A MAN cannot win when he confronts his own legend. Michael Jordan
knows this better than anyone. His 21-month absence from
basketball has only enhanced his greatness in our memories, and to
live up to his larger-than-life image, he would have to have been
more than just spectacular in his return to the NBA on Sunday --
he would have to have been magical. He would have to have simply
materialized at center court, a genie in black and red, capable
not only of soaring over the Indiana Pacers for poster-perfect
dunks but also of making the Chicago Bulls champions again with a
wave of his hand, or perhaps a wag of his tongue.
But Jordan refuses to compete with his own ghost, and if that
surprises some people, it is only because they have not paid
attention to his hints. He wore number 45 on Sunday, the number he
wore in his baseball fling with the Chicago White Sox
organization, refusing to take his retired Bull number 23 down
from the rafters because, he said, his late father, James, saw the
last game he played wearing that uniform, and he wants to keep it
that way. But the new number also seems to be his way of saying
that this is a new era, a new Jordan, and that nothing he
accomplishes or fails to accomplish in this new incarnation should
have the slightest effect on our memories of the old one.
His written statement the day before the nationally televised
Indiana game consisted of simply the two words ``I'm back,'' and
he promised no more than that. In time, we will ask more of him,
and he will demand more of himself than the 7-for-28 shooting
performance he delivered in a 103-96 overtime loss to the Pacers
at Indianapolis's Market Square Arena. But on Sunday it was enough
just to see Jordan's shaved head slick with sweat again and his
tongue poking out on drives to the basket. He is back -- not
better than ever, not even as good as ever quite yet -- just back,
and for now, that is enough.
It didn't seem like it would be enough in the days leading up to
Jordan's comeback. As the media and fans searched eagerly for
confirmation of his return, Jordan did his best Howard Hughes
imitation, becoming a recluse and refusing to utter a public word.
That only heightened anticipation, as reporters and fans
speculated on when he would come back and how effective he would
be. As the rumors escalated, so did the expectations. ``It was a
little embarrassing,'' he said when he finally broke his silence
in a postgame press conference on Sunday. ``I'm human like
everybody else. Everyone was treating me like a god.''
Some news organizations got carried away in their pursuit of the
story. At the Bulls' practice last Thursday at the Berto Center in
suburban Deerfield, Ill., one reporter disabled the electronic
gate to the parking lot in hopes of keeping Jordan from driving in
without a word before practice. (Jordan heard about the maneuver,
alerted the Bulls and had the gate opened manually.) On Saturday
night the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis broke into regular
programming to show the Bulls' bus arriving at the team hotel.
Unfortunately, Jordan wasn't on it. He flew in on his private
plane on Sunday morning and stayed at a different hotel from the
rest of the team. After the game Indiana coach Larry Brown
captured the manic mood perfectly. When reporters approached him,
Brown said, ``You guys made my day. The Beatles and Elvis are
back, and you came to talk to me.''
Jordan, of course, knew better than anyone how rusty he was after
nearly two seasons away from the NBA, and he seemed to expect a
difficult first outing. Like a producer opening a show out of town
before taking it to Broadway, he chose to make his debut on the
road against the Pacers instead of at Chicago's seven-month-old
United Center, where the Bulls next play on March 24 against the
Orlando Magic. ``I certainly didn't want to go through this type
of game at home,'' he said.
His decision to come back in this Sunday-afternoon game was
fortuitous for NBC, which already had Chicago-Indiana on its
broadcast schedule for 53% of the country. The network quickly
expanded coverage to include all but the Charlotte and Salt Lake
City markets, which saw the Charlotte Hornets-Utah Jazz contest.
According to preliminary Nielsen figures, Jordan's return was
easily NBC's most watched NBA regular-season telecast in five
years, swamping CBS's competing NCAA coverage. (Jordan insisted
that neither the network nor the NBA influenced his timing.)
No one can accuse Jordan of choosing to work his way back
gradually. He was in the starting lineup, played 43 minutes and,
despite his ragged shooting, finished with 19 points, six
rebounds, six assists and three steals. Moreover, he elected to
make his reentry against the Central Division-leading Pacers and
one of his fiercest antagonists, All-Star guard Reggie Miller, who
clearly got the better of their duel, scoring 28 points. As the
Bulls mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback from 16 points
down to force overtime, Jordan and Miller stopped the hearts of
every Bull and Pacer fan, not to mention NBA and NBC executives.
With the score tied at 92 and three seconds left in regulation,
Jordan crashed into Miller, fouling him in the act of shooting,
and the two went down in a heap. Both were painfully slow in
getting up, and Miller suffered a right-thigh contusion, courtesy
of Jordan's knee, and returned only briefly in overtime.
The Pacer fans, who had given Jordan a huge ovation when he took
the floor, now booed him, but Miller was untroubled. ``It was a
good play because he knew he had a foul to give,'' Miller said.
``It was just unfortunate that I got hurt on it.''
``Playing your first game in two years against one of the best
guards in the league is a lot to ask of any player,'' said Brown.
