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Air Worthy Though he'd have to contend with losing, old age and his own legacy, a successful return would seem likely for Michael Jordan

Having spent several months competing against a man he played
with (Charles Oakley), a man he recently drafted (Kwame Brown)
and a man he recently traded (Juwan Howard), it's time for
Michael Jordan, the planet's best-known gym rat, to confront his
most formidable opponent: Michael Jordan. On Monday he postponed
the anticipated declaration of his return to the NBA, but his
decision to do so was reportedly made and an announcement was
imminent as SI went to press. When the Washington Wizards'
president of basketball operations--the title Jordan will
relinquish when he divests himself of his 5% to 10% stake in one
of the league's most dreadful teams--does proclaim his Third
Coming, he will set up a confrontation with his myriad
accomplishments, with a legend as colossal as any in the history
of sport.

Jordan will be 39 on Feb. 17, 2002, right around midseason, one
fourth of the way through what many expect to be a two-year
stint. He will play for a team that lost 63 games last season--20
more than he lost during his last three seasons with the Chicago
Bulls--and that has made the playoffs once since 1987. He cracked
two ribs in June, and since 1991 he has been icing his knees
because of tendinitis. A generation of young talent (Kobe Bryant,
Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady et al.) has
cartwheeled onto the main stage that Jordan, championship rings
on six fingers, vacated after the 1997-98 season.

It seems that Ol' Baldy has only one thing going for him: He's
Michael Jordan. "Nobody in his right mind would doubt him," says
the Dallas Mavericks' All-Star swingman, Michael Finley, who
frequently guarded His Airness in summer pickup games in Chicago.
"He may not be able to do all the things physically he used to,
but he'll still be one of the best players in the league."

Even among those who fear that Jordan's comeback won't be
triumphal, there's no suggestion that he'll conjure up images of
Willie Mays's stumbling around the outfield in the 1973 World
Series or Muhammad Ali's getting pummeled by Larry Holmes in '80.
Jordan begins his season at 38, the same age John Elway was when
he won his second Super Bowl, a year younger than Jimmy Connors
was when he reached the semifinals of the 1991 U.S. Open, two
years younger than Cal Ripken was when he homered in the All-Star
Game three months ago. Robert Parish found work in the NBA when
he was 43, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 10.1 points per game
when he was 42. True, both were centers who by that time weren't
expected to run the floor, as Jordan will be, whether at shooting
guard or at small forward, his probable starting position. To
that end, Jordan seems to have gotten himself into superb shape,
having shed at least 30 pounds to get near his last playing
weight of 212, and he's as strong as ever.

Rust never sleeps, of course--Neil Young taught us that--and
there will be nights when Jordan will look ordinary. He'll
certainly be an All-Star and a dangerous scorer, any reduction
in his quickness compensated for by his savvy. "Watch how much
he'll score off that head fake," says Detroit Pistons guard
Jerry Stackhouse, another of Jordan's summer playmates. "When a
guy has almost 30,000 points, how can you not go for it?"

It goes without saying that as one of the few team athletes to
have hired the coach he plays for, Jordan will be Washington's
leader, able, with a single look or sharp comment, to persuade
his teammates to run the offense through him. In the new era of
legal zone defense Jordan will be smart enough to find space to
get off his shot and accurate enough with it to be one of the
league's best outside shooters, as he was when he retired. Should
the Wizards from time to time play zone themselves--one can
envision Jordan, ahem, suggesting that very thing to coach Doug
Collins--it will help him ease the searing pain he sometimes feels
in his knees. "The new rules will force players to use their
knowledge to find a way to score instead of just their physical
ability," says Mavericks assistant coach Donn Nelson. "And we all
know that Michael has the alltime best basketball IQ."

Several intriguing questions remain, however. First and foremost:
Will being merely another top player be enough to satisfy Jordan?
He didn't address that or anything else on Monday, but the
answers to other questions seem obvious enough to warrant
educated guesses.

--Why would he come back? During Jordan's
here-I-am-but-I'm-not-telling-you-what-I'm-doing dance of the
last six months, he has hinted at the answer: for the love of
the game. There's no reason to disbelieve him, though that's not
the whole story. Does he crave the attention he didn't get as a
suit? Probably. Did his almost virulent competitiveness force
him back into jockstrap and Air Jordans? Probably. Does he have
one more plan for torturing the New York Knicks? Probably.

