Michael Jordan turns 50 on Sunday, a milestone that marks a half-century of the greatest player ever to play the game. He’s been out of basketball for nearly a decade, but his legend remains whether on sneakers, memories or game tape. Dime explores the greatest aspects of the GOAT’s career for his birthday. Today: Jordan’s legacy in Chicago 15 years after he played his last game for the Bulls.
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Michael Jordan’s bronze statue sits just outside of the United Center’s east entrance, facing twin parking lots and greeting countless passerby as they make their way into the United Center. Almost 10 years after Jordan’s third and final retirement, with his 50th birthday approaching Sunday, the statue remains as iconic as ever — a timeless reminder of the tongue-wagging force that once ruled over Chicago.
Jordan is frozen here in his trademark splay-legged pose. He’s soaring over helpless defenders in a manner that is at once graceful and ferocious, a still monument to the countless bursts of energy he used to tame the NBA, and this city. The statue is a defining characteristic of an otherwise nondescript, wholly corporate arena. National television broadcasts often begin with a low-angle shot of the sculpture that elevates slowly, as if the viewer is rising from a bow to basketball’s Zeus.
As it happens, that statue is about as close as any Chicagoan gets to Jordan these days.
Jordan was 34 when he played his last game as a Bull in 1998, and with each passing year since then his presence in Chicago has lessened. The last gasps of his playing career took place in Washington, D.C. In 2006, Jordan became a minority owner and the de facto general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats; four years later he bought a majority stake in Charlotte.
Back in Chicago, the original Michael Jordan’s Restaurant shut its doors in 1999, though one of Jordan’s three steakhouses remains in the city. Walk past Jordan’s statue into the United Center itself, and you’ll see former Bulls Bill Wennington and Stacey King serving in their current roles as color commentators. More often than not, Jordan’s running mate Scottie Pippen will be there too, lounging courtside and beaming next to his wife and kids — once a Bull, always a Bull.
The story is more complicated with Jordan and Chicago. It was no secret that his relationship with the Bulls organization soured near the end, as David Halberstam detailed ad nauseam in his book “Playing for Keeps.” He found nearly everything about general manager Jerry Krause — from his courtship of European players to his eating habits — offensive, and the controversial departures of coach Phil Jackson and Pippen left Jordan with little reason to remain a part of the team.
Jordan is not one to shelve a grudge, as his infamous Hall of Fame speech/roast proved a few years back. And so, while his quibbles mainly lie with ownership and management, Jordan has also become a distant presence in a city he once had wrapped around his finger-roll. When he made a rare United Center appearance back in May of 2011 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Bulls’ first NBA championship, it was almost shocking to see him back in that environment.
50 years young, Michael Jordan is a stranger in his own city.
The May 2012 issue of GQ featured Derrick Rose on its cover, next to the tagline, “Derrick Rose: The Next Michael Jordan?” On the surface the question seemed blasphemous (Rose, however, won his first MVP award at an earlier age; life is weird), but the article itself focused more on the burden Rose now shoulders as Chicago’s brightest star.
Perhaps more than any other American city, Chicago is fiercely loyal to its brightest sports stars. It’ll chew some up and spit them out — hello, Jay Cutler — but from day one, Rose was different. His athletic brilliance, like Jordan’s, was immediately recognizable, and his quiet workmanlike attitude was even more relatable than Jordan’s cool confidence.
Rose will likely never eclipse Jordan’s accomplishments on the court, but the grip he holds on Chicago —particularly as a native son — is much the same. At 24, torn ACL or not, Rose is the current and seemingly future pride of the Windy City. At the very least, he seems to be the anti-Jordan in a prodigal son way — Rose leaves here and there, but is destined to return to Chicago. MJ is a boomerang, too, but thrown from a different origin point. He spent the majority of his remarkable career arc in Chicago, but was bound for somewhere else in the end. For a player whose career was built on defying physics it would seem he could do it again and break that flight path. Instead of staying tethered to the city that adored him though, he’s only seemed too complicit to see the connection wither since 1998.
At 50, Jordan is still very much a relevant figure. His birthday launched a week’s worth of “SportsCenter” segments, and Sports Illustrated dedicated the majority of its latest issue to him as well. The media landscape still shakes any time His Airness weighs in on the everlasting (and insufferable) Kobe-LeBron debate. But, as crazy as it might have sounded even as recently as 2008, Chicago is Rose’s town now. Outside the United Center, fans still take pictures in front of the statue, but then they move on and take their seats around the court.
And Jordan is nowhere to be found.
What do you think MJ’s legacy in Chicago is now?
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