BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Michael Jordan is doing what he always does. He is sizing up the competition before he makes his move.
He will break the defense down in due course, paralyzing his opponent with a crossover dribble, or perhaps pulling up for a final fadeaway jumper. He will wait until the time is right, until the last possible moment, until his move makes all the difference, and only then will he reveal his real direction.
He might play basketball again for the Chicago Bulls, despite his open disdain of management and his thinly veiled doubt of coach-designate Tim Floyd.
He might announce another retirement, and devote his life to perfecting his putting.
He might force a trade to some team better prepared to placate him, and find motivation in personally ending the Bulls' championship run.
Or he might join Phil Jackson on some mountaintop in Tibet and let the world wonder what has become of its most amazing athlete.
He will let the suspense build as the NBA owners and players haggle over a new bargaining agreement -- gauging his interest in another encore -- before committing himself to a course of action. He will not be hurried.
"Michael needs to take his time to see how all of the pieces fall into place," said David Falk, Jordan's agent. "We only have one piece of the picture (Floyd). It may be that piece is of sufficient weight to outweigh everything else. Only time will tell."
Translated: Jordan is going to let Tim Floyd and his clumsy bosses twist in the wind for a while. In light of the NBA owners' lockout of the players, it may be many months.
Jordan's uncertainty exposes Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause to the continuing wrath of an enraged Chicago, and thereby satisfies his thirst for spite. He knows the Bulls can make no concrete plans until he has made a decision, and that his indecision effects every source of team revenue. With typical bravado and no personal risk, MJ is showing his bosses who really runs the Bulls.
Reinsdorf and Krause are gambling that Jordan's ambition is more powerful than his pique; that his love of basketball is greater than his affection for Jackson and - or Scottie Pippen; that he will continue to play basketball because no other pursuit so completely engages his competitive drive and gratifies his ego.
Because the Bulls' alleged braintrust risks prodding Jordan into a premature retirement, the hiring of Floyd was announced with a disclaimer: If Jackson should choose to chase a seventh championship, Floyd would agree to become a background figure rather than a bench coach.
Because everyone involved understood a year ago that Jackson would not be back under any circumstances, the Bulls' alleged braintrust also risks insulting Jordan's intelligence.
"Transparent hokum," is how Todd Musburger described the Bulls' maneuver. Musburger is Jackson's agent. His client was more diplomatic, but no less emphatic.
"I said goodbye and had a wonderful time," Jackson said Friday outside his Montana retreat. "It's been a great run. It doesn't mean that it's over for the team. It means it's over for me."
Jackson never sought the loyalty oath Jordan once offered -- that he would play for no other coach -- and he has repeatedly released Jordan of that vow. The real question is not whether Jordan and Floyd can coexist -- what sane coach would not bend to Jordan's will? -- but whether basketball's greatest player can find a fresh challenge.
"The gist is that Michael is not ready to think about playing basketball again," Jackson said. "Right now, he is still recuperating from an awful effort, an awful pressure-situation season. He said if the season was to start tomorrow, he wouldn't answer the bell. But who's to say in another month where he'll be?"
Wherever Michael Jordan is a month from now, the ball will still be in his court. It always is.
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org