OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

In the 50s, America proclaimed: "I like Ike." Ike as in Dwight D

Eisenhower, the 34th president.

In the 80s and 90s, it was: "Be like Mike." Mike as in Michael Jordan,

the basketball superstar.

Though the Eisenhower jacket has had a retro turn or two among the

fashionistas, Ike himself will not be making a comeback. Mike, however,

is, as Jordan (who retired the second time in 1998) announced last week

that he will suit up once more to play professional basketball.

Jordan's decision came as the climax of a will-he-or-won't-he waiting

game that had gone on since March. After months of mixed signals, Jordan

finally all but confirmed his comeback to several journalists,

asserting: "I'm doing it for the love of the game, nothing else. For the

love of the game."

The date? 10 September.

Needless to say, the events one day later at the World Trade Centre and

the Pentagon considerably dimmed the media's ardour for the saga of the

man who had been one of the world's most famous athletes and, by most

counts, its most richly compensated in endorsement income, at an

estimated $40 million to $45 million annually.

Before 11 September, there was rampant speculation about elaborate plans

to capitalise on Jordan's return among marketers that have him signed to

long-term deals, such as Palm, Nike and Gatorade (the latter being the

brand whose earlier campaign had introduced "Be like Mike"). But in the

wake of the terrorist attacks, the Jordan comeback has so far had all

the festiveness of a party held in a room that can accommodate twice as

many guests.

There's an empty, hollow quality to the anticipation as well as a

growing sceptical tone to the once adulatory coverage, as if the crowd

that came to enjoy the circus could notice only what the composer Lorenz

Hart once described as "the faint aroma of performing seals".

Since 11 September, the American zeitgeist has changed - if not

permanently, then perhaps as long as how many weeks it takes to play a

season of National Basketball Association games. The boisterous worship

of extraordinarily paid and overly pampered pro athletes as heroes is

now as much out of style as an Eisenhower jacket would be on the runway

at a Calvin Klein fashion show.

That hits Jordan doubly hard because even before the attacks there had

been widespread perceptions of him as even more self-focused than his

peers, which generated unkind comparisons with athletes who, unlike him,

lived (and in some cases died) for causes. Tennis alone has Arthur Ashe,

Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova.

Indeed, the vaunted Jordan marketing machine is running - for now, at

least - in a very low gear. Gatorade has shelved its TV commercials

welcoming him back, and Nike says it won't produce any kind of special

campaign even though there are new shoes and apparel coming out soon

under Nike's Jordan sub-brand.

It may be simply, to paraphrase another composer, Stephen Sondheim, that

Jordan is losing his timing this late in his career. Because now people

may not be as keen to be like Mike as they are to be like Father Mike,

as in the Rev. Mychal Judge, who died giving last rites to a firefighter

at the World Trade Centre.


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