The league's No. 1 draw, the most visible and popular athlete in the world, won't be around to bail everyone out of this mess.
``It is sad, but inevitable,'' commissioner David Stern said.
And now, the basketball will be passed to a new generation, a collection of players with neither the charisma and killer instinct, nor the records that made Jordan so special.
The move into the post-Michael era is something the NBA has feared and expected. He will be missed, no doubt, but the league will move on just as it did after the retirements of so many superstars.
For now, though, everyone in the game must pay tribute to the player often known simply as ``MJ.''
``It's sad for everyone to see the greatest basketball player in the world come to that conclusion,'' said Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird, whose arrival along with Magic Johnson in 1979 began the NBA's transformation into a dominant global business.
``There comes a time in every player's career that they have to make that decision, and he feels it's his time,'' added Bird, who retired as a player following the 1992 Olympics.
Filling the void will be impossible for any one player to accomplish.
Many of the older players, including Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller, never defeated Jordan in the playoffs - and they may never get over it.
Several younger stars are more known for their most infamous moments - Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway for getting their coaches fired, Latrell Sprewell for choking his coach, Allen Iverson for his legal troubles, Kobe Bryant for his selfishness - than for great victories.
``The reason that Michael Jordan is acknowledged to be the greatest basketball player in the world - if not in history - is he gets an opportunity to demonstrate that day in and day out over the rest of the best basketball players in the world,'' Stern said last week when he announced the deal to end the lockout.
``That's how you establish yourself. And the rest of those best basketball players in the world ... are prepared to carry on and take this league to the heights that we think it's going to reach.''
Stern and other league officials wouldn't comment Tuesday, but the commissioner is expected to attend Jordan's news conference Wednesday at the United Center, the Chicago arena where a bronze statue of His Airness stands outside.
Assuming Jordan confirms his expected retirement, it will bring an end to one of the most brilliant careers in league history. Without him, many fans just won't tune in any more and his team most likely will struggle.
``Losers! Losers! Losers!'' Derrick Watt, a 32-year-old Chicago machinist and Bulls fan, said he left Michael Jordan's Restaurant in Chicago. ``Without Michael, they'll be in the basement of their division.''
The Jordan era included six NBA championships, five Most Valuable Player awards, 10 scoring titles, 12 All-Star appearances and countless other memorable moments - from last-second shots to prolific scoring outbursts - that epitomized his superiority.
He also transcended basketball, drawing even non-sports fans to watch him on television and in person.
The eight regular-season Chicago Bulls games on NBC last season drew a 6.5 rating on average, while the 17 televised games without Jordan got a rating of 3.8 percent, down 71 percent. The four most-watched NBA Finals all include Jordan, with last season's finals drawing a record 18.7 rating. The two non-Jordan finals in '94 and '95 drew a 12.4 and 13.9 rating.
Jordan also drew crowds more than any other player in history, selling out all home games and just about all road games. When he made what was expected to be his last trip to play in Atlanta last March, an NBA record 62,046 fans turned out to see him and the Bulls.
Then there's the money. Fortune magazine in June estimated that Jordan's career financial contribution to the NBA was $10 billion. The league generates about $2 billion a year in revenue.
``The sad thing, where basketball is now, Michael Jordan is desperately needed. Some fans have probably been lost, and he could help bring them back,'' Lakers guard Eddie Jones said.
When Jordan retired for the first time in 1993 and moved on to a short-lived professional baseball career, the league publicly said many of the same things it has been saying in the months leading up to Jordan's re-retirement: That it had survived the departures of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving and Magic Johnson, and it would survive this, too.
Not everyone agrees.
``I think there will be a sag,'' said Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who followed the Bulls last season for a book. ``There are an awful lot of talented players out there, but Michael was unusual because he did all this so brilliantly and with consummate charm.
``Not all of his linear successors have that charm, and that's going to be a problem for the NBA. The public not only wants to see great athletes, it wants to like them. It liked Magic, it liked Bird, it liked Jordan, but it's not sure if it likes these other guys.''
When Jordan retired the first time, the league suffered. When he returned for a full season in 1995-96, so did the attention of many fans. They were riveted when the Bulls won a league-record 72 games with one of the greatest teams in history.
Three more Jordanesque championship series followed, with the Bulls beating Seattle in 1996 and Utah in 1997 and 1998.
Perhaps no single moment was more memorable than Jordan stealing the ball from Karl Malone in Game 6 in June and dribbling downcourt for the jumper that won the title.
Now, that moment is as unforgettable as it is irreplaceable.
Just like Jordan.