burdens of near-universal adulation and ceaseless travel ground Air Jordan down? "The one time I tell somebody that I'm tired and that I don't want to sign another autograph, that person gets a whole different feeling about Michael Jordan," he wrote in his autobiography, Rare Air, this year. "So my job never really ends." Now he is free to "watch the grass grow—and go cut it," as he said at his press conference. With his wife, Juanita, and their three children, he can loll on that lawn to his heart's content. But the airspace in the NBA may never be the same.
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