Three's a Charm In his third incarnation, Michael Jordan is showing that he can still perform feats of magic--like turning the Wizards into winners

January 14, 2002

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.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA ENTERTAINMENT COVER michael JORDAN Did you doubt him? Well, you shouldn't have COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Floor burner Jordan's new game relies less on aerial wizardry and more on earthbound craftiness. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Follow the leader Jordan's fabled competitive drive, reflected in his defensive tenacity, has rubbed off on his proteges.

Presto, Change-o!

Michael Jordan's greatest challenge may have been to turn the
Wizards into a playoff-caliber team. After a shaky start to
Jordan's latest comeback, Washington appears headed in the right
direction. With only four players remaining from last season's
opening-day roster, the team has (through 31 games) had a
dramatic reversal of fortune. --David Sabino

2000-01 2001-02

Record 6-25 17-14
Eastern Conference standing 14th 6th
Points per game 89.4 91.4
Points allowed per game 96.7 91.0
Longest winning streak 1 9
Longest losing streak 9 8
Average home attendance 16,075 20,674
Average road attendance 15,869 20,628

Says Oakley, "He's showing that in basketball, an old head can
beat a young pair of legs."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)