Jordan appears set to return

`For love of game,' retired NBA great hints he'll be Wizard

News conference `in place'

At 38, he says helping Wash. `kids' would be goal, not seventh title

Pro Basketball

September 11, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The fantasy that began when Michael Jordan became president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards 20 months ago apparently will soon turn into a still hard-to-believe reality for the floundering franchise and its long-suffering fans.

Barring any flare-ups of tendinitis in his 38-year-old knees or a change of heart, Jordan will be trading in a business suit for a uniform and returning to the NBA after retiring for the second time three seasons ago. An announcement is expected in Washington in the next 10 days.

Though he didn't directly announce his decision, Jordan essentially told reporters from the Associated Press, Chicago Sun-Times and yesterday during a half-hour conversation outside his Chicago restaurant that he is coming back for a 14th season, "For the love of the game, nothing else."

Asked whether he was definitely returning, Jordan smiled at the reporters.

When told that three news organizations were reporting that he had all but confirmed his return to the NBA, Jordan told The Washington Post, "I didn't say that. I have not said it."

A Wizards spokesman confirmed last night the team is preparing for what would be one of the most publicized news conferences in league history, as big a media circus as the day in 1993 that Jordan retired for the first time.

"The mechanics are in place to have a press conference," said Matt Williams, the team's vice president of communications. "We've got all the plans set to go. It's really Michael's announcement. If he's coming, we'll certainly welcome him."

The Wizards would be welcoming a player widely considered the best to ever play the game. The third pick in the 1984 draft out of North Carolina, Jordan became a five-time league MVP and the fourth-leading scorer ever.

After winning three straight championships with the Chicago Bulls from 1991 to 1993, Jordan stunned the basketball world by announcing he was retiring to pursue a boyhood dream of playing major-league baseball.

Jordan returned toward the end of the 1994-95 season and, after the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs by the Orlando Magic, he led Chicago to three more championships before retiring again before the 1998-99 season.

Jordan's remarks yesterday were more definitive than any he has made since he fueled speculation several months ago that he was considering a return. At the time he hired Doug Collins in April to become the Wizards' coach, Jordan said he was "99.9 percent" certain he would not play again.

A week ago, Jordan told Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti he was "around 50-50" and, on a scale of 1 to 10, a 7 in terms of being in shape for a comeback. "I'm waiting for that light to go on," he said.

Jordan seems close to seeing the light. He told Mariotti, Jim Litke of the AP and Marty Burns of that his physical condition was between 7 1/2 and 8. "I'm winning games," Jordan said, referring to the competition with some of the NBA's elite players at a private gym in Chicago.

As for helping the Wizards improve on their 19-63 record, the ultra-competitive Jordan said he has a different perspective from the one he held with the Chicago Bulls.

"Winning isn't always about championships," he told the reporters in Chicago yesterday. "It doesn't have to be the scoreboard at the end of the day. ... What's wrong with helping young kids find their way?"

Jordan seemed to be talking specifically about Kwame Brown, the high school star from Brunswick, Ga. Brown, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound forward, became the first high school player taken No. 1 in the NBA draft when he was selected by the Wizards in June.

"If Michael comes back, that will take all the pressure off Kwame Brown," New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn said.

There are still some details left to be ironed out. Jordan would have to divest himself of his financial stake in the Wizards, in accordance with NBA rules that prohibit a player from being an owner, or even a partial owner, of a team.

Jordan, who earned a reported $1 million a year as team president, could fit into any of the team's three available salary slots - for the $4.5 million a year "middle-class" exception, for the $1 million exception or for the league minimum.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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