January 25, 1999 12:00 PM

Wondering what Michael Jordan could use for his 36th birthday next month? Think golf balls. Sure, Michael can buy his own—heck, he could buy his own course—but the man is going to be playing a lot of golf in the next few years, and, let’s face it, he’s not the straightest hitter in the world.

Not yet, anyway. Over the course of 13 seasons as professional basketball’s most dynamic and influential star—a dazzling career that came to a close when Jordan retired just a week after the NBA announced it would have a season after all—the player dubbed His Airness proved there’s not much he can’t do. (Okay, so he can’t hit a curveball, but, be fair, it’s not easy.) Beyond the gaudy quantifiable accomplishments—6 world championships with the Chicago Bulls, 10 scoring titles, enough Most Valuable Player awards to stock his own wing at the Hall of Fame—Jordan, in the end, transcended his sport. It’s not just hard-core Bulls fans who will sorely miss him. “He is a kind of new world prince,” says David Halberstam, author of Playing for Keeps, a new book about Jordan. “You hear time and again about people being in Borneo or somewhere and coming across a kid in a tattered Michael Jordan T-shirt. He’s the most famous American in the world.”

Which may be just the reason the prince is saying good night. His skills only slightly diminished by time, his salary at its absurd peak (an estimated $34 million last year), Jordan could have coasted through another NBA season—particularly this season, shortened to around 50 games by a nasty labor dispute. But the man one player called Jesus in Nikes must surely have wished the spotlight he lived in would be mercifully dimmed every so often. “He never really wanted people to put him on too high a pedestal,” says Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Lacy J. Banks. “He wanted to reserve the right to be himself, to be human.”

And, perhaps, to be home a little more. Spending time with his wife, Juanita, 39, and their three young children, Jeffrey, Marcus, and Jasmine, was precisely the reason Jordan gave for his first retirement, in 1993. Stung by the murder of his father, James, who was shot in North Carolina during a roadside robbery, Jordan seemed to interpret the tragedy as a message to embrace what was really important. “He taught me a lot about life,” Jordan wrote of his father in For the Love of the Game, his coffee-table basketball book released last year. “One of those lessons was that everything happens for a reason.” Perhaps because his father wanted him to, Jordan chose next to play professional baseball, a brave but inglorious season-long spectacle that ended with his return to the Bulls in 1995.

Three world championships later, Jordan is retiring for real—a decision that struck deep gloom throughout all of basketball. The NBA without Jordan, after all, is like the Three Tenors without Pavarotti—not bad, but not as fun. “Michael Jordan was the best to ever play the game,” says Isiah Thomas, his former NBA rival. “There were no deficiencies in his game. None, zero.”

Now, all that’s left are memories—the 25 last-minute game-winning shots, the eye-popping variety of his moves, the way he stuck his tongue out as he floated in for a score. “Hey, he’s not dying, he’s just retiring,” says his former Bulls teammate B.J. Armstrong, taking a philosophical approach to the impending Air shortage. To be sure, Jordan won’t be disappearing altogether. The success of his 1996 Space Jam could lead to more film roles. “He should play a character like James Bond,” suggests movie critic Gene Siskel, a rabid Bulls fan. “I’d pay to see him before Pierce Brosnan any day, wouldn’t you?”

Jordan will also stay busy supervising his many endeavors, among them the Jordan brand, a division of Nike he personally oversees, and a planned restaurant-cum-shrine near his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. Not that he needs to generate new income: His vast fortune (he earned a reported $240 million from endorsements alone in the ’90s) will keep him in designer threads and Cohiba cigars for years to come—and even leave plenty over for gambling, his sole public vice. Most likely, Jordan will also continue to shoot hoops, even if it isn’t alongside the likes of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman anymore. “He comes around and plays basketball with the kids,” says Blanca Jordan, wife of Michael’s older brother James, who has seen her brother-in-law take it to the bucket against her daughters, ages 5 and 11.

And, of course, there’s golf: Jordan has even hinted he’d love to play professionally. Should Tiger Woods be worried? Probably not, but take nothing for granted. “There is a level of excellence that permeates every aspect of his life,” says Jordan’s For the Love of the Game editor Mark Vancil. “He’s at a higher frequency than the rest of us.”

David Halberstam puts it a bit less mystically. Michael, he says, has “a natural grace about him—a very high comfort zone about who he is.” That otherworldly confidence is what enabled Jordan to walk away from basketball at the height of his extraordinary powers—and what makes it so difficult for his millions of fans to finally say goodbye. “Even your Aunt Matilda, who might not know anything about basketball, liked watching him play,” says NBC basketball analyst Bob Costas. “Michael Jordan was just beautiful to watch.”

Alex Tresniowski

Mary Green, Lorna Grisby, Margaret Magnarelli, Barbara Sandler and Sam Jemielity in Chicago, Bob Meadows in New York City, Kelly Carter in Los Angeles and Fran Brennan and Don Sider in Miami

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