In his third NBA incarnation, Michael Jordan shows he can still perform feats of magic.
In the waning moments of last Friday night's game between the Washington Wizards and the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan added to his compendium of career highlights. With his team holding a six-point lead, Jordan had his jump shot partially blocked by Bulls forward Ron Artest, and Chicago started a fast break. Jordan was certain he had been fouled, but rather than protest the noncall, he sprinted downcourt, his eyes burning like headlights, trying to catch Chicago guard Ron Mercer. As Mercer was about to lay the ball in, Jordan materialized, seemingly from the ether. He didn't merely block the shot—he pinned the ball against the backboard with both hands and then pulled it down, preserving the Wizards' 89–83 win.
Even given the high threshold for awe that Jordan has created, it was a breathtaking play, the topic of animated discussion in both locker rooms afterward. "You knew he was going to do something amazing, because he always does," said Artest, who guarded Jordan for most of the game. "He was tired, it was the fourth quarter, but he came in and whoosh. With him, it's just like the movie Superman."
Well, not just like. By the time the Superman series had reached a second sequel, it was scarcely watchable, Clark Kent bearing only the faintest resemblance to his original incarnation. Michael Jordan III, however, is suddenly as enthralling as the first two editions. "The show keeps getting better, doesn't it?" says Washington guard Hubert Davis. "Sometimes you have to take a step back and say, 'Man, what a great story.'"
Jordan's second encore began inauspiciously. Despite the hype surrounding his comeback, Jordan, at age 38, looked more wizened than Wizard at the start of the season. Watching him shoot less than 40% from the field, miss routine shots and ice his knees with each trip to the bench, many wondered whether hubris had gotten the better of him. Jordan's teammates often stood idly on the court, unsure of their roles. With nine losses in its first 11 games, Washington was a sinking ship. Following a 19-point loss to Cleveland on Nov. 27, Jordan said succinctly, "We stink."
Then the plot started to turn like a formulaic feel-good movie: The great player showed confidence in his teammates, and having earned his approval, they began to realize how good they could be. After the Cleveland debacle, Washington won 14 of 18 and at week's end stood at 17–14, on course for the playoffs. Before he suffered a strained groin that will sideline him until at least Jan. 19, sweet-shooting swingman Richard (Rip) Hamilton had started to blossom into a star. Rookie center Brendan Haywood—another bald-pated former North Carolina Tar Heel, whom Jordan shrewdly acquired in a trade with Orlando in his last major move as a Wizards executive—has come off the injured list to emerge as a rebounding and shot-blocking force. The team has tightened up defensively and become more adept at swinging the ball. "The guys started clicking," says Jordan. "We all started finding ways to fit, and you could see the enjoyment coming back around our locker room."
As for Jordan, he gradually lost his torpor, found his rhythm and has been splendid of late. After scoring a career-low six points against the Pacers on Dec. 27, he exploded for 51 points against Charlotte, becoming the oldest player in NBA history—by three years—to score 50 or more. In his next game, on Dec. 31 against the Eastern Conference-leading Nets, Jordan poured in 45 points, 22 of them in succession. He followed that up with 29 against the Bulls, his former team, including his 30,000th career point. Suddenly the player many fretted would scuff up his legacy by returning to the NBA was averaging 24.6 points and had established himself as a credible MVP candidate. "People had their doubts," says Wizards coach Doug Collins, "but I knew that if Michael was going to do this, he thought he still could play pretty damn well."
To be sure, this is not the same Jordan as before. Still, the fact that he has reinvented himself and continued to perform at such a high level might be the most inspiring part of the story. Creaky knees have slowed his first step and—the odd game-saving block notwithstanding—reduced his air time. As former Georgetown coach John Thompson derisively predicted before the season, he is indeed Floor Jordan. Through Sunday he had dunked a grand total of 12 times this season, which would have been about two games' worth in his younger days. Without the lift in his legs, he was shooting 14.7% (5 of 34) on three-pointers.
Instead, Jordan has scored his field goals almost exclusively on midrange jumpers and his patented fadeaway, his game now predicated on craft and guile. "It's a luxury car and no longer a sports car," says Collins. The owner of the game's nastiest head fake, Jordan need only raise an eyebrow and most defenders will leave their feet. In one series against Chicago, Jordan gave Artest three straight feints without starting his dribble, and on the fourth Artest finally bit. Jordan calmly dribbled once to his left and nailed a 15-footer. "Michael couldn't have been so great if he wasn't so good fundamentally," says Bulls forward Charles Oakley, a longtime friend of Jordan's. "He's showing that in basketball, an old head can beat a young pair of legs."
