'I'm back': NBA gets breath of fresh Air Bulls' Jordan ends retirement, adds to March madness

March 19, 1995|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Writer

It's a bronze statue that stands 11 1/2 feet, depicting an airborne Michael Jordan dunking over a helpless foe. And amid speculation that Jordan might return to basketball, fans in Chicago have flocked to the statue outside the United Center, bowing, hoping, pleading that he would do just that.

Yesterday, in two words, those prayers were answered.

"I'm back."

That was the statement that Jordan, 32, released through his agent, David Falk, letting the world know his 17-month retirement from the NBA was over.

And what an entrance Jordan will make, coming before a national television audience at noon today in Indianapolis, where he will be in uniform for the Bulls' game against the Indiana Pacers.

KMGH-TV, the CBS affiliate in Denver, reported last night that Jordan will not start the game. It also said he will wear No. 45, his baseball jersey number, rather than the No. 23 retired by the Bulls.

It's a return that gives March Madness a whole new meaning, as Jordan's comeback provides a breath of fresh air in a league that's long on personalities but short on superstars. From his artistic journeys to the basket, to his electrifying dunks, to his charisma and competitive nature -- a lot of the wannabes are about to get a dose of the real thing.

"A lot of us are excited," Bulls center Bill Wennington said. "We hoped it would happen last year, but we didn't have the opportunity. It'll be neat."

Said Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf: "Obviously, I'm pleased that he's coming back. How could anyone not be pleased? He's back playing the sport he's best at. I'll support whatever he wants to do, and right now he wants to play basketball."

Jordan's No. 23 hangs from the rafters of the United Center, raised there much too prematurely for fans who were shocked when he announced his retirement Oct. 6, 1993.

It wasn't just an athlete leaving a sport because he no longer could perform to his best abilities. Jordan -- a career 32.3-point scorer, best all-time in the NBA -- had just finished leading Chicago to its third straight title, winning each NBA Finals MVP award. Jordan was 30, and no slippage in his game was evident.

"Will I ever un-retire?" Jordan said at that 1993 news conference. "I don't know. I don't believe in never."

Months later Jordan decided to try baseball, signing a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox. The move drew criticism from baseball purists, who said Jordan was taking their beloved game for granted, and praise from those who witnessed his tremendous work ethic that made him at least a respectable performer.

Jordan batted .202 at Double-A Birmingham last season, and had hoped to advance to Triple-A this season. But the long baseball strike led to him announcing his retirement March 10.

There has been a Jordan watch ever since. On Thursday, Bulls coach Phil Jackson said that a determination of whether Jordan would return would come over the weekend.

Yesterday, Jordan let Jackson know of his return when he showed up for practice at the team's facility in Deerfield, Ill.

"He walked in this morning, shook my hand and said, 'It's a done deal,' " Jackson said of the announcement that ended more than a week of speculation.

Just under what conditions Jordan is returning is unknown. He has met in the past week with team officials, and there were reports that Jordan was seeking better deals for himself as well as disgruntled forward Scottie Pippen, who has spent most of the season demanding a trade.

But with the players operating without a collective bargaining agreement, contracts cannot be renegotiated. Jordan has the remainder of this season and next left on his contract, estimated to pay him $4 million annually.

Jordan did not hang around after yesterday's practice to speak to reporters, who have flocked to Chicago from media outlets across the country. But Jackson, who didn't hold back last week in relating his hopes that Jordan would return, was elated.

"I think after having him on the floor tomorrow, I'll be able to describe it . . . maybe I won't be able to describe it," Jackson said. "But once we see him out there in that red uniform playing for the Chicago Bulls, that'll be the emotional moment we've been looking for and we're all waiting for."

The Bulls need the lift. With 17 games remaining, they take a 34-31 record and a fourth-place standing in the Central Division into today's game against the Pacers, the division's best team.

Jackson said that Jordan is in great physical shape, but that being away from competitive basketball for so long leaves him uncertain on how he'll use the game's most famous player.

"He knows he's going to be tired in this kind of contest, when he hasn't played a 48-minute game," Jackson said. "So we'll try to save him for six-, seven-minute bursts to start with and see how his conditioning is right away."

Who is immediately affected by Jordan's return?

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