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But while it's easy for a cartoon character to be Mickey Mouse (especially when he hasn't appeared in a full-length film in decades), it's quite an accomplishment for a human being under Truman Show conditions. Jordan's public image has been emptied by immaculate design. "I'm around him all the time, and what he has to put up with--media attention and people making demands of him and wanting him to be here, there and everywhere--he does a tremendous job. He's done a great thing with his image and really kept it pretty clean," says Bulls backup center Bill Wennington. "And he's so cute." Jordan is a vessel into which the world can pour anything it wants. He's noble, charming, righteous and kind, not because he necessarily is but because we want him to be. And, yes, Bill, it helps that he's good looking.

But he has worked so hard at his reflexive nonimage. Though thin-skinned (ask any reporter who has criticized him in print), he almost never loses his temper. He never appears so much as shirtless in the locker room and changes from shorts into a fine Italian suit for each short walk from hotel room to team bus, because those few seconds may be the only time those particular fans crowding the lobby see him, and he wants to get it right. He is so polished that his few scrapes with indiscretion--losing tens of thousands of dollars in golf and poker bets to hustlers, getting named in a paternity suit last summer, commenting that playing Reggie Miller is like chicken fighting with a woman--have bounced off him in ways Ronald Reagan only dreamed about. Apart from instinctive curiosity, few have ever questioned what chicken fighting with a woman means.

We let him do this because he is so good at letting us. He is clutch, not in a pained, John Wayne sense, but joyfully, shrugging and grinning as he backpedals away from each accomplishment. He makes us believe, against our own experience, that hard work can reward--that even 0.8 sec. means there is hope. And in doing so, he has defined masculinity despite publicly admitting that his favorite performers are Toni Braxton and Anita Baker; this guy could say his favorite movie was Beaches, and he'd still be the alpha male. He has unwittingly followed the plot of a hero, suffering like Ulysses: his father, to whom he was extremely close, was murdered in a carjacking in 1993. He left the game shortly thereafter, to try his luck at baseball in the minor leagues, getting $16 in food money a day and sleeping in less-than-four-star hotels. With his daily-shaved head hiding a hairline creeping to Burt Reynolds' at low tide, he returned to dominate the league for another three years. In his fifth game back, he scorched the big-talking New York Knicks for 55 points. In his first full season, he led the Bulls (now enlivened by the antics of cross-dressing forward Dennis Rodman) to the best record in NBA history. To defeat Utah--for the second year in a row--seemed almost a cruel afterthought, and the frustrated Jazz knew it. "He's not quitting," insisted bitter point guard John Stockton immediately after the loss. "I'm tired of hearing all that."

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January 25, 1999

Who's the Greatest?
The answer might surprise

David Halberstam on what really made Jordan excel--having the most complete game in the game

Who is the greatest athlete of all time?

This edition's table of contents | TIME Asia home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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