"If you want to understand the world, you need to understand Asia." -- Nicholas Kristof
And if you want to understand why the retirement that came Thursday probably trumps the various retirements of Michael Jordan and the eventual retirements of LeBron James, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, gulp some numbers.
Start with this tidbit: On Sunday, April 3, 2011, just after India had won the Cricket World Cup in Mumbai, an Indian TV network blared this headline: JOY OF A BILLION. The headline was apt. The headline was rational.
The headline was rounding down the population of India by roughly two-thirds of the population of the United States, in the name of brevity.
At 1.25 billion or so people, India has almost the U.S. population to spare beyond its first billion, unless the recent stemming of the U.S. count at 316 million because of the shutdown has missed a 75 percent addition, which is unlikely. To visit Mumbai is to realize that New York is not very crowded. To visit a major Mumbai train station at 6 p.m. is so oh-my-god that it might have peerless oh-my-godness.
From there, go to this: The entire, 50-nation European continent has about 740 million people. India alone has going-on-double that. Take the United States, then North America, then South America, and "the Americas" reach about 970 million; India alone has about 1.3 times that. Only by taking North America, South America and Europe -- and all the sports passion therein -- do you exceed India's population by about one-third.
Burgeoning Africa, immune to cricket save for a handful of countries, has crossed the one-billion threshold. Its 54 nations combine for still about 200 million people fewer than India.
Of course, you could go mad measuring any Jordan or James or Woods or Federer retirement against the freshly announced retirement of the 5-foot-5 Indian cricket Godzilla Sachin Tendulkar. You could read multi-faceted surveys and opinionated lists until your eyelids plummet. You could consider baseball's multi-national popularity, basketball's globalism with its bigger penchant for stardom, the Super Bowl's one-day U.S.-heavy marvel, the insuperable soccer World Cup, the Olympics and the Cricket World Cup with its estimated viewership for the 2011 India-Pakistan semifinal: One billion.
Factor in the NBA's pretty fair presence in gargantuan China with that almost-1.4-billion population. Factor in basketball's pretty good acclaim in Europe or its No. 1 ranking against everything but Manny Pacquiao in the 100-million-strong Philippines. Think about the recognizability, especially of Woods and Federer, in their sports with a coating of popularity relatively thin but absolutely global. Think about the highest-paid list -- Forbes has Woods atop that -- but remember that owes as much to the strengths of economies as to person-to-person fame in a world rife with poverty.
On the other side, plug in the cricket hegemony in three of the eight most-peopled nations: No. 2 India, No. 6 Pakistan (180 million) and No. 8 Bangladesh (150 million). Add points for the untold level of passion and focus, even docking some passion points for those hilariously tormented Indians who dislike cricket and chafe when they can't get service because waiters or shop clerks or bank tellers are off staring at some cricket-filled TV screen. Remember you could go across about 23 percent of humanity (South Asia) and find a very-very few who couldn't recognize Tendulkar, and that even that wouldn't lump in the facile Tendulkar-spotters of the United Kingdom, South Africa, Oceania and the Caribbean.
Add it all up, and Lionel Messi probably has more fans. In a different, more naked way, David Beckham probably has more fans. Cristiano Ronaldo might have more fans even if pomposity didn't tend to curb such numbers generally. Still, does anyone have more fans with more adoration than does Tendulkar?
The fame began in 1989 when Tendulkar was 16. It amplified in 1990 when a 17-year-old Tendulkar took the ninth Test match of his life to amass 119 runs in Manchester, England. It has seared and soared all the way to age 40 and to his retirement, come November, upon his 200th Test cricket match, yet another of his unequaled numerals. Along the way that fame has managed to combine a scarcity of scandals, a galaxy of billboards and a generosity of numbers. He has amassed 51 centuries (100 or more runs) in Test matches. He has accounted for 15,837 runs in 198 Tests, and 18,426 runs in one-day internationals. People perceive him a gentleman. People perceive him as the greatest batsman ever, or at least in the debate alongside Australia's Sir Donald Bradman (1908-2001). He said upon retirement Thursday, "I have been living this dream for the last 24 years."
Factor in the 24 years, the runaway numbers and the depth of feeling for the game and its stars, and I'll venture this: Of all the people in the world who have trouble going outdoors and taking a walk because they got too famous and too inundated, Tendulkar might have the most trouble. Next to him, George Clooney might feel lonely. Katy Perry might feel freer. Factor in all humanity, and there's a chance Tendulkar might have just announced the most momentous sports retirement of our lifetimes.