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The Third Coming

Exactly why is Michael Jordan coming back?

12:00 AM, Sep 28, 2001 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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EVERYONE HAS A FAVORITE Michael Jordan story. Mine is the one where, as a college student, he loses three consecutive games of pool to North Carolina assistant coach Roy Williams and then refuses to speak to him the next day. Or maybe it’s the one from 1998, when Jordan asks ESPN anchor Dan Patrick how he would guard him and Patrick says, jokingly, "Michael, I can’t guard you. But I don’t think you can guard me." Jordan stomps off and later sends his valet, Ahmad Rashad, to tell the 40-ish Patrick that he wants to play him one-on-one. Rashad adds, "Just understand, Michael will treat it like it’s the seventh game of the Finals—you won’t even get your shot off." Or maybe it’s the one where Jordan says that he is "99.9 percent" certain that he’s retired for good a few months before he announces his (second) return to basketball.

The third coming of Michael Jordan has been met with curious ambivalence since it dawned as a possibility late in the 2001 season. Last week when he officially proclaimed it, the masses seemed troubled. Instead of jubilation at the return of a conquering hero, there is among some a quiet concern, a sense that Jordan is doing something bad.

Some suggest that Jordan’s comeback is bad for the league, but this probably isn’t true. During the last three years a new generation of very good players has emerged, from Ray Allen to Allen Iverson to Steve Nash to Predrag Stojakovic. It’s fair to say that the NBA’s cupboard has never been more full. Jordan’s return isn’t going to keep any of these kids from getting their shots or being on TV.

Other people worry that by coming back to the game at 38 years of age, Jordan is going to damage his legacy. A season of seeing 23-year-olds dunking over him and running him around the court might conjure unwelcome memories of a rickety Willie Mays in his Mets incarnation. But the smart guess is that Jordan is still mostly the player he was when he retired.

From the day he entered the NBA until the moment he left, Jordan was the best player in basketball. But in the middle of his career, he remade his game and went from being an explosive slasher to a dead-eye jump shooter. Age may take away the first step, but a fade-away jumper lasts forever. The only aspect of the game where Jordan’s age is likely to reveal itself is on the defensive end of the court.

Besides, as far as legacies are concerned, Jordan’s has grown more impressive in the last three years. During his final three seasons people gave him his due, but were always quick to credit his supporting cast as being fine role players in their own rights: Steve Kerr was supposed to be one of the great spot-up shooters in the game, Toni Kukoc was supposed to be a talented, versatile star-in-waiting, Luc Longley was supposed to be a serviceable center, Dennis Rodman was supposed to be an indomitable force of nature, and Scottie Pippen was thought, by nearly all the world, to be the second best player in basketball. Three years later Kerr can’t get any playing time, Kukoc is a sullen disappointment, Longley couldn’t even start for the Knicks (and has since retired), Rodman is such a head case no one will sign him, and Pippen, it is clear, is perhaps the 22nd best player in basketball. All of which is to say: Michael Jordan was even better than we thought.

So why does he want to come back?

No one—not even Ahmad Rashad—can see into Jordan’s soul, but he claims that he’s doing it "for the love of the game." On its face, this rings false. Jordan has never seemed particularly enthralled with basketball; it just happened to be the thing he was best at. On the court Jordan never exhibited the joyous demeanor of a Magic Johnson or an Isiah Thomas. He looked angry. He scowled, he cursed, he bullied. In my years of Jordan-watching I saw him smile twice during games. The first time was in 1992, when he shrugged sheepishly toward the media table after tying a Finals three-pointer record in Game 1 against Portland. The second was when the Bulls dismantled Utah in Game 3 of the 1998 Finals, 96-54. What he does love is winning. Jordan plays everything—Monopoly, pool, golf, baseball, cards—with the same intensity he brings to the basketball court. Winning, not basketball, is his love.

And he certainly isn’t coming back to basketball so that he can win. Last season the Washington Wizards went 19-63 and weren’t even as good as that. Jordan could make them a .500 club and it would be a stupendous achievement. But he won’t win a title in D.C.