Juices flow in Jordan

Basketball: The famed player apparently is coming out of retirement a third time for two reasons: He loves the game, and he loves a challenge.

Pro Basketball

September 16, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The question no longer appears to be whether Michael Jordan is going to make a comeback with the Washington Wizards this season. Though plans for a news conference have been scrapped, an announcement is shortly forthcoming.

The question is this: Why is Jordan coming back?

Why would a player who has retired twice in a 13-year career that produced six championships for the Chicago Bulls want to return to a woebegone franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since 1997 and hasn't even won a playoff game since 1988?

Why would a player who will turn 39 in February and whose comeback this summer was nearly aborted after he suffered broken ribs in a pickup game -- his first significant injury since breaking a foot during his second NBA season in 1985 -- want to go through the rigors of an 82-game schedule?

Why would a player widely considered the best in NBA history want to stake his reputation, and possibly his legacy, on coming back three years after hitting the jump shot that beat the Utah Jazz to finish off the second three-peat championship run of his career?

While all these questions are obvious, so might be the answers. Or they might be as complex as Jordan himself.

All Jordan has said is that he is close to making his decision and that, should he play again, it would be "for the love the game, nothing else." It seems reasonable, particularly considering Jordan's status as one of the richest athletes in the world.

The members of Jordan's inner circle are not talking much these days, at least not publicly until Jordan makes his final decision known.

Everyone from longtime agent David Falk to former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who has since won back-to-back championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, to former NBA star and close friend Charles Barkley have recently declined to comment about Jordan's comeback.

But others who've been a part of that circle at one time or another throughout his athletic life have their own thoughts.

Rod Thorn, who, as general manager of the Bulls, drafted Jordan out of North Carolina with the third pick in 1984, believes that the league's five-time Most Valuable Player and 10-time scoring champion thinks he can still compete among the game's elite.

"He thinks he can play at a high level and help his team," Thorn, now president of the New Jersey Nets, said recently. "They're a building team, and he feels he can make a difference. Knowing Michael, with him in the lineup, he feels they have a chance to make the playoffs and maybe be a serious playoff team."

Bill Wennington, who played with Jordan on the last three championship teams in Chicago and worked out with him in private pickup games in May, knows how difficult it is to stop playing. Wennington had his own withdrawal after his career ended two years ago and understands what Jordan is going through.

"He loves the game. It's hard for him to have the career he did and find something else to replace the feeling he had being part of a team and going after a common goal," said Wennington, who played in a church league last year, and who this year will work as a mentor for some of the Bulls' young players.

Matt Doherty, whose last three years at North Carolina coincided with Jordan's three seasons as a Tar Heel, equates Jordan to a gym rat who has not lost his competitive instincts as he gets older. Doherty, now the school's coach, also still fits the description, but in his case it means lacing up his sneakers to go one-and-one with his players.

"Michael is the ultimate competitor," said Doherty, whose decision to return to coach his alma mater last summer was based partly on Jordan's urging him to keep the position in the family. "He might not be able to compete at the level fans want him to ... but what better place to get that fix than in the NBA?"

It goes back to who Jordan is, where he came from and what he became.

The kid who was once cut from the varsity at Laney High in Wilmington, N.C.

The small-town star whose friends told him he wouldn't play much at the University of North Carolina.

The college All-American whose game was thought to be a little one-dimensional for the pros.

The game's best player who chucked it all for a shot at professional baseball at age 30.

The legend who came out of retirement, scraped off the rust and recaptured the throne.

It also goes back to what his late father, James, said when his famous son was accused of spending too much time and money gambling in casinos and playing with unsavory types in high-stakes golf games. Asked if his son had a gambling problem, the elder Jordan responded, "Michael has a competition problem."

He apparently still does.

Fred Lynch, who, as an assistant coach at Laney High, saw Jordan's amazing career begin to emerge, isn't quite sure how to react to the rumors and speculation that seemed to be coming from all directions for the past few months.

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