--Should he come back? Why the hell not? For all he did for the
NBA--from the moment he was drafted in 1984, milewide smile
blazing, through the moment his 17-foot jump shot over the Utah
Jazz's Byron Russell capped a second Bulls three-peat in
'98--Jordan has earned the right to do whatever he wants. Hey,
Mike, you want to come back as G-Wiz? Here's the mascot costume,

There's a chance that Jordan will tarnish his legacy by playing
badly. But we don't own the man's legacy any more than we own the
man. Jordan clearly doesn't believe that time froze when he hit
his last jumper. Unlike many pro athletes, he didn't limp to the
finish line, play through much pain, endure repeated dead-end
seasons or peer into the abyss. It's generally those
athletes--Larry Bird comes to mind--who have a reason to quit.

--Will he make the Wizards better? No, they don't really need him.
The arrival of the 6'11" Brown, the continued maturation of
Richard (Rip) Hamilton, the solid presence of veteran Christian
Laettner, the off-season acquisition of backup point guard Tyronn
Lue, the....

Puh-leeze! Of course Jordan will make Washington better. A
healthy Jordan should be good for--what?--15 to 20 more wins. The
Wizards will probably be much like the Indiana Pacers or the
Detroit Pistons, scrapping for a playoff spot and destined, if
they get one, for a first-round exit.

--Is there any downside to his return for the league? None. If
commissioner David Stern seemed lukewarm in his initial reaction,
last March, to the news that Jordan might be coming back, he had
a reason: Before the 2001 postseason the NBA was fighting a p.r.
battle of the first order, trying to convince skeptical fans that
the young stars could carry the league as well as the
Larry-Magic-Michael triumvirate did. "Six months ago we thought
the possibility of Michael's coming back was a distraction,
something that was keeping fans from realizing what a good group
of young players we had," says Russ Granik, the NBA's deputy
commissioner. "Those young guys have proved a lot. Now we're on
the kind of footing that means Michael doesn't have to be the
whole show."

Kevin McHale, the Minnesota Timberwolves' vice president of
basketball operations, isn't as sanguine as Granik about the
health of the league, but he, too, sees Jordan's return as a
positive. "We've had a downturn in all professional sports,
basketball included," says McHale. "The general vibe has
flattened, and it was flattening long before Sept. 11. You put a
player of Michael's reputation back in the spotlight, and man,
how can it not help?" Adds Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning:
"People are emotionally unwound right now, so I think Michael's
coming back is going to be therapeutic. Sports unites us. That's
what this will do."

At the very least, Jordan in uniform translates to 82 sellouts.
Can you imagine New York City on the evening of Oct. 30? Jordan
will be in Madison Square Garden to meet the Knicks on opening
night, and the Yankees could be playing a World Series game at
Yankee Stadium. In the long run, advertisers are excited about
the comeback, and TV execs are juiced about higher ratings.
"Michael's return will accelerate the good things that were
starting to happen last season," says Mark Lazarus, president of
Turner Sports, who has already pulled a switcheroo for TBS's
opening-night telecast. Bye-bye, Philadelphia 76ers at Minnesota.
Hello, Michael at the Garden.

It's impossible to gauge Jordan's future contentment, but it's
illuminating to reflect on the prechampionship Jordan, who for
his first six seasons (three of them with Collins as his coach)
didn't get Chicago into the Finals. His outward goodwill
notwithstanding, that Jordan was a discontented soul, prone to
challenging his teammates physically and mentally, prone to
trashing them off the court and off the record. He hated being an

He's going to be an also-ran now, a terrific player on a mediocre
team. The man Penny Hardaway calls Mr. June might now be Mr.
Almost Out Of It By Tax Day. The most likely scenario is that
Jordan's Wizards will languish in the middle of an uninspiring
Eastern pack, playing well one night, horribly the next,
frequently earning their leader's anger, then his wrath, then
maybe his rage.

Several months ago it seemed that Jordan's return would divert a
best-and-brightest talent stream to the nation's capital in ways
reminiscent of the Kennedy Administration. Charles Barkley was
the first one to say he would be there. Talk was, Patrick Ewing
wanted in with MJ too. Maybe Chris Webber or Hakeem Olajuwon
would join them. Possibly even Carter. And who came? Lue, that's

It's never easy to rebuild a franchise, and as an architect with
Washington, Jordan has been no worse than many, though not nearly
as good as some. The likelihood is that, even at 38, he'll be a
far better player than architect--and possibly even more popular
than ever with fans, who will see a guy with more physical
limitations, a gritty gamer getting by on smarts. No matter how
well he performs, though, Jordan is sure to feel a chill in the
air as he begins his third career, the looming shadow of his past
large enough to obscure even the white-hot light of attention
that will be focused on him.


COLOR PHOTO: ANDY HAYT/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Casting for Pippen Shooting guard Hamilton will audition for Scottie's old sidekick role.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Big whoop The joy Jordan felt after his fifth championship with the Bulls, in 1997, is not likely to be rediscovered in Washington.

The man Penny Hardaway calls Mr. June might now be Mr. Almost Out
Of It By Tax Day.