Tuesday, October 02, 2001

Jordan driven by his own legend

'An itch that needs to be scratched'

By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WASHINGTON — All Michael Jordan asks of us is amnesia.

        He wants us to forget what he was and examine what he is; to look past his credentials and consider his competitiveness.

        America's dribbling deity appreciates the affection of those who would preserve him as a museum piece, but he still pines to play. He is returning to basketball because it remains the thing he does and loves best, even in the event someone else might be able to do it better.

        What's hard to understand is that some people fail to understand this. Just as Hercules chose mortality over the tedium of Mt. Olympus, Michael Jordan has determined that being a god is not as good as being in the game.

        “I think, obviously, when I left the game I left something on the floor,” Jordan said. “It's an itch that needs to be scratched. I want to be sure that (itch) doesn't bother me for the rest of my life.”

        Twice retired yet never satisfied, Jordan has left his administrative job with the Washington Wizards so that he can start suiting up again in sneakers. If he is half the player he once was, his decision to play should make him the National Basketball Association's Executive of the Year. If he is more than that, he will be magical.

        “He's still MJ, but you have to allow him to be a different variation on the old MJ,” Wizards forward Loy Vaught said Monday. “He's 38 now. He may not able to be as explosive around the basket, going up over 7-footers ... But the things he does to get himself in position, to bait his defender into a position — things he does to set himself up two or three steps before the play — are just uncanny.”

        “If you can run faster than him,” said Wizards rookie Kwame Brown, “he's going to find the thing you can't do. He's going to outsmart you.”

        In the prepared statement confirming his comeback last week, Jordan cited the opportunity to teach the Wizards young players on the court. But Monday afternoon, during a densely packed press conference at the MCI Center, Jordan dwelled on regaining “dominance” rather than setting examples.

        “I think I can do what I set my mind to do,” he said.

        Whatever he has lost during a two-year layoff, Jordan retains an unrivaled appeal. NBC and TNT are already revising their broadcast schedules for the Wizards, who have not appeared on national television in two years. When the team began selling single-game tickets at 10 a.m. Monday, the line stretched out the door, down the block and around the corner of F & 6th streets.

        Does Jordan make the Wizards more competitive? Not necessarily. Does he make them more compelling? Indisputably.

        “Physically, I know I'm not 25 years old,” he said. “I'm not standing up and saying I will be 25 years old. But I feel I will be able to play basketball at the highest level ...

        “I have to be patient and let things fall into place and not expect to come out and score 40 or 50 points the first night.”

        NBA Commissioner David Stern's concern is Jordan's comeback will dwarf the deeds of the younger players the league is promoting. Charles Barkley's concern is Jordan will be measured against the impossible standard of his old self.

        Michael Jordan, himself, is unconcerned. As his baseball dalliance demonstrated, he is an athlete who thrives more on action than on accolades. He is, he says, “all about challenges.”

        “You say, "Well, the young dogs are going to chase you around,'” Jordan said. “Well, I'm not going to bark too far away from them, either. I'm not running from nobody.

        “I'm not saying I can take Kobe Bryant or I can take Tracy McGrady ... I'm pretty sure they're sitting back and welcoming the challenge. Guess what? I'm sitting back and welcoming the challenge, too. I mean, I'm not walking into the dark here. I know what I'm capable of doing. I know what's going to be expected of me. I know everybody is putting my head on the block. Everybody is motivated to come out and play against me. Well, everybody was motivated to play against me when I left, so things haven't changed since I've been gone.”

        What enabled Jordan to last so long at the top was his ability to adapt as his body aged. He became a better ballhandler and a superlative defender. When he could no longer soar to the basket from the free-throw line, he developed a devastating fadeaway jumper. He won his 10th NBA scoring title in 1997-98, his last year in the league.

        Wizards coach Doug Collins said he has not yet decided how he will use Jordan, except that he does not want him to expend his energy bringing the ball up the floor.

        He does not view him as a tutor, however, but a talent.

        “People talk about Michael being a teacher,” Collins said. “They say, "He's not very competitive. He wants to teach.' Michael wants to kick your (butt) while he's teaching.”

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456; fax: 768-8550; e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com. Cincinnati.Com keyword: Sullivan.


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