Jordan Airborne Once More

March 20, 1995|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Sun Columnist

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Market Square Arena is where Elvis performed his last concert. How fitting that Michael Jordan began his comeback tour on the same stage.

Elvis is back, back wagging his tongue, back in long, baggy shorts. He didn't hit all of his high notes yesterday, but such was the excitement, hardly anyone noticed.

Jordan's return transformed a routine NBA game between the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers into a nationally televised thriller, won by the Pacers in overtime, 103-96.

Just like that, the NBA is again the hottest attraction in sports. Did anyone watch the NCAA tournament yesterday? Does anyone still are about baseball and its silly strike?

"Any time you've got the best player coming back to play, that would rejuvenate any league," Pacers star Reggie Miller said. "That would be like Babe Ruth or Johnny Unitas coming back to play."

Jordan, 32, retired from basketball 17 months ago, then switched to baseball as a minor-league outfielder with the Chicago White Sox. His frustration with the game's 7-month-old strike helped bring him back to the NBA.

He announced his return Saturday by releasing a two-word statement through his agent, saying only, "I'm back." Reporters flew to Indianapolis from all over the country yesterday to ask him why.

"I love the game," Jordan said. "I tried to stay away as much as I could. The more active I was in other sports, it really kept my mind away from the game. When I was in baseball, I was a very far distance away.

"But when you love something for so long then try to walk away . . . I probably needed it mentally. But I missed my friends, I missed my teammates. I missed the atmosphere a bit."

Of course, it's never quite that simple, not with an athlete as prominent as Jordan. He isn't just the best basketball player in the world. He's also the most successful salesman in history.

In case any fans had forgotten, black-and-white placards were distributed outside the arena yesterday, reading, "Jordan's back! And he's eating his Wheaties."

Ever the loyal pitchman, Jordan made sure to drape himself in a white Gatorade towel the first time he was removed from the game. And all those kids who arrived wearing red No. 23 jerseys? They'll have to buy new ones now.

The Bulls retired Jordan's No. 23 in a glitzy, made-for-television extravaganza Nov. 1. He returned in No. 45, the number he wore in baseball and when he was in junior high school.

"I really didn't want to bring the jersey down -- it was the last thing my father saw," said Jordan, referring to his late father, James, who was murdered on July 23, 1993. "Forty-five gives me a fresh start -- even though it was bad luck today."

Jordan made only seven of his 28 shots yesterday, but he also had six rebounds, six assists and three steals, helping the heretofore mediocre Bulls force overtime against the first-place team in the NBA's Central Division.

Never let it be said that the man is shy -- his 28 shots were the most by an Indiana opponent this season, and five more than Jordan averaged during the first nine years of his NBA career.

As for his .250 shooting percentage, well, look at the bright side -- it was an improvement on Jordan's .202 batting average last season with the Double-A Birmingham Barons.

Only three weeks ago, Jordan was taking batting practice at 8 a.m. at the White Sox training camp in Sarasota, Fla. But Bulls coach Phil Jackson predicted it would take him seven or eight games to return to form.

Jordan set no limits on how long he would continue playing and said he would consider re-signing with the Bulls when his contract expires after next season.

"Never say never," he joked, repeating one of his lines from his retirement news conference.

Whatever, now is not the time to speculate over how long this will last. The Bulls play only 16 more regular-season games before moving to the NBA playoffs. Virtually every one of them promises to be an event.

On Wednesday, Jordan returns to ancient Boston Garden, where he once scored 63 points in a playoff game. It most likely will be his last appearance at the fabled arena, which will close after this season.

On Friday, he returns to Chicago for his first game at the new United Center, where the Bulls will face one of the NBA's best teams -- the Orlando Magic, led by the heir to Jordan's marketing empire, Shaquille O'Neal.

From there, it's on to Atlanta, where Jordan's return already has ensured the first sellout of the season. And after that, the Bulls head to New York for a showdown at Madison Square Garden with the archrival Knicks.

The front-page headline in yesterday's Chicago Tribune said, "Court is back in session."

The Pacers issued 350 media credentials for the game. Before Jordan announced his return, they figured the number would be 75.

Photographers at courtside kept their cameras pointed at Jordan even when he was on the bench. Fans brought their own cameras, and early in the game, hundreds of flashes went off whenever Jordan touched the ball.

The Pacers' Miller called it the biggest game in the 28-year history of the Indiana franchise. His teammate Vern Fleming compared the atmosphere to a playoff game. "He's the best player in the world," Fleming said. "People want to come see him."

He dwarfs his teammates.

He dwarfs his opponents.

He dwarfs his sport.

"You guys made my day," Indiana coach Larry Brown told reporters. "The Beatles and Elvis are back, and you came to talk to me."

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