& opinion


Mentioned in the same breath as Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan is one of America's bestloved sportsmen - and is possibly its most talented. Having just turned forty, this is the time to reflect on the career of his "airness".

Nineteen years ago, NBA commissioner David Stern uttered 21 words that would forever change the game of basketball. "With the third pick of the 1984 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls pick Michael Jordan of the University of North Carolina." Jordan led the Bulls to six titles, but his worth to the sport stretched far beyond the "Windy City". Just a few years before he entered the NBA, the league was on its knees. The emergence of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson helped the NBA back onto its feet, but it was Jordan who allowed it to take off. With his gravity-defying game, Jordan transformed the sport into one played "above the rim."

The Bulls soon became the hottest ticket in the NBA, beginning a run of more than 500 consecutive sell-outs. Jordan was much more than a unique player " he was also a marketing dream. Possessing intelligence and good looks, and coming from a hardworking middle-class background, Jordan was the perfect role model for the kids of America. As the Gatorade slogan famously said, everyone wanted to "be like Mike".

Nike signed him to a five-year deal worth $2.5m - the biggest ever for a basketball star. In their first year of sales, Nike Air Jordan shoes grossed $130m.

Jordan was soon advertising everything from aftershave to underwear. By the time he retired for a second time in 1998, Fortune magazine estimated Jordan's worth to the US economy as $10 billion. Fans at games held aloft banners proclaiming "Michael for President". He even got a glowing reference from Margaret Thatcher - "Michael Jordan has already mastered the skill most needed for political success - how to stay afloat without visible means of support."

Despite his God-like status in America, it was away from home that the Jordan effect was best seen. Basketball became second only to football in world popularity, helped by MJ's role in the 1992 Olympics. In a "Dream Team" of All-Stars, Jordan shone the brightest.

His image has been a catalyst for the surge of international players in the NBA. When Jordan joined the league there were only a handful of non- Americans - this season there are 66 foreign players from 34 different countries. The NBA's newest phenomenon, China's Yao Ming, is one of a factoryline of players attracted to the game by "His Airness". "Michael Jordan is just an incredible player," said Ming. "I could talk all day about his global impact and still wouldn't be finished."

Even at forty, Jordan remains the number one draw in basketball. His Washington Wizards play to sell-out stadiums wherever they go and boast the highest home attendance in the league. How will the NBA survive without its most famous son?