A comeback for Jordan? Believe it when you see it

The Washington Post

In the past few weeks we’ve heard from Sports Illustrated, Charles Barkley, Phil Jackson and, most recently, Abe Pollin and Mario Lemieux on the subject of Michael Jordan coming back to play for the Wizards next season. Whether through implication, a nod, a wink or actual words, they and many others seem to feel Jordan is coming back to play in the NBA. Now here’s what Jordan himself had to say Tuesday morning: “I haven’t wavered one bit from what I’ve been saying. If I had to answer today, I’m 99.9 percent sure I won’t play again. I’m not going to come back as a showpiece. I wouldn’t even think about it unless I thought I could maintain the level of play I had when I left. I’d only come back doing everything I always did. And I’m nowhere near that, nowhere close to that. I haven’t played in three years.” And then Jordan asked this question: “How does it benefit me to come back?” It doesn’t. He’s got everything to lose, absolutely nothing to gain. Jordan coming back to play would benefit the NBA, NBC, TBS/TNT, presumably the Wizards, Pollin, other players, the media, Jordan’s legion of sponsors, and especially basketball fans. But not Jordan. If he comes back and is anything less than IMAX Jordan, if he produces anything less than 30 points a night and an NBA championship, he would be diminished. The man has already been, almost literally, bronzed. Do you think Jordan could live with being diminished in the context of professional basketball? I don’t. And why should he? Don’t get me wrong, Jordan has earned the right to come back and play if he wants. If he wants to come back, say, with Barkley, and have some sheer fun for two seasons playing with the Wizards, how great would that be — mostly for those of us watching? But do you really think Michael Jordan, the winner of one NCAA championship, two Olympic gold medals, 10 scoring titles, six NBA championships, five league MVP awards, six NBA Finals MVP awards, would have any fun whatsoever if he wasn’t the best player on the court?

The most dominant player? The best player on a team with a chance to win the championship? You think Jordan, for one day of his life, ever played to be really, really good, and not the best? I don’t. Therefore, I don’t see Jordan playing in the NBA again. Smartly, Jordan leaves the door cracked just a bit. He doesn’t owe anybody a definitive answer. If he gets back to his playing weight of 212 pounds (225 now, down from 240), plays enough pickup games to satisfy himself that he could compete at a level only he has known, fine. He may very well be working toward finding that out right this moment. But ultimately I don’t see that happening. He might walk right up to that line in August or September, but I don’t see him crossing it when November arrives. How do you test yourself without actually playing? Pick-up games won’t do it, nor will summer leagues, and certainly not dominating a team full of Wizards. Of course, Jordan misses professional basketball. “Sure, it’s fun to think about it,” he said of coming back, “seeing where I am in terms of fitness and psyche. But look at the reality of it. Where’s the test? Playing against guys recreationally at the health club? I’m not even in position to think about it. Right now, it’s recreational to me — if I’m not capable of playing at that level, I wouldn’t do it. I’m nowhere near what would have to be to even consider playing.” Naturally, the comparison to Lemieux comes up. Lemieux, after retiring for three years, has come back and played at essentially the same level. But this comeback for Lemieux is like Jordan’s first comeback, when he returned to the Bulls and found Scottie Pippen and some very good, veteran NBA players waiting. Who’s Jordan going to run with here? He’s supposed to carry this bunch at the age of 39, the age that looms for him next February? Are there scenarios in which I could see Jordan coming back? Yeah, maybe if free agent Chris Webber says he’ll return but only to play with Jordan and if, at the same time, the Wizards win the lottery and could draft a big man (Yao Ming?). Or maybe if Jordan is granted complete and total control of the franchise sooner, like right away. We can play “what if” until the cows come home, but how reasonable are these scenarios? (By the way, what makes Pollin or anyone else think Jordan has to play for the Wizards? He doesn’t. As a free agent, he could ring up his old buddy Phil Jackson in L.A. and ask to play there with Shaq. Maybe Phil would trade Kobe for M.J.!) If you want to run wild with speculation, we can do that. What I do know is that while Pollin’s assertion Monday (“The odds are that he’s going to come back.”) might have been relatively innocent — wishful thinking on the part of the franchise’s majority owner — -he might want to be careful. Jordan isn’t going to be pushed or prodded into playing. He isn’t going to trade the greatest legacy in sports for the sale of a few thousand season tickets. Two magazine pieces (The Washington Post Magazine and Washingtonian) have dealt with the issue of Jordan possibly leaving for Chicago to run that club. Well, poking and prodding him will hasten the arrival of that day. I haven’t seen anybody in 20 years force Jordan to do anything against his will. That said, it’s amazing how magical it still is, the notion of Jordan playing professional basketball again. Tuesday, phone calls came into my office from New Zealand, Germany and Japan, from people wanting to know whether Jordan is going to return. The obsession with Jordan is jolting. He’s the only person on the planet who can put Tiger Woods in the passenger seat. But even with that stature, he doesn’t sit around telling old war stories about the time he did this against Larry or that against Magic. If anybody earned that right, Jordan has. But he doesn’t do it. He lives in the moment. “I’m trying to construct a basketball team here,” he said yesterday. The last five conversations I’ve had with him, Jordan seems to be obsessed with free agents, trades and the draft. You want to talk about Duke’s Shane Battier, Jordan has theories and projections and stretches of game video committed to memory. He can tell you things about Arizona’s Loren Woods or Stanford’s Jason Collins or anybody else likely to be in the draft that would make you think he has been a scout for 20 years. So many people have said publicly that Jordan can’t do this, can’t unload the prohibitive contracts and build a championship contender, that I think that’s what he is obsessed with now, proving that he can succeed as an executive, a builder. I’m not going to pretend I know the end of this story. It’s a long road. Feelings change. Situations evolve. I always felt he would come back after what most of us thought was a premature retirement, the one in 1993. And I’ve always felt he would stay retired after the second one, in January 1999. Whether he comes back shouldn’t be about wha