The end of MJ's Bulls run, a decade later

Ten years ago today, I stepped off a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, met up at O'Hare airport with The Washington Post's Michael Wilbon and caught the train downtown, then fought a Chicago wind so fierce we had to walk backward to hail a cab for our trip to the United Center to see the official farewell to the Michael Jordan era.

It wasn't the end of Jordan's career, as it turned out. There was that two-year comeback with the Washington Wizards. But Jan. 13, 1999, was the final moment of the basketball player as icon, a business perfected by Jordan in a way that never will be seen again.

There were more than 800 reporters in the United Center that day. I was part of a two-man team from the Los Angeles Times. Can you imagine more than 800 reporters from around the country converging to cover a retirement news conference today, with a bank of 25 cameras focused on one individual and a fleet of satellite trucks parked outside to beam his words to the world?

Wouldn't happen in baseball, although it's hard to judge because the greatest hitter and greatest pitcher of this era, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, still won't officially announce their retirements. Maybe they're afraid if they held a news conference, someone would show up with a subpoena.

The NFL is our most popular sport, but would Peyton Manning draw 800? Are there still 800 sports reporters employed in America?

It's not the athletes that have changed as much as the world outside the sports bubble. Media cutbacks mean fewer journalists to create the mythology, and more Web sites mean more opportunities to take people down. Every collegiate misstep speeds across the Internet so fast that by the time a player gets to the pros, he's already been pre-ridiculed. An early Jordan TV appearance just popped up on the Web; if YouTube had been around when Jordan was at North Carolina, he would have been so humiliated by that he probably wouldn't get in front of a camera again.

There'll never be another Jordan the way there'll never be another Johnny Carson or another Walter Cronkite. Individuals don't hold our interest that regularly and that long anymore.

For one thing, there are too many other issues that demand our attention, a shift that kept even Jordan from being the same Jordan in our eyes during his 2001 comeback. The wreckage of the World Trade Center was still smoldering when Jordan announced his return in subdued fashion after the Sept. 11 attacks. And in the athletic realm, Jordan's name was no longer bigger than sports itself.

When his debut in a Wizards uniform went against Game 3 of Yankees versus Diamondbacks in the World Series, almost six times as many people watched the baseball game. By the time his playing days were done, it seemed worthless to have another news conference -- those days were over, even for Jordan. Ultimately, his departure from Washington was documented by a single camera that caught his Mercedes zooming out of the parking garage after Wizards owner Abe Pollin told Jordan his services were no longer required in the front office.

Amid the current economic crisis, the last thing people are going to embrace is an athlete's popping up to pitch something superfluous to buy. Tiger Woods is probably the closest thing to Jordan on the American sports landscape, and even he has been victimized by downsizing in the new endorsement marketplace.

Jordan also benefited from the lack of a true challenger. At MJ's peak, there was no Bird to his Magic, no one with whom to share the accomplishments or divvy up the attention. All of Jordan's successors have had to do battle with Jordan himself, long after he retired. Going one-on-one with Jordan was nothing compared with competing with the memories of him, the moves glorified in highlight videos and even song. Unlike Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Jordan never had to deal with the label of The Next Jordan.

If they carry that burden, they also have a ceiling placed on them by diminished expectations. People used to ask Jordan, in all seriousness, whether he could fly. He was compared to God. When Jordan retired that day in 1999, someone went as far as to ask whether he would use his spare time to help solve the world's problems.

"I can't save the world, by no means," Jordan replied, because apparently that needed clarification.

We no longer bother to ask our athletes to rescue us anymore. The best we can do is kindly request they don't shoot us in the club. In this environment, it's impossible for another athlete to become anointed. On that cold Chicago day 10 years ago, athletes still felt like historic figures worth chronicling. I still remember so many details about that trip, including checking into my hotel. Such is the legacy of Michael Jordan that even the person least familiar with his story could understand why I smiled at the coincidence as the front desk clerk handed me my key card and told me the number.

Room 2323.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.