How the NBA and Media Reacted to Michael Jordan's Shocking 1993 Retirement

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMay 11, 2020

Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan announces his retirement from professional basketball at the Berto Center in Deerfield, Ill., Wednesday, Oct. 6, 1993. (AP Photo/Mark Elias)
Mark Elias/Associated Press

The idea of the undisputed top athlete in a sport walking away from the game in the middle of their prime following three straight championships is almost incomprehensible in today's environment.

Imagine social media's reaction if LeBron James celebrated the Cleveland Cavaliers' NBA Finals victory over the 73-win Golden State Warriors in 2016 and just called it quits. Or if Patrick Mahomes said he was done with football after the Kansas City Chiefs prevailed in the most recent Super Bowl.

While social media wasn't around in October 1993 when Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan retired for the first time, it was still a massive news story. As The Last Dance documentary has made clear, Jordan, who was just 30 years old at the time, was one of the most famous people in the entire world even beyond basketball.

As if the face of the NBA and brands such as Nike and Gatorade walking away from basketball following three straight championships wasn't stunning enough, Jordan decided to pursue a professional baseball career.

He played for the Birmingham Barons, who were the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, with only moderate success. 

While his ability to hit better than .200 at that level despite never playing professional baseball and walking into the game from a legendary basketball career is more impressive than Jordan gets credit for, it was still jarring to see one of sports' greatest champions struggling to find his footing at a minor league level. 

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Sports Illustrated even released a cover telling Jordan to "bag" his baseball career:

Media scrutiny and reactions to his every move were nothing new. Last Sunday's episodes chronicled his exhaustion under the weight of fame and expectations on top of the physical toll of playing in postseason series against teams like the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks.

With the press questioning him at seemingly every turn about his gambling, Jordan refused to talk to the media during the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals.

"Physically I was exhausted, but mentally I was way past exhausted," he said. "When you try to do something repetitively, you lose some of the hunger, and some of the edge."

While he may have been worn down physically and mentally, actually retiring was a shock to fans and the media. Sports Illustrated's cover at the time was an image of Jordan walking away on a basketball court with the question "Why?" The story accompanying that cover from writer Jack McCallum noted even television networks in Greece shared the breaking news in stunned fashion.

McCallum's article touched on the conspiracy that Jordan walked away because of the NBA's investigation into his gambling habits, although then-commissioner David Stern adamantly denied such suggestions even then.

The Sports Illustrated report also hinted at a potential comeback during the 1994-95 campaign, something that ultimately came true, and it openly wondered if the retirement was truly a permanent one given his stature at the time.

Sports Illustrated was far from the only media outlet to put Jordan front and center of its coverage following the retirement.

The Chicago Tribune's front-page headline read "So long, Michael; it's been great," and Robert Mcg. Thomas Jr. of the New York Times wrote the following:

"From the 'Say It Ain't So, Mike,' headline in The Chicago Sun-Times to the special news report on Romanian television, Michael Jordan's abrupt retirement sent shock waves around the globe yesterday. And in a world where basketball has become a rare unifying force, the world reacted as one, with surprise, admiration, understanding and dismay."

Thomas described scenes of fans in tears, shock across the world and even U.S. President Bill Clinton weighing in: "We may never see his like again." 

Clinton added Jordan would be missed "in every small-town backyard and paved city lot where kids play one-on-one and dream of being like Mike."

Reactions weren't limited to the media and politicians, as those around the NBA had plenty to say as well.

Charles Barkley, who had just lost to Jordan as the leader of the Phoenix Suns in the 1993 NBA Finals, compared His Airness to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and said, per Thomas, "I think Michael, once he won three championships in a row, in his mind that distinguished him above those guys, and there was nothing left for him to accomplish."

Johnson, who was good friends with the Bulls star, hinted at the fact Jordan might not be done and needed a break from the scrutiny: "I think that Michael is a guy who probably wants to be left alone now. Maybe one year off and then come back to show everybody he's still king."

Jordan's retirement left Scottie Pippen as the Bulls' best player, and he led them to the second round of the playoffs without No. 23.

To hear him tell it during a 2017 appearance on ESPN's The Jump (h/t Adi Joseph of USA Today), he was thrilled with the chance to be the alpha even if he eventually wanted to compete for titles with Jordan once again:

"I was the happiest man alive. I got a chance to be the man for a change. It's something you embrace as a player, especially when you're in a position where you're probably not going to get that spotlight like myself playing with Michael. So when he retired, I was very happy. I did want him to come back, though."

Come back Jordan did.

He returned to basketball with the famous two-word press release saying "I'm back" and set the stage for Chicago's second three-peat and another storied chapter in the legacy of Michael Jordan.