``Michael might be the closest thing to Superman, but Reggie can
make a lot of guys look like Clark Kent.''
It's easy to look at Clark Kent and see Superman just beneath the
surface, and that was the case with Jordan against the Pacers.
Even though he shot poorly, several signs of the old Jordan were
in evidence. His quickness hasn't left him; when he was isolated
against a defender one-on-one, he had little trouble shaking free
for a good look at the basket on his jump shot; and he was able to
drive to the basket when he chose to.
Jordan's biggest problem was simply conditioning. One of the most
remarkable aspects of his nine-year, prebaseball NBA career was
his apparent tirelessness. ``It would be the fourth quarter, he'd
have about 40 points, and you'd look at him and he wouldn't even
be breathing hard,'' says Chicago guard B.J. Armstrong. But on
Sunday, before the first quarter had ended, the 32-year-old Jordan
was bending over and tugging on his shorts, the universal symbol
for fatigue, and in the overtime he developed leg cramps. Asked
if he was disappointed that he didn't get a chance to dunk, Jordan
replied, ``I was cramping so bad I didn't really want to.''
Not all of the adjustments Jordan will have to make are physical.
He will also have to familiarize himself with a Bull team that is
vastly different from the one he left. Armstrong, forward Scottie
Pippen and center Will Perdue are the only current teammates who
played on the Bulls' three title teams, and despite several
practice sessions the lack of familiarity was evident, as several
of Jordan's passes were fumbled by teammates who weren't expecting
the ball. ``We were really out of sync at times,'' said coach Phil
Jackson. As Jackson pointed out, most of these Bulls are new to
playing with Jordan, and one or two might be a bit in awe of him.
Toni Kukoc was clearly among the awestruck on Sunday. Kukoc, a
Croat, left Europe to join the Bulls two years ago largely to
fulfill his dream of playing alongside Jordan, only to see him
retire before they ever took the court together. Kukoc's dream
came true Sunday, and he seemed unable to do much except stand
around and watch. He finished with seven points in 27 minutes.
``Toni really had a bad game,'' Jordan said. ``I did all I could
to talk to him and help him relax.''
Now the challenge for Jordan will be to get to know his
teammates while he is finding out about himself. There were
moments on Sunday that were reminiscent of his prechampionship
days with the Bulls, when he was a brilliant one-on-one player
who was not always sure of when to take matters into his own
hands and when to get his teammates involved. He eventually
developed an almost perfect instinct for such decisions. On
Sunday that instinct wasn't always there.
The rest of the regular season will be an interesting experiment
for the Bulls. They will try to improve their playoff position (at
week's end they stood sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 34-32
record) while they help Jordan hone his game. On Sunday, for
instance, Jordan seemed determined to take his jump shot even
though he was struggling with it, because he needed the practice,
like a pitcher in spring training who keeps throwing his curveball
even though he can't get it over the plate. It would probably take
a full training camp for Jordan and his new Jordanaires to feel
completely comfortable with one another. Although Jordan returned
with more than the rest of this season in mind -- ``I don't want
to make this a cameo,'' he says -- it's far from definite that
he's back for the long term. He says he has no assurances from
Bull owner Jerry Reinsdorf regarding his hope that Pippen,
Armstrong and Jackson will receive contract extensions or
renegotiations, and says he hasn't been promised, implicitly or
otherwise, a new deal of his own. His current eight-year, $26
million contract expires after next season. ``There's nothing
under the table,'' he says. ``I wish there were. I didn't have any
stipulations as far as Scottie or B.J. or Phil. I asked,
certainly, for my own knowledge. But I didn't request.''
Jordan emphasizes that he returned ``for the love of the game,''
and he sounds like a complete innocent when he insists he has done
no behind-closed-doors negotiating with Reinsdorf about his
future with the Bulls. But he is much shrewder than that, and it
is hard to imagine that he would make a long-term commitment to a
team that isn't a realistic championship contender. Once a new
collective bargaining agreement is signed and the moratorium on
contract renegotiations agreed to by the NBA and the players'
association is lifted, expect Jordan and the Bulls to begin
talking about a contract that would pay him quite a bit more than
his current deal.
Yet Jordan never sounds more sincere than when he says,
``Eventually I just decided that I loved the game too much to
stay away.'' Ironically, his baseball teammates were
instrumental in helping him develop the itch to put on the
Bulls' uniform again. ``When I was down in the minor leagues,
every guy wanted to play me in basketball,'' he says. Jordan
obliged some of the minor leaguers by playing pickup hoops with
them, and in the process his passion for basketball was
rekindled. At Sunday's press conference, he said of his baseball
buddies, ``Maybe they're like me. They believe they can be a
basketball player like I believe I can be a baseball player.''
For the moment Jordan is back to believing he is, first and
foremost, a basketball player. It may be a week before he is the
same basketball player he was two years ago, or it may be a month
or a year. But for a little while longer maybe we should simply
enjoy the knowledge that Jordan still loves the game and that even
when he is at less than his best, the game still loves him back.