Love of game or love of money? 'I'm back: NBA gets breath of fresh air

March 19, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Quick, buy Nike.

Not the sneakers, stupid.

The stock.

And so Michael Jordan's 17-month gambling suspension is over. That's what it was, not that anyone will admit it, not that anyone cares, now that we all get to breathe some fresh Air.

"I'm back."

That's all the man said. Never did two words mean so much to a professional sports league -- or a nation's economy.

He's back.

Back for the Bulls. Back for Nike. Back for Gatorade.

And, lest we forget, back for NBC.

What a coincidence that Jordan is returning for a nationally televised game against the Indiana Pacers this afternoon.

Poor CBS.

The NCAA tournament just got reduced to a tractor pull.

The timing of this is beautiful. Know where Jordan plays next? In Boston on Wednesday -- the night the Celtics plan to retire Reggie Lewis' No. 35.

NBA commissioner David Stern probably plotted the whole thing, the same way he probably orchestrated Jordan's retirement.

Jordan's gambling troubles reflected poorly on the NBA's image, but that's old news. The latest uproar is over Lewis' alleged drug use. The Jordan comeback will silence all that in a hurry.

A cynical view?

Perhaps.

But it's difficult not to be cynical when Mr. Happily Retired suddenly decides to lace 'em up. And it's difficult not to be cynical with each new twist emerging in the Lewis story.

Everyone in the world swore Lewis never used drugs, and now it's reported that he might have tested positive for cocaine in 1987.

It's the usual confusion: Northeastern president John Curry said his former athletic director told him that Lewis tested positive, but the doctor in charge of the test said he hadn't.

People ask, why is this important?

Why won't the news media drop it?

Why can't Lewis rest in peace?

These are fair questions. But the most important question is, why did Lewis die?

If the answer stemmed from a refusal by Lewis and the people closest to him to confront past drug use, then the story needs to be told.

Especially if those who might have ignored Lewis' alleged problem -- his wife, the Celtics, the NBA -- contributed, however unwittingly, to his death.

And especially if the next star athlete who suffers from a similar problem is scared into saving his life.

The questions raised by the Jordan comeback seem inconsequential next to those raised by the Lewis tragedy. But it all comes back to the same twisted culture, one fueled by greed and money.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Lewis' wife and the Celtics stood to lose millions if it was revealed that Lewis had used cocaine.

The Celtics threatened a $100 million libel suit, but haven't filed it, and never will. The last thing they want -- the last thing anyone wants -- is for the remaining principals to testify under oath.

Anyway, Jordan is on the flip side of the equation, about to make millions for his team, his league and his endorsement companies, not to mention NBC and himself.

That's why he's coming back -- because of all those who couldn't afford for him to stay away. Oh, he loves to play, he loves to compete, loves the challenge.

But he loved all of that 17 months ago, and walked away.

Why exactly did he retire?

Maybe he was burned out. Maybe he was still grieving over the death of his father. And maybe Stern told him it would be in everyone's best interests if he disappeared for a while.

Of course, Jordan didn't exactly disappear. He tried baseball, then got fed up with the strike, and said the heck with it. He might have hung around, if he had any bat speed.

He also might have hung around if the Chicago White Sox hadn't bugged him to play in replacement games. How typical of baseball to drive its only remaining hero out of the game.

At least now Jordan is back where he belongs, back to humble Shaq, back to torture the Knicks, back to bail out Scottie Pippen, who can sit down again with 1.8 seconds left, and not have anyone care.

Today's game is at Market Square Arena -- it should be in the Hoosier Dome. Jordan will drop his customary 50 points on the Pacers, and if he doesn't, we can blame baseball for something else:

Ruining the greatest basketball player of all time.

He's back, all right.

Buy a ticket. Buy a Bulls cap. Buy a new pair of Nikes.

Hate to spoil the party, but that's the idea.

JORDAN'S STATS

(All seasons with Chicago)

REGULAR SEASON

Season, ..G, Reb, Ast, Pts

1984-85, 82, 534, 481, 28.2

1985-86, 18, 64, 53, 22.7

1986-87, 82, 430, 377, 37.1

1987-88, 82, 449, 485, 35.0

1988-89, 81, 652, 650, 32.5

1989-90, 82, 565, 519, 33.6

1990-91, 82, 492, 453, 31.5

1991-92, 80, 511, 489, 30.1

1992-93, 78, 522, 428, 32.6

Totals, 667, 4219, 3935, 32.3

PLAYOFFS

Year, ...G, Reb, Ast, Pts

1984-85, 4, 23, 34, 29.3

1985-86, 3, 19, 17, 43.7

1986-87, 3, 21, 18, 35.7

1987-88, 10, 71, 47, 36.3

1988-89, 17, 119, 130, 34.8

1989-90, 16, 115, 109, 36.7

1990-91, 17, 108, 142, 31.1

1991-92, 22, 137, 127, 34.5

1992-93, 19, 128, 114, 35.1

Totals, 111, 741, 738, 34.7

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