Saturday, November 13, 1999

Jordan's return: Rumor could become reality




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        This is how rumors get started: Michael Jordan shows up for a game of one-on-one with the Bulls' Corey Benjamin, and Chicago wonders if it signals a comeback.

        Jordan is the man of a million moves, but none of them is especially mysterious. He still craves competition, and he instinctively seeks the spotlight. He had to know when he appeared at the Bulls' practice facility Wednesday afternoon — this after attending a Bulls game in Atlanta — that it would surely stir speculation about the permanence of his second retirement.

        He had to know, after beating Benjamin 11-9 that whatever he has left as a basketball player is more than most guys ever get. Jordan made his first five shots before conditioning started to catch up with him — this despite his purported problems with his right index finger, injured in a collision with a cigar cutter.

        He had to know, if there were ever any doubt, that his only real barrier is boredom.

Covert comeback
        Jordan is 36 years old and basketball is still the thing he does best. He received no Oscar nominations for Space Jam, and his golf game has yet to pose a threat to Tiger Woods.

        He has all the money he will ever need, but he can't have much more time as an elite athlete. If he is ever to return to the NBA, it will probably be soon.

        Jordan insists he's not coming back. Bulls coach Tim Floyd says, “There's no way that's going to happen.” Their remarks are dutifully reported, but widely doubted. Jordan's friends say he is restless. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf isn't taking questions on the subject. The Chicago media remains on red alert.

        Sportswriters specialize in finding subtext in non sequiturs, in discovering hidden meanings in meaningless drivel. It is an occupational hazard. We spend so much time standing around, waiting for some vacuous demigod to grant us a few grunts, that we tend to see every trivial development as part of some elaborate scenario.

        With most subjects, this would amount to paranoia. With Michael Jordan, it's due caution. In journalism, as in the gym, you can't afford to let MJ leave you flat-footed. You have to try to anticipate his next move.

        “Today was just break a sweat, see some of the guys, try to help the morale a little bit,” Jordan said. “I just got back in town and I decided to stop by ... I came by to see Dickey (Simpkins) and some of the other guys. Please, don't take it any further than that.”

Change of heart
        Much as we might like to take Jordan at his word, his actions typically speak louder. When he retired the first time, claiming he had wearied of public life, Jordan resurfaced as the most scrutinized minor-league baseball player in history. (Some of us still suspect Jordan's first retirement was a carefully camouflaged gambling suspension, but there's never been any hard evidence on that score.)

        He ended his first basketball retirement in 1995 after a series of coy denials and rapidly shook off his accumulated rust. He returned to Madison Square Garden with a 55-point outburst against the New York Knicks. He reminded us never to sell him short.

        Jordan can never improve on his last exit scene, sinking the final shot of his final game to secure a sixth NBA championship. Still, it is a rare athlete who finds much motivation in the preservation of memories. The great ones are always looking for a new goal, some fresh summit to scale. They view polishing trophies as a chore, not a challenge.

        Phil Jackson and Patrick Ewing have asked about Jordan's intentions in recent weeks, and the questions will continue so long as Jordan stays in shape. No one doubts he could end his layoff and reach a high level after a few weeks of intensive workouts. One day, Jordan says his index finger is so damaged he will never regain full extension on his jump shot. Another day, Jordan says, “I'm pretty sure I could compromise.”

        “I don't sit back and second-guess my decision,” Jordan said Wednesday. “When I made the decision, there was never going to be a second guess.”

        Never is a long time. Retirement can always be reconsidered.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com