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The great endures: An homage to Michael Jordan

MJ is a living legend, and his legacy is almost mythical, no matter how much Scottie Pippen tries to tarnish it

“Scottie Pippen was a great player. Make no mistake. But he isn’t Michael Jordan. Not close,” writes columnist Rick Telander.
“Scottie Pippen was a great player. Make no mistake. But he isn’t Michael Jordan. Not close,” writes columnist Rick Telander.
Michael S. Green/AP

Why are we still so fascinated with Michael Jordan?

The guy hasn’t played basketball in almost two decades, doesn’t do TV shows (we’ll get to “The Last Dance’’), doesn’t do political stuff, is barely visible in public (even though he’s the majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets), doesn’t have a podcast, blog, movie, or reality show that we know of.

And yet people still buy his shoes in astounding numbers. And not just his shoes. They buy all kinds of Jordan stuff.

Nike says that revenue for the Jordan brand rose 31% to $5 billion for fiscal year 2021.

Jordan’s women’s collections more than tripled during the same period, Nike said. MJ’s personal take for all this? More than $100 million a year. Year after year. Yes, he’s a billionaire.

There’s a phenomenon going on here, one that likely can’t be duplicated. It weaves around things as varied as achievement, place in time, aesthetics, drama, athletic dominance, tragedy, championships and — perhaps most important of all — stardom just before technology reduced everything to bits and bites and vids for the social-media blender.

You see Jordan on film for the Bulls and he looks as dominant or better than any player today, and yet cellphones aren’t there, cheapening all. It’s a truism that mythology can’t exist when everything is recorded and known. And what is Jordan now but a living myth?

Maybe none of this would matter if Jordan’s former trusty sidekick Scottie Pippen hadn’t just released a book, ‘‘Unguarded,’’ that basically is a sour-grape fest over many things and players — such as Kevin Durant and the recent champion Warriors and, pointedly, Michael Jordan.

The book has merit. It explains the world view of a small-town kid, the youngest of 12 children, who grew late and starred even later. But its main effect will be to grab headlines, earn a few bucks and remind people that Pippen complains about the unfairness of having to have played alongside probably the greatest player ever, a man who is well-known for being cocksure and even blatantly cruel and vindictive over slights real and perceived.

Pippen was a great player. Make no mistake.

But he isn’t Jordan. Not close.

Yes, Jordan had that “The Last Dance’’ series that came out at the perfect time, while Americans were holed up in the first wave of COVID quarantining. Was the ESPN film done from Jordan’s perspective? Absolutely. He had some control and producer’s credit.

But without him signing off years before, and then with the series production, the 500 hours of archived NBA Entertainment footage of the Bulls’ final championship season never would have come to light. Players such as Luc Longley, Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc and, yes, Pippen barely seem to exist in the Jordan swirl-o-rama.

But that’s OK. We know they were there. No man wins a championship by himself.

But Jordan’s charisma, beautiful physique, ballet skills and movie-star looks make him the focus of any light. Nobody would tune in to see an eight-part Pippen story.

Consider a couple things.

On March 27, 1998, the Bulls played the Hawks in the Georgia Dome in front of 62,046 people, still the largest crowd in NBA history. Jordan scored 34 points in an 89-74 Bulls win. Pippen? He didn’t dress.

(In their previous home game, the Hawks drew 14,592.)

Then there’s that 1.8 seconds in 1994 when Jordan was playing baseball and Pippen wouldn’t go into a game because the final play wasn’t drawn up for him. He was deeply wounded. We understand. Still.

Jordan? He would have changed the play in the huddle, screamed at coach Phil Jackson, possibly threatened him or stolen the ball from designated shooter Kukoc.

It might surprise you, but Jordan made far less money — about $16 million less — than Pippen over the course of their basketball careers. Yet Pippen always whined about being underpaid. Jordan said nothing, always honoring his contract.

Quite possibly, Jordan was the most underpaid athlete in pro sports history.

One other thing. Jordan’s ability to work a room is legendary. Pippen’s is almost nonexistent. Maybe it’s a facade for Jordan, but it’s a valuable facade nonetheless.

I watched Jordan charm rapt advertisers and wealthy fans at a private luncheon at the Hotel Nikko. I watched Pippen arrive late, isolate himself and leave early from a guest appearance at a downtown nightclub.

None of this makes Jordan a king. Nor does it make Pippen a bad guy. They’re both human, fallible.

It just means one of them rolls on.