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sports opinion

The basketball player who transcended his sport, scoring lucrative endorsements as effortlessly as he shot free throws and achieving such fame that he was universally known simply as MJ, has lost some of his aura.

It has happened by degree. Michael Jordan’s gambling forays and his choice of associates cost him some fans’ respect. His attempt at a baseball career showed he was not an athlete for all seasons. His on-again/off-again retirements have caused marketing stutter steps. And his playing time in NBA games has been reduced as his ability has slipped from mythical to merely outstanding.

But now, the gradual erosion of his stature may have been hastened by messy allegations filed in Cook County Circuit Court.

In his suit accusing Karla Knafel of California of extortion, Jordan acknowledged paying her $250,000 to remain silent about their relationship. Last week Knafel countersued, claiming Jordan had promised to pay her $5 million when he retired from basketball and urged her to abort a child she thought was his in 1991.

The reason, she claimed, was to protect his reputation, a carefully honed public image that helped make Jordan the world’s most famous and most marketable athlete.

Three years ago, when he retired from basketball for the second time, Jordan was the highest-ranked athlete in Forbes magazine’s “Celebrity 100,” with an estimated income of $69 million in salary and endorsements. In Forbes’ 2002 survey, the since-unretired Jordan had slipped to $36 million. He has been displaced as the top-earning athlete by Tiger Woods, yet he remains far more popular than dozens of athletes who still are at the peak of their abilities.

Marketers have mixed opinions of the potential effects of the litigation on Jordan’s appeal. Most note that Jordan successfully navigated previous pitfalls that could have ruined lesser celebrities.

“He’s in an elite category of Teflon men . . . like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the pope,” said Bob Williams, president of Burns Celebrity Service. “Trouble won’t stick to them.”

Part of his marketability stems from Jordan’s finely crafted persona. He seldom appears for interviews in anything other than perfectly tailored suits, and he eschews flashy jewelry and other glitzy trappings. In his retirement news conferences, Jordan always said he hoped to spend more time with his family, cheerfully volunteering to “drive the car pool” when he retired from the Bulls a second time.

Knafel’s suit scrapes at that image. It claims Jordan once told her his marriage to Juanita Jordan was a “business arrangement” suggested by his agent and intended to “maintain his favorable public image.”

Through his attorney, Jordan called those allegations about his marriage “hurtful and malicious.” Juanita Jordan filed for divorce early this year, but the couple jointly withdrew the petition in February, agreeing to try a reconciliation.

Knafel said she did not have the abortion but later determined Jordan was not the child’s father. Jordan has denied all of Knafel’s other allegations and said he has not fathered any child of hers.

Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said Jordan may get an extended benefit of the doubt from advertisers because “he’s created such a long relationship with consumers.” But that could become shaky ground.

“Part of his appeal in the past was that he was wholesome and trustworthy, and he has lost that to some extent,” Roby said. “Whether all of this is true or not, people may not feel as trusting of him, may see some level of dishonesty. And when it comes to marketability, trust is a huge factor.

“Kids are a more irreverent audience, so it probably won’t hinder his ability to sell sneakers to 12- to 17-year-olds. But adults may feel that enough is enough – especially females.”

Dan Migala, executive editor of Team Marketing Report, a Chicago-based firm that researches athletic marketing programs, said he would be surprised to see any sponsor drop Jordan.

“Michael has been the Holy Grail of advertisers for so long, they will stay with him longer than someone else,” he said. But, he added, “A lot has to do with . . . how this all plays out.”