Jordan is also using his wits on defense. A first-team all-defensive player in his prime, Jordan no longer demands the toughest assignments, preferring to ration his energy. At times he shifts into stopper mode, as he did in a win over the Knicks on Dec. 14, relentlessly shadowing New York's leading scorer, Latrell Sprewell. In 33 minutes Sprewell made two of 13 shots. But Jordan spends much of the time patrolling passing lanes like a free safety and helping teammates with double teams.
Still, there are plenty of earmarks of the Jordan of old. His indomitable competitive spirit and disdain for failure remain in evidence. As a Wizards executive last season Jordan became so enraged watching one of the team's 63 losses that he smashed a television set in the owner's box at the MCI Center and berated the players in the locker room. Now that he's on the floor, he doesn't hold back when teammates have a lapse in concentration. He holds himself to the same exacting standards. In warmups before the Bulls game he made eight straight fadeaway jumpers. When the ninth rolled off the rim, he smacked his hands together in exasperation.
Jordan still uses every dig, real or imagined, as motivation. Time and again last week he spoke of proving his critics and doubters wrong. (In reality, by now you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone still questioning Jordan's comeback.) He also seems to take it as an affront when opponents don't double him. "Teams in the last couple of games have been playing me straight man-to-man," he said with a sly grin after the New Jersey game. "I think that's going to have to change." As in the past, Jordan has also received, shall we say, generous dispensation from the officials.
A cynic could be forgiven for wondering how a 38-year-old player jacking nearly 24 shots a game helps Washington in the long run. Jordan, however, has hardly stunted the young Wizards' growth. When Hamilton caught fire last month, Jordan dialed back his game and deferred to the 23-year-old. In the seven games before Hamilton went down, he attempted 144 shots to Jordan's 145. Collins asserts that far more plays are designed for Hamilton than for Jordan. Now that Hamilton is out, who on Washington besides Jordan can shoulder the scoring load?
More important, Jordan has, trite as it sounds, imbued his teammates with an infectious winning attitude. The Wizards haven't won a postseason series in 20 years, and a culture of losing has pervaded the franchise. Even the slogan painted on the team's locker room wall bespeaks a grim resignation: THE GAME IS SCHEDULED, WE MUST PLAY. WE MIGHT AS WELL WIN. Enter Jordan. He practices relentlessly. He eats right. He hares downcourt to block a shot rather than bitching at the refs. At 8:30 on the morning after his 51-point explosion against Charlotte, Jordan met his personal fitness coach, Tim Grover, at the Washington branch of the Sports Club/L.A. for a conditioning session. When Collins arrived at practice at 11 a.m., he delighted in telling the players that Jordan had already worked out. "When you see how hard he works and watch how he conducts himself, you want to do the same," says guard Tyronn Lue. "That's the kind of stuff that rubs off on all of us."
While Jordan hasn't converted his teammates from rap to his musical preferences of Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, he has taken pains to fit in. "At first we were like, 'What do we call him? Michael? Mr. Jordan? What?'" recalls Hamilton.
Now Jordan is known to his teammates—some of them barely half his age—simply as M. "People ask, 'What is it like playing with the greatest player ever?'" says Davis. "I tell them it's the most natural thing in the world. He just wants us to think of him as a teammate."
Aside from the Wizards, the NBA is the other big winner in Jordan's comeback. While league officials said all the right things at the time, they did plenty of hand-wringing when Jordan announced his return. What if he failed spectacularly? What if he succeeded but monopolized the spotlight at the expense of the league's young stars? Neither has happened. This NBA season has hardly become all Jordan, all the time. Through last week, in fact, Vince Carter, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett all ranked ahead of Jordan in All-Star voting.
Despite the good vibes, the Wizards don't suffer delusions of grandeur. Collins admits he's not coaching an elite team, and while the playoffs are a real possibility, Jordan won't get his seventh ring this season. No matter. His challenge wasn't to win a title but to improve the prospects of a foundering organization. Doing so might be the most fitting capstone to his career.
"Think about it: He's cleared salary cap space, brought all sorts of energy and excitement and given us the belief that we can win," says Collins. "Already he's left his imprint on this organization. On top of all that, he's playing some of the best basketball in the league."
Go ahead and call him Floor Jordan. He has still found a way to soar.