- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2003

ATLANTA There has been some talk that Michael Jordan, selected as a reserve for his 14th and final All-Star Game, still might start tonight's game, no matter how many times he says he wants things to stay just the way they are.
According to players like Boston's Antoine Walker, this "won't be decided for sure until they announce the starters." It could be that Jordan's Eastern Conference teammates have a final tribute in mind something like Alex Rodriguez leading Cal Ripken to shortstop at the start of Ripken's final All-Star Game in 2001.
What won't be at issue, however, is what Jordan means to others in the game, all of whom saw him lead the Chicago Bulls to six championships and largely make it possible for them to share in what has become a billion-dollar industry.
"The things he's done for the game both on and off the court raise everybody's standard," said Kevin Garnett of the Western Conference All-Stars. "Not just how you should play the game but how you should dress for the game [and] the way you market yourself. He's really set out a road map for us to follow. Whether we can follow it or not, that's another story."
Jordan refuses to take credit for the league's success, saying at every chance that he was simply riding on the coattails of great players like Larry Bird and Julius Erving.
To some degree, this is true. But although the NBA experienced great gains during the 1980s, when Erving, Bird and Magic Johnson breathed life into a stagnant league, it was Jordan who took the league global as the central figure on the first Dream Team.
Jordan's face, more than any other, is responsible for the $100million contracts signed by players like Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal of the three-time champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Jordan transformed a league dominated by black players, making it as appealing to youngsters in the suburbs as to those in the inner cities. Thanks mostly to Jordan, many of the players participating here haul in millions of dollars with endorsements that would not be possible without his legacy.
And contrary to popular opinion, many of them are grateful.
"He put it out there before anybody," said Houston's Steve Francis, a former Maryland player and now a two-time All-Star. "The endorsements, the way of life I think it's going to continue because we want to live up to the standard he set and where he put things. Whenever you have a guy of his status doing things, everyone wants to mimic him or walk behind him. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only dude."
Not by a long shot.
Walker, like Jordan an Eastern Conference reserve, grew particularly close to him during the summer of 2001, when he spent hours helping Jordan prepare to end his three-year retirement and return with the Washington Wizards.
Walker says Jordan inspired him, even when he played at Kentucky. As a result, Walker dressed sharply and not like a college student before games both at home and away in order to project a professional image even down to his manicured fingernails, which he "won't allow to get scraggly," thanks to Jordan
Waker, who has a $71million contract, has been the front man for hot-selling video games that have further lined his pockets.
"We need to show [guys like Jordan, Bird, Johnson and Erving] respect when we get opportunities," Walker said. "Michael needs to go out in style. We need to make sure these guys go out in style and appreciate what they've done for everybody in this league."
When people talk about the greatest player ever, the names of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Johnson and Bird often come up. But usually, those arguing for others come over to the Jordan side. Even some of the other candidates have conceded.
"He is the single most talented player to ever play the game, and his impact will be felt forever," West said.
Jordan hears all the lamenting about this being his final season and All-Star Game. He said he returned last season to "scratch an itch." At a news conference yesterday, Jordan said that same "itch has been scratched" even though he scored 72 points over the Wizards' last three games before the break.
Still, Jordan wants everyone to know that he won't be far from the game he has revolutionized in so many ways. His next challenge as the Wizards' chief of basketball operations will be to make the long-dormant team consistently competitive.
To Jordan, this final All-Star Game and final season represent merely a transition rather than the end of his basketball life.
"I don't want a funeral I'm not leaving, I'm not dying," Jordan said. "I'm still going to be around the game. It's OK to say thanks or whatever, but don't make it seem like a funeral."

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