Sunday, February 9, 2003

M.J. doesn't want ceremonial starting role

By Rick Gano
The Associated Press

ATLANTA - Maybe Michael Jordan is just stubborn. Or perhaps he doesn't want the NBA All-Star game to turn into a sappy farewell.

For sure, he's flattered by the gestures of young All-Star teammates Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson, who offered him their starting spots.

"It's respect for the elders, if you want to look at it in that sense," Jordan said Saturday, a day before his 14th and final All-Star appearance - and the first as a reserve.

That doesn't mean Jordan has changed his mind and is going to take McGrady or Iverson up on their offers. He reiterated Saturday he'll be just as happy coming off the bench.

"And even if the individual doesn't accept it, it's just a good gesture to do that. Just to come up with that idea shows respect not just for Michael Jordan, but for the game," said Jordan, who turns 40 this month.

McGrady, the league's leading scorer at 30.4 points per game, said again Saturday that he will try one last time to persuade Jordan to take his spot in the Eastern Conference lineup.

"Probably collectively we are going to come up and try to do something. Whether we can get him the start, we're still going to try. It's not a dead issue," McGrady said.

Jordan, who has a 20.2-point All-Star scoring average, counters that the fans spoke when they voted for the starters, and that's the way it should be.

"The reason that I wouldn't accept it, and I don't want to accept it, is because it says a lot for them to go out and live up to what people expect of them, which is why they were voted as the starting five," Jordan said.

"I've had my chances to start 13 years, and if I don't start the 14th year, I won't lose sleep."

While Iverson and McGrady would like to step aside, Vince Carter - voted in as a starter even though knee problems have limited him to 15 games - won't. He said he wouldn't give up his starting spot because he would be letting down the fans who voted for him.

Jordan didn't directly address Carter's stance Saturday.

"I feel good that I've been there long enough to see that the fans want to see something else," Jordan said.

"That doesn't bother me or offend me. That's how the game continues to live and survive. That's progress."

He has had plenty of All-Star highlights, including a 40-point outburst at Chicago Stadium in 1988 and his triple-double at Cleveland's Gund Arena in 1997, when the NBA - fittingly enough - named its 50 greatest players. And Jordan needs 10 points Sunday to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the leading scorer in All-Star history.

Kobe Bryant, the player closest to Jordan in both skills and mannerisms, doesn't expect the All-Star game to evolve into a lovefest for No. 23.

"On his team I'm sure the guys are going to be feeding him the ball. I'm sure Michael doesn't want us to come out and loaf around. He doesn't want handouts," Bryant said. "He wants us to be competitive and play just as hard against him as any other player."

Bryant sidesteps comparisons with Jordan, but he would like to "be like Mike" in one special way.

"I'd like to take all the years of his experience and his knowledge he's accumulated and put it into my 24-year-old self," Bryant said.

"I like his intellectual capacity to understand the game and play the game out before it actually happens. I wish I would take that level of expertise."

Despite two previous retirements, Jordan insists he isn't changing his mind about quitting this time - no matter how well his Washington Wizards do.

And he knows how he wants to be remembered.

"I want to be the bridge to the next generation," Jordan said. "I want to be perceived as a guy who played his best in all facets, not just scoring. A guy who loved challenges